Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tucked in for the winter

Sam examining a drone evicted from the hive in the late fall

The bees are neatly tucked in for the cold season and it is now time for us to take care of our skin!
I am already slathering on the balm to ward of the cracks and dryness that accompany the chill air.

We have expanded our Beacon Bee line to include a few beautiful gift packages such as a handcrafted hardwood box filled with balm, and a cotton gift bag, also filled with balm.
You can see photos on our website under "products". You can also see our entire line in the photo below, taken at our recent sale at Boscobel.
You can now purchase Beacon Bee Balm through our website, and we recommend that you to place your orders early!

Matt, Sam and I wish all of you a peaceful and joyful holiday season.
We are thankful for all of you, and we are thankful for the bees.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Geniuses and Goldenrod

Congratulations to Marla Spivak, recipient of the 2010 MacArthur Genius Grant! Spivak is an entomologist who has been doing really important research regarding honeybees and their attempts to fight all of the bad stuff that comes their way. In particular, she has been studying the hygienic practices of bees and how bees that are more hygienic are more likely to survive. Such behavior includes things like uncapping pupae that are infested with disease or mites and removing them from the hive before they are even born. I have seen this happen with my own bees and it is hard to imagine how they know how to do this, but then again it is hard to imagine how they know how to do most of the things that they do.
And hats off as well to Carol Padden, a deaf linguist who also won the grant! Many moons ago I studied Padden's sign language books and videos and she is an amazing person. Her most recent research has involved visiting deaf Bedouins in Israel who have developed their own sign language.

Portrait of the artist as a beekeeper
Not to lump myself in with these "geniuses", but Matt did take some pretty cool photos last week up at the hive. It is amazing what a bit of smoke can do to create a mood of mystery.

The hive is doing really well. The bees are getting ready for fall/winter and I have been doing what I can to make them comfortable. The vent system is on the hive in an effort to accommodate these warm days with cold nights that can create a lot of condensation. The girls have two boxes of capped honey that I left them from the spring and summer flows. Mite levels are up, but they are kicking out the bad and taking care of the good. The goldenrod flow is intense this year and the hive has a heady smell that makes me lightheaded when I breath deeply. Of course, it is also making me sneeze and itch, but I don't mind, knowing that the girls are enjoying an ample fall forage. The propolis tincture is steeping and we are getting ready to dive into the world of holiday fairs. Matt has made a beautiful hardwood gift box for our Beacon Bee Body Balm, so keep us in mind when the cold wind starts to blow. For now, I am enjoying the leaves that are starting to turn, and I thank the bees for a gentle and sweet season.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Swarm in July isn't Worth a Fly

This years girls are incredible. Kind, gentle, healthy and productive. Throughout the spring I had been adding supers sooner than usual in an effort to stave off swarming, and the hive quickly grew to be as tall as I am.
I thought that I had succeeded in keeping everyone at home, but the dramatic difference in what I saw upon returning from California last week told me that despite my efforts, they felt the need to divide and move on. As you can see, July 20th shows many more bees than July 31. A swarm this late in the season can mean trouble if they don't have enough time to build up their population to go into the fall with. Also, if the new queen does not take, they won't have enough time to make a new one before the fall. (Insert the sound of nails being chewed on here.) Going in this morning, my guess was confirmed. Lots of empty queen cells along the bottom edges of the frames told me that the queen has hatched and is (hopefully) in there somewhere. The earliest I can expect to see eggs or larvae would be in about a week. That would reassure me that all is well. Until then, I must sit tight and think good reproductive thoughts.

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, a swarm in July isn't worth a fly.
It is true that July is late from a beekeepers perspective, but adding a new colony of bees to the natural world is always a good thing. If you find them in your backyard, send them my love.

July 20th
July 31
Speaking of California, my heart leaped (no really, my heart does leap at things like this) when I saw that the feral hive in Golden Gate Park was still alive and well. (Die hard blog followers will remember these girls from last year's visit out west.) I can only hope the the girls who swarmed from my hive find as nice a home as this one.

The spring harvest was bountiful. I pulled a full box of capped honey at the end of May, which yielded about 35 pounds of flavorful honey, deep cinnamon in color. I left three more full boxes of honey on the hive, which I can pull once I know that the season is leaving them with enough for the winter.
The following images show the process of extracting the honey from the frames. I don't use a mechanical extractor because I need to save the wax for my bee balm. This "crush and strain" method is a sticky, time consuming mess, but the end result is worth it.
A full frame of capped honey

Cutting up the frame

Mashing the comb

Straining the honey

Given that it was over 100 degrees out, I thought that I might be able to melt down my beeswax using the sun rather than my stove. I have not yet made myself a solar wax melter out of the traditional materials (a wooden box lined with metal covered by a sheet of glass), so I had to make do with what I had around.

After several hours..... nothing had melted. I attracted the attention of several hundred bees though, and so I ditched the tin can and let the girls suck out what they could from the sack of wax. This ended up being a very effective way of extracting the last remnants of honey from the beeswax.

The Bee Balm King at work

Keep an eye out for notice of our new website,
It is not quite ready yet, but will be quite sweet when it is up and running.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Glory to the bees!

The girls this year are good natured and healthy. I know I am probably jinxing myself, but to have made it to mid may without a sting is a testament to their kindness.

The black locust is blooming!!
For those of you who have tasted my girls' honey, this is where the spring crop comes from! This year I have finally figured out what the black locust tree looks like and am therefore noticing them everywhere. I love this phenomena that knowledge brings. Things that were there all along, but were invisible due to not knowing what they were, suddenly become visible. For instance, this morning, Sam (for the first time) read the handwritten note posted above the doorknob on the back door that says "LOCKED" and shows a horizontal line to indicate that that is the locked position. He turned to me and said "Thanks for making this note Mama!" I explained that the note had been there for years, but that he did not know how to read it until now. Anyway... back to the black locust tree.... the honey it makes is... unbelievable. Light in color, full in flavor. It is like eating a flower. They tend (I hope, I hope) to fill a box or two the last two weeks of May. Given that everything is blooming early this year, I have been keeping a careful eye on the hive and piling on the supers.

The hive came out of winter in fine shape and needed a second super by the end of April. I have been debating whether or not to follow through on my plan to split this hive so that I can regain a second hive after my winter loss. Two weeks ago they had brood up through the first super, leading me to believe that they would be booming enough to split without a problem. Today, that top super was full of nectar and the brood was all within the two deeps. I think I am best off leaving well enough alone. I will keep my eyes and ears out for a swarm to adopt, but otherwise will stick with this one (hopefully) healthy and strong hive.

This is me bee gazing about a month ago as the girls started their spring forage in earnest.

And here is a closer look at a joy flight, or play flight, or orientation flight. This occurs when the girls graduate to their last job of "forager". They will spend a few minutes hovering in front of the hive, moving up and down, up and down, getting used to the smell, sight and location of their home so that they know where to come back to after foraging far and wide.

In anticipation of the upcoming flow, I added an empty super two weeks ago. This is a frame that the girls are in the process of drawing comb on. Isn't it lovely? Giving them a foundationless frame allows the girls to decide what kind of comb they want to draw, worker brood (smallest), drone brood or cells for honey storage. By next week, this will be a full frame of comb, most likely filled with nectar.

I added a third super after my last inspection. I left feeling very anxious because I was not able to see any worker brood, larvae or eggs, but I did not go very far into the brood chambers because by that time the girls had had enough of me and were getting pissy. What I did see was nicely patterned drone brood and some empty frames. My first thought was "No queen!" (a queenless hive can develop laying workers who can grow drones but not worker bees), but the empty frames could have been recently vacated by the last batch of workers, and it is natural that the queen would be making lots of drones right now, especially if there is any chance of swarming in their future. I am painfully aware that I do more harm than good whenever I go into the hive, so I will keep my fingers and toes crossed and try to let them do their work in peace.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Lifeless Post

Given the morbid nature of this post, (none of the bees that you are about to see are alive), it seemed fitting to also include this recent sculpture.

I have known since January that the Woods Hive was dead, and went up this past weekend to take it apart. This first photo shows the location and size of the cluster, much smaller than the standard size of a soccer ball, more like a softball I would say.

Bees head first in cells (as seen here) are a sure sign of starvation. Even though the girls had capped honey directly above them, they were unable to access it. Given that this hive never got very large, I think they were not able to form a cluster large enough to keep themselves warm. I have heard that this was a common occurrence this winter, given the lousy season that the girls had last year.

This frame shows the dead cluster, and also shows (to the left of the dead group of bees) an area of about 25 cells that show signs of American Foul Brood. This is a nasty, very contagious disease that occurs in old comb. The frame that it is on is black with age, and is a frame that came with the nuc last spring. I am so upset to have found this, but I am hopeful that by tossing out all of the old frames, and cleaning all of my boxes with a propane torch I will prevent its spread.

After removing the frames from the boxes, I went in search of the queen. Not spotting her, I resorted to brushing all of the bees off of the frames into the box and sifting through them, handful by handful. Mysteriously, I still could not find a queen in this hive. My question is this; Will a hive that is getting ready to go into the winter, but has no queen, form a cluster? My instinct tells me no, as she is the one that they are surrounding and keeping warm. I have yet to send out an email to various groups to find out the answer. (I will be sure to post the answer ASAP, as I know that many of you will be up nights pondering it.)

After searching in vain for the queen, I decided to figure out how many bees were in this hive. I figured out how many bees equal one ounce (about 350) and then weighed all of the dead bees. 10.5 ounces minus the weight of the plastic bowl gave me only about 3,000 bees, thousands fewer than should be in a winter hive.

And now it is spring. The House Hive is pulling in pollen (mostly from the willow trees) and seems to be quite active. I am painting new boxes and planning for my first attempt at a split. Season 4 is about to begin!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

bishop hats on the hives

The bees are sitting tight these days, waiting for the snow to melt and the willows to offer up some early pollen. Up in our mountainside eco-system, we still have about 6 inches of snow on the ground, although nothing like what you see in this photo taken during the massive week of snow at the end of February.

Most starvations happen during March and April, and I am apprehensive as I know that the girls are now in the upper super of honey. I have confirmed that the woods hive is dead and will take it apart soon. From what I have read recently, this winter was a really bad one for the bees, and losses were incredibly high.

So... go plant some bee friendly flowers and wish the girls good luck.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Winter Loss

On oddly warm winter days, beekeepers check on their hives. Martin Luther King day I went up and saw signs that my taller hive (the house hive) was doing great. Lots of poop in the snow out in front of the hive (they hold it in while they are in the hive and take advantage of the warm weather to relieve themselves, and what relief it must be....) about three dozen dead bees scattered in the snow, cleared out from inside of the hive. The observation board had plenty of fresh cappings, letting me know where the cluster was in the hive. When I looked in with my flashlight, I got to see the most beautiful cluster, from one side of the frames to the other. It was the first time that I have seen a winter cluster! The sphere of bees widened as I scanned from the outer edge of the hive to the center, and then narrowed again as I reached the other side. When I put my ear to the outside of the hive, I heard a pleasant and reassuring hum. Plenty of stores left, with the top super still full of capped honey. The other hive however, had none of the outer signs of inner life. No bee poop or dead bees out in front of the hive, no cappings on the observation board, and some strange leaking of honey taking place. My fears were confirmed when I looked in with my flashlight. All I could see when I peered down between the frames were loads of seemingly dead bees at the bottom of the hive. No signs of an intruder. Plenty of stores. It will remain a mystery until I take the hive apart. Today, with temperatures going into the mid 50s, I again saw signs of life in front of the house hive, with bees even braving the rain, but nothing stirring from the woods hive. Although I am fairly convinced that the hive is dead, I find myself reluctant to go in there quite yet. I want to make sure that I do so before robbing, mildew or pests get a hold of it though. At that point I can look for signs of disease or starvation.

I am sad, and will be even sadder when I have to clear out the thousands of dead bees that I suspect are in there, but I know that this is part of the process. I have heard that typically, one out of four hives don't make it through the winter, so really I have been lucky so far.

I miss my girls. I miss their smell and the feel of them landing on my hands to check me out.

Next month, the queen will start laying eggs. Slowly at first, just enough to produce enough nurse bees to take care of the burst of young that will arrive when the weather warms with the arrival of spring. I am often awestruck by the realization that they know, on some intuitive level exactly what they need to be doing now, with the anticipation of what is to come. We have so much to learn.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Cover Girl

Yes, you are in fact looking at one of our very own Beacon Bees, sucking up the good stuff on the cover of the January 2010 Bee Culture Magazine!!
So, how did this happen? Well, back in September I sent in a few photos for their annual photo contest that they turn into a calendar. The theme was "honey" (strange, I know), and I never heard back from them. You can imagine my surprise when I spotted this month's issue on the kitchen table and recognized the photo as mine! I don't quite understand the immense pride I am feeling. Nor can I figure out who I am proud of, myself, or the bee. I told Matt that I feel as if my art made the cover of Art in America! But why? I did not make the bee, or the honey, and the photo was not hard to take. Matt's theory is that it makes me feel like I am part of "the club". That this oddball adventure that I started three years ago has been acknowledged on a higher level, making sense of the money, time and stings that have gone into it. Mostly though, it just feels like a nice surprise. The real satisfaction of being a beekeeper comes while sitting up there on a summer afternoon, hearing the hum and smelling the deep earthy smells of the hive. Knowing that I am providing an acceptable home for these amazing creatures.
For more information about Bee Culture Magazine, go to:

As far as I know, both hives are still warm and safe, even as the temperatures dip low. Last week, when we had a warm day with a high of 42 degrees, I was able to see girls going in and out of the hive, mostly clearing out their dead. I think about them every morning as I leave the house, and marvel at their (and all creatures') ability to survive the chill that has settled in so deeply.

Given that not much is (visibly) going on with the hives right now, I offer you a bit of beekeeping history.
2010 marks the 200th anniversary of Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth's birth. Langstroth was the creator of the Langstroth hive, which is what most beekeepers use these days.

His work was groundbreaking in that his hive design allowed beekeepers to remove frames from the hive without destroying what was on them. Langstroth also introduced the concept of "bee space", which is the amount of space that a bee needs in order to move comfortably between frames, while maintaining the preferred temperature and distance between objects. Too much space between frames and a bee will start building burr comb (extra comb), not enough space, and they cannot move around.
While most of the big names in beekeeping have been men's, there are an increasing number of female beekeepers, some of whom have been very influential such as Eva Crane and Dee Lusby. I am eagerly awaiting the release of "Piping Up", which is a history of the role of women in American beekeeping, by Tammy Horn.

May 2010 bring you much sweetness, growth and sunshine.