Monday, May 31, 2010

Oh, Death, where is thy sting?

Saint Paul wrote those words nearly 2000 years ago. He just hadn’t met our third hive yet.

Here is something I just realized, like children, each of our hives have distinct personalities, for lack of a better word. The first Italians are active and energetic and the Carns are dutiful and gentle. I can sum up the personality of the third hive in one word: mean. These buggers have attitude and aggression down pat. They have a lot of guard bees that bum rush you, running into your veil or hand or whatever at full tilt to let you know that you are being watched. They simply do not like intruders.

Early on in the inspection of this hive I found out that the gloves I have are not nearly thick enough. One of the guard bees decided she had had enough of me and stung me on the back of my wrist. I stepped away from the hive and followed the advice of a 17th century beekeeper: remove the bee and its stinger and “cover the sting in spittle.” This might (BIG might here) cover the attack pheromones released when a bee stings you. We were nearly done with the inspection—John has still only been stung once during any of our inspections—when the new girls on the block got really ticked. In less than five seconds I felt at least 4 or 5 more stings. They happened so fast that I really didn’t know how many times I had been stung and wouldn’t find out till the next day. I did what any smart person would do at that point and ran away. Fortunately, unlike Africanized honey bees that will follow an intruder/victim for a mile, the Italians stopped chasing me after about ten feet. I let John handle the rest of the inspection as I surely reeked of attack pheromones.

After things settled down I discovered that I had at least six new stings. Because I am weird, I was looking forward to what would happen next. When I was stung twice three weeks ago by our other Italians, my arm swelled from nearly my elbow all the way to the first joints of my fingers. Small blisters appeared near the sting sites, one of which popped and scabbed a bit. My arm burned and itched for a week and a half. On the plus side, my allergy symptoms—sneezing and runny nose—dissipated quite nicely.

So, two days later, here are the details. At first, I knew that I had been stung more than 4 or 5 times, but couldn’t quite tell how many. The sting sites ached a bit and because one sting was on my left ring finger knuckle, I removed my wedding band to avoid having to get it cut off if the swelling was too bad. Very little swelling occurred by Saturday night, but the sting sites hurt much more than the stings I received three weeks ago. I popped two Benadryl and a couple Tylenol and went to bed.

In the morning the pain had nearly disappeared and some swelling affected both hands. By this time I knew I had been stung at least nine times. I felt some relief that the swelling was much less than the previous time despite the number of stings. By the time we got home from church, I had found another sting. Some of the sites hurt nicely if I put pressure on them, which was annoying since one of the stings was on my forearm where I tended to rest it on the arm of a chair. Uncomfortable. Some itching had also presented. Yet, the symptoms have been to much less of a degree than previously. The swelling as of today (Monday, Memorial Day) is already diminishing and the itching is very mild. Plus, I haven’t sneezed once today despite not taking any Benadryl last night nor having any Claritin.

Here’s the funny thing. I found two more stings last night. So, I was stung a total of 12 times on Saturday. Yes, 12. Six on each arm. Remember, eleven of those happened in less than five seconds. By midday Sunday I had found a total of ten, including the first one, as the welts became more distinct. The other two sit right next to each other and were hidden by the swelling in that hand.

So, St. Paul, we might have found Death’s sting and I need to find new gloves...

Posted by Bob Nelson

Update (belatedly)

Despite getting 12 stings in one afternoon, they healed remarkably fast.  By the following Tuesday evening, the only thing left were the welts from the stings - no swelling or itching at all.  As of today (Tues 6/8), I have just a tiny patch of dry skin where the worst sting landed.

For our last inspection I found some thick nitrile gloves, which worked great except for the lack of feeling and bulkiness.  I'm going to try a pair of nitrile examination gloves next time for better dexterity and the knowledge that they have some natural pucnture resistance.

Another inspection – but the commentary is only on two hives and some of our philosophy about our beekeeping...

Saturday marked the last of the weekly inspections of our first Italian hive. From now on, we’ll check on them once a month unless they give us a reason to do an emergency inspection. They are doing fabulously: kicking out bambinos left and right, collecting nectar and pollen, building comb predominantly on the foundationless frames, and remaining active but not hostile. And I think a few have set up a honey laundering racket based at the swing set in John’s backyard...

John and I are excited about their choice for building comb. Some beekeepers have found that bees actually prefer the foundationless frames over foundation. A little terminology seems in order here: a frame with foundation has either a sheet of wax or plastic that is imprinted with hexagons of a specific size – most often 5.4 millimeters. The idea is that the bees will draw their comb on top of the foundation and it will be easier for them since the shape is already there. Plus, the foundation adds some stability to the honey extraction process. 5.4 mm is also bigger than what bees naturally draw their cells on average (this little distinction is important, so keep it in mind). Two questions arise from this idea: (1) do bees really like having some of their work done for them and (2) is it really best for the bees? It’s distinctly possible that the answer to both questions is no.

In a natural hive (i.e., in a log or crevice or the siding of your house), the cell size of a honey comb ranges from about 4.5 to 5.4 mm. Not much of a difference to you and me, but a big difference to the bees. When they draw it on their own, they tend to build the larger cells toward the top of whatever they are connecting to and the smaller cells toward the bottom. According to one beekeeper who studied this for several years (I wish I could remember his name, but for further information, check out the first appendix in Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen, an incredibly well-written book about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and bees in general), this allows for maximum efficiency during the winter months as they can breed a smaller bee at the bottom and thus a bee that uses less honey over the winter. Plus it allows for better pest control.

Before I go any further, let’s review CCD. CCD appears to have a multiplicity of causes, pesticides and stress topping the list. Standard commercial beekeeping requires the bees to be moved all around the country for pollination services and honey gathering. Bees may not be sedentary, but they aren’t jet setters that look for the next great thing in the next state either. Migratory beekeepers haul thousands of hives around for thousands of miles a year, completely disrupting the natural ebb and flow of the hives. Plus, over the last two decades, varroa and tracheal mites and a variety of bacterial, fungal, and viral infections have spread like wildfire throughout the world. So beekeepers, in stressing out their bees, opened the door to these pests and diseases. They disrupted and destroyed the bees immune systems through the stress and vast amounts of miticides and antibiotics. All of this combines to lead to massive overwinter deaths for the bees: Colony Collapse Disorder.

The beekeeper, who used to do exactly what everyone else did with pesticides and antibiotics but abandoned that practice to avert CCD in his colonies, found that his bees were better able to control mites in the smaller cells, though it’s unknown why. A female mite lays her eggs in a cell with a freshly hatched bee larva. The eggs hatch while the bee pupates – which happens after the cell is capped. This gives the mite larvae plenty of time to feed on the pupa, much like ticks (to whom they are related). If it doesn’t die from the mites, the pupa pupates into a worker bee and eats out of the cell, but is usually weak and malformed. Here’s where the small cell comes into play. Somehow the nursery bees can detect the presence of mite larvae or even the female mite when it is capped inside a small cell. The nursery bees will then rip the cell open and dispose of the infected bee larva. Some mites might still make it, but a good chance stands that the bees will eliminate a mite infestation on their own.

The other thing he found, as well as others, is that bees don’t prefer to have the work done for them. As with our experience with our Italians, they seem to prefer building their own comb their own way. Our plan is to go hybrid. For the brood chambers, John and I will use the foundationless frames mostly so we can avoid using any miticides, but also to let the bees just be bees. For the honey supers (all the hive bodies that we’ll add for honey collection) we will use frames with plastic foundations for ease of extraction. To keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers, we’ll use a screen called a queen excluder between the brood chambers and the supers. Extra protein in the honey is not what the doctor ordered!

The Carniolans are still kicking along. And I don’t know why. They’ve been without a queen for about five weeks. All that I have read suggests that they should be dispirited or even angry. Instead, they continue to collect nectar and pollen and raise the brood we transplanted from the Italians. None of the brood cells screamed “I’m a queen cell! Look at me!” But we could be wrong. Hopefully, one or more of the cells has a queen growing in it to set the Carniolans queenright. In the meantime we are continuing to supplement their diet with sugar syrup and wait. I expect them to surprise us, but I’m worried that most of the bees are at least middle aged or older and we may not get a queen in time.

Posted by Bob Nelson

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Third Hive

Many thanks to Chad Ragland of Apis Hive Company ( for getting us a replacement hive for our queenless Carniolans!  Due to some logistical issues (he's based in Grand Junction CO and we are in Aurora CO), he is letting us keep the Carniolans.  This will allow for us to finish our expirement to see if the Carns will create a new queen out of the Italian brood frame we pt in at the first inspection.

Theoretically, the Carns will pick a few to several of the eggs and turn them in to queens.  All eggs hatch in about four days and become very tiny larvae.  For the next four days the nursery bees (recently pupated worker bees) will feed all the larvae royal jelly, a protein rich substance that they create from a special gland.  But they will continue to feed the royal jelly to the ones they pick to become queens.  It's believed that this extra protein allows the larvae's sexual organs to fully develop, whereas in the rest of the larvae, those organs become the stinger and venom sacs. 

The queens develop a bit faster than the rest of their sister worker bees, going through the entire growth cycle in about 21 days.  The first queen to hatch will seek out the other queen cells, break into them and sting the undeveloped queen to death.  This is about the only thing the queen uses her stinger for (excluding self defense from marauding bees or wasps looking to steal honey).

On our next inspection of the hives, we'll be looking for queen cells, peanut-shaped protrusions from the comb.  The thing I find fascinating is that...well this will sound silly...a bee is a bee.  The Carniolans are taking care of Italian brood and will raise an Italian queen to take over the egg-laying duties of the hive.  They care not a whit that their time as Carniolans is limited.  Once the queen mates, and it won't be with any drones from the Carns (they killed or expelled them before the first inspection), they will slowly die away without leaving a genetic difference in the hive.  Within a few weeks, only Italians will exist in that hive.  But they couldn't have gotten to that point if it weren't for the selfless efforts of their Carniolan nurses.

Posted by Bob Nelson

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Second inspection

As we had expected, hive A1N had not started building any new foundation, though the girls had drawn out the existing comb and built up a little bur comb ( bee filler ) here and there.They had taken care of the eggs we put inside Monday which have now hatched in to larva. It is too soon to tell which of the new larva cells are being built out to raise queens, perhaps our next inspection in a weeks time should reveal these peanut shaped cells. The hive seems to be quite healthy and happy despite not being 'queen right' ( the term used to refer to a hive with a queen ), so we are hoping they should do well until they have raised their queen. We have decided to keep feeding them syrup even though they are slowing down on this sugar diet.

Hive A2N is strong and healthy and has started to build on to a new foundation-less frame. We still have yet to spot our elusive queen, but we know she has to be there somewhere as there are plenty of new eggs. On one of the older frames there are three large tear shaped combs that have been drawn right though an adjacent foundation-less frame. This extended comb must be removed, but as it has plenty of eggs we decided to attach it to the bottom of a new foundation-less frame in the second chamber right above the hole of the inner cover. Hopefully the bees will climb up through the hole and take care of the eggs as well as encourage them to move up into their second story.

Posted by John Rodgers

Who are these guys and what are they doing?

We're Bob Nelson and John Rodgers.  I'm a native Coloradan and he's from the other side of the puddle (that's a euphimism for: he's English, mate)  We started raising bees.  Was that enough of an answer for you?  Probably.  If not, then here's a bit of expansion.  John and I got into the beekeeping thing last year when he wondered if I'd be interested.  I pondered for all of about two seconds and said, "Sounds like a blast" or some such lameness.  In that two seconds, I was already thinking of how to make money off the honey.  John is slowly coming around to the idea (I'm the conservative, capitalist in this business partnership; he's slowly converting - yeah, right!). 

He handed me Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees and I was fascinated.  Here's a middle-aged woman raising 100 hives pretty much by herself.  She had gotten up to several hundred but was slowly cutting back and making a decent living off of it.  We started doing more and more research and reading (I'll toss out a list of recommended material here shortly) and decided that going au natural was probably the best bet.  Our presiding thought is "What will work best for the bees that we may benefit?"  Rampant pesticide use inside and outside of beehives and a host of other common practices has wrecked the immune system of most commercially kept bees and many hobbyist kept bees.  So we're expirementing with what the FDA calls "natural": no chemicals added.  Our practices will be organic, but since we're doing this initially in a suburban setting, we can't guarantee that the bees won't bring something home.

Our hope is to build fitter and more resilient bees and get some darn good honey.  To note, neither John nor I are liberal hippie types.  I'm very conservative in my thought processes and John is a moderate.  However, we both have a deep love of nature and want to keep the bees around.

So stay tuned for more info on Colony Collapse Disorder and tips to help the bees.  Also, you'll probably see us find the rewards of getting stung...I think it helped my allergies a bit, but I forgot to take pictures...

Monday, May 3, 2010

First inspection

Italian hive ( A2N )
 Impressive growth, and they still had over half a jar of syrup left. More importantly they had started building comb on one of the foundation-less frames. They haven't bothered with the foundations, which has really justified our choice in going foundation-less. They have also started filling their other frames with honey, pollen and we found a whole frame of eggs, that were fresh ( standing on end ) so we can safely assume the hive is queen right. We removed the jar, gave them access to the top chamber, and removed one frame of eggs to put into the Carnolian hive. Hopefully they will raise a new queen with it.

Carnolian hive ( A1N )
On opening the Carnolian hive we finally confirmed what we suspected in that there was no queen. Further evidence of this was that we found no eggs in it either. So we took a frame of eggs from the Italians ( A2N ). Hopefully they will have started to build queen cells when we inspect it on Saturday.
They had gone through most of their jar of sugar water so we topped the jar off with the rest of the syrup from A2N, and carried on feeding them. We called our supplier who agreed to exchange our Nuc.