Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bears and Bees

Fall..... on day four of the power outage caused by the freak October 29th storm, I arrived home and took my customary glance up at the hives while collecting the mail from the mailbox. But this time, I could only see one hive. I walked up to see what was going one, and immediately saw that we had been visited, in a not so graceful manner by a bear. The "Flaming Maples" hive was on its side, with dead bees and chunks of comb all around. We had received twenty inches of snow just four days prior, and the darkness of the dead bees scattered on the white snow was stomach turning. Due to the snow, I was able to verify my hunch by the paw prints all around the hives. Were it not for the overturned hive, I might have been able to simply appreciate the overlap of our worlds, but all I could see was the destruction of the stores that the girls had worked so hard to build up over the past few months.

My mind was spinning. Not only was I trying to process the carnage in front of me, but I was also trying to conceive of the fact that a bear had recently been right where I was now standing. I was hit with a pang of guilt for not having strapped this hive down like the other hive.

After taking a few photos and suiting up (I knew the girls would be rather pissed off), I reassembled things as best I could and tightly strapped the hive down. Looking up into the overturned hive boxes, I could see a large cluster of bees, which left me hopeful for their recovery.

The next morning, I took a peek before heading off to work, and was shocked to see the hive once again taken apart, this time even worse than the day before, with frames of honey and comb scattered about. Apparently the lack of a strap had not been the issue the first time. Surveying the damage, I felt a deep sense of helplessness and frustration. Bees were scattered everywhere, full frames of honey were ripped in half, and wooden ware was torn up and scattered around. Putting the hive back together for the second time, the temperature hovering around 40, I knew the chances of the queen still being alive were slim.

By the end of the day, I had two straps lashing the hive to the two cinder blocks that sit under it, and had installed a "critter gitter" (a motion sensitive alarm, thank you Chris and Grai) along with a motion sensitive light pointed at the hives. The next morning? The hive had been knocked over, but had stayed in one piece. Kind of like "I've fallen and I can't get up." versus "I've been knocked over and had my guts ripped out."

On the next warm day, I went into the Flaming Maples to consolidate the remaining frames. I could tell from their behavior (distinctive roar, disorganized behavior) that the hive was queenless. Hopefully, they will make it through the winter and I can introduce a new queen in the early spring. My heart goes out to them.

No more bear activity for a week or so, until late one night when Matt and I heard a loud noise. We went out onto the back deck of the house and saw that one of our bird feeders, which had stood at the top of a copper pipe that came off of the deck, was now dented and lying on the deck alongside the pole that it had been attached to. Turning around, I noticed that the second bird feeder, which I had filled with seed that morning and hung in its customary spot in front of the kitchen window, was gone. I shined my flashlight on the kitchen window and saw a large, muddy paw print. It was then that we spotted the bear in the backyard, bird feeder in paw, chowing down. After watching him for awhile, we went inside but soon heard a snuffling coming from the back steps. We leaned out the back door and watched as he lumbered up the back stairs, undeterred by the flashlights shining in his eyes. Finally, as it dawned on us that this bear was indeed coming up onto our back deck, we started making enough noise for him to decide to turn around and wander off to somewhere else.

As expected, both of the hives were knocked over the next morning, but luckily neither one had been taken apart. My theory is that the "critter gitter" has a bit of a lag time before it goes off, allowing the bear to knock the hives over, but scaring/annoying him enough that he does not stick around once it starts going off.

An electric fence is the only sure way to keep the bear away, but that will be a lot of work and money. For now, I am wishing him away and hoping that he has just been passing through and will relocate himself. Feel free to wish along with me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cross Pollination of Bees and Art

After five years of keeping bees and many more than that of making art, the two paths have intersected, leading me to compose a post that will appear on both my Bee Blog and my Art Blog.

This fall, some work of mine will be shown at Wave Hill (a beautiful botanical garden/gallery in the Bronx), in a show called "Hive Culture: Captivated by the Honeybee". The show will be up from September 13 through December 1, 2011 with an opening reception on October 2, from 1:00-4:00.
For more information, you can read the press release. Hours and directions can be found at Wave Hill's website.

Looking for a preview of the show? Can't make the show? Saw the show but can't remember what work was mine?
Here it is again.

When Winter Comes

March, 2011

Having watched the honey bees as they make their way through the seasons, I have come to believe that from the time they emerge from the hive on the first warm spring day, they are preparing for the arrival of winter. From the first crocuses to the last of the goldenrod, the bees are taking stock of what is going on around them and what is coming their way.
This video is an investigation of that awareness, both in the bees’ world and in ours.

Also included in the Wave Hill show are two pieces that I made that have to do with Bee Lining, an activity that involves luring honey bees to a sweet bait and then following them back to their hive.

Bee Lining Kit and its contents.
To read what the envelope says, click on image to see it larger.

Looking to create a link between myself, the bees, and the viewer, I devised a portable bee lining kit. Below are some photos of the kit in action. A limited edition of 1,000 will be given away over the course of the show. Although the stated function of the kit is to locate feral colonies, I consider the piece fully realized if the receiver takes the time to read the directions and imagine him/herself going through the steps. As with a small first aid kit, a compass or a pocket flashlight, the bee lining kit is there when one needs it, and that knowledge is sufficient to offer one comfort.

Bee Lining Box
In using this rather complicated box, light ports, hinged doors and a sliding gate are opened and closed as bees are trapped, moved from room to room, tanked up on bait, and finally released.

It has been a rough month for the bees. Unrelenting rains are keeping them in their hive and washing the pollen and nectar off of the flowers during what should be the fall flow. Rather than reaping the harvest of their labors, I am doing what I can to ensure that they have enough stores for the winter. Now, more than ever, I appreciate the fine line between bounty and dearth.
It is a good time to come out and celebrate this noble creature, the honeybee.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Summertime, and the living is easy.

The hives in June
The hives in August
It has been a good summer for the bees, and if the saying "slow but steady wins the race" turns out to be true then they are in good shape. The new hive, the Flaming Maples, arrived strong, but small, and is still working to draw comb in the second box (the other boxes are due to my wishful thinking). The House Hive has a full super of honey on it, but I am not touching it until I know how much they have going into the winter. The bees look healthy and plentiful, but there was no spring harvest, no swarming, no bee covered hives on hot summer evenings. (See August of 2010 to see what I am referring to.) Why such a sluggish year? Maybe due to the long hard winter that we had followed by loads of rain that can wash valuable pollen off of the flowers. Maybe a sleepy queen. Every year is different, and I am doing what I can to make life a bit easier for the girls.

Propolis: For those of you who swear by my Propolis Tincture to cure your colds and sore throats, here is a close up of me scraping some of it off of the inner cover. One of my favorite smells...

A shot of the top of a box of frames.

A shot of the bottom of a box of frames. From this angle, I can peek up between the frames and see if comb has been drawn and if so, what is in it. I can also check the bottoms of the frames for queen cells. In this way, I am able to see a lot of what is going on before I even pull out a frame.

August 20th marked the third annual National Honeybee Awareness Day! How did you celebrate? Vacationing 7,000 feet up in the air at Sequoia National Park, I had two terrific honeybee experiences while at a bbq. The first was communing with myriads of honeybees while meandering through an immense field of Goldenrod.
When I returned to the tables of fellow tourists, Matt informed me that he had met a beekeeper. My pulse quickened! How many hives do you have? I asked (the equivalent of "how many kids do you have" in the bee world). "My husband has 2,800 hives." was the reply. Said husband is a commercial beekeeper in Southern California, and we had a great conversation that I had to be dragged away from. I've never spoken much with commercial beekeepers, and Larry did not seem to be annoyed by my barrage of questions. Such as how does a hive move through the year when there is no winter to shut down for? (The hive works year round, with the queen slowing down her egg production during periods when there is nothing to forage.) What do commercial beekeepers do with the tons of honey that the bees produce as they are shipped around to pollinate crops? (Nothing, it is used by the hives as they are divided. Bit of trivia: honey from almonds tastes horrible.) We talked a lot about various treatments for varroa mites (the downfall of many a hive these days) and I was heartened to learn that Larry has experimented (and had success) with using essential oils. This used to be considered a far out alternative treatment, kind of like eating garlic to cure bronchitis (which works by the way). But as beekeepers are finding more and more that conventional chemicals only work in the short term, they are becoming more willing to try other things, and low and behold, they work! Larry also said that he is paying more attention to the bees themselves, and is better able to notice how a hive is doing before things go bad. Preventative medicine versus cleaning up the mess afterwards. I must admit that my preconceived notions of commercial beekeepers had been less than positive; images of folks hurling hives around, dousing them with chemicals and high fructose corn syrup without regard or respect for the bees themselves, and Larry helped me to see past this.

On our way out of the mountains, we were issued the strangest "bon voyage" by a roving group of honey bees. While stopped at a red light on a long sizzling hot road with endless groves of fruit trees, we suddenly became aware of insects flying around the car. Matt was the first to identify them as being honeybees, and I have never seen the girls behave in such a disorganized, random manner. Flying this way and that, spiraling, dipping and weaving around, over and around the car. I could sense their disorientation and can only figure that it was a recent delivery from a pollination truck that had not yet found its way back to its hive.

The number of honeybee related blogs has become immense, but one that struck me especially worthy of note is this one, which features folks who sing and dance in honor of the fine Apis Mellifera.
May the rest of your summer be as sweet as honey.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Flaming Maples

Ahhhh.... honey and daisies.

My second hive finally arrived! Due to the cold and seemingly never ending winter, bee losses were very high this year and the apiary in Pennsylvania where Chris gets his nucs was no exception. Nucs usually arrive mid May, but this one did not made its way to New Paltz until June 4th. A nuc is a mini hive, consisting of five frames. This nuc was amazing; two frames of capped brood, pollen, larvae, and one full frame of capped honey, which gives the girls a terrific head start for wax building and feeding brood. Their temperament was calm and gentle. In a word, a box of dreamy bees. I studied the frames carefully as I moved each frame into their new home, sure that this was my chance to spot the queen, but once again, she alluded me.

A top view of the nuc

Sam got the honor of naming this hive and after much deliberation he chose The Flaming Maples.

One of the first things a new hive goes in search of is water, and given the extreme heat of last week, I wanted to have something to offer them. This bird bath has been frequented pretty steadily all week and I love standing by and watching them.

Do you like my new veil? (see Go Dog Go for point of reference). It's the little things in life, like finally finding a veil system that works just right. Mann Lake sells the black veil and it works perfectly with my new flat brimmed straw hat. I had to alter the veil by adding elastic loops to go under my arms. With this veil/hat combo., I can see much more clearly what is going on in the hive, and I can flip the veil up over the hat when it is not needed. It is also great in the garden when the gnats find me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Friends the Mason Bees

Every spring I am visited by Mason Bees. On a mission of utmost importance, they investigate the nail holes on the side of my house, the small holes on the underside of the table on the deck, the hollow legs on the old bird cage that hangs above our patio, and anything else they can find that might suit their egg laying needs. Mason Bees are small, fuzzy bees that lay their eggs in holes that are approximately 5/16ths of an inch in diameter. Once they have filled the hole with eggs, they pack it with mud. Over the years, they have found the strangest places for doing this. Above is one such example, the fuel hole on Sam's Fischer Price garage. A few years ago they filled every hole on a multi-plug extension cord that had been left outside.

This year, they discovered the oh so convenient empty frames of comb that were stacked in boxes in front of the house. I was so confused when I discovered that they had started laying eggs in this comb. Here I am, trying to raise honeybees, and another, equally wonderful creature moves in and co opts the equipment. There was no way I could choose one over the other, but I could not stand by and just let the Mason Bees spread the word about what they had found.

So I decided to sacrifice a handful of frames for the Mason Bee cause and quickly constructed an improvised Mason Bee home on the opposite side of the house from where the honeybee equipment is stored.

If you are interested in providing a cheap and easy home for the Mason Bees, take a log and drill rows and rows of 5/16 inch holes in it. Hang it from a tree or on the side of your house and see what happens. Unlike Carpenter Bees, Mason Bees don't make holes in wood, they just use existing ones, so you don't have to worry about them damaging your house.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Getting to Know Your Hymenoptera

Can't tell a wasp from a honeybee? You are not alone. Before I became a beekeeper, they all looked the same to me.
Here is a very basic course in common Hymenoptera that you might see in your neighborhood. This information might come in handy if you are taking part in the Beacon Bee Sighting Project. (See link in upper left corner of the homepage of this blog.) While the family of Hymenoptera encompasses a wide range of insects including sawflies and ants, we will focus on the members that might be confused for a Honey bee.

The Honey Bee
And so... we will start with the honey bee. As with all other pollinators, the honey bee is fuzzy. All pollinators must have fuzz, or else they cannot collect and transport pollen. In a young honey bee, the fuzz covers the honey bee's head and thorax (middle part), and also forms bands across the abdomen (bottom part). As a honey bee ages, the fuzz wears a bit. The color of the fuzz is not a bright yellow, but rather a ochre, or tan. The abdomen itself can be all black (Carniolan bees), but the most common honey bees are Italian (see photo) and have two or three cardboard colored bands at the top of their abdomens. The honeybee is about 3/4 of an inch long.

The Bumblebee
Bumblebees are big fat lovable pollinators. Fuzz covers their whole body and is black and bright yellow. Because of their size, Bumblebees travel slower than the honey bee.

Orchard Mason Bees
Every May a bunch of cute little bees show up and carefully investigate all of the nail holes on the sides of our house. They look a lot like honey bees, but they are smaller (only about half an inch long), and their abdomens are a bit rounder. A couple of years I figured out that they are orchard mason bees, a lovely wild pollinator. They lay their eggs in holes that are about one eight of an inch wide, and you can make a home for them by drilling a bunch of holes in a log or board and hanging it up outside.

Now we are onto the not so lovable Hymenoptera.
The Carpenter Bee
The carpenter bee is about the size of a small bumble bee, but while its thorax is fuzzy, its abdomen is black and shiny. Beware. The carpenter bee wants to drill small holes in your house, hence the name, and they are very difficult to get rid of.

The Wasp
Finally, the wasp (boooooo). As we complete the course on Hymenoptera, you no doubt know that because wasps don't have any fuzz, they are not pollinators. They have sleek, slender bodies and can vary in size from half an inch to well over an inch (in the case of hornets). This photo is of the common yellowjacket. Black body with bright yellow stripes. Unbarbed stinger allowing it to sting repeatedly. Whereas honey bees make their homes out of wax, wasps chew on wood in order to make their homes out of paper (grey dome like structures).

You are probably wondering what to do with so much new found information. Feel free to contribute to the Beacon Bee Sighting Project. A full description can be found in the Interesting Links box in the upper left corner of the homepage of this blog.

Knowledge is power.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Honeybee Sighting Project

View Honeybee Sighting Project

Click on the above link to see the Honeybee Sighting Project in action. You will need to zoom-zoom in on the Beacon NY area.

Last Saturday was such a nice day, wasn't it?
Made all the nicer by the two honeybee sightings that I had while walking around Beacon, and the two more that I heard of from friends the next day!
I was struck by two thoughts. The first was "Where are they coming from? It was a cool enough day that the girls would not be wandering too far from home, and yet the bees that I spotted were on opposite ends of town. The second thought was how poetic it was that in spotting these bees, the three of us (myself and the other two who told me of their sightings) were linked together by the path that the bees had taken, starting from their hive and passing by us in their travels. I imagined a line drawing casting its web over the town in the form of the flight of the honeybees.

Naturally (to me at least), this got me thinking of a possible "honeybee sighting project", in which I will collect data (day, time, place) from folks who spot honey bees on any given day, and use that data to triangulate where the bees might be living, as well as illustrate the possible path that the girls might have made as they wended their way through town.

And so I invite you to let me know when you spot a honeybee. All I need is the date and location. Out of state is fine. Other countries are fine. Next door is fine.
Please note: There is NO OBLIGATION TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS. It is meant only for folks who find that the idea tickles their fancy and would like to take part.
Most likely, it will not go on indefinitely. Maybe just till the end of April, which is when we know for sure which hives have made it through the winter.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Brief Reprieve

Last week the temperature rose enough for me to be able to pop the lid and take a peek into the hive. Based on the poop and smattering of dead bees in the snow, I knew that they were alive, but I did not know if they had enough stores to last them through the next two months.

After dragging a stool over to the hive and planting it somewhat firmly in the remaining two feet of snow, I popped the lid and was immediately greeted by a blanket of live, warm bees covering the tops of the frames of the upper most box. They were not nearly as happy to see me as I was to see them, but I will not take it personally.

Looking closer, I saw with great satisfaction that they still have a full super of capped honey. I closed up the hive turned to the observation tray that sits under the hive. Pulling it out, I was stunned to finds thousands of bee wings and legs. Strange enough, but stranger still is that there were no bodies. How did this happen? My only theory is this: dead/frozen bees dropped off of the cluster and onto the screen that covers the bottom of the hive. As their bodies decomposed, their wings and legs filtered through the screen, but not their bodies.

Always something new up at the hive, I say.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bee Dreams

I am thankful for the warmer day or two that we have had over the past week. The long weeks of steady cold had me nervous, as the girls need days where it is over 45 degrees so that they can make their cleansing flights and rearrange the cluster. I left them with plenty of winter stores, but if they cannot get to the honey, it is of no use to them. Based on the dozen or so dead bees scattered in the snow and the brown dots of bee poop peppering the ground on the warmer days, I can safely say that there is some sort of cluster alive in there.

I had a dream last week that I was putting on a pair of black knit mittens, and something was inside the left mitten, stuck between the mitten and the back of my hand. It started crawling around in there and when it stung the back of my hand I realized that it was a honeybee. I carefully peeled off the mitten and the bee flew away. I saw that it had given me a few "warning stings", meaning that it had injected a bit of venom, but not deep enough to get her stinger caught in my skin. A few welts formed, but it was annoying more than it was painful.

When I remembered the dream the next morning, I said to Matt, "The bees were warning me about something, I have to go check on them this morning!" Then I thought to myself that this was probably a metaphorical warning, not a literal warning from the bees, but just to be sure, and even though I had just checked on the hive two days prior, I trekked up to the hive (over two feet of snow) before work.It was not until I got right up to the hive that I saw that for the first time in five years, snow had completely sealed up their entrance. I knelt down and dug out the snow and ice that was blocking their way out.

Sunday was the warmest day so far. Unable to keep away, some friends, Matt, Sam and I snowshoed past the hive on our way into the woods. A few of the girls were out, and perhaps seeing us as a warm resting post, they came over and landed on us as we walked by. I gently nudged a girl off of Shep's coat and onto my gloved fingertip. What must it be like for them, emerging from months of pitch darkness into this blinding winter landscape? Do they even see us through the glare, or do they just sense our heat and fly towards it?

As always happens this time of year, I miss them and long for the springtime when they will burst out of their hive. I am currently working on a new shadow puppet video, this one with the bees as its inspiration. The title is "When Winter Comes", in part because it would seem to me that from the day that they emerge in the spring, they are making preparations for the winter. Several months still lie between now and the first pollen of the willow tree and dandelion. My fingers are crossed.

In the meantime, here is an interesting link for those of you who are interested in some amazing footage of honey hunters. Eric Tourneret has photographed beekeeping practices around the world and here is a link to his video of honey hunting in Nepal.