Reverie - n. a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream or fantasy; a visionary or impractical idea

"To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.

The revery alone will do
If bees are few." - Emily Dickinson

Saturday, April 28, 2012

First Hive Inspection

Cute little blondie

Friday I took a full peek inside my hives for the first time since introducing the queens two weeks ago.  We have had some warm sunny days and pollen is being brought in frantically to feed all the new babies.  The bee above is one of several I have seen that are especially blonde; so much so that they hardly have any stripes.

I use 8-frame medium hive bodies

These are the hives in their final configuration.  I use a slightly nontraditional hive size, but it's getting more popular.  They are 8-frame boxes instead of the typical 10, and all of my hive bodies are mediums.  This means that all of my frames are the same size and are interchangeable between all the bodies.  A typical hive would have deeps, mediums, and smaller honey supers that all use different frame sizes.  Besides, 8-frame mediums are much lighter and easier for me to lift (the real reason). 

Three frame experiment:  Full foundation (left), wax starter strip (middle), foundationless (right)
In addition to the non-traditional hive size, I'm trying something different with the frames. One hive will have alternating frames of full foundation and smaller wax starter strips.  The other will alternate full foundation and foundationless.  I hope to convert all of my frames to foundationless in the future, but starting with a bit of full foundation mixed in helps the bees build nice straight combs.  Foundationless frames allow the bees to build a comb that is entirely their own, with shape and cell size determined by the bees.  Less pesticide buildup and possible mite reduction are two reasons to go this route, but it just seems very organic-y and romantic to have the bees designing their own home.  Thank you, mentor extraordinaire, for indulging me in my endless experiments.  There will probably be more to come.

Wax starter strip frame after two weeks
Starting with a 2" strip of wax, the bees have drawn this comb to fully fill the frame.  Drone cells are on the left, multi-colored cells contain pollen, sparkling liquid filled cells at the very top are full of nectar being cured into honey, and the rest are worker brood cells.  I was very surprised to see the amount of work they had accomplished in two weeks.  To see the cell contents under a mass of insects, the bees are asked to move by blowing gently on them with short breaths.  A puff of air, a scattering of bees, and the puzzle pieces are revealed. 

Foundationless frame after a few days
A few days earlier, I snuck a quick look inside the hives to refill the syrup feeders and get a quick sense of how the bees were doing.  Unlike the wax starters, the completely foundationless frames are being drawn with comb in very organic shapes. This is entirely different than the way they work when given sheets of foundation and is fascinating to watch. 

Full foundation frame with amazing capped brood concentration

I put a small cluster of full foundation frames in the center of the hives, and this is where most of the more mature brood is concentrated.  Brood cells capped with wax indicate that the new bees are in their final stages of development.  The tight cluster of these capped cells surrounded by bands of pollen and nectar suggest a strong queen lives here.  My population is about to explode. 

Two Italian queens with varying appearances
We were able to locate both queens, although their presence was already confirmed by newly laid eggs in both hives.  Each queen is supposed to be Italian, but the the one on the right is more slender and a bit darker.  And yes, they have names.  Of course they do.  I went for references to historical queens who met a fate similar to what these ladies may have in store.  Marie Antoinette is on the left, and lives in the fancy painted green hive.  Anne Boleyn is on the right, and is my personal favorite. Ms. Boleyn was a bit of a rebel, whose love of Henry VIII was doomed from the start.  She kept her eye on the prize, and I hope this bee has the same determination. 

Foundationless frames with new comb are extremely fragile
There were so many bees on this particular frame of new comb that it just couldn't support the weight when we were inspecting it.  Fortunately, it was almost exclusively drone brood, which isn't desirable anyway.  Unfortunately, the broken comb fell right into my open hand.  Before they stung there was a sweet second of feeling lots of bees vibrating against my skin.  Literally just one second.

Ummm....drone brood....
Nothing goes to waste here in the garden.  A broken piece of comb was first cleaned up by the bees and then given to the chicks for an afternoon protein feast. I better watch it or they're going to develop a taste for honey, too.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Let's Hear It For The Ladies

More and more women are becoming beekeepers.  Young women.  Women who enjoy dressing like females.  Sorry DH, but that extra-large beesuit you loaned me for the field day was just unattractive.  Yes, part of me had fun with it.  The waxy dirtiness of it was sexy, especially how it made me look a lot more experienced than I really am, but come on now. 

Let’s take a cue from this lovely lady.  She’s working it, and she knows she looks good doing it.  Yes, a bee is going to climb up her shirt and sting her.  But I’m guessing she likes that, too. 

By the way, she’s smoking the hell out of her bees, but we’ll cut her some slack.  She’s excited because she knows she looks so good.  Now if we can only convince her to lose those gloves...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Take It Off.

Beeman does it too.

There are two irresistible things about this photograph.  Allow me to plead my case.

Exhibit A:
Let’s get this out of the way first.  I am like a vampire when it comes to honey.  Beeman scraped open a gash of honey when cleaning off a frame and instantly my imagination was on.  Because I know what that honey tastes like.  And licking it straight off the frame is one of the many beekeeping fantasies I keep on file in my mind.  This is the exquisite torture a vampire must feel when tempted by a slow trickle of blood down a warm neck. 

Exhibit B:
Every chapter on beginning beekeeping tells the novice to absolutely wear gloves when working a hive.  Rip out those pages.  Yes, it hurts to get stung on your hands.  But I like it.  And I like the way my heart races when bees crawl over my bare skin.  And I like the way beeswax gets under my nails and nectar makes my fingers sticky.  And you know what?  Yes, it’s a little bit risky.  But it’s a lot sexy.  And my gloves are going to be gathering dust for a while. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Portland Field Day

Millions and millions of bees  +  sunny skies  +  great company  =  h e a v e n

Imagine what this sounds like...

Stacks and stacks of nucleus hives

Hive demonstrations

At the honey farm


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bee Space

In Beeman's hive

The golden rule of beekeeping is to respect bee space – that magic 3/8 of an inch providing such happiness for a bee.  Anything wider and they will fill the space with burr comb.  Anything closer and the space is filled with propolis, the sticky glue used to seal gaps.

Respecting bee space is also about acknowledging closeness.  The closeness of working among so many thousands of stinging insects, the closeness of the veil on your face, the closeness of working alongside others who share your passion. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Second Chances

When I was removing the package boxes from beside my hives this morning one was empty and the other contained three bees.  Three.  Out of ten thousand.  They were wet, cold, and appeared to be dead.  So I brought the box inside my warm kitchen and waited.  Sure enough, back to life they came.  I was glad to grant them a second chance – they survived the trip from California and a night outside unprotected!

This is a cool shot of one of the girls.  With the backlight you can see the rows of wax glands on her abdomen.  Whether she will make it into a hive or not is uncertain, but at least I earned a bit of good bee karma today.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Bees Have Arrived!

Package bees clustered around the food canister and caged queen
On Saturday morning we drove down to Eugene to pick up two packages of bees - 20,000 little ladies to bring home and place in my hives.  The bees arrive by truck from California, and are packaged with a canister of sugar syrup and their future queen suspended within the cluster. 

Shaking the stragglers onto the hive

Beeman and I waited until evening to install the bees, when they would be less likely to fly and disperse.   We wedged a queen cage between two frames in each hive, and with a rough shake the workers were poured into the brood boxes.  A rude start, but that's what exoskeletons are for, right?  A feeder full of sugar syrup and some kind words and we said goodnight.    

Loud and disorganized

When the sun warmed them the next morning it was chaos.  Everyone is new to the hive, with no drawn comb to utilize, no brood to tend, and the queen still imprisoned.  Every bee that left the hive was making huge spiraling flights in the air, trying to orient themselves to their new home and its location in my garden.  I was smiling all day thinking of the army of pollinators I just released on my unsuspecting neighborhood.
Orienting themselves to the hive

I am so excited to witness the transformation of these brand-new hives into a paradise of wax and honey, and installing the bees was my first step.  They were feisty that night and I was stung many times, a ritual I think I’m going to enjoy.  My body tolerates stings remarkably well with little pain and no swelling or itching.  Just beautiful red marks that I wear hidden under my clothes like a secret agreement with the bees.  I shake them up a bit – and they remind me who’s in charge.  I’m going to like this relationship. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

"Drone Comet" painting by Andrew Tyzack

I have a confession to make.  I love drones.  In the world of beekeeping, this type of adoration is usually reserved for the sexier queens or the industrious foragers.  But for me the big, wide-eyed, stingless males are the ones that steal my heart. 

Freed from the myriad tasks of maintaining the hive, they spend their days in silent anticipation.  They are the daydreamers whose singular obsession is mating with the queen.  All of their time waiting in the hive culminates in an intense mid-air mating with a virgin queen, only to fall back to earth ripped apart and waiting again, this time for death.

If they knew this was their fate, would they still pursue her with such devotion?  Absolutely.  And this is why I love them.

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd;
Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard"

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Love Letter

When I find a jar of really good honey, I guard it selfishly. 
This is not the honey for tea, or baking, or any other use that would mask its personality. 
This is raw, local, from-the-beekeeper honey (thank you Beeman).
Really good honey should be eaten on its own -
sliding off the spoon,
dripping down your fingers,
licked from your lips. 

I can taste where the bees have been, their hours in the sun, and their dedication to craft.   
I can taste the spirit of the bees, and sometimes that of their keeper.

I don’t drink coffee, but I do eat really good honey - every morning, sliding off the spoon. And I feel a bit of the bee’s magic spends the day with me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Communication Breakdown

Scattered capped brood cells

Beeman assessing frames before splitting the hives

Saturday I was able to observe Beeman, my mentor extraordinaire, split and requeen his two overwintered hives. 
One was visibly weakened with a reduced population and no evidence of new brood formation (eggs, larvae, etc.) - characteristics of a hive without its queen.  The other had an active, large population but seemed loud and disorganized.  There were scattered capped brood cells but no visible eggs or larvae, which indicates a queen was present recently, but is either failing or missing entirely.  A hive without a queen has no direction and certainly no future.

This presented a good opportunity to make splits – creating additional hives by redistributing frames of brood and honey among new boxes to equalize the strength of all hives.

A caged queen marked with yellow

A queen awaiting her fate

With two hives split into four, it was time to introduce the new queens.  In each hive, a cage was wedged between two frames and instantly covered by curious bees.  Separated from her new subjects by a small candy plug, the queen must wait several days to be released.  As the bees chew through the plug they are exposed to her pheromones and everyone slowly gets acquainted as the candy is devoured.  By the time the queen gains her freedom and enters the hive for the first time, she has hopefully been accepted as the new leader. 

Long live the queen!

Thursday, April 5, 2012


One of my hives, waiting for bees and better weather
As the mother of two young boys, there is not much in my life that is truly mine.  And while I wouldn’t trade it, I need an escape; a place that is invitation only.  No constant questions, no endless demands, no expectations. 

It’s a place I can go physically by lighting a smoker, putting on a veil, and entering the garden.  And it’s a place I can go in my mind—by glancing out my kitchen window at the hives, or stealing a spoonful of really good honey when no one is watching. 

I am guarding this new adventure as something that is truly mine. 
The secret life of bees is also the secret life of the beekeeper.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Friends and Enemies

Yesterday I held a friendly little mason bee in my hand.  Chilly and damp, it was looking for a warm spot in the sun.  I have been trying to encourage these natives in my garden and was happy to see it.  I loved every second. 

However, the same hand that held this little bee with such reverence was used the previous day to smash a yellowjacket queen in a very satisfying, visceral manner.  Yellowjackets terrorized us last year, and this was a fitting retribution.  I loved every second. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Bee Jar

Having my own hive is a dream that has lived in me for years.  I am endlessly fascinated by bees and the skill of their keepers.  Harvesting honey would be amazing, but secondary.

I just want bees. 

Last summer I was looking out to the garden, feeling the frustration of wanting them so badly yet thinking it was impossible.  I didn’t know anyone who kept bees, or even where to start.

And there in front of me, sitting on the edge of a bowl, was a little honeybee.  She was dead and had gone unnoticed until now.  How she came into my kitchen and rested in that place is a mystery.  But at that moment I decided even if I jumped into beekeeping alone, inexperienced, and unprepared,         
I was going to do it. 

I still have that sweet little bee, kept in a jar where I found her that day. 
Although I like to think maybe she found me.