Ron on PolliNation!

I’m so excited to share a link to PolliNation, the fantastic podcast about . . . Pollination!  This podcast episode features the show’s host in conversation with me!

Dr Andony Melathopoulos, the bee scientist running The PolliNation Podcast, invited me to discuss honey bee pollination – past, present, future.   Andony is a very knowledgeable beekeeper and a scientist at Oregon State where he works in pollination extension, research, and education.  Because of his experiences, he deftly leads this discussion about (1) the old days of pollination (before hives on pallets, bee nets, and freeways), (2) the current state of commercial pollination (which I dub ‘unsustainable’), and (3) a possible future where drone bees will be robots and cherished crops might be ‘self-fruitful’ and no longer need our bees.

I have two regrets about the podcast. This is a great subject to discuss so it would have been nice to have had a 10-hour podcast marathon. Though we got deep into it, the topic lends itself to considerable deliberation.  My second regret is technical – in this podcast, I am speaking through my computer in Calgary, Canada, and the sound (from my end only) is not crisp.  That was entirely my fault. Next time I do a podcast with Andony (hopefully there will be a next time) I’ll find a better microphone!  Having said that, I’ll hasten to add that the sound quality improved as the show went on and it’s never so bad that you’ll miss the message.

Here’s the link to PolliNation. You can listen through I-Tunes (Episode 54 – top of the charts this week!), Soundcloud, or directly through your computer by going here.

Posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Friends, Outreach, Pollination | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Peak Dandelion

Pollen-dusted bee on dandelion (credit: Guérin Nicolas)

For a lot of temperate-climate beekeepers, dandelions are the peak of the spring season.  Their bloom marks the point where hives are finally getting much stronger, nectar is pouring in, and the dandelions’ massive gifts are giving a fine boost to hive weight.

If you are in the lower Midwest, dandelions have finished, leaving otherworldly bobbs of seeds atop hollow spikes. Most of us, as kids,  have plucked those expended dandelions and, with our breeziest breaths, launched seeds into the air. If you lived in town (I didn’t), you might have irritated Mr Wilson, the guy next door, who didn’t want your family’s seed in his ecologically-sterile green lawn.

For those of us living further north, the dandelions are now peak. When I teach beginning beekeeping, I tell Calgary students to circle May 25th on their calendars.   If the weather is warm and dry, the bees will have their best day since last August. I’ve been declaring the third quarter of May as our local dandelion bee-boom event for years. Only once – in 2015 – was I completely wrong.  That year, there wasn’t much of a winter here in western Canada. February and March were mild. Dandelions blossomed in early April.  That was an exception, this year is the norm.

The combination of long days in late May, plus moisture in the soil from spring rains, pushes nectar and pollen out of the dandelions exactly when hives need them most. If you are surrounded by dandelions, as we are, the bees needn’t fly far to pick up lunch.

Common dandelions – like almost all of North America’s major honey plants – are from Europe. [We have a couple obscure varieties of native northern dandelions, but the honey dandelion arrived on the Mayflower as a medicinal herb.]  Like common dandelion, our honey bees are also from Europe. Honey bees and dandelions are old friends. Bees undoubtedly lend the lions a hand in their mission to conquer the world. I was once scolded (only half in jest) by a rancher who didn’t like the way my bees had spread dandelions through his irrigated alfalfa field. He may have had a point, though the dandelions were spreading before my bees arrived.  A photo of his field, infested with dandelions, is just below. I reminded him that my bees helped his sweet clover and alfalfa (also European imports).

Dandelions in an irrigated Saskatchewan alfalfa field.

Perhaps I’m fond of dandelions because they are the only major honey plant which my bees feasted on in Pennsylvania, which also occur here in western Canada, where I’ve spent most of my life.  In the east, where I learned to beekeep, bees experienced dandelions, black locust (acacia), tulip poplar and basswood (linden), a long summer dearth, then goldenrod and aster in the fall.  Here, it’s dandelion, then canola, alfalfa, and clover.  (There was clover in the Appalachians but it rarely yielded nectar – the soil is too acidic.)

I’m excited by the abundance of dandelions, the twenty or thirty or forty pounds of honey bees store from dandelion, and the general buzz of hive activity. But do dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) actually provide great nourishment for developing bee colonies? Compared to having an apiary without them, dandelions are wonderful. However, just like many other plants (alfalfa comes to mind) the pollen from dandelion lacks some essential amino acids needed for bee development.

Pollen provides protein which develops and maintains animal bodies. Protein is made of amino acids. There are ten amino acids which honey bee larvae need for maximum development: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophane, threonine, and valine.  In the 1980s, researchers found that dandelion pollen contains seven of the ten amino acids bees need. If bee brood is fed only dandelion pollen, it can’t grow; if adult bees eat only dandelion pollen as their protein source, they die sooner than bees on a complete diet. The lesson? Bees need more than just dandelions.

So, is my excitement about my bees’ excitement misplaced? Just a little. Fortunately, for me today near the Rockies, and for the younger me in the Appalachians, there are other spring flowers. These include fruit blossoms as well as a very wide range of annuals. None of these supply the massive quantities of nectar (and pollen) that I’ve seen from dandelion, but fortunately, honey bee colonies sample from a bouquet of pollen types. Some might lament that dandelion isn’t perfect (I’m not lamenting), but somehow bees have worked this out thousands of years ago. They’ve generally adapted to find the balanced diet they need. Meanwhile, take a look at the bees on these dandelions!

Posted in Bee Biology, Climate, Ecology, Honey Plants | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

World Bee Day: May 20, 2018

World Bee Day

Time to party like it’s 1734 all over again!  May 20th should be a big date on the beekeeper’s social calendar. It’s World Bee Day.  Why did I mention 1734? That’s the year Anton Janša was born. He was baptized on May 2oth, the closest date we know to his actual birthdate. Some say that Janša was the first modern beekeeper. You can learn more about him later in this blog post.

As an added bonus, May 20 is also another famous beekeeper’s memorial day.  Charles Dadant, the scion of the infinite Dadant and Sons progression of beekeepers was born in France in 1817. Dadant thought he’d be a revolutionary back in the day, in France, but he ended up in America.  (You can read his story in my piece celebrating his 200th year.) Charles Dadant, born on May 20, 1817, ended up in western Illinois where he wanted to grow grapes for wine. Lucky for us, his beehives did much better than his vineyards.

World Bee Day was initiated in Slovenia, Europe, and has been quickly catching around the world. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded a major speech Wednesday with a rousing endorsement of World Bee Day, telling members of the Bundestag to do something good for the bees:

“I want to finish with something that some may consider insignificant but is actually very important: on May 20 is the first World Bee Day. On this day we should really think about biodiversity and do something good for the bees.”

World Bee Day became World Bee Day after a successful campaign by the country of Slovenia (Anton Janša’s birthplace) to promulgate the message. Their petition to the United Nations was accepted in December 2017, so this year marks the first official World Bee Day.  I’ve been following (and promoting World Bee Day) ever since I heard the effort was underway a couple of years ago, so below you’ll see some of my earlier posts.

Well, a great big congratulations to the Slovenian promoters of World Bee Day. You made it happen on the world stage!  And beekeepers, it’s your job to go out and spread the good word and “do something good for the bees”. If you need some further inspiration, watch this World Bee Day video to fortify your resolve – it’s about the first hive of honey bees kept at the United Nations in New York City.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Rather than re-write the entire story of World Bee Day, here’s the original piece which I wrote in 2016, back when Bee Day was just a twinkle in the World’s eye. If you’ve already read this and remember it all from last year, then maybe shut down your sparkly screen and go do some World Bee type stuff….

FROM 2017:  May 20 is World Bee Day. Seems an appropriate day to celebrate the bee. (So was yesterday; tomorrow would be good, too.) It’s spring north of the equator. I don’t want to neglect our friends south of Earth’s belt, but honey bees began their world-wide conquest by expanding from the northern hemisphere. For most of us in the higher (positive) latitudes, May is a fantastic bee month. Colonies expand, swarm, and maybe even make a little honey.

Portable apiary in Slovenia. (Photo by David Miksa)

Portable apiary in Slovenia. (Photo by David Mikša)

May 20th is also the celebrated birthdate of Anton Janša (1734-1773), the first teacher of modern beekeeping. (It’s ‘celebrated’ on May 20th, which was his baptism date. We don’t know the exact day of his birth.) Anton Janša was Slovenian (hence the funny little squiggle over the ‘s’ in his name). He was so talented that Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa appointed him headmaster at the world’s first beekeeping school, which she built for Janša in Vienna. It’s remarkable that he chose to be baptized on the same day that we would pick centuries later as World Bee Day. That date was chosen and promoted by beekeepers in Janša’s native Slovenia – do the coincidences never end? Now here I am, Ron Mikša (anglicized to Miksha), a bee blogger with grandparents who were born in that part of the world, encouraging you to do a wiggle dance in celebration of World Bee Day this Sunday. Get out and do something beely.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

FROM 2016:  There’s a small country in Central Europe, a very beautiful alpine country, called Slovenia. Slovenia has only two million people, but this tiny country is very big in beekeeping. Tucked between Italy and Austria, it has both mountains and Mediterranean sea coast, creating enticing niches for bees and beekeepers.

Every Slovene family has at least one beekeeper. I think beekeeping might be enshrined in their constitution. I visited before Slovenia adopted the Euro and I paid for a Laško with coins that had images of bees, not presidents or queens. Beekeeping is taken so seriously that the nation’s unofficial motto is “Land of the Good Beekeepers“. The country produces gourmet honey, offers beekeeping tourism, and likes to point out that the Slovenes – the wealthiest Slavic nation in the world – takes its work ethic from the honey bee. On top of all this, I’m proud to say that two of my grandparents were born in Slovenia!  What a remarkable place, eh?

Slovenia convinced the world to recognize World Bee Day, a day for the bees, on the presumed birthday of their most famous beekeeper, Anton Janša.

Janša (pronounced YAN-shah) is a Slovenian national hero and a beekeeper. We don’t really know his birth date – his parents were illiterate farmers and probably wouldn’t have even known (or cared) what year it was. But their church kept track. He was baptized on May 20 in 1734.

Beehive entrance plate, painted by Jansa.

Beehive entrance plate, painted by Janša.

The Janša family was impoverished, but three Janša brothers built an art studio in a barn, got noticed by the village priest, and were whisked off to Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, which controlled Slovenia at the time. One of the brothers became an arts professor. Another became a beekeeper. The royal beekeeper.

Anton Janša was the beekeeper. Empress Maria Theresa recognized his skill and appointed him as the queen’s own bee man. Janša created the world’s first beekeeping school, wrote a couple of important beekeeping books, and introduced modern apiary management. He championed expanding hive boxes to hold extra honey and he encouraged migratory beekeeping, moving hives toward the foothills in the spring to collect acacia (black locust) honey, the Alps in the summer for honeydew from the pines, and into lower pastures in the fall. He was among the first to realize that drones are not water-carriers, but instead mated in the air with queen bees. This latter discovery pre-dates Francois Huber’s similar observation by a few decades but was not generally known when Huber rediscovered it. Janša did all this before he turned 40 – he was only 39 when he died suddenly from a fever, likely the result of an infection.

An image from the Slovene World Bee Day promotional video.

An image from the Slovene World Bee Day promotional video, visible below.

Here’s a lovely, short video of what the Slovenes want you to know about World Bee Day:

World Bee Day is a great idea. The exhibition “Save the Bees” will be opening at the historic Ljubljana castle, on May 20. The Slovene embassy in Washington DC had a big party. Elsewhere, awareness and round tables on “Bees and Sustainable Development” and bee memorials abound. World Bee Day is intended as a day to reflect upon the much maligned and threatened bees. A delegation of the European Union is also meeting May 20 with luminaries of the American bee world at a World Bee Initiative, which you can read about here.

WBDWorld Bee Day is immensely important. Maybe that’s why there are two world bee days. A group of Americans petitioned the USDA to create a World Bee Day of their own – on August 20th. While the Americans worked their idea through the US Congress, the Slovenes asked the United Nations to recognize May 20th as World Bee Day. I’m not sure how all this will play out, maybe the two world bee days will merge and be observed sometime in June or July. But I suppose both world bee days will persist, one on a world-scale, the other in the USA. As they say back at the bee lodge, “You can’t have too many World Bee Days, eh?”

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Package Hive Update

Three weeks ago, we installed two packages in our backyard.  We started with mostly new equipment, though we had six drawn, white-comb, deep frames for the bees to nest in right away. I considered using 100% foundation and letting the bees draw entirely new everything but then I considered that the little bugs deserved a small luxury after flying Air New Zealand for twenty hours. Imagine bees in flight without actually flying.

Our New Zealand packages were installed in Canada just before sunset on a Friday evening. (I described that in an earlier blog post.) Their new homes had four litres (a ‘gallon’) of sugar water, drawn combs and some foundation. I did a quick-release of the queens, opening their little cages so the queens could walk out and join their subjects. Smart beekeepers give freshly-planted packages a full week to settle before ripping the hive’s guts open, but I don’t pass as smart. I fretted that the queens might be stuck in their cages instead of monarching around on the combs, laying eggs. Worse, what if the bees are starving – unable to reach the feeders because of cool weather. So, on Day 4, I looked.

Day 4: It’s not recommended to check a package until a week has passed.
But if you do, be quick, quiet, and barefooted.

Day 4: Pointing at stored pollen. Sorry, you can’t see it from your perspective.
It’s really just one single cell with some pollen.

Day 4: The darker area, center of the comb, has eggs but no larvae.

Eggs! In both hives!  Now that’s something to report to the local radio’s noon-time farm report. The queens were laying eggs! The workers were gathering a bit of pollen.

Our Day 4 glance confirmed that the queens were alive and laying eggs and the bees were accessing feed. The bees had eaten about two pounds of sugar in their first four days. We added more syrup, then closed the hives.

We let the bees bee for a few more days, but then curiosity got me again. We opened the hives on Day 8 and here’s what we saw.  Big juicy larvae!

Day 8: Big, healthy worker larvae. The brood nest is growing!

Day 8: Suddenly, there is a surprising amount of stored pollen. On Day 4, there was almost none. Now that there are hundreds of hungry larvae (and the weather’s been mild for a few days), we see lots of pollen. I think it’s from crocus and willow flowers. Dandelions haven’t opened yet. You can see unpacked pollen pellets.

On Day 11, we saw sealed brood. Bees normally cap worker brood on the ninth, so this was on schedule, considering the queen likely started laying a day or so after release.

Day 11 for the package. Some sealed brood.

Day 11: The amount of stored pollen in the hives was amazing. In eleven days, the packages have added all this wealth to their colony – gorgeous pollen, even some sealed honey. This is as close to magic as anything I know.

We checked the bees again on Day 17. I reminded myself that every adult bee in the hives was born in New Zealand. I would guess that about one-third of the original 6,000 bees in each colony have died, from old age, by now. So, we are down to 4,000 bees, more or less. But I’ve seen both queens and they look good and are laying eggs nicely.

Bees are dying their natural death as they age, but the queens are young and should be with us a long time. I hope you can spot the queen in this picture.

The brood nests have continued to expand and the amount of sealed brood has grown a lot. I’d guess that each hive has almost two frames of sealed brood and two frames of younger brood. Deep frames hold 8,000 cells. On Day 17, it looks like brood covers over two-thirds of three frames or four frames. That means at least 16,000 workers are waiting to emerge. Considering that each hive has just 4,000 bees right now, the populations will spike upwards in the next three weeks, actually increasing four times!   (By the way, I’d also guess that the queens have been laying eggs for 16 days – that’s 1,000 eggs each day. You’ve probably heard that queens can lay over 2,000 a day. These queens have been less prolific because their colony size is small, weather was cool, and the pollen flow was light until now.)  Here’s what the inside of a hive should look like, 17 days after installing a package.

Day 17. Almost four frames of brood, each about two-thirds full.
I’d guess that there are about 16,000 brood developing.

Day 17: Four frames of brood can hold over 16,000 developing bees.

Day 21. Well, three weeks have passed. If the queens started laying eggs a day or so after the installation, the first of them might be adult worker bees emerging tomorrow. The past few days have been cool (10C, 50F) and rainy. Today is warmer and there’s some sunshine, but we won’t bother the bees until tomorrow or Sunday. If you can avoid bothering bees when it’s rainy or on the day after rain, you’ll find that they are less defensive. So we’ll wait one more day. By tomorrow, we’ll likely see a few new bees – our first Canadian-born youngsters in hives populated by immigrants.

Day 21.  It has been a bit cool and rainy the past few days. We’ll let the bees rest until we get some warmer weather, then we’ll check to see if the first new youngsters are emerging from their cells.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Beekeepers becoming wary of pollination


Compared to almonds in California, blueberry pollination in British Columbia is small potatoes. But there are some similarities. Commercial beekeepers migrate long distances from cold northern prairies to the mild coast with thousands of colonies. They are paid for pollination and their bees get a boost with early pollen and mild temperatures. But beekeepers come away wondering if the hassle and stress on their bees was worth it.

Here in western Canada, several beekeepers from northern BC and Alberta have decided that the 1,200-kilometre trek to the lower mainland’s berry bushes isn’t worth it. The blueberry area near Vancouver needs at least 45,000 colonies of bees for successful pollination. The beekeepers who are rethinking the southwest migration hold about 4,000 hives. The difference – 10 percent – won’t cause a berry shortage this year. But it represents a growing concern among beekeepers that the monetary gain from hauling bees long distances isn’t compensating for the pressures and expenses involved.

John Gibeau, left; me, right

An Alberta beekeeper – Danny Paradis – says in an interview that BC berry growers are using a new fungicide that weakened his bees, resulting in a poor summer for the colonies when they returned to Alberta after spring in BC.  But one of the biggest commercial beekeepers in the Vancouver area, John Gibeau of Honeybee Centre, disagrees. He is the country’s top blueberry-pollinator. Gibeau tells reporters that nothing has really changed in 40 years but last year was a bad-weather year, resulting in weaker hives.

I know both of these beekeepers. They are smart professional operators. Neither has an ‘axe to grind’ but they obviously have different perspectives. In the end, beekeepers will decide if the money from spring pollination balances the cost in stress, time, transportation, and effort. Blueberry rental in British Columbia’s lower mainland is relatively new. Berry farms have expanded dramatically in the past two decades. Theoretically, over half a million colonies in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC’s Peace River could make the thousand-kilometre migratory pollination trip. But just two percent of those ‘potential’ bees actually are taken for a ride. To me, this suggests that Canadian migratory pollination isn’t quite worth the effort – something Danny Paradis might contend.

I’m not sure what British Columbia pollination fees are this spring, but in the past beekeepers told me that they were paid as much as $130/hive.  That equals about 70 pounds of honey at recent wholesale prices. If colonies return to the prairies weak from pollination,  they can easily lose that much honey on the summer crop – and it costs money to haul bees into pollination.  (Besides, few commercial prairie beekeepers want to be on the coast and miss the local hockey and curling action. Some things are more important than money.)

Over the past fifty years, pollination fees for California almonds have gone from about $5 to $200 per hive. The colonies rented there are about twice as strong as they were in the early days of pollination, but the rental is still at least 20 times higher, per bee. But that’s still not enough to compensate beekeepers who end up with damaged colonies.

My guess is that more and more beekeepers will opt out of pollination. Meanwhile, some growers will switch to newly engineered self-pollinating crops and others will experiment with wind, mechanical pollinator-drones, or other schemes. But for the next few years, growers will offer more money – there is a huge advantage in doubling or tripling a crop by spending just a couple hundred dollars more per acre for bees. And many beekeepers will accommodate.

Posted in Commercial Beekeeping, Pesticides, Pollination | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Mothers’ Day Honey

Today is Mother’s Day in North America (I think it was celebrated last week in Europe). My kids wanted to make something special for their mum. You see it in the picture above. It was pretty nice.

Save your burr comb!

We have two hives in the back yard. The weather has improved, bees have been gathering nectar and pollen, and they built a lot of burr comb because our hives have some space between the top bars and the lid (there isn’t yet a proper inner cover in place).  We had saved burr comb each time we’d worked the hives. The bits and pieces of wax had nearly filled a 4-litre (one-gallon) plastic bucket.

4-litre pail with chopped burr comb.

My daughter chopped it up and put it into the microwave where it reduced to about one-tenth its volume.  The hot mixture was pulled out every minute so the kids could stir it. The goal was to make a hot messy slurry of melted wax and honey. All of this took about five minutes.

Once melted, they dumped it, while it was hot, into a tall glass container. Wax floated to the top. The wax was poured, as a liquid, into a little bunny candle mold. The rest of the slurry was filtered through a sieve to remove bees’ knees. Next, the kids sieved the mixture into another glass container. That container, which by now was mostly honey, was plunged into ice-cold water so that the hot honey would quickly chill, preventing darkening and burning. They waited a day, skimmed debris from the the surface of the honey, and poured the remainder into the fresh clean jar you see in the pictures.  And, voilà, Happy Mothers Day!

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Hive Products, Honey | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Kicked out of a farmers market

It can be hard to sell honey. Farmers markets help. Customers looking for good local produce can buy directly from farmers and beekeepers. So farmers markets are a win-win for sellers and buyers. But what if you are a beekeeper who gets kicked out of your market? Not for selling bad products. Not because the other vendors voted you out. But because you complained that some retailers are buying from food depots, coming to market, and (allegedly) misrepresenting their produce by pretending that they grew what they sold. Well, an Ontario beekeeper and few other producers were thrown out of their market by ‘the board’ because the complainers were ‘dissidents’. (Or as, the board spelled it on their anti-complainer flyers, ‘Disient Members’)

With this poorly written misspelt  propaganda, the board expected members to expel the ‘Disients’ but members didn’t.  The board responded by ignoring the vote, even though the flyer’s headline says “Choose your own outcome!”

This was on the national news here in Canada last night. A beekeeper, a berry farmer, and three others who sell at the Peterborough (Ontario) farmers market were kicked out. According to the news their ‘crime’ was that they went public with a complaint that some members of the farmers market were reselling products they were buying wholesale and allegedly misleading customers by representing the food as stuff that they grew on local farms.

If this is true, it’s pretty sad. The berry farmer and his family have been growing local produce and selling at the market for 27 years. He was expelled. The beekeeper has been packing her own honey and attending the market regularly, but she was also expelled. Allegedly, the market circulated the flyer, above, to all vendors describing the whistle-blowers as dissidents and encouraging other vendors to vote the dissidents out. That’s the way it sounds. Someone misled customers, a small group of legitimate producers called them out, but the market’s managers tossed the complainers out and kept the alleged re-sellers.  I don’t want to get this wrong, so here is what CBC reported:

The farmers market association called a vote in the winter on whether the five farmers who’d spoken out about resellers should be allowed to stay.

In a handout to members — provided to CBC by Manske — the five are described as “dissident members.” The handout warned that failure to eject them means the “campaign of malice continues.”

After the vote was held, Manske was permitted to stay. But the board later overruled that decision and sent a bailiff to each of the five farms with a letter informing the growers of their removal from the market.

Did I read that correctly? A majority of the vendors voted that the people who were defending locally grown food should be allowed to stay, even though they were portrayed as ‘dissidents’  by the market association board’s propaganda. However, the market’s board overruled the democratic decision of the members and sent the bailiff (a court officer) out to the farmers to be sure they got the message that they’d been kicked out. Sounds like a really dysfunctional organization, doesn’t it?

A lot of people go to their local market to buy local produce, thinking that they are supporting local farmers and buying food that wasn’t transported from distant commercial farms. In the case of honey, this is really important for those people who want to buy honey made by local beekeepers. These customers want local honey because it contains pollen that may fight allergies caused by local flowers.

Well, I don’t know how this will end. I don’t know if we have all the facts, but I think that the CBC would have researched this well. I know that if I lived in Peterborough, Ontario, I’d quit going to that market until the board resigned and the expelled producers were invited back. Meanwhile, if I were looking for local honey, I’d head over to the expelled beekeeper’s shop and buy directly from Astrid Manske’s OtonaBee Apiary.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Babysitting the queen

Her Majesty, the Queen.    (Photo by Calgary beekeeper Stephen Bennett)

A friend left town for a few days. She had two queens, in cages, which she’d acquired for her hives. As it turned out, she used one of them but her second hive wasn’t strong enough to split. That meant that she had an extra queen. She didn’t know what to do. I told her that I’d  babysit the queen until she returned.

My friend was surprised that I could watch the queen for a week. The concern was that the queen wouldn’t be very mobile and wouldn’t be laying eggs – for a whole week! I reminder my friend that during the winter, queens aren’t very mobile and aren’t laying eggs for a month or more. I could keep the caged queen and her attendants in my office. It should be fine.

Part of the queens I raised one winter in Florida, the day before handing them off to a northern beekeeper.

Queen breeders often have to keep queens in cages for a few days before shipping one to a new owner. When the queen arrives at her new home, the receiving beekeeper may feel obliged to use the queen the same day. Sooner is better than later for a couple of reasons. The queen might die while waiting in custody, though that’s unlikely. The main reason you want to quickly introduce the queen to her new colony is because each day in a cage means that a thousand or more workers won’t be developing in your new colony. Bee season might be short in your neighbourhood. You normally want to get your queen into the new split or into a hive with a failing queen as soon as possible.

But sometimes things happen. In this case, the hive wasn’t yet strong enough to nuc out and the weather was unseasonably cold. Splitting a hive too early and using the extra queen would be a mistake. So, I took the job of babysitting the queen for a week while we waited for the hive to strengthen, the weather to smarten, and my friend to return to Calgary.

The queen is the slightly larger insect, lower center. The other bees are her courtiers. The queen isn’t much larger than the workers but that will change when she finally gets her own hive – she’ll be about one-third larger when she begins egg laying.

If you have several queens to hold indefinitely, you should set up a bank hive and prepare the cages, queens, holding racks, and nurse hive appropriately. On another occasion, I’ll explain how to bank queens in a colony. But for now, here’s how to babysit her majesty.

The queen was accompanied by eight attendant bees. It’s their job to groom and chat with the queen who would otherwise become bored and unkempt. I kept the attendants with the queen in her cage.

I made certain that the bees were always at room temperature and in the shade. (Not too hard to do in my office.) The queen was in a little brown bag. Someone had punched air holes into the little brown bag. I kept her in it, but the air holes amused me. Humans need lots of air so we tend to think that bees do, too. They don’t.

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll excerpt this piece, just in case you haven’t read every single blog post I’ve ever posted:

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. . .

“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.

A queen and eight workers at the bottom of a brown paper bag are not likely to run out of air. A few holes punched in the side won’t exactly allow free air exchange anyway. But the holes make people feel better about the bees’ safety, so in that way, the air holes do perform a useful function.

OK. So, we have a queen, in a cage, in a bag, out of the sun, and at room temperature. Although I don’t overly fuss the queen’s access to fresh air, I do have a few other concerns. The cage has a bit of soft candy (made by mixing powdered icing sugar with syrup). This should keep the bees nourished for a week or so. But the soft candy sometimes turns hard in our dry climate and becomes difficult for the bees to eat. Or, if you save the caged queen for many days, the bees might actually eat all the candy and run out of food. To guard against these calamities, I collect a dab of honey on my fingertip and transfer it to the screen of the cage. The bees greedily take it. I just use a small drop – I don’t want the bees to get fat.

I picking up a bit of honey. In the cage, you’ll notice the white ‘candy’ used for bee feed. The bit that’s missing has been eaten by the caged bees.

Lightly touching the screen on this cage. The dab of honey sticks to the screen where the bees will quickly find and eat it. A water droplet is put on the same way.

Next, I tap my finger into a bit of water so that a droplet sticks to my finger. Then I touch the screen again, this time with the drop of water. You will likely see the bees stick their proboscis into the droplet which will disappear in seconds. I don’t over-feed or over-water the queen and her attendants. Never let the bees become wet or sticky. If you somehow decide that it’s in the bees’ best interest, you might offer a second or third drop, but only after the preceding one has been thoroughly cleaned up. I usually just give them a drop each morning and evening though that’s far from a scientific calculation of the bees’ needs.

The bees quickly took the honey and water. I’ll feed them again in 12 hours.

By the way, when you feed and water your pets, you should take their cage out of the bag and place it flat on the table, screen side facing up when you do this. Indirect light is fine, just avoid letting the cage sit in direct sunlight.  Also avoid too much heat such as might blow out of a heat vent.  The feeding process takes about five minutes and, of course, completely refreshes the bees’ air – just in case you are still nervous about the queen’s oxygen supply!

Posted in Bee Biology, Queens | Tagged | 3 Comments

Psst. Wanna make some money?

Neil Bertram, my co-teacher of  Making Money from Honey,  is leading a group participation session about growing a hobby into a sideline bee business.

Most hobby beekeepers keep bees for fun, not profit.  But almost every beekeeper whom I’ve ever met tells me that, well, it would be nice to hear the cash register jingle once in a while. Bird-watchers or golfers rarely expect to make money from their hobbies. But most beekeepers think that their bees should gather money along with honey.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making money from honey. In fact, from my observations of beekeepers over the years, those who want to make a few dollars (or at least cut their grocery bill) are almost always better beekeepers than those who ignore bees they’ve parked behind the house where they become diseased, infested with mites, swarm indiscriminately, or become the victim of marauding skunks and elves. When a beekeeper cares about her thousand-dollar investment and hopes to sell a hundred pounds of honey a year, appropriate attention is paid to the bees.  I’m not saying that money-making should outweigh good beekeeping. But good beekeeping usually results in  a surplus of honey and some money might be made.

A friend and I teach a crash course in beginning beekeeping. We also teach something we call “Making Money from Honey” which sounds like a crass course in beekeeping. We address the reality that some people are in it for the money. Some of our students hope that bees will supplement their income, at least in a very modest way. Others have kept bees for a while and want to expand their hobby into a business. We are very direct. Chances of making a lot of money are pretty slim. That’s the main message we convey to our course participants.

If you don’t love bees and don’t like hard physical work, don’t pursue bees for money.  Almost any other occupation pays better. It takes discipline, hard work, and good money-management skills to make money from honey. If you have these talents and money is your main goal, don’t waste your time keeping bees for money. Drive a truck and build up a trucking company. Use a hammer and create a construction business. Work your way up from sales clerk to corporate manager at a chain store. If money is your main consideration, don’t plan on getting wealthy from beekeeping.

I’ve seen dozens of people disappointed by their failures as beekeepers. Sometimes situations spin out of control – short crops because of drought or rain or frost, an unlucky accident, falling honey prices. And sometimes the failure is the result of poor money management, lack of discipline, or both.

However, there are successful beekeepers – and even a few wealthy ones. In all cases, these people have poured every ounce of their effort into beekeeping – they skip holidays, rise early, work late, and (this is important) live in poverty for years while every spare cent goes to bee feed, queens, and hive boxes. They’ve also survived inevitable bad luck. Not everyone can keep their eye on a goal that occasionally gets obscured by flood waters, swirling clouds of dust, or smashed trucks.

So why do people show up for a course about making money from honey? Well, if you really love bees and beekeeping, you can still reasonably expect to make a few dollars. I spent fifteen years of my youth making my entire living from bees. I lived cheaply and worked hard, but I enjoyed what I did. My money-from-honey co-teacher, Neil Bertram, keeps about 300 hives of bees and produces over 60,000 pounds of honey every year. Both of us would tell you that (after expenses) we never make minimum wage. But we like beekeeping too much to quit.

Our course covers a lot in seven hours: growing from backyard hobby to sideliner to commercial; equipment choices and shop/honey house considerations; finances, projections, expectations, difficulties, setbacks, and success; how much money to expect from bees in a typical year; handling and marketing your products; case histories of good and bad beekeeping businesses; and the beekeeper personality and lifestyle. Of course there is even more. I created a cool spreadsheet which participants can take home – you enter your number of hives and stuff like the cost of queens, bee equipment, trucks, labour, container costs, and so on and you put in your honey price per pound. That spreadsheet returns an idea of probable profit or loss.

Our next course is coming up this Sunday, May 6. Not everyone can come to Calgary to learn the economics of beekeeping, so I’m writing a book which will include some of what you’d learn from the workshop. Making Money from Honey: The Book should be ready by autumn. Drop me a note if you’re interested in it and especially if you have some suggestions or anecdotes to share.

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Commercial Beekeeping | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

First day with the bees

On Friday evening, just after the sun had set, we installed two packages of bees. Earlier in the day, we arranged six drawn-out deep brood frames (purchased from Scandia Honey, a very reputable bee farm in our area), two new plastic frames, and a feeder with about four liters (one gallon) of sugar syrup in each chamber. The bees would need the sugar syrup – our equipment included no combs of honey. If you have saved some disease-free combs of honey, you should use three or four in the bee box that receives the package. If like us, you are starting with all new equipment, you must provide some feed.

The bees were placed into hives at around 9:30 in the evening. By 10:00 pm, it was dark. As a result, all the bees stayed, settling into the brood chambers as snug as bugs, clustering, exploring their new dives, breathing Canadian spring air.

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I like installing packages in the evening. Over the years, I suppose that I have opened three or four thousand packages, usually by myself, alone on the southern Saskatchewan prairies where I once had my main honey farm.  That was quite a few years ago. In those days, I was fairly amble and had lots of energy.

Here’s how a week of packaging went for me.  It would start in Florida.  On a Monday, with the help of friends, I’d fill a few hundred cages with my own bees from apiaries I had among the orange groves near Orlando. I’d load my truck with the packages as it got dark, then start driving north. On most of those trips, I travelled alone.  By about three in the morning the next day, I would have driven my bee-laden 6-wheeler into the Appalachians in Tennessee.  At some big truckstop along I-24,  I’d sleep for three hours, curled up on the seat.  Then, I’d drive all day and before midnight on Tuesday, the bees and I would be in the Dakotas where we’d stay at a cheap roadside motel. The bees waited on the truck, chilling overnight. I’d  get a shower and some sleep, then wake before dawn on Wednesday and drive further west and north, into Saskatchewan.

If things went well, I’d arrive at my little house on the Saskatchewan prairie by late-afternoon on Wednesday. As soon as I got there, I’d unload all the packages into my dark cold wooden honey house. After the truck was empty of bees, I’d load about a hundred lids, bottoms, and brood chambers (which had honey among their nine frames) and drive out to a couple of bee yards and set the boxes on the ground.  By then, the sun was setting so I’d race back to the warehouse, load a hundred packages, drive back to bee yards and install those hundred colonies. Then I’d return to unlock my house (it had been empty for six months while I was beekeeping in Florida).  I’d finally fall into bed where I’d sleep until late the next morning.  Then I’d spend the rest of that day, Thursday, carrying more brood chambers into the field. Thursday night (and usually Friday evening) were spent installing the last of the packages.

Southern Saskatchewan – I placed the brood chambers in the field earlier in the day, then returned to the apiary as the sun set to start installing packages.

For about ten years, I carried four hundred packages each spring from Florida to Saskatchewan. It took three evenings to put those 400 packages into their new homes. On the weekend, I’d start unwrapping my other colonies, several hundred more hives which had spent the winter sitting out alongside the alfalfa fields of southern Saskatchewan.  (I ran a combination of overwintered hives and new packages every year.)  You can see that this was a small business, so I did most of the work myself – though friends in Florida and Saskatchewan often dropped by to help.

Something important in this narrative which you probably noticed is that not all of the packages weren’t installed the same day that I arrived in Saskatchewan at the end of my 3,800-kilometre drive from Florida. This means that hundreds of packages had to wait a day or two before being released.

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Waiting to install a package makes a new beekeeper nervous. It should. Each day that the bees are in cages delays that hive’s honey season, slows its development, and maybe stresses the colony. But don’t be so consumed by earnestness that you try to install during the heat of day. Installing a package while it is sunny and warm may result in the bees taking wing with their queen and disappearing, en masse, forever. I hear about this happening to someone every year. Sometimes the ‘swarm’ is captured and settled into the hive you’ve gifted to them, but sometimes you just stand there, waving goodbye to $225 and your summer hobby.

Wait until evening. During the day, store the package in a dark cool building (or the coolest corner of your basement). Give it a bit of sugary syrup for moisture and sustenance. In theory, well-fed bees can wait indefinitely.  It’s better to wait until evening than to put the bees into their new home in the morning on a warm sunny day. Darkness is a wonderful sedative. Your bees have been contained, carted, carried, tousled, tussled, and trucked. They can chill until evening.  Especially if they have enough to eat (which you can supplement with a little sugar water).

It was late in the evening before our packages reached our house this Friday. It was becoming dark. We released the bees into their new homes and they settled quickly. That night was unusually mild, a rarity for Calgary in April. I was glad that it stayed above freezing all night. I knew that the bees would be warm enough to explore their new home and find the sugar feeders inside their hives.

When I took our dog outside just before six on Saturday morning, it was becoming light. There wasn’t any sign of life at the hive entrances, but that was OK. If we didn’t have a dog, there wouldn’t have been any sign of life at our door, either.

The next time I went out to look at the bees, it was nine o’clock. The sun shone splendidly on the hives. There were about a dozen bees flying about. The temperature was around 12 degrees (55 F). I was surprised that bees were in flight because the hive boxes had reduced entrances and the hive bodies have thick, insulated walls – I figured that the bees wouldn’t even know it was warming up outside.

I was even more surprised at ten when a few hundred bees were flying about.  They were exploring. The colonies had an anxious sound, much like you hear when robbing is happening. For a few moments, that was my concern – neighbouring hives, kept in some unknown back yard near us, had discovered our twins and were attacking. But this was just the anxious worry of a new father. My youngsters were not under attack. The bees were orienteering, learning their surroundings, and puzzling over the sudden lack of manuka bushes and the scarcity of kiwis, keas, and wekas. As Dorothy was rumoured to tell Toto, these bees were not in New Zealand anymore. Their unusual hum indicated their confusion.

By eleven in the morning, several deer entered our property (a frequent occurrence, even though we live in a central suburb amid a million Calgarians). The deer kept their distance, not from fear of bees, but out of deference to the humans in the back yard.

Also at eleven o’clock, the bees’ flights took a strange twist. Their ‘robbing buzz’ was replaced by another pitch. This time it was neither the worrisome tone I’d heard earlier nor the quiet hum of satisfied bees.  At the same moment, my daughter pointed out that the bees’ flights had changed markedly, too. Rather than disoriented swirls near the hives, they were flying straight upward, at least three times the height of our house. With sunlight reflecting from their bodies, they glowed like sparkling embers and then drifted from view.  We continued to see bees launching themselves high into the sky throughout the afternoon. When we lunched on our deck, a few bees visited us. They were curious, not menacing, and they allowed us to eat with nary a word of ill will. But by then it was quite warm (25 C, which is nearly 80 F) and the bees’ hum was gradually becoming more content.

Several times my kids peeked at the hive entrances. Though the temperature was warm and the bees’ flight was heavy (though chaotic), my kids reported that none of the insects were carrying pollen. I wasn’t surprised – there were no larvae in our just-installed colonies. Almost certainly, the queens were not laying eggs yet. And even if the queen had dropped a few, it would be three days before those eggs would hatch into hungry grubs. Feeding progeny is a bee’s main motivator for finding pollen. The bees wouldn’t need much pollen for a few days.  But then, at 6:18 pm, Daniel came running to me with this photo. Pollen. A sister, auguring a prosperous future, had arrived with a bundle of protein.

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If you are the proud parent of a freshly hived mob, you are probably too busy to read the preceding 1,538 words. Assuming that you simply skimmed the story, let me cut to the chase.

Install your bees at day’s end. If you install during the day, the bees might not settle – they may even end up in a pine tree on your neighbours’ lawn. Night quiets the beasts. You may need to darken and cool (say, 10C, 50F) the package and sprinkle some sugar water on the cages’ screens until evening, but waiting is worth it.

If the weather is fair the next day, you should see oodles of workers engaged in orienteering flights. This can resemble a frightening problem, but it’s probably normal. At first there will be heavy air traffic near the hive, then it will expand as the bees’ knowledge of the landscape expands.

Don’t be disappointed that the bees aren’t bringing in much pollen the first day, even if other hives in the neighbourhood are hauling it in by the corbiculae-full. Your new package doesn’t need much pollen just yet. But if you see some, smile and feel smug.

Finally – and this is the hardest thing – don’t bug the bees for a few days. They are nervous and confused. Your untimely meddling may spark a palace insurrection. It’s not uncommon for anxious bees to kill their own queen when they are disturbed. That may seem strange, but until the first heirs are being fed, the queen is looked upon with great suspicion by her subjects. The bees know that they are broodless and are susceptible to tragedy in their precarious new environment. It’s not surprising that they may blame their queen for their predicament. Your fingers on their combs will simply reinforce how awful their life has become.

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