Monday, May 23, 2011

I haz a nuc, and perhaps learn humility

For whatever reason, I didn't take pictures of Fred's bee yard, but it was charming. He was wearing a veil and there were five or six humans of various ages milling around, half an hour before twilight on a PERFECT EVENING in Vermont. Although we were not Raptured, I wasn't sure we were not in Heaven. He has a bunch of happy-looking chickens, as chickens go, a Jersey cow and her calf, some clean and relatively unsmelly pigs (which is a real trick), some kind of non-throughbred horse (with big feet) who was charming and gave me non-spitty horse kisses. The horse has a pony.

It was idyllic. We came back to NH and it had been drizzling and gray all day.

The next morning, yesterday, I found out that frames can get stuck to the lids of nucs, and that dropping said frame, as it detaches unexpectedly from the lid, annoys and alarms the bees.

Neither Doug nor I are allergic to bee stings. Although now, I gather, I need to see what happens the next time I get stung (one hopes not so many times) and see if I have acquired the allergy.

They hurt a lot for a couple of hours, but now they don't, and they don't itch very much. Probably getting the stingers out would have helped, but they were in my hair.

I still think veil-free bee-keeping is possible and desirable but I agree it would be better to wait until I know more about what can go wrong before I try it again. I got no stings on my hands or arms.

Meanwhile, it's about 5 and drizzling, like it was yesterday, and the action around the beehive is almost non-existent. Yesterday afternoon there were a few bees moving a few other bees out, probably ones who were injured in the transition (Doug was very careful as he finished hiving the nuc but some squashes were inevitable, and there were some who stung but could still fly home). Today there were only two or three in as many minutes doing anything. But all the dandelions are closed and it's soaking wet and grey.

I have promised myself I won't go look in until next Sunday, so the poor little things can get relaxed. I notice I jump when I feel anything in my hair, which I can't say I'm surprised about.

How Agriculture Can Provide Food Security Without Destroying Biodiversity : The Bioscience Resource Project News

How Agriculture Can Provide Food Security Without Destroying Biodiversity : The Bioscience Resource Project News

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Queen of the Sun

I wrote a bit about seeing the arty and gorgeous film 'Queen of the Sun' on my other blog, now properly linked. For the audience in Concord, it was pretty much preaching to the choir. Though I think few of us had expected artificial insemination of the queen to be as revolting.


Honeybees entomb to protect from pesticides

( -- With the drastic rise in the disappearance of honeybee colonies throughout the world in recent years there has become a large focus on the study of honeybees and the effects of pesticides on their colonies. Termed 'colony collapse disorder' in 2006, the decline in honeybees throughout the world has been attributed to everything from pesticides to disease and parasites. The loss of the honeybee population is a concern for the agricultural community, given these bees are responsible for pollinating crops worldwide.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Drawing out

I was going to take pictures, but I travelled to Vermont on a bleak day that devolved into dense fog. The people were much nicer than the weather.

Deb had a family emergency so I headed off to get my woodenware alone. I had two addresses for my beekeeper. The one I headed for, inevitably, was his old one. Vermont takes place on a piece of very old ocean bottom -- marble and limestone. New Hampshire was once Africa, a piece of granite that smacked up against North America. I have been trying to pay attention to this and without the distraction of leaves or really any colors, it came through clearly. We got little narrow valleys and jaggedness. They have insanely wide valleys, partly, I suppose, because the rivers have been there so long, and partly because limestone wears away faster. So I had sweeping vistas and crept along ridges on roads, God help us, worse than my driveway and my anxiety about heights crept up on me. Becoming low on gas and being unable to reach the beekeeper (must ask him for working phone number).
There was a tiny house along the highway with CLOUDS of steam coming out and after the second time I passed it I parked and approached, cautiously. Three guys, all younger than I am, waved and suggested I use the front door where there was a way through the mud. "Are you boiling sap?" I asked, since it reeked of maple for hundreds of yards in all directions. They had a three-by-four-by-ten-foot tank and said they were just a small hobby operation, no piping, just buckets. They were so nice. They gave me a jar of syrup and said yeah, Fred USED to live there, but now... did I know the Snowville country store? My eyes rolled up into my head. We agreed that heading for Randolph was the best idea, and they said to tell Fred the McCullough boys said hello.

There was a gas station on the way to Randolph, where they had a bathroom and a good selection of calories and water. I was deeply heartened after stopping there, which was good because it was three-thirty and getting dark. Reaching the other address was almost straightforward; I overshot the right street number and drove back to a long, muddy driveway with outbuildings and sullen chickens (Reds, Leghorns, and Silver-Spangled Hamburgs). I'd have been sullen too if I had nice feathers and bare feet. A small boy assured me I was at the right place and showed me to the right door.

A long, warehousey shed that reminded me of the archaeology lab was filled with beehives, noise, lumber, and a huge amount of metal piping or scaffolding or material to make something. I would guess he welds things. Fred was younger than I expected (a lot of the beekeeping community seems to be more or less grizzled men), maybe early 40's, and really loves bees. He is thorough-going organic and chemical-free and perfect for me to get bees from.
I think I was there most of an hour. I learned a lot more about why it's important to get Northern bees. It's not just that a bee from Vermont is more likely to be able to cope with the cold than one from Georgia, and some generations of exposure to the way the seasons work up here, but apparently some queens have enough sense to break out of their cluster once the immediate food has been eaten and move to another part of the comb. Maybe their clustering is less rigid, maybe the cluster can stay less rigid at lower temperatures. (It's hard to keep my verbs singular when the bloodline of the queen determines how the workers behave; bees are both points and waves.)

I badly want Fred to give classes or write a book. He says he might blog sometime. Perhaps I will actually follOw him around with a tape recorder, since I can't recall everything he said. It is certain that beekeeping makes you pay more attention to the natural world. Bees, he said, start taking off in the north at the same time as the syrup-makers give up, when the maples start getting bud-dy and the sap gets too strongly flavored, the flowers open at the tops of the trees. Knowing that early pollen is terribly important has made me look even harder at the poplar trees around, which seem to bloom even before the maples. I think my area has great forage potential, with the wetland across the road and the mixed trees and meadows nearby.

I am going to Texas to see my aunt and dig from May 4 to the 17th or so. According to my rather patchy records, the apples will blossom before I get back, and I had wanted to have the bees by then. But that depends on when the bee inspector comes and certifies Fred's nucs sometime the first week of may, and since I am leaving on Wednesday it seems unlikely. He promises he will take good care of them for me and not to worry.

And so it was. I went home. I have painted my hive with raw linseed oil and beeswax, which according to the BareFoot Beekeeper (who uses this)takes months to fully dry, and apparently has no protection from UV rays. I greatly enjoyed making the mix (double-boiler) and wiping it on (and disposing of my rag in the woodstove so it wouldn't spontaneously combust and burn my house down, probably the only way it will ever be tidy). It smells nice, sort of (it's supposed to make me think of cricket bats, but I am culturally deprived), and it's not eating my kidney or my liver or my brain.

And then I bought materials for the electric fence, which should provide hours of fun as we try to plant eight posts and a grounding rod that's supposed to be pounded down _three feet_ (a meter). Given that I have only rocks held together by rocks for soil... but Doug hopes that we are near enough to the garage pad that at least part of it will have been machine excavated once.

I need an electric fence not because I fear getting bears, but because I have them, and it's doubling the setup cost.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring is not coming early

Expecting measurable snow tomorrow night. No one is happy.

What I said about the results of the disappearance of the honeybee from the New World? It would be less grave if the bumblebee and other native pollinators were not also disappearing. I read a delightful book that I recommend getting from your library, unless your library system has been gutted, as that of New Hampshire is about to be (one truck to serve all the libraries in the state is enough, of course it is. Spot of bother in the state budgeting process).

I am contemplating putting down a deposit on a second New England-bred nuc, this one from New Hampshire, only the cashflow is not helping and the person who breeds them medicates and clips his queens' wings. I don't know that Mr. Merriam doesn't, but he seems to be closer to the earth, in that he doesn't advertise anything or have a website. Those are not really a recommendation, but they keep me from knowing his bias and I can dream. I would like to have two hives, just so as to have something to compare with. And I want to build a top-bar hive and see if it works, only really, one must get bees somewhere.

No one in New England seems to be very sanguine about 8-frame medium hives (they think it's just too cold). So Mr. Merriam is building me a 10-frame deep for the brood chamber and he says I'll manage beautifully with the supers. I am hoping to go pick it up on Monday, and to start seriously worrying about putting in the electric fencing. Doug and I had about settled on the far end of the flowerbed-area near the pad of the burned-down garage (see this link for explanations of Doug, Deb, and the former garage which I never met), sheltered and perhaps warmed by the stone retaining wall. I realized that bears could jump into the proposed bee-yard from the slope retained, so we are now thinking farther from the retaining wall. The area under discussion still has discards from the kitchen renovation, because my ex-contractor Paul is a... well. Anyway.

Meanwhile, all five of Neil Gaiman's hives in Minnesota died out, probably during their really really cold spell in December, and the local bees-and-bunnies place I was going to visit tells me both their hives made it through most of the winter and died off in early March. Deb and I think it sounded like tracheal mites.

Sometimes I am more optimistic than other times. The sunlight does help.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trying to sum up Bee School

I liked it. The people were very friendly, knowledgeable and eager to share it. And for $30 it was a great deal: we had 12 hours of class with a short break each time and free homemade cookies, coffee, and tea. Really nice people. It was not terribly structured, but it worked.

The first session was the NH Beekeeper of the Year for 2010 (I don't know their criteria). He was a charming man of 82, only moderately snotty about wives (apparently some spouses are funny about propolis stains and bad smells). One of the delights of this hobby is seeing regular older men be all tender about their bees. You don't want to squash your bees, or injure them, if you can help it. It would go without saying, but they say it.
He talked about the parts of hives and general management. Wore a complete beesuit when he inspected his hives. He was interesting and coherent and I had a 'drinking from a firehose' feeling -- there was so much to say. He used routine medications like Fumigillin and miticides, which is the sort-of normal thing to do. After all, the bees would get sick, right?

The problem here is that (surprise!) bacteria get antibiotic resistance, and the bees still die. Mites get insecticide resistance, and bees are insects, so if you have effective mite-killing properties you get bee-killing and weakening and genetic-damaging and the bees still die. Add in all the other stresses -- bad breeding, selfish apiculture, environmental contamination, habitat destruction, GM pollen that does not supply nutrients, artificial feeding, forced migration, imported pests and diseases from different parts of the world, careless importing of bees and bee ailments, ozone holes, lousy and extreme weather -- it would be amazing if you did NOT get colony collapses. There is no one cause, there will be no one solution, it will not come overnight.

I was glad of the reading about bees I have done throughout my life, and I went home and got on the internet and read a lot more (this treatise was strangely helpful, introducing a lot of things in passing. So was the rest of that site. Exhaustive).

The second session was given by a man who runs a small farm with cows and corn and so forth. He kept stressing how he had to keep PROFIT in mind, while mentioning that he could not in conscience use chemicals other than essential plant oils or feed the bees sugar syrup rather than honey (that last is _way_ out there nutty-crunchy). He wore a veil, generally, but no gloves when he inspected his hives. He also had a pretty good PowerPoint presentation, so there was evident structure in his presentation and he stayed in the limits pretty well.

I borrowed a couple of books from the club library and went home and read and got on the Internet and became steadily more impressed with the depth of resources available online. And also frustrated with the number of books out of print (I want to read the rest of Richard Taylor, and I want to read The Archaeology of Beekeeping, and they go for hundreds of dollars on the used-book sites. Library, I know).

The third session, the president of the local association spoke about what he does at each time of year. He doesn't treat with anything, and he raises queens. He wears a t-shirt when he inspects his hives.* I was wondering how much further green-left the speakers could go, but I was very impressed that they had a spectrum of opinion represented.

By this time in my self-administered education I had already decided that buying bees from Georgia or South Carolina to live and be well in New England was unrealistic. I was very glad to find a beekeeper in Vermont who had locally raised nucleus hives for sale. A 'nuc' is different from a package (and more expensive) because it is a little colony, with brood (bees in process of becoming) and workers of different ages (who perform different tasks) and a queen who is related to them. A 'package' is a bunch of bees, who may or may not be related, no brood, and a queen in a cage whom they may or may not like once she is released in the hive. Troy's queens were not available until midsummer and he was out of nucs for the year already.

I had the presence of mind to ask some of the organizers if there were any places we could go _see_ the hive equipment for sale and have a shopping experience rather than just order it, and they gave me the name of a beekeeper and bee-supplies person in Vermont. He turned out to have nucs for sale this spring, so I have put a deposit on one and asked him to build me an 8-frame medium depth Langstroth hive, as propounded in The Backyard Beekeeper. Langstroth is pretty much what you expect when you think of modern beehives, the big white boxes rather than the straw beehive-shaped skeps (which are now illegal most places because you can't inspect them for disease). And there are mostly rational people whose opinions I respect out there who believe Langstroth hives are what's killing bees, along with everything else. Ventilation matters, people.

The last speaker was the state beekeeping inspector, who is a commercial beekeeper himself. I suppose there is some conflict of interest possible, but I don't think he would try to restrain anyone's trade or queer their pitches. He seemed like a decent person, less organic than some but not doctrinaire-pesticide at all (and as accurately paranoid about Monsanto as anyone might wish). He also told funny disaster stories: backing his pickup truck into a beehive at night, his smoker setting fires in the back of the truck as they sped along a highway... good times.

The local society has a Yahoo group. It is unfindable among Yahoogroups if you don't know the name, although you can get to it from the local society website. It was never mentioned in class. It had thirteen members before class and now has I think 16, and no traffic. If no one knows it's there, no one will use it. They have a postal newsletter, which is pretty good; it's been out for a month but no one has updated the website, so only the October one is there, and the home page has the details of when the Bee School just past will meet. I spend a lot of time online, and it confuses me that people can be so ... offline. Bee School would not have been as good if I had not had the reading at home, and there are limits to what a library can contain (I really will go check it out, but it's just a small local library and InterLibraryLoan is not instantaneous). The websites and chat fora are invaluable; you can find out all kinds of questions _I_ certainly would never have known I had. There are already too many blogs and too many beekeeper blogs, but I will keep mine up if only to remember what's going on in my life when, and to be of possible help. Also it's useful to force myself to synthesize something occasionally.

*Bees vary from hive to hive (and from strain to strain) in their defensiveness and irritability. If there's been something snuffling and digging at the hive at night, the bes will be testy the next day. If it's sunny and there's a big nectar flow, they are happy, and too busy to go after you. If there is a shortage of nectar or it's cold and damp, everyone will stick around the hive and be tetchy. I can sympathize. Everyone agrees you get stung sometimes. Most people get used to it; it stil hurts, but you don't swell up. These guys remove hives on a regular basis not wearing anything extra; they are also really funny.

Oh, now, come on. Life in a time of cholera.

"Their extinction would mean not only a colorless, meatless diet of cereals and rice, and cottonless clothes, but a landscape without orchards, allotments and meadows of wildflowers – and the collapse of the food chain that sustains wild birds and animals."

I am not saying it would not be a disaster, or that our Way Of Life would not collapse; it very well might. But the More-First Americans managed a decent life without honeybees before the Europeans brought them.

This article from last year quoted above, is also interesting in a whole other weird way.
"Bee farmers in Scotland have reported losses on the American scale for the past three years. Andrew Scarlett, a Perthshire-based bee farmer and honey packer, lost 80% of his 1,200 hives this winter. But he attributed the massive decline to a virulent bacterial infection that quickly spread because of a lack of bee inspectors, coupled with sustained poor weather that prevented honeybees from building up sufficient pollen and nectar stores."

Blaming the bacterial epidemic on the government for not having enough bee inspectors? It's like blaming the AMA for deaths from flu. Except, as far as I know, we have not been misbreeding humans for a hundred years. (Maybe we have. Though it would be for longer than that. I still like plumbing and sanitary sewage.) And they never had a lousy summer before?

Look at that, I'm strident. I have been reading and listening to podcasts so much that I am concerned I will attribute ideas to the wrong people or get the problems wrong. Please do not flame me or anyone else as a result of what you read here.

Bee school has completed its four sessions and Deb and I went to the local meeting last week to hear a presentation from Michael Palmer of Vermont. They do not have CCD as such reported there. He points out that in VT they are not picking up hives in the winter, driving them thousands of miles to pollinate crops or orchards, and then expecting them to prosper. He makes his living with bees, has been since before the tracheal mite arrived in the 80's -- back when, he says, beekeeping was fun and easy. He says he doesn't care if you medicate or not, you have losses from varroa and you have losses generally and there is no silver bullet. He routinely breeds nucs to build up his colonies with locally adapted bees at a much lower cost -- economic and ecological-- than buying them in from the south. He regards buying packages -- a standard way to get bees, consisting of A queen and SOME workers who are not necessarily related, and may not accept her when they have a hive to live in -- as a great way to support the sellers of packages. You get a non-colony of older workers and a queen, who may or may not work out and increase together, who don't make a strong hive, who die off; and then, of course, you send for another package.

I think I need to say where I stand, but, first, I have to talk about 'standing.'

Beekeepers have more politics than prehistoric-American archaeologists.

And the stakes are not small at all: livelihoods and Life As We Know It. LAWKI is already under some threats, which makes everyone touchier; livelihoods, too. to talk rationally, as some legislative bodies seem to have given up upon, you have to take a deep breath and not start stinging everything in sight. One of the things I was able to ask Mr. Palmer (who seemed middle of the road sane, not pesticide-happy) concerned the relative sanity of one of the mailing lists I read. As I suspected, they are kinda out-there and willing, eager, to die for a hypothesis that has been disproven four or five times. Of course, you can argue that the universities who did the studies are on the take (as indeed they probably are. Monsanto must die), and then in their case you can add that to your apocalyptic (as quite strictly defined) worldview and put up more barbed wire. Palmer added that a much more apparently sane list deleted him every time he said 'hell' as in 'scared hell out of him when he was a kid,' and others just deleted his letters when he said something they did not agree with about, say, hive bodies. You cannot have increase of knowledge where the censorship is that doctrinaire.

Thank God this kind of censorship does not flourish in other parts of the Internet.


Anyway, I am trying not to become part of the problem, which is why I was worried about becoming strident (above).

One of my friends got exercised because people were discussing management for different kinds of wildlife. Why MANAGE? she said, why not just have nature? That sounds nice and Rousseauian, but people are so much a part of the ecology, of 'the balance of nature,' for good or for ill, that there is no 'non-management.' Even to be 'hands-off' is to vote for a particular result.

I am going to go chemical-free, because I think we have no choice. When the country was full of happily feral bees, we could valorize some for their familiarity to us, or some particular good quality, even if it was not in the larger sense a survival characteristic (to name but one: calm gentle bees are all very well, but they NEED to respond fast and hard against tall dark strangers -- there are a lot of bears here). Mites, diseases and habitat loss have killed off most of the feral bee colonies in New England. Apparently calls from frightened villagers to beekeepers about swarms are way, way down, which may go to explain why I had never seen a 'bee tree' until last year (in Jefferson, NH). Any bees is good bees. I would rather not have the angry Africanized ones become the default bee, but that would be far better than the Beeless Spring at the beginning of this post. I would like to have honey. I would like to have enough honey to sell, sometime, and I would like to have prosperous hives who make it through the winter. But using the chemicals doesn't seem to raise my odds, and it's expensive, and it goes against the rest of the way I garden (I use Roundup on Poison Ivy and Oriental Bittersweet. I continue to wonder if it is _possible_ to live in Texas or Florida or any tropics without insecticides; I hope so, but the fire ants really put me off. The rasberry (sic) crazy ants even more so. And I think that there are cases (bedbugs and mosquito netting in malarial areas) for a very limited use of DDT. Though it is probably not good for people even in small doses. So I am not ideologically pure).

Michael Palmer, whose lifework is bees, says he is tired of people importing packages of sickly bees from out of region whose drones get a chance to fertilize his queens. Ben Chadwick, the NH State Beekeeper, wants the traffic in bumblebees to be regulated, because people are bringing in new _bumblebee_ strains and diseases that are killing the native bumblebees (which, as well as being here before the European bees took up their slack, are the major pollinators of all kinds of native plants and tomatoes, which are New World but exotic to NH). I think each region needs to guard and develop its own strains of bees. But sometimes I read about these matters and just see another way we are all so very, very screwed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The story so far:

My parents encouraged an interest in and a protective attitude toward the rest of the world from the time I was very small. We had Addams Family Values about the value of swamps before they were fashionable. Books about nature and organic gardening were left around where I could get into them, and I did (I find I had pretty well memorized Peacock Manure and Marigolds, when I got a copy about 44 years after I first read it). I can't remember when I first thought about keeping bees myself, but I do remember considering keeping them on a fire escape in downtown Boston. Something I read at the time said it was hard to keep a hive alive through the winter in New England. Also, I was thirteen.

I lived a bunch of places, but for good or ill I did not keep bees. I identified myself, or rather I felt Ronald Reagan identified me, as an Environmental Extremist. I gardened organically, although I have lately sinned in the matters of Poison Ivy and Oriental Bittersweet. I read about other people keeping bees. It seemed complicated. It is, but not more than anything else, like insurance or car maintenance or chickens or choosing the right kind of wool to spin. Most recently, I found myself reading Neil Gaiman's blog. He got bees, possiblybecause of Sherlock Holmes, or possibly because his 'friends' led him into it by stages. I wish Birdchick would archive her stuff more effectively, not that she has anything else to do.

Beekeeping still sounded like effort, but fun. The manager of the deli in Concord had a hive in her parents' yard, because she wanted to do something to help with the Colony Collapse Disorder. I talked to her about Birdchick's and Neil Gaiman's hives and then she moved to Chicago. (I do not know what happened to the bees). Time went by.
I went to the post office two weeks before Christmas, thinking about it, and that Lorraine and Birdchick had gone to Bee College in Minnesota, and there was never anything like that around here. As I left the post office I looked at the community bulletin board and found a notice for a Bee School, $30, four sessions in January and February.

I asked for and received a book about beekeeping for Christmas.

Oliver Sacks assured me it would be an excellent thing for my brain.

I told my mother about the synchronicity moment with the Bee School notice. She whipped out a $30 bill (well. a $20 and a $10) and told me to go. I mentioned this to one of my friends from the archaeology life, who lives in Nashua (1 floor of a house with a small yard). She said she had always wanted to have bees. I warned Deb I would exploit her if I possibly could. She has been driving the two of us to Bee School. We have had three sessions and read a couple of books, which means we understand what's going on in the sessions.

I have joined the YahooGroups Organic Beekeepers ( a lively opinionated list) and the one for the local group (not quite dead).

In my next post, I'll try to talk about Bee School and what Deb and I are hoping to get.

First Flight

I think I am going to have bees. I am a 54.5 years old, live in post-agricultural New Hampshire (bits of my surroundings are actively farmed, but not most of the divorced, bird-feeding, half-Texan, omnivorous, NPR-listening woman with a Roman Catholic MDiv and two spinning wheels, four cats, and too many books. A lot of them are science fiction. Enough about me; you want more, there's another blog.

This one is going to be about becoming a beekeeper, and host links to articles or books, because bibliography is one of my guilty passions. I love fixing people up with information.

In the interests of getting this thing into the air, here are some things to read. I will come back to me and whatever is happening later, after I have had more tea.

Almost true bees -- Robert Krulwich about forensic pollen and more.The headline is Bees That Work For the Police. but the code says 'bees-who-work-for-the-police". Is it all relative?

Beekeeping was only recently made legal (again) in New York. Here's an article about the, well, they could hardly be the underground, could they? beekeepers before the law changed in their favor. Contains a fine irrelevant quote from Rudy Giulani (not mentioning 911!).

The Beekeeper Next Door A bee grows in Brooklyn, and the other boroughs, and other towns in other states.

Maraschino bees! Bees on drugs!
The Red Bees of Red Hook
The Secret Downside of Urban Beekeeping

And then what happened: Helping Brooklyn's Red Stingers Get Off the Juice.

I am going to try to stay upbeat (that's code for 'not-frothing-at-the-mouth insane') but some of the reports about the envronment make me justifiably batty. I have another blog, Dystopic Fun, which is just links to the latest things that make me....anyway, I will link to it when I have something particularly disturbing that affects bees. But making you click twice would be unkind, so here's a link to a cheery article about Roundup, a soi-disant safe herbicide which was remarked on the Organic Beekeepers YahooGroup as being worse for bee larvae than some insecticides. Regardless, not good.

Enough about that.