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Blowing Smoke

There are all sorts of gadgets now for beekeeping.  Frame spacers, hive carriers, frame holders, bee brushes, cappings scratchers, frame cleaners, and the list goes on and on.  For most beekeepers, many of these items are unnecessary, and can even complicate what is in reality a very simple process.  Some of the gear is never needed and other items only become handy if your apiary grows to the point you are a sideliner.

Essential Gear

Essential Gear

The basic equipment necessary for any beekeeper working in any type of hive is a short list:

  • Smoker
  • Hive Tool
  • Veil

Yes, I also listed these in order of importance (at least in my opinion).

I have sold queens & bees for over 20 years (wow, time flies).  Never before have I felt there was a better time for beekeepers (especially new beekeepers) to just get back to the basics.   There is so much to learn; adding complications and so many choices leaves folks feeling lost in the beekeeping equipment maze before the bees’ first buzz.  Additionally, saving $100 on items you don’t need or won’t use for years is a good thing!  Bees naturally keep it simple (remember they like the dark, protected space of hollows in trees or rocks) and so should the beekeeper!

I feel the smoker is the most important tool and should be used EVERY time you go into a hive.  With the push of ‘natural beekeeping’ there have been some fly by night ‘bee experts’ that advocate not using smoke and some even claim that smoke is bad for the bees, or it will contaminate your honey. By smoking the bees you are doing them and yourself a big favor.  We all know how bad stress is for us, so why would we want to stress our bees out time and time again?  By masking alarm pheromone with smoke in the air the hive can stay calm and concentrate on doing their jobs instead of going into panic and attack mode.  If anyone thinks bees can’t remember and aren’t affected later on by intrusions that send them into a frenzy should try going into hives that have had package bees shook out of them (some big banging of bee boxes happens during package bee production).  They won’t be happy anyone is coming back into the bee yard for days.  Calmer beekeeping will mean there will be not an un-welcoming committee waiting for next passerby.  When the bees get stressed, so does the beekeeper.  Even if the smokeless beekeeper is wearing enough protective gear to go to the moon, their experience in the hive is not pleasant.  How can anyone enjoy the hardworking honey bee if 1000 of them are working hard to sting them?  So for the health of the hive, the joy of keeping bees, and the safety of all please light your smoker every time you work the hive.

Honey bees, and especially the bee breeds that excel in protecting themselves from the elements, robbers, and pests will fill every nook and cranny with wax and propolis.  When the bees do this the lids, supers, and frames feel as someone went nuts with a bottle of gorilla glue in the hive.  Without a hive tool a beekeeper will have to pull, tug, jerk and yank the hive around to inspect frames.  With every jolt the bees will become less keen of your intrusion… no matter how much smoke you keep puffing out!  Additionally, bees build comb on their frames leaving just the right amount of space for bees to pass between the combs on each frame.  They are not planning for your removal of these frames.  Using your hive tool to space out the frames so bees are not brushed off the neighboring frames (or worse, smashed) as you remove the one frame will keep your hive calm, the bees safe and reduce the chance of damaging comb, brood, and food stores.  So keep that tool handy, and use it with each manipulation of your hive.

Thanks to natural selection bees learned a long time ago that dark objects are the best places to sting an intruder.  When Mama Bear found a yummy bounty of brood, bees, and honey she only retreated when the hive landed their stingers in her nose, ears, eyes and mouth.  These same bees that were able to successfully chase She Bear off were able to reproduce, and our bees today remember the trick of their ancestors.  Thus, if you are working bees and one or more decide to send you the not so subtle message to leave via a sting, then chances are it will be on your face.  Most folks with beekeeping experience will also vouch that the face sting is also one of the most painful… my worst one was deep down in my ear in 1992 (I will never forget).  So veil up!  It only takes a moment to put a veil on, and your friends won’t be calling you Cyclops for the next 3 days!

BeeStung

BeeStung

Enjoy the bees, keep it simple and thank you for taking the time to make the world a better place:  one bee hive at a time!

Laura – Old Drone Layer

Posted in Beekeeping on 11/01/2013  |  2 Comments

The Beekeeper’s Thrill

We are excited to introduce Andrew Shahan, our Head Beekeeper for Central Texas, in his first blog post.  Enjoy!

My Dad's first experience holding a frame of bees.

My Dad’s first experience holding a frame of bees.

Camila, Dad, Irina in their bee gear

Camila, Dad, Irina in their bee gear

Cooper, my Great Dane/Lab puppy is also into beekeeping

Cooper, my Great Dane/Lab puppy is also into beekeeping

There are a handful of things in life that I can say bring me pure joy; two of those things are my family and honeybees. My family has been very supportive of my journey from attempted academic bee scientist into that of a full time beekeeper. I have been working with bees for several years and it was only appropriate that I finally had my family come visit my work and get into bees for the first time in their lives.

I was able to get a part of my family, including my father, into bees for the first time this past weekend. I revel in watching a first timer go from holding a frame of bees with visibly shaking hands and quivering voice to placing the frame back in the hive with a confidence and calmness that they did not have just moments prior. So, if you are reading this and having any reservations about getting into some bees, just go for it! Bug all of your beekeeper friends to let you inspect one of the hives that they take care of because it will give you an experience that you will never forget. However, getting back to this weekend, I was watching my father who is in his sixties hold a frame of bees for the first time. It was a surreal moment for me and I had the thought: “Wow! I, at the ripe age of twenty-four, was able to impart one of my favorite experiences to someone that had far more wisdom and life experience than I did.” Those precious minutes watching my Dad made me reflect on my own beginnings in beekeeping and allowed me to recount my initial encounter with a hive inspection.

So, without further rambling I hope this story will resonate with those of you whom have been into hives. But, if you haven’t ventured into beekeeping maybe this recounting of my experience will peak your interest!

Your first time opening a hive is an experience that you never forget. Whether you are alone or have a trusted mentor by your side the world around you quickly fades and it is just you and the hive. Your senses are inundated from the start by the murmur of bees caused by your first puff of smoke into the hive entrance. You feel as the adrenaline quickly courses through your veins with each heart beat as you use your hive tool to pry off the propolis encrusted cover from the starkly white hive body. That first rush of fresh air hits the bees in the hive and causes them to flit their wings in unison delivering a hair-raising buzz. All of the sudden an extreme color contrast saturates your senses. You spot the thousands of black and yellow stripes moving methodically around the top of the frames but it is hard to pick out and follow a single moving object; a few of those objects fly up at you and undulate around your head all while your breath is heavy and chest is pounding. Your body and brain know the black and yellow color contrast of the bee’s abdomen means danger, yet you remain oddly calm. Then a unique smoky, waxy, subtly sweet, and rich scent again floods your senses and at that moment you realize that no other place on earth is like the inside of a beehive.

Upon prying out the first frame filled with bees, pollen, honey, and brood, you notice that there is not a single wasted movement. Every worker bee moves with purpose and has somewhere to be or a task to attend to. Energy is something that is efficiently managed where the actions, dances, and proceedings of the bees are coordinated and precise. After attempted scrutiny of a few frames with the same sensory overload that was there when you first opened the hive, your senses finally reach their crescendo: you have somehow spotted the elusive lady that runs the show. It is your first time seeing a queen bee and you revel in all that her elongated abdomen has to offer. You distinctly remember awakening from a stupor with your jaw slightly ajar; you were hypnotized by watching the queen bee zig-zag from one cell to the next laying her eggs. She was so elegant but at the same time fierce; the workers were surrounding and herding the queen but none dare to question her choices. Finally, with some angst, paranoia, sweaty palms, and quickly paced heartbeats you place the queen and her frame back into the hive hoping she was not squished in the process.

At the end of your first hive inspection, once you have placed the frames in their respective slots, the cover has been placed back on the hive body, and you are hoping you have not squished the queen, you take a few deep breaths and have a realization: you are now a beekeeper. You are now one of the few people that have the pleasure of working with and caring for the most fascinating and one of the most complex creatures on this planet.

Posted in Beekeeping on 10/07/2013  |  Leave a comment

Stung by Heat and Drought in Texas

That smoky smell isn’t from my bee smoker… sadly our part of Texas is on fire.  Even if some parts of the prairies, hill country, big thicket, and south Texas brush aren’t a part of what is or has been on fire – it is burned by the record drought and heat.  Burned up from no rain and temperatures over 100 degrees for almost that many days.  Every Texan, Texas animal and Texas plant has felt the effects of the worst heat and drought in history.

Bees and their keepers are no exception, obviously.  Instead of making several loads of Texas Wildflower Honey we fed sugar syrup to keep our hives alive.  We’re accustomed to having our colonies recover during May and early June from us harvesting bees and queens earlier in the spring.  But they didn’t build back up because there was no pollen flow and no nectar flow.  Instead of making splits and increasing our numbers we worked to sustain what we had.  Facing relentless 100+ degrees day in day out (temperatures soared over 90 by 9am) somehow our hives mostly managed to survive, but it was and is a miracle.  The world and our ecological foundations are shifting.  Transformational change seems to be upon us.

To make it this far the bees had to be tough.  To make it to next spring, they will have to be amazingly hardy.  Even if Texas receives above normal rainfall for the next 5 months, nothing would change for the bees now.  They’ll have to make it to the first pollen flows in spring.  Meanwhile, trees, shrubs, vines and grasses are struggling to stay alive, if they have not died already.

On the upside, any hives that thrive in these conditions will be a great foundation to build a breeding program in 2012.  Hives that thrive on less and do more with little can only make apiaries stronger.   And this is our silver lining from 2011.

Posted in Bee Breed on 10/11/2011  |  Leave a comment

Bee Venom . . . The Good and the Bad

I was born the son of a beekeeper, who was a son of beekeeper, who was a son of beekeeper, who was….. Anyway, the bee venom runs deep.  So deep that as a kid I developed the classic curse of a beekeeper’s offspring – severe allergies to bee proteins. Probably because I received chronic-low dose exposure to bee antigens on my Dad’s skin, clothes and vehicle upholstery, but never had many (any?) direct stings until I was about a year old, I was sensitized to bee proteins and my immune system was primed to mount a full court press against bee venom.  The result was a bad experience when I was first stung.  I suffered full-blown anaphylactic shock at about a year of age. I survived, but the risk is real, though probably much more pronounced for the offspring of a commercial beekeeper or the child of someone who is around bees a lot.  My recommendation – bee stings hurt, but if you’re worried about allergies, get that immunologic tolerance going early, even in children.  If you’re serious about keeping bees, or just spending time around a feral honey bee colony in a hollow of a tree, you’re probably going to get stung sooner or later. So why not go ahead and get it over with when you’ve got your family or a friend and some Benadryl handy, and before you become sensitized to bee venom.

On the other hand, don’t be foolish and unnecessarily provoke a colony, always make sure you have a lit smoker around when you work your hives, wear appropriate protective clothing (hat, veil, long pants tucked into boots, long sleeved shirt, with optional gloves and coveralls if they make you feel more secure or your bees have a bad attitude) and have a place to retreat to if you find yourself being pursued by more than a few angry bees. The precautions are especially important if you live in areas where New World African honey bees may be present.

Most honey bee colonies will warn you if they perceive your actions or your presence as a threat to the colony, and they’ll begin by bouncing off your body, and buzzing around you with obvious purpose, especially your head. If that doesn’t work they may resort to additional, less diplomatic tactics, to get your attention.

However, most colonies will not mount an unprovoked attack on humans unless you’ve been antagonizing the colony, either intentionally or unintentionally.  The exception is the occasional rogue hive with a bad temper.  Today, such temperamental hives often have some New World African influence. New World African introgression may result in colonies that seem to have a permanent kamikaze air force on patrol ready to eviscerate themselves to keep any and all intruders (especially mammals and two-cycle internal combustion engines) far away.  The short term solution in those circumstances is retreat, but replacement of the queen will usually rectify the problem and return the hive to peace and tranquility.

Knowing how to cope with bee stings or the threat of bee stings is essential, and conquering your fear can be a great source of pride and inner strength. It takes a certain amount of grace and self-control to avoid the natural tendency to rip off your veil or jam your hand up under your veil in a wild attempt to crush the hapless worker stuck inside.  If you do succumb to the natural urge to crush the bee inside your veil (they usually only want out – if they’d been out to sting you they would already have done so) then you’ll usually only paint the area around your veil, neck and face with the alarm pheromone from your gloves, while attracting other mean bees with your quick, panicked movements, all while you open up an much larger portal for easy access to the most vulnerable parts of your face, head and neck.

Relax, enjoy beekeeping, and don’t sweat a few stings.  As my grandfather used to say, “People can sting too, and those stings hurt a lot worse”.

Posted in Bee Science on 03/31/2011  |  Leave a comment

Bee-ginnings

Every beekeeper, whether they have 1 hive or thousands, has a story of how they started.  Some noticed their vegetable gardens were void of pollinators.  Some remembered that their grandfather had bees and they decided to experience it for themselves, and pass the knowledge onto their grandchildren.  Some are looking for a way to earn extra income for their farm.  A few grew up in a beekeeping family and decided to take the bee industry into the next millennia.

My bee story is also a love story.   Perhaps the bee and I would have met without my having met my husband, Danny… but the introduction would not have immediately led to a life of bees.

As it was, I began helping in the bee yards, and like they say in the beekeeping circles, I was stung.  I loved it.  It is true that when you look at a hive of bees you forget all your troubles.  It is impossible to think of anything else but the focused strength of 10’s of thousands of insects working together.  Coupling this new love with the commercial queen, bee, and honey production my husband and his family owned and managed began a journey of a lifetime.

Currently Danny and I manage BeeWeaver Apiaries.  We produce Queens, Bees, and Honey in Texas.  For decades our bee business was migratory… we loaded thousands of colonies on semi trucks and hauled them to North Dakota for a honey crop, or the bees traveled between Montana for honey and California for almond pollination.  Today our bees stay in Texas… and so do we.  The life of a migratory beekeeper is difficult on the beekeeper, the beekeeping family, and the bees.  Today we are focused 100% on bee breeding and continuing to develop our hardy strain of healthy (and happy!) honeybees.

Across America the bee’s image has gotten a face-lift.  Sadly, it is due to a decline in bee health and population, and the media coverage of CCD (colony collapse disorder).  People who never considered having a hive of bees are now building their own boxes and hiving bees.  They are joining local bee clubs and networking to build their bee knowledge.  They harvest their honey crops and gift it or haul it to farmer’s markets to help finance their bee hobby.  Prior to the CCD news and documentaries and books, bees were mostly in the media when Africanized or partially Africanized colonies inflicted many stings to a hapless victim.  During this time I received calls from people wanting me to remove bees from the blossoms on their peach trees, and bees were exterminated as a routine matter if a swarm stopped to rest in a bush while they searched for a new home.  Today, on the other hand, I have calls from folks asking how they can get started in beekeeping so they can help the bees.  It is heartening to see how compassion has replaced fear.

My bee journey is in full swing, and I am not sure where the hives will take me over the coming years.  One thing is for sure though, my life is sweeter with the bee, and for that, I am grateful.

Posted in Bee Stories on 03/14/2011  |  Leave a comment

Bee Mystery Solved?

BeeWeaver’s thoughts… The paper by Bromenshenk et al., recently published in PLoS One, adds to earlier work suggesting that CCD is characterized by bees which are infected with multiple pathogens. The new and controversial result presented by this group is that a virus never before identified in honey bees, the Invertebrate Iridescent Virus (IIV), may be correlated with CCD. They used proteomic and bioinformatic techniques to generate the new findings. The methods description is not very detailed but I’ll describe what the general approach they employed. In summary, they isolated proteins from colonies with and without CCD, digested those proteins into small peptide fragments, ran those peptide fragments through a liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS) pipeline, and then identified the organisms from which the proteins originated by searching a library of microbial proteins for instances of proteins where the precise detected peptide fragments occurred. Questions have been raised about the feasibility of accurately identifying the correct organisms from which the peptide fragments originated using their techniques, and the omission of the most likely confounding source of proteins (the failed to include honey bee proteins) in the library they searched for peptide fragment matches. Nevertheless, it is interesting that co-occurrence of Nosema cerranae with IIV echoes earlier findings from another group which often detected Nosema cerranae and other viruses in the colonies that were afflicted with CCD. It has been established that one may control Nosema cerranae with the same antifungal compound – fumigillin B – that is effective in treating infections of the previoulsy more common Nosema apis, a cousin of Nosema cerranae and the microsporidian parasite that was originally characterized in honey bees many years ago. As a final note, the authors detected IIV in most populations of bees they examined. One notable exception is Australian honey bees, which they found were not infected with IIV. Find the PLoS research article here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0013181

Posted in Bee Science on 10/14/2010  |  Leave a comment

Plant and Design your Own Bee Garden

Submitted by BeeWeaver Buzz on Wed, 10/06/2010 – 18:00

Wildlife-loving gardeners across the world enthuse about planting butterfly gardens, but relatively few think to design and plant a bee garden. Designing and planting a bee garden will bolster the health of your garden and help conserve one of earth’s treasures. Why Design and Plant a Bee Garden There are over 3,500 species of bees native to the United States. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining. In fact, the entire world is experiencing a shortage of bees. Why is this a problem? Bees provide the much-needed service of pollinating plants. Approximately 80 percent of the flowering plants on earth require the help of pollinators, such as bees, for survival. That includes the plants which serve as food for humans.It is estimated one out of every three bites of food we take is made possible by bees and other pollinating wildlife. Planting a well-designed bee garden provides food and shelter for bees, allowing them to nest and increase their population in safety. In return, the bees will increase the health and productivity of your garden and the gardens of those around you. How to Design and Plant a Bee Garden Variety is the spice of life to a bee. Bee gardens that use 10 or more species of bee-preferred plants tend to be the most successful. Bees will even visit less attractive plants in these gardens while they are there. Using a wide variety of preferred plants in your bee garden will also attract a wide variety of bees. This is especially true when you choose to use a nice assortment of plants native to your area. Bee season goes from March through October. Choose a selection of plants that will bloom successively during this time period. A continuous provision of nectar and pollen will be available to bees if one type of bloom becomes available as another is dying out. Flowers should be planted in large patches of like varieties to allow bees to dine in one spot for long periods of time. Gardens with scattered plants do not attract as many visits, and therefore receive less pollination, because bees expend too much energy flying between locations. Bees thrive in gardens that are not extremely manicured, as solitary bees (ones who do not live in colonies) often prefer to make their nests in the ground. If you prefer the manicured look of mulch, leave some areas of dirt exposed for solitary bee nesting. Bee houses are an option when a manicured garden look is preferred. Place them in the shady areas of your garden where they will not be disturbed. Another option is to create bee nesting areas by filling planters and barrels with soil or sand. Place these where they will be protected from direct sunlight and rain. Bees require a bit of water in addition to their nectar. A good bee garden will include a few puddles from which the bees can drink. Keep the puddles in muddy areas, as the bees will absorb needed minerals and salt from the soil as they sip the water. Pesticides should not be used in bee gardens. Many pesticides work indiscriminately, killing off helpful insects along with the intended pest victims. If you truly need a pesticide in your garden, use a natural one made from microbes or plant derivatives and apply after sundown. Choosing Plants When You Design and Plant a Bee Garden The best plants to choose for your bee garden are varieties that are native to your area. Native plants will attract a nice variety of native bees. Certain bees require the native plants of their area to survive. Shop for your bee garden plants at a reputable nursery with knowledgeable staff who can assist you. Plants that are not native to your area will attract bees as long as you pick the correct varieties. Stay away from anything with the word ‘double’ in the name or description. ‘Double’ plants have been bred to grow extra petals instead of anthers, the reproductive parts of the flowers, from which bees collect pollen. Stick to the old-fashioned single varieties of both non-native and native plants for your bee garden. Bees are especially attracted to flowers that are purple, blue or yellow. They do not have the capability to see red and will rarely visit flowers in variations of that primary color. A few red flowers, such as bee balm, attract bees by reflecting ultraviolet light. Small bees, which have short tongues, are most often attracted to small, shallow flowers. Use flowers such as daisy, marigold, butterfly weed, valerian, buttercup, aster, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace. Larger bees, which have longer tongues, can handle slightly deeper flowers. They enjoy plants such as delphinium, larkspur, columbine, monkshood and snapdragon. Long-tongued bees are also attracted to various herbs, such as sage, oregano, mint and lavender. Leaf-cutting bees are drawn to plants in the legume family and sweet clover. Flowers to Use When You Design and Plant a Bee Garden Bees require two types of plants to survive: pollen plants and nectar plants. Pollen from plants is taken back to their nests to feed the young bees. Nectar plants feed the adult bees to give them energy while looking for pollen. Some of the nectar is also added to the nests to feed the baby bees. Below is a short list of bee-preferred plants based on blooming season. Some of these plants will provide bees with just nectar or just pollen, while others will provide both. Speak to specialists at your local nursery for additional suggestions for your bee garden based on your location. Spring: Nectar plants – Barberry, Bee plant, Blue Pea, Borage, Chinese Houses, Horehound, Lavender, Sage, Salvia, Scented Geranium, Wisteria Pollen plants – Bush Anemone, California Poppy, Yarrow Combination – Bidens, Blanket Flower, Blazing Star, Daisy, Marigold, Tansy Summer: Nectar plants – Basil, Catnip, Horehound, Lavender, Lamb’s Ear, Mint, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Sea Holly, Spearmint, Thyme, Toadflax, Verbena Pollen plants – Borage, California Poppy, Chaparral Nightshade, Tomato, Yarrow Combination – Bidens, Black-eyed Susan, Blanket Flower, Bluebeard, Calenula, Cosmos, Daisy, Dusty Miller, Goldenrod, Gum Plant, Lemon Queen, Pincushion, Purple Coneflower, Pumpkin, Squash, Zucchini Autumn: Nectar plants – Autumn Sage, Rosemary, Toadflax, Verbena, Yellow Trumpet bush Combination – Bluebeard, Cosmos, Pumpkin, Squash Sunflowers are excellent bee plants that bloom throughout the season. They come in two types: with and without pollen. They will attract more bees to your bee garden if you choose the varieties with pollen.

Posted in Beekeeping on 10/06/2010  |  Leave a comment
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