The Beekeeper Everyone Knows

Hillary, left, and Norgay on Mount Everest, 1953

There aren’t many beekeepers that the whole world knows. No one gets famous for keeping bees. Sometimes a beekeeper becomes locally infamous, but I can’t think of any beekeeper as well-known as, say, Sir Edmund Hillary. He and his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, will be honoured forever as the first to scale Mount Everest.  Hillary’s day job? Beekeeping. He spent his first thirty years working on the family honey farm. Hillary, who passed away in 2008, would have been 98 years old today.

Surprisingly, when he returned from his expedition, the beekeeper who climbed the world’s highest mountain went right back to hard manual labour, working with the family’s 1,400 hives. He had a remarkable humility about his feat. Here’s Sir Hillary, in 1953.  He was 34 years old when he was interviewed in this film. He doesn’t mention his bees in this clip, but I put it here so you can see the grace and charm of the young man.

When Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest back in 1953, most of us weren’t even around yet. Back then, technology was relatively primitive – a typical TV was bigger than a fridge. Communication was painfully slow.  It took 3 days before the world knew whether Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the peak – or had died trying. The team wasn’t the first to attempt Everest, but previous efforts ended in tragedy.

I mentioned Sir Edmund Hillary’s bee farm. He wasn’t a hobby beekeeper with one hive under an apple tree in the orchard. He was a real commercial honey farmer. Hillary wrote several times that beekeeping had conditioned him physically and mentally for the challenges of mountain climbing. Here, from his book A View from the Summit are Hillary’s own words about his beekeeping experiences:

“My brother Rex was a year younger than me and he, too, was part of our family beekeeping business. Rex and I worked well together as a team. He was smaller than me but very strong and vigorous. In the friendliest fashion we competed energetically with each other, often running side by side with heavy loads of honey to pile them on our truck…we actually enjoyed the beekeeping. Our thirty-five apiaries were spread out on fertile dairy farms up to forty miles away, so we were always on the move. The spring and summer, when the bees were gathering nectar, was a time of great excitement. The weather made beekeeping a tremendous gamble, of course. Each apiary we visited could have a substantial crop of honey in its hives or almost nothing. Rex and I reveled in the hard work.”

New Zealand: An amazing land of bees, hobbits, and mountain climbers.

For a few seasons after his famous conquest, Sir Edmund Hillary went back to tending the family’s 35 apiaries scattered around his island home. At the time, he didn’t think the climb was a big deal and he expected his moment of glory to fade quickly. It didn’t.

Posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, History, People | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Bees with Beards

Ah, the bearded hive. With our current heatwave, beards are in fashion among beehives here in Calgary. Last week, I was called to the home of some new beekeepers. The front of their two-story hive was completely masked by a wildly unkempt beard of bees, listless workers hanging out on a warm summer’s evening.

Remarkably, the hive had developed from a package which the new beekeepers had installed just two months earlier. (Bees are amazing!)  Since the forecast predicted persisting heat and it was still earlier in our honey season, we split the hive  and inserted a third box between the two brood chambers, intermingling sheets of starter comb. Half an hour later, the beard was waning. Inside, the bees were waxing the foundation.  I wish my camera had been handy. The before and after scene was spectacular. But I have other beards to show you, so I’ve placed a few on this page.

My friend Veronica shared this image of her neatly kept backyard hive. It’s mustached rather than bearded. Bees are drawing air into the hive. An upper entrance might help.

The hive to the left caused mild alarm for another friend. She wondered if such behaviour is normal. It is. Although it was after dark and the air had cooled a bit, a few hundred bees continued to cover the upper lip of the entrance. For new beekeepers, such activity seems rather odd. The situation is usually relieved with the addition of a few honey supers and additional ventilation. Slatted bottoms, a wider, taller front entrance, and an upper entrance may be helpful.

We are having an unusual hot spell here.  Perhaps it will surprise you, but it occasionally gets very warm in Canada. While building homes for Habitat for Humanity in Winnipeg this week, former president Jimmy Carter suffered heat exhaustion. (With his work ethic and his skill with power tools, he would have been a fine beekeeper.)  Just like an active retired president, your bees need shade, plenty of water, and ventilation. You’ve probably heard all that before and you can look it up in any basic beekeeping book. I’m not going to belabour the obvious.   Hot, crowded bees will sit on the front porch. You don’t want this. Idle bees are the devil’s bees, as they say.

Bearded hive with a mop-top, just before supering. My hive has an upper entrance, that’s why the bees are hanging from the top.

It’s not only beehives that grow bee beards, but humans also fancy the fashionable. I wrote about this summery trend a few years ago. To save you the effort of following my link, I’ve repeated that post here.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Braving the Beards

An itchy growth of facial bees

Almost anyone can grow a beard. Especially if honey bees are the nubs. The young lady in the picture to your right is showing off a sporty growth of facial bees. Surely there is some medicine or therapy that could have prevented this? A few days ago, the web master of a new beekeeping site (Beekeeping Planet) sent me a link to his site’s Top Ten Bee Beards page. So, it got me thinking about bee beards.

Perhaps a stylish bee jacket?

What is the fascination with bee beards? Not everyone likes the appearance of a shaggy face. (Although Darwin, Lincoln, Marx, and Castro all got good mileage from theirs.) And not everyone enjoys having small stinging creatures buzzing the cheeks. But combine the two, and you could make a PBS documentary. Photos of bee-bearded folks are almost as old as photography. I guess it’s because the bee beard combines the yucky, the creepy-crawly, and the daring-do in a delectable way. Having a potentially dangerous motley crew of stinging creatures hanging under one’s nose has an almost universal appeal.

Almost anyone can grow a bee beard. But I am reminded of this tragic story about a 34-year-old gentleman in Vermont: Man Has Trouble Growing Full Beard Of Bees. It seems to be true – patchiness, uneven color, itchiness, and the odd stray gray bee seem to plague the young man whose father “always had a full thick beard of bees his whole life.” There is a solution, which The Onion fake news didn’t report: some young men have been going for the full bee jacket to take attention off their lack of bee beard. It’s easier to maintain and has just as much “Wow Power” as the facial bees. However, the bee jacket is not recommended while motorcycling.


Posted in Beekeeping, Climate, Humour | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Shake, Rattle, Roll: Our Little Earthquake

Hives, in Chile, toppled by an earthquake. (Photo: Rey)

I live in one of the less shaky parts of the world. I don’t think that Calgary has ever had a damaging earthquake. (Granted, the city isn’t much over a hundred years old, so it’s a short history.)  When the Rocky Mountains (50 kilometres to my left) popped out of the ground, there must have been some horrific earthquakes. However, our last tectonic jolt was millions of years ago. It’s been quiet ever since.

But Montana, just a few hours’ drive south of us, suffered a hefty shake last week.  Folks around Missoula woke up to the biggest quake they’d had in over 20 years. It measured 5.8 on the shake-me scale. That’s enough to rattle windows, close doors, smash some dishes, and mimic poltergeist behaviour. That’s the worst that Mother Earth has thrown at Big Sky Country in decades. Across the border, up here in Canada, a few people say that they felt the Earth move that night, but I didn’t.  Closer to the epicenter, beehives would not have thought much more than, “Good grief! Is that the truck taking us to almonds already?”

But it was quite a different story a few years back in one of the world’s most alluring countries – Chile. About a week after I visited in 2010, Chile experienced the sixth strongest earthquake ever recorded, anywhere on Earth. The ground bolted upwards, traveled ten feet, then crashed back down. That’s right – houses, gas stations, firetrucks, everything – lifted and flung three metres. Scientists from Ohio State used GPS to measure the movement. If you were able to leap high into the air when the quake struck, and (even more skillfully) stayed afloat for half a minute, you’d have fallen into your neighbour’s yard, which would have moved in under your feet.

The February 27, 2010, magnitude 8.8 Chilean earthquake released the energy of 240 million tonnes of TNT. A 600-kilometre wedge of oceanic Nazca Plate subducted under South America while the continent lifted and sprung westwards.  Six hundred people were killed. Fifty billion dollars was lost through damages and interrupted business. Homes, schools, bridges, and apartment buildings toppled. 125 million bottles of wine fell and broke, turning streets red in vineyard towns.

I have beekeeping friends in Chile (that’s why I was visiting). They and their families were OK. But their companies were not. They sent me chilling photographs, a few of which are on today’s post. You can see what the quake did to their businesses. Francisco Rey was in the middle of his queen rearing season. Hives and nucs were scattered everywhere, queens lost, cell-builders destroyed. Honey packer Juan Pablo Molina lost two million pounds of honey when drums were knocked over, lids popped, and honey drained.

The firms of both Srs. Rey and Molina were kilometres from the epicenter, so destruction wasn’t total. But it was still devastating. That was seven years ago. Both of my friends are still in business, but they lost a lot.  If you’d like to know how to prepare for an earthquake, or if you’d like to see a complete story about how this big one affected beekeeping in Chile, here’s a link to an article I wrote for American Bee Journal at the time. Meanwhile, we’re thankful that Montana was just slightly shaken – this time.

Drums of honey tossed and churned by the big one in 2010. (Photo: Molina)

The floor is flooded – with lost honey. (Photo: Molina)

Repairing the damage. Francisco Rey and his team went from apiary to apiary, reconstructing hives, one at a time. (Photo: Rey)


Posted in Friends, Honey, Queens, Science, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Please Don’t Burn the Bees

Since most people are radically pro-bee, it shocks me when I come across stories about people burning swarms to destroy them. Such arrogance. Such ignorance. Or maybe, pathetic panic is at work. There are always better options than firing your pollinators.

I’m not talking about the accidental fires started by beekeepers’ smokers. Those happen – but fortunately such fires are rare. Hot smokers, sparks, and dry grass are a dangerous combination. I’m also not talking about stories like this one, from June or this year, which may be described by police as suspicious. As the Kent (England) police tell it, 26 hives may have been incinerated in an arson that might be linked to bee thefts.

Bees aren’t the only fire-target. A couple of months ago, a Pennsylvania man burned down his house trying to smoke out possums.  (Officials say the man had issues with bees, too.) No word on how the possum family is doing. Meanwhile, here are a couple of recent stories of folks using fire to kill bees:

In Georgia, a chap set fire to a swarm that had landed on the eave of his home. What might have started out as a bad idea turned the poor fellow’s house into ashes.

Credit: Shannon Millard

Earlier this week, a Michigan gentleman tried to remove bees that had settled into his garage. It was July 4th. Patriotically, he used fireworks to do the job. The fire department couldn’t save his garage, which looks like this now.  You can see the story here.

Finally, there is this story of a Florida homeowner who melted his kids’ swing set because a swarm of honey bees landed on it. Hot photos are at the end of this link.

If you’d like to see some interesting ways of being stupid around bees, here are some instructive videos for you. The first one, called “Killing Bees with an AR-15, Gasoline, and Beer Bottles, shows how an assault rifle, gasoline, and beer bottles are used to eliminate pollinating insects when they are apparently deep in a forest and not bothering anyone.

If you’ve got the stomach for more incorrigible fire stunts, you may enjoy “Setting Bees on Fire“.  I kept thinking that the fire would spread to the dry grass nearby, giving the dude an instructive learning moment. Fortunately, though, that didn’t happen. However, it looks like the protagonist gets stung 30 seconds into the clip, so keep watching.

What should you do if a swarm lands on your house, garage, or family playground? Most readers of this blog are beekeepers. They probably already know what to do. If you’re not a beekeeper (or if you suffer from lack of common sense), call a beekeeper. They can usually collect honey bees. And they probably will not burn your house down during the rescue.

Posted in Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , | 4 Comments

One Week with a Queenless Hive

Day 6 of a queenless nuc: sealed queen cells amidst risk-taking bees.

Over a week ago, I brought a nuc into my back yard. Twelve days have passed, so there should be an emerged virgin queen inspecting the neighbourhood, looking for boys. My little nuc was intentionally built as a queenless hive. When my son (left, now a confirmed beekeeper) and I dug through the deeper chasms of the little hive, we found the cluster of queen cells captured in the image above.

I was surprised by the fragility of this nuc’s effort to guarantee its future. Although this nuc had about 400 potential larvae of the ‘right’ age, the bees chose just three candidates, plus one suspended from bottom of the same frame. The bees could have built their new queen cells in other places among the three frames of brood and the hundreds of larvae, yet they picked this tiny number of tightly clustered incubating royals. The cells are vulnerably contiguous. They represent a tiny wager towards the entire colony’s future survival.

There is so much we don’t know about bees. Why so few cells? Evolution dictates the balance between a large number of well-fed queen cells and a risky slim number. Honey bees have survived for millions of years. Obviously, a small number is the right number. There is a cost to a hive if it raises too many of cells. Many cells require a lot of royal jelly, create a burden for the colony, reduce the number of future workers (each becomes a queen, not a foraging worker), and ultimately result in a grand battle-to-the-death for all those emerging queens. Personally, I would have directed the creation of a few dozen cells. But I’m not a bee.

When I produced and sold queens, I used to place about sixty grafted cells into a starter, transfer them to the appropriate finisher hive the next day, then take them to the field hours before the queens were expected to emerge. When I began distributing queen cells to the mating nucs, it was just one cell per hive. That’s right – just one cell per hive. I was even more frugal than my little backyard nuc!  The result? I usually had 60 to 80% of those nucs with good laying queens two weeks later. (Better queen breeders regularly get 90%, but I was a relatively bad beekeeper.) I would have improved my odds a bit if I’d put two cells in each mating box, but it takes a lot of energy to raise twice as many queen cells. The ‘missing queens’ in the nucs were not usually due to damaged or unopened cells, but due to queens getting lost on their mating flights or eaten by hovering squadrons of dragonflies. Since only one of the cells results in a mature viable virgin, multiple cells don’t reduce airborne losses.

Magpie: our local bee-eater
Photo by Connor Mah

I’m writing this a few days after I saw that little cluster of queens cells. By now, at least one of those cells has opened (the others were probably destroyed by whichever hyper-competitive queen emerged first). The victor might already be making her first flights. But I don’t know for sure. There is a chance that all the cells failed or the new queen has already disappeared into the jaws of a western magpie – many of whom already squawked their gratitude at my nuc’s arrival in their playground.  In another week, I’ll sneak a quick peek and let you know what I see.

Posted in Beekeeping, Queens | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Canada: More Buzzing than Ever at 150

Today is Canada’s 150 birthday,  so “it’s Canada Day, up Canada way”, as Stompin’ Tom Connors used to say. If you don’t know Stompin’ Tom, here’s your chance to rectify a serious deficiency. Connors was a great Canadian country/folk singer and song writer.  The day he died, back in 2013, my younger kids’ school day was interrupted with the principal announcing that old Stompin’ Tom had left the stage. Then the PA system let loose with Stompin’ Tom’s Hockey Song. The folk singer, who got his Stompin’ title from the way his cowboy boot kept time with his guitar, is essential Canadiana. An indelible cultural fixture. Even if you are not lucky enough to be Canadian (you can fix that), you might appreciate Connors’ Canada Day Song. So here it is:

If you’re not Canadian, but you keep bees, you might be persuaded to experience some of our famous fabulous honey crops. How would you like to make 200 pounds of water-white, smooth-as-silk honey from each of your hives every year?

If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, come on in.  (That’s a slight exaggeration. Saskatchewan, where I landed, has a 30-year average of only 186 pounds per hive.) When I immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, beekeeping as an occupation was given more points in the immigration scheme than engineering. My application wasn’t exactly rubber-stamped, but being a beekeeper helped. A lot. My interview with the Canadian consulate was pretty much over when he began by saying, “We need beekeepers.”  Is that true today? I’m not sure. But good beekeepers are always welcome almost everywhere.

What makes a good honey country? Why is Canada so good for bees? It’s not hard to explain. Perfect honey plants (alfalfa and sweet clover). extremely long days (sun’s up for 18 hours today) and great weather (sunny, warm summers) are the simple answers. Western Canada has a short and sweet honey season. But it’s intensity that counts, not a long, slow, lingering honey flow. We’ve got intensity here.

Bees arrived in Canada about 400 years ago and spread west with homesteaders. Along with cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs, bees are imported livestock. Until Europeans planted sweet clover and alfalfa as hay crops on the western prairies, honey production was small. The native wildflowers aren’t honey bee plants. Saskatchewan, for example, went from a 20-pound per hive average when bees worked only wildflowers in 1890 to nearly 200 pounds today, simply with the spread of imported bee forage.

Colony numbers across Canada grew rather slowly at first,  but then almost tripled in the past hundred years. In 1924, when Stats Canada began tracking honey production, there were just 280,000 colonies. They made 16.8 million pounds – 60 pounds per hive. At the time, Ontario led the nation in honey crops. In the early 1940s, there was a big boost in beekeeping because of sugar rationing saw during the Second World War, though many beekeepers later left for factory jobs as soon as the war ended.

By 1960, Canada’s sweet spot shifted west with the prairie provinces making twice as much honey as Ontario. Soon, new crops (such as canola) and new farmland (especially in the northern “bush” in western Canada) saw a big revival in beekeepers and honey production. Things were really blooming until the late 1980s when the federal government accidentally destroyed beekeeping in the western provinces with embargoes designed to help Ontario and Quebec beekeepers. Canada’s hive counts fell by over 200 thousand, as you can see in the graph below. However, thirty years later, as Canada turns 150, the country’s bee stocks have recovered and we now have more colonies than ever.  Also, with enormous hobbyist interest, more and more people have begun appreciating bees and living with them.

Canadian beekeeping history, just like the country’s, is largely a story of growth. It includes lots of characters with fascinating stories. Someday I’ll write a more complete history. For now, let’s celebrate 150 years as a beekeeping nation with a great future.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Honey Plants | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Moving the Bees

Yesterday, I wrote about nuking the bees. Today, it’s moving the bees. My nuc started out on my daughter’s farm, 130 kilometres east of my home in Calgary. That’s over an hour’s drive, out on the prairie, away from the mountains. The farm is near the Snake (as in rattlesnake) River Valley. The Snake is not much of a river, more of a valley with ephemeral spasms of moisture. It’s especially dry this year. Snake River won’t wet the underbellies of many rattlers this summer. But that’s where the farm lies, and you can see its ideal ten acres of beekeeping workshops and sheltered bee spots in the photo above.

The bees. After Justin and Erika set up my new nuc, they stapled a screen across the small round hive entrance. When I moved bees in the past, I never used screens. But a lot of people do, so they’re probably effective. My nuc has one small hole as its only entrance, the rest of the box is solidly bee-tight. Stapling a wire mesh across the entrance helps keep bees safe during a trip. In the photo, you can see the screen barrier after we partially opened it at the nuc’s new home in town. When you move a hive, bees are confused for a few days. A small entrance slows them down and forces them to realize that they are in a new place. I may keep the entrance reduced all summer (unless the weather turns really hot). A small convoluted entrance protects against wasps that sneak into small colonies and kidnap bees.

When we move big loads of bees, commercial beekeepers usually leave hive entrances open. Entrance screens aren’t typical. If it’s a really short haul (less than ten or twenty kilometres), we like to move under the cloak of twilight when it’s cool and the bees aren’t interested in flying. Thirty or forty hives are loaded in half an hour. A short drive later, we quickly set the hives off the flatbed. For long hauls, a bee net covers the load. Moving without a net is probably illegal almost everywhere, so if you’ve got a bunch of bees, buy a nice big fluorescent net.  The one shown here covers 400 double-story colonies. It cost me a few hundred dollars and weighs 100 pounds. There are cheaper and lighter ones available.  Dealers will give you details. I bought mine custom-made from A.H. Meyer in South Dakota.

A trick.  So, here we are – 5,000 bees in a little camo nuc box. I worry about loose screens and dislodged hive lids, so here’s my trick: a large black garbage bag. Big bags perfectly encapsulate a single-story hive. I’ve stuffed dozens of colonies into such plastic bags, usually without screening or closing the hive entrance. It keeps the colony quietly in darkness, and keeps every bee inside the bag if they venture out of their box. The only caveat is a concern about heat. When I moved hives this way, it was always around 20C/70F or cooler. But when I toted this nuc on its 130-kilometre journey, I turned on the A/C in the van because it was over 27C/80F outside. I kept the van’s air conditioning set at 18C and the hive was kept shaded. Too much heat can be a killer when it comes to transporting bees.

A 66×85 cm (26×33.5 inch) 1.2 mil plastic bag perfectly swallows the nuc. The bees stay dark and bees which escape the screen (there were a few) stay inside the bag enroute to their new home, rather than crawling into the drivers’ nose. (Use an extra-large sack for bigger equipment.)  I don’t do this with hives taller than singles.

I’m not sure how much air bees need when they are sightseeing. Putting living thing into a plastic bag should make you feel queasy.  In the past, I never worried about oxygen for the bees on the big loads, not even for the colonies buried deep inside a big semi-truck load of hives, traveling for two or three days. My trip with the nuc-in-the-bag took two hours from bagging to release. There must be some oxygen requirements, but I’m not sure what they are. Recently, researcher Stefan K Hetz studied insect respiration. Here’s a piece from The American Physiological Society regarding his work:

. . . insects, which have a respiratory system built to provide quick access to a lot of oxygen, can survive for days without it.

The insect respiratory system is so efficient that resting insects stop taking in air as they release carbon dioxide, according to research by Stefan K. Hetz of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. This allows them to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in balance. Too great a concentration of oxygen is toxic, causing oxidative damage to the insect’s tissues, just as it does in humans.

Bees consume large amounts of oxygen, and so it might be tempting to think they are panting – tiny inaudible pants. They are not, because they do not breathe through noses or mouths. Instead, insects draw in oxygen through holes in their bodies known as spiracles and pump the oxygen through a system of increasingly tiny tubes (tracheae) that deliver oxygen directly to tissues and muscles. Insects typically have a pair of spiracles for each thoracic and abdominal segment.

This system is much more efficient than the system that vertebrates evolved. Insects deliver much greater volumes of oxygen, in proportion to their size, than do mammals. They also deliver oxygen directly to the tissues, while vertebrates dissolve oxygen in blood, transport it to tissues, and then reconvert the oxygen to usable form.

“Insects are able to survive hypoxic environments,” explained Kirkton, the symposium chairman. “They can shut down and survive for hours or days. They have a low metabolic rate and can close their spiracles,” he said.

5,000 bees in a box

The bees survived two hours of bagged darkness with no audible complaints. At home, my 15-year-old was waiting for me. He off-loaded the hive. We started to peel off the bag while the nuc was still inside the parked van, but decided to leave it partly covering the box when we realized that some bees had found a way around the screen. Those strays stayed safely in the bag. We freed the nuc and the escapees, placing the hive in our yard.

Soon, the colony was quietly humming and comfortably settled.  The temporary lack of fresh air was not a problem and the van’s A/C kept the bees cool. If you are moving a single hive or two, as I did this week, consider the plastic bag.  It worked for me.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, Hives and Combs, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Nuking the Bees

Nuking some bees: shallow 3-frame queen mating nucs prepared in 9-frame boxes with dividing boards. 1 frame of brood, 1 frame of honey, 1 empty, and a queen cell. Mated queens available two weeks later.

If you’re a beekeeper, you probably already know all about nucs, the little hives from which big things are supposed to grow. If you’ve made nucs for fun or profit, then you have your own system – maybe two frames of brood, two of honey, and one for growth. Maybe you keep the nuc in the mother yard and take advantage of drift; maybe you move miles away to avoid drift. Maybe you are nuking hives for your apiary’s expansion, so you add a laying, caged queen. Or maybe you are making nucs to raise queens – you make weaker units than the ones designed for increase, and you probably insert a queen cell of your own creation.

In a minute, I’ll describe what we put into the new nuc which came to my home in Calgary a couple of days ago. But first, some etymology that entomology fans should know. The word ‘nuc’, pronounced ‘nuke’, is short for nucleus. A nucleus is the center, or core, of something bigger. Cousin words are nuclear (as in ‘nuclear family’) and nucleic (as in DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid) – I’d argue that genetics and a core family are good things to think about when you make nucs. The nuc should hold the start of a great hive – a bee family with lineage appropriate for your area. For splitting hives, I sometimes use the action word ‘nuking’ which conjures widespread destruction – Armageddon for the hive – though it need not be quite so horrific.

The nuc which I brought home is not supposed to become a powerhouse. It was made with just two frames of brood, no queen, but plenty of honey and enough bees to keep the brood warm. (It still dips below +10C/50F here each morning.)  The box itself was designed by my son-in-law. He built a bunch of rugged 6-frame nuc boxes and painted them a rainbow of colours. From the blue, pink, yellow, white, red, and various pastel tones, I asked for something that would blend in with the shrubs and grass in my back yard. I certainly didn’t want a white hive. No sense calling attention to the box of bees in my back yard – camouflage was my choice.

A nuc wearing camo instead of zinc-oxide white. Is this a good colour for a hive?
Is it a good colour for a tree, the bees’ natural home?

The nuc was pulled from a healthy, strong, and (most significantly), docile hive. We created it late in the afternoon so I could drive home and unload it as evening approached. How does one drive for over an hour with a hive of bees in a van? The short answer is ‘carefully’ but tomorrow I’ll post the long answer. You may be surprised with one of the tricks that I always use when I move a hive or two in a car or van. I haven’t seen the strategy described anywhere else, so maybe it’s a bad idea.

My son-in-law nuking a hive for me while my grandson spots for the queen.

Posted in Beekeeping, Hives and Combs | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Bees at Times Square

New York City beekeeper Andrew Cote just captured a swarm high above Times Square. The bees were perched on a ledge and the beekeeper went to their rescue, boxing them up before they jumped to their death.  In coastal New York, swarm season is between Memorial Day (near the end of May) and the Fourth of July (near the fourth day of July).

Cote thinks that the swarm was from a nearby hotel rooftop apiary.  The free bees were on a 17th floor ledge, way up above the place where they store the big New Year’s Eve ball. This wasn’t the highest swarm he’s nabbed – that distinction goes to a swarm he collected from the 19th floor of a different Manhattan building.

Posted in Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff, Swarms | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Backstory for the Bees

Our backyard hive.

Yesterday evening, I brought a small hive of bees to my back yard. It was thrilling. That may seem odd to those of you who read this blog regularly. (Did you miss my Urban Beekeeper post?)  Surely I’ve got dozens of hives somewhere. That’s a valid assumption, considering that I write frequently for American Bee Journal, teach several beekeeping courses a year, and mentor other beekeepers around the community. But it’s true – I’ve had no hives of my own for a few years, for a variety of reasons that you’ll see in the story which follows.  Many of you have read my book, Bad Beekeeping, which describes my twenty years of commercial beekeeping in Pennsylvania, Florida and Saskatchewan, so you know how I got here. For the rest of you, here’s the Cole’s Notes summary of the book:

I was the middle kid in a big family. My parents led a self-sufficient lifestyle – building, growing, and making almost everything they needed on their 50-acre farm in the Appalachian foothills. We had cows, sheep, greenhouses, and acres of orchards, vineyards, potatoes, tomatoes, cukes, and peppers. And there were bees. My father’s original goal was to be a commercial beekeeper. He eventually reached 800 hives around 1960, when I was a pre-schooler. He couldn’t make a living from it (Pennsylvania has feeble, undependable honey flows.),  so my mother chose greenhouses and row crops as their business. She was right  – people came from as far as Pittsburgh to buy Summit Gardens’ Golden Peppers and assorted delicacies.

The bees performed a less important role on the family farm, but by then my three older brothers and I had all been thoroughly stung. David, the oldest, moved to Florida where he still operates a fine queen business. By the time I had a driver’s license, the older boys were in the army or off the farm, so I was told to care for the 300 hives that were left from my father’s previous 800. (He gave/sold the rest to the older boys.) I made a lot of mistakes, but had some modest success. I was learning a lot. At 18, already with a few years of commercial bee experience, I left home to beekeep in Florida (learning from my brother David) in the winter and Wisconsin (learning from my brother Don) in the summer. Along with producing queens and orange blossom honey in Florida and clover honey in Wisconsin, my bees pollinated West Virginia apples. A couple years later, I met a guy selling hives in Saskatchewan. No money down. I was on my way.

Production in Pennsylvania had been 50 pounds per hive. In Florida, it was about 60 (plus queens to sell), while in Wisconsin my bees averaged 100 pounds per hive. But western Canada was known for amazing crops of water-white honey. Beekeepers were making 200 pounds per hive, so I joined them. That was the best decision of my life. I arrived in Canada in the 1970s and ran a thousand hives for over ten years. My base was a cowboy town near the Montana border. During my first four years, I averaged a little over 300 pounds per hive and paid off the entire farm. Then the area had a drought. No rain for 14 months. Crops died. My honey average was 14 pounds in 1985. I drained my savings, then sold the business. I kept 300 hives and placed them near Saskatoon, where (at age 33, in 1987) I started university. Four years later, I had an honours degree in geophysics – and several job offers in Calgary. So, I drove eight hours west and started a new life. Again.

Earth science had always interested me (volcanoes, earthquakes, gravity and magnetism, rocks, fossils – what’s not to like?) but I found myself doing the less interesting work of analyzing seismic signals. Lots of math and physics. Not so much fun and fresh air. So I bought 5 hives and put them on a friend’s quarter-section. It got me out of town and I soon split them to 15. Things were going well, but in a few years, I noticed some muscle weakness. I was tripping and falling. The diagnosis was ‘probably ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease‘. That usually causes complete paralysis within three years, followed by death. But my progression has been strangely slow. My ‘atypical ALS’ began 20 years ago, yet I still do most of the things I need to do. You never know about such things – you just have to see how it goes.

A little over ten years ago, I invited one of my older brothers to Calgary to operate a new honey farm which I wanted to build. I bought ten acres and we soon had 500 hives. It was entirely devoted to comb honey production – a beautiful product with much less heavy lifting and much more cash per hive. That seemed the right move at the time as we were in our 50s and my muscles were slowly becoming weak. But after seven years, my brother moved on, going back to the States with his wife so they could be closer to their grandchildren. Meanwhile, my illness was progressing, so I couldn’t move bees or pull honey. Besides, I was still consulting  in geophysics. My oldest daughter and her husband, both nearing 30, were interested in running the farm. So, I handed them the keys.  It hasn’t been easy for them. But they both have some of the skills that help beekeepers succeed. Erika is good at marketing and works in the shop (and sometimes in the bees) while Justin is great with woodworking and was a furnace-repair guy, so he knows mechanical things and is learning beekeeping. But it’s been a slow start for them.

That brings us to yesterday, when I visited my daughter, her husband, and their three little kids. Justin set up a queenless nuc for me. He had built some really nice nuc boxes and gave me two frames of brood (about half in pearl-stage) along with four frames of honey, pollen, and attached bees. We didn’t shake any extra bees into the nuc and we made sure that we found the queen and left her behind. I wanted a moderately weak hive which would have to raise a queen.

My goal (this year) is not to have a huge hive, but instead to intentionally keep the colony weak through occasional queenlessness and regular use of foundation. I just want to easily observe some honey bees. (I can see them from the deck while I’m writing these words!)  As a bonus, my two younger kids (ages 10 and 15) seem more excited about the bees than I am. They’re curious about nature and bugs and things.  I like that the hive also gives them a special family connection to something stretching back a century and across a continent, yet sitting in a small box in our back yard.

Finally, here’s a picture I took yesterday of my son-in-law preparing my nuc. He’s being helped by his kids (my grandkids). Over the next few days, I’ll describe how the nuc was made, transported 130 kilometres in my van, and hauled into the back yard. Oh, and I’ll need to name the hive, too. Any suggestions?

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Commercial Beekeeping, History | Tagged , | 7 Comments