Thursday, May 14, 2009

All about Kate's bees

Bruins-'Canes Game 7 is tonight; so is Game 7 between the Wings and Ducks. Celts play Game 6 vs. the Magic. Red Sox are facing the A' god, what to watch? It's an embarrassment of sporting riches here in Boston this spring!
...It's also close to overload. So let's take a break from the sporting world and talk about Kate's bees.

...This is Kate McCandless, one of my neighbors, examining her very first queen. She became involved in beekeeping this year the same way I did a few years back, through a charity auction. Kate was the winning bidder on a new hive box, hive, beekeeper's suit, tools, smoker, and anything else she would need to get started. All she needed to provide was the yard.
DAY ONE The most exciting day for any new beekeeper: the day you pick up your hive. These honeybees came from Georgia, and this is a picture of Kate spraying water through the screen of their cage, which calms them, so you can open the cage without a swarm of them flying away. Note Kate's steady demeanor, her pristine white suit. She looks a physicist in a nuclear power plant-- nerveless and cool. What bee would want to leave the care of such a woman? No bee in its right mind. They were home now, and they knew it.
...And if they didn't know it then, they would in a moment, because the next step is a jarring one. First, Kate firmly slammed the bottom of the cage against the ground, knocking the bees to the bottom. Then she took a screwdriver and pried the top of the cage off so she could remove the queen, who was in her own cage. She quickly replaced the top, so all but a few of the 10,000 or so bees remained inside, still slightly stunned. In a previous blog, I covered how the queen cage is plugged with a sugar cube, and how it's necessary to poke a hole in the cube with a nail to facilitate the queen's release. Kate did that now. Then we suspended the queen cage between two frames and prepared for the fun part.

That's when the top to the cage is removed and the bees are literally shaken into the freshly prepared hive body. Note that most of the frames have been removed so they'll have a place to fall into. You'd think bees, who, after all, have wings and can fly, would be difficult to shake through a hole the size baseball. But most of them come out in a big glop, as if you were shaking out jelly beans. You have to tip the cage aggressively, back and forth, to slide the mass of bees over the hole. Some, of course, land and fly out, so the air slowly becomes alive with buzzing bees. But most lay in the bottom of the cage, dazed and confused, shocked and awed, as more and more bees are dumped on top of and beside them.

It is impossible to shake all the bees out of the cage, but when the bulk of the hive has been dumped into its new home, the frames that have been removed must be carefully replaced to crush as few bees as possible. The nearly empty cage should be placed, with the top open, near the front of the hive, so those bees that remain can crawl out and rejoin their buddies at their leisure. The bees flying crazily around will eventually settle down and return to the hive, because what they're really doing is trying to find their queen. And the queen, who emits a powerful scent (well, powerful to the bees), is in her little cage in the hive. This is she, the one marked with a green dot:

Finally, before closing everything up for the night, Kate put in her feeder, a yellow container filled with sugar water mixed in a 1:1 ratio.
Kate will need to keep feeding her new hive most of the summer, until they completely build out their comb. Here Kate is after her first hive was closed up for the first night. That, my friends, is a look of accomplishment and deep contentment.

All that work is for naught if the queen doesn't do her job. And her job is to lay eggs. Thousands of eggs. Worker bees only live about five to six weeks, so she has to get going and keep going the rest of her life. A new hive--those 10,000 bees that arrive from Georgia in the spring--will completely die off in the first month and a half. The queen alone will survive. The queen and her offspring.
....So yesterday was the day of reckoning. The most important inspection any new beekeeper can have: the one that will tell you whether the queen has been doing her job. If she hasn't, if there's little evidence of egg laying, or if the eggs have been laid in a random, sporadic fashion, a new queen must be purchased and installed post haste, and the future of the hive is in question.
...Since by now the bees have claimed their new home as their own, and are understandably territorial, we decided to blow a little smoke into the entrance before going in. This, for reasons unknown to me, settles the bees down and makes them docile for awhile. I think it has something to do with a fear of burning to death.

After giving the smoke a few seconds to work its magic, we opened the hive and gently removed the centermost frame, which is where the queen usually starts laying. For comparison purposes, here is a picture of a frame from one of my hives where there is no evidence of egg laying: only bees, a little pollen (the yellow) and the glint of some freshly stored honey.

In the early stages, the brood looks liquid and milky, a little like there's dishwasher detergent in the bottom of the cell. That's what Kate and I were looking for in her hive, and that's what we found. Check out this frame.

It is loaded with the milky evidence of young, uncapped larvae. Clearly, the queen had been doing her job. But just to make sure, I pulled out the frame beside the centermost one and hit the mother lode. A perfect pattern of capped brood, which is basically an incubation chamber for bee larvae to develop into baby bees, like a thousand butterfly cocoons. This photo is as good an example of a queen that knows what she's doing as I've ever seen, nearly every cell utilized for maximum efficiency. She dropped an egg into every one of those cells that are capped, and barely missed one.

Our work here was done. There was absolutely nothing else we needed to see. Kate's queen was clearly a star, the Alexander Ovechkin of queens. But before I put the frame back, I asked her to snap a picture of me with it. For a beekeeper, it's like holding the Stanley Cup. It's what we dream of, what we work for: a perfect frame of capped brood that, before the summer is out, will have provided us with honey, sweet drizzling honey, the nectar of the Gods!!!
Go Wings! Go Bruins! Go B's!

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