Posts Tagged ‘Beekeeping’

Here in the Southwest, winter mostly comes at night due to our diurnal climate. It isn’t unusual to be wearing a t-shirt during the day and a coat and thermals when the sun goes down. We’ve had a couple of light freezes but the trees (well, the ones that didn’t expire from lack of rain) are still clasping their leaves. Some years it takes the new leaves of spring to push them off, thus bypassing the meaning of ‘fall’. We’re still having an Indian Summer.

Bee on aster

One of my few winterizing tasks is to put an entrance reducer on my beehives. This effectively cuts the bees’ front door down to a couple of bee-widths, helping to keep out the draughts and ensuring mice will not be able to make themselves a cozy home when the bees are less active.

With the recent rains we are suddenly seeing the flowers of spring, summer, and fall blooming at once. This has confounded our honeybees, some of which recently decided to swarm. Farmer Rick, my husband, was on hand outside to hear the loud drone of ten thousand bees flying overhead. Having searched for several hours, sadly I could not locate them.

Honeybee on Boneset 120311

You see, bees typically swarm in the spring when foodstuff is plentiful. Swarming is a natural process by which a large hive divides itself. Swarming at the wrong time is another example of how climate change is affecting the bee populations–and ultimately our food supply, since bees provide much of pollination.

In ‘packing their bags’ for the journey, bees are only able to take a little honey in their stomachs, so to swarm this late they set themselves up to fatal exposure to the cold nights and starvation because they have left their pantry behind. Their best hope is for a beekeeper to capture them. There is a saying:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

A swarm in November is, well, just crazy!—not only from the standpoint of the bees survival, but also in terms of cost to the beekeeper that captures them. Last November I captured my first swarm, mainly for the challenge but also because it was terrifying students by its proximity to the local school. Once I had them re-homed in a hive I had the expense of feeding them sugar syrup for five months to keep them alive. I’ve also had the expense (and extra work) of feeding all my hives sugar syrup through the year-long drought.

Hummingbird vs bees sm

We’ve all been reading the news about the tainted honey from China being foisted on American markets from lack of oversight–and when you come right down to it–a lack of ethics, putting profit before people. But there are other unethical beekeeping practices of which you might not be aware.

There are beekeepers–those that put profit before bees—that would not have picked up a November swarm, and will even let their bees starve to death because it is cheaper to buy a new package of bees come spring than to outlay the expense of feeding through a drought. In areas not experiencing drought, there are those beekeepers who will rob all the honey rather than leave the obligatory 60 lbs per hive to see their bees safely through the winter. Instead they will feed them sugar syrup because ultimately sugar is 25 cents a pound and honey sells for $5 a pound, maybe more if you can tout it as local.

People have been calling wanting to buy my honey. The problem, of course, is there isn’t any–my bees have put up sugar syrup. Yet there are certainly beekeepers that will gladly extract the honey-flavored sugar syrup and sell it as honey or cut what they have with something from who knows where.

In 1900 more honey was exported from my area than any place on Earth. In fact, it was our local honey that won first place at the 1900 World Fair in Paris which gave the world the first talking picture, escalator, diesel engine, and the iconic Eiffel Tower. Today, there is little evidence of my area being the Honey Capitol of the World. I’ve noticed the one remaining commercial apiary has recently taken ‘locally produced’ off their label. I can only surmise what this means.

So when I do have honey to sell, it won’t be cheap (and I’ll still be selling it at a loss), but it will be SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and ETHICAL)

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As a farmer you get used to the rhythm of the natural world.

Animals are born and others die…it is the way of things.

You may be saddened but you know that it is the way it is supposed to be…

This is not something that is remotely in nature’s rhythm.

We have lost 7 different colonies to Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD.

Our last hive was lost last fall…

Bee white flower2

How does one get so attached to honey bees?

Could it be the delicious honey that they share with us each year?


Is it their unequaled work ethic?

Maybe it is the indispensable way they pollinate our garden and orchard…

Baby apple1

It is probably a combination of all of these things and just the allure of the mighty little insect that is the honey bee.

We have always been so careful to not use pesticides on the farm for fear of harming our tiny friends…

Wild flower field

They have always been surrounded by a buffet of things to feast on, both wild…

Borage vintage

And purposely planted.

Yet they still disappeared…

Leaving us perplexed and saddened.

Bee white flower1

The honey bee is being lost at a rate faster than they can reproduce…

I shudder to think what that means for the bees…

And for us.

We are more dependent on these little pollinators than most people could possibly realize.

“Perhaps nothing on our list of disappearing America is so dire; plummeting so enormously; and so necessary to the survival of our food supply as the honey bee.  ‘Colony Collapse Disorder,’ or CCD, has swept beekeepers throughout the U.S. and Europe over the past few years, wiping out 50% to 90% of the colonies of many beekeepers — ”

(quote from the top 25 things vanishing in America...the bees were #3 on the list with the family farm being #1, but that is for another post.)

I am pleased to say that this weekend we brought home the beginning of what we hope to be a healthy colony of bees.

We have cleaned and disinfected and repainted for your new charges…

I sure hope they are happy in their new home…

And I pray they find a cure soon for this devastating disease.

Kim can also be found at the inadvertent farmer where she raises organic fruits, veggies, critters, kids, and…a camel!

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We’ve had a fairly cold winter so, unlike most years, I have not been able to simply look outside and see if the bees are flying to know they are ok. I prepared the bees this fall by treating them with various things to make sure they were healthy, I made sure they had plenty of honey and pollen to eat through the winter and then I crossed my fingers.

Still clustered, but dead

We recently had a warm day and I was able to check the 4 hives at my house. To my dismay, 2 were dead-outs. All of my hives at other locations are fine so I was surprised to find some at my house that were gone. We live atop a hill in Charleston, WV and we get serious wind. I have a windbreak around them but I considered that the extreme drafts might have gotten to them. That is the one characteristic that separates the hives at my house from the ones I have elsewhere. It has been said that one cannot freeze bees…if they stay dry and not too windy. If either problem exists, all bets are off so I figured I fell prey to the wind.

Heads down in the cells...telltale sign of starvation

I opened the hives and immediately knew that the wind was not to blame, but rather the cold…sort of. You see, my bees didn’t freeze, but rather starved to death. The cold makes bees cluster together. As it gets especially cold with no warm days interspersed, the bees cannot break their cluster. Without breaking cluster, they cannot move through the hive either. Since their honey stores are spread throughout the hive, they need to be able to move around periodically to eat.

Some honey nearby where they were clustered

Plenty of honey one more frame over...

So, I opened 2 hives and saw the tell-tale signs…bees still clustered together, many bees with their heads deep in honeycomb cells, and honey nearby, but not right where they died.

I hate for a colony to die, and when it is related to something I might have done wrong, it irritates me even more (fortunately, that doesn’t happen often anymore). But when it’s due to nature, I guess I feel a little bit of relief. It’s never fun, but it is a reality of beekeeping. So, I just hope for warmer days here and there so the bees can move to food and also for a quick Spring! Come on Spring!

Warren can also be found at My Home Among the Hills writing about the adventures of life in WV.

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When I first told my Momma that I was getting bees, she said, “Warren, what are you thinking? Don’t you know that bees are mean and nasty by nature? And you have small kids!” There is a lot to say about the nature of bees and I won’t pretend to know more than a little about the nature of bees, but there are a few things that I think are interesting and noteworthy.

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Contrary to my Mom’s initial fears, bees are not mean and nasty…most of the time. Bees, like any wild creature, protect their own (unless you are a gazelle in a herd and you see a cheetah bearing down…then it’s every gazelle for itself). But bees are absolutely protective of their home. Most folks encounter bees out on clover or bopping between their asters and mums (this time of year anyhow). In general, bees on flowers are not in the least interested in people watching them. Now, stepping on them is an entirely different issue, but that one makes sense I think. So, foraging bees are typically not aggressive, especially if left alone. Messing around with a bee’s home is another story. One would probably not fare well if one walked up to a hive and beat on the side of the boxes or did something even more foolish. It’s hard for me to blame a bee though. I am not much different in that regard.

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This time of year is often considered “late Fall” for honeybees. Bees have been working since August to pack away as much food as possible for the winter. The nature of bees drives them to fill the pantry while there are still flowers blooming. They gather nectar and pollen from Fall-blooming plants including asters, mums, and goldenrod as quickly as they can. Once the frost comes, bees typically must survive the winter on what they have stored away. They need nectar (which they convert to honey) as a carbohydrate source and pollen as a protein source. A winter hive hopefully will have a good supply of both.

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The queen slows her egg-laying (which peaks somewhere between 1000-2000 eggs per day in mid-Spring) so that there are fewer bees to feed through the winter. Typically, during peak honey season, a female bee’s life is approximately 6 weeks. They work around the clock (much like my wife and many wonderful women…thanks!) and eventually wear themselves out. Starting in the “late Fall” for a bee, the work greatly diminishes and female bees last much longer, typically through the winter.

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I am not sure if you are catching my reference to female bees lasting through the winter. Males are absent in my “through the winter” discussion because they are…uh, absent through the winter. Male honeybees are needed only to breed with a virgin queen in the spring and early summer when new queens are made. In the winter, they would only eat…they wouldn’t even clean up after themselves (no comments!). Being practical, the nature of female bees is to “thin the herd” so there are fewer mouths to feed. Between mid-September and now, the female worker bees physically drag the male bees to the hive entrance and throw them out. If they come back, the females pull their wings and/or legs off and send them over the edge again. There are no male bees in a healthy wintering beehive.

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So, the nature of bees is simple in one way, while very complex in another. They are ancient creatures who live only to feed another generation. To have done that for millions of years astounds me. They are practical and unforgiving and demand a genuine contribution (guided only by genetics/instinct). As a community, honeybees make a beautiful, and possibly scary (if you are a male), example of nature at its finest!

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