Equal Night

Equinox – (Middle English 1350—1400, Medieval Latin equinoxium, for Latin aequinoctium, the time of equal days and nights); noun. The time when the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator, making night and day of approximately equal length all over the earth.


I’ve been hibernating, vowels and consonants hiding under the covers from winter’s raw edges, unable to organize themselves into words and phrases, dormant as the buds on the maple trees. Waiting. I worry about this, wondering if creativity will rise again, like the sap locked in those trees, and flow from pencil to paper to post.

I feel a whisper of this creativity stirring today, just as there is a rustling underneath of everything on this day of equal night. Out walking this morning, I watched a newborn calf tug at the teats of its patient mother. A phoebe, the first seen, investigates its nest site on our front porch in anticipation the arrival of a mate. Chickadees sing their lusty “hey, sweetie” chorus again and again from leafless branches, sap surely rising under the grip of their tiny feet. Seen from a distance, there’s an aura of red in the maples — as they shed the life in their leaves last year, so they rise, tiny but vibrant flowers.

red maple blossoms

Slender green daffodil spears emerge from their cloak of last year’s oak leaves. Rhododendron leaves, curled thin as pencils through February, are now broad paint brushes. I’m still waiting for the spring peepers’ chorus, though I hear that 15 warmer miles away, they made a tentative debut during a warm spell last week.

And skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage! Compliment to the lotus Buddhists speak of, a purple-maroon spathe pokes through the mud. It’s one of the first sources of pollen and warmth for bees, for inside that little cavern blooms a flower. It’s about 70o F in there, a way station to warm tiny wings before flying back to the colony with pollen and nectar.

skunk cabbage

Spring is here and warm weather is coming. Yes, it’s time to think bees again. Actively.

Sadly, my colonies did not survive the winter; many other beekeepers in this area are starting fresh too.  But fresh is good.

I watched spring play hide and seek one February morning while scrubbing hive boxes, traces of chlorine wafting from the steamy water in the sink. Through the window, there was a steady drip off the roof and I watched the sun break through heavy clouds only to be swallowed whole again and again. The pond still had a veneer of ice at its edges, its middle rippled by gusty winds, the sun bouncing off the water in a thousand points of light. Some of my hive boxes are old; I considered adding them to the scrap wood pile instead of scrubbing them. But, really, rotten or seasoned? Years of wax and propolis, both filled with anti-everything properties (-oxidant, -fungal, -bacterial, -viral). They’re probably veterans, having seen me through many colonies. They deserve a fresh coat of paint.

Do I worry about the chlorine and bees? Less than I worry about the vermin chlorine bleach kills – latent viruses, black mold – which in turn kills bees. The chlorine will have enough time to off-gas. And just to make sure, after their spa day, they did some time in the freezer. Next to the frozen chicken and banana bread and blueberries.

This super-cleaned equipment, freshly painted, is ready and waiting in the cool dark basement, just as bulbs and roots wait for the sun to warm the soil.

April 7th is delivery day, my unofficial first day of spring. On this day I’ll pick up two new packages of honey bees, flown in to Pennsylvania from California and then trucked to Connecticut for pickup by local beekeepers. By then, days will be longer than nights, the sun reaching for its peak at the Tropic of Cancer. And so, we begin again.



Finding Gold in a Dirty Pot

In my previous post, my basement was edging toward organized. We all cycle through rounds of order and messiness – bees, beekeeping chores, and even humans just living life. Where we arrive is, at best, better than where we began. The beekeeper in me is ready to unravel one neat area; this time to turn a pile of messy leftovers from a season of beekeeping into a golden disc of wax.

Alchemy was chemistry before the advent of the Periodic Table in the 1800s. Back in Medieval times, it was believed that the four basic properties of the universe – earth, fire, water and air – when combined in certain ratios could transform everyday compounds into gold, booze, even life itself.

Today we know otherwise. Mix ordinary ingredients like eggs, flour, chocolate, and oil together, each with their own unique chemical and physical properties, add energy in the form of heat, and soon the scent of brownies wafts from your oven. Bite into a warm square and chemistry starts all over again, as enzymes break down the molecules, enhancing the flavor. Craving chocolate yet?

Rendering a bucket of raw wax scraped from hive equipment is basically chemistry too, though the end result is magical enough to earn it the honorary title of alchemy. Raw beeswax starts out as a conglomeration of products from the hive: wax, pollen, honey, propolis, bee wings and other appendages. Toss it all in a pot, add heat, and soon a golden liquid rises to the top. Cooling, it becomes a disc of pure gold. To me, this process is magic. But just a bit more complicated than waving a magic wand.

Beekeeping books and the internet offer advice on rendering beeswax to its purest state. Feel free to peruse and combine methods. That’s what I did and this is what works for me. First, a trip to the Goodwill Store is in order. Among the plates and teacups, waffle irons and bric-a-brac (the very things you may have contributed from your messy basement), you need to find a misfit pot as the perfect melting vessel. It needs to be big enough (6-8 quarts), have enough dents to lend it some character, and a handle that a potholdered hand can fit through. A bargain at $2. Christen this one the “dirty pot.” Its insides will forever be smeared with the first renderings of beeswax – brown and lumpy with just a hint of gold shining through. Don’t ever think of cleaning it. You will also need a larger pan that can serve as a double boiler to this one.

Set up shop in your kitchen and watch the alchemy unfold. Cover counters and the floor with newspaper to make cleanup easier as beeswax is notoriously tenacious. Set your dirty pot inside your double boiler. A note of caution: Wax is flammable! Always use this double boiler method when melting wax. Keep the heat at a simmer, never stray too far, and practice patience. When silver bubbles rise along the outside edges of your dirty pot, the temperature is about right. Carefully lower a few fistfuls of raw honeycomb into its belly. The heat makes this fluffy mixture collapse on itself and you can easily add more before adding an equal volume of water. It will begin to look like an agitated mud puddle. With the gentle heat and an occasional stir, bonds soften their molecular grip, and liquid gold rises to the surface as pure molten beeswax. The chunks of detritus slowly descend into the water. Turn off the heat and walk away. Practice patience.

Within an hour or so, the sheen of melted wax is transformed to a soft translucent amber disc floating above the debris-laden water. This is only step one. Wax is less dense than water but so is much of the debris. This is caught on the underside of the disc as it hardens. Scrape off as much as you can without digging into the wax. Discard the dirty water, preferably outside – it’s good stuff to decomposers out there. Set the disc back into the pot for a second melting, this time without water. Keep a closer eye on it now, poking at the bees and debris to free them from the wax, which takes on a brown chunky appearance again, though not as murky as the first rendering. Once melted, pour it through a filter. Mine is not high-tech – I use a simple foil bread pan with a paper towel or tripled cheesecloth clothes-pinned to the top to make a sling for the melted wax. The wax drips through, leaving the brown debris behind on the paper towel. It sounds like a sweet summer rain on the skylights. Again, practice patience. But if you’re like me, you can’t help but lift the edge of the paper towel to reveal pure gold, not a bug leg in sight. When it has hardened it easily pops out of the pan.

Order from chaos. Transformation from messiness. Bees, basements and byproducts of the hive. Back in the height of the season, honeybees gathered bits and pieces of the natural world and transformed them into perfect honeycomb.  Used wisely to raise brood and store food, it takes on a characteristic messiness of its own. A cleaned basement can reveal treasures forgotten and spiders banished. A pile of hive scraps is transformed to a golden disc of pure beeswax. All these things take energy, but all are worth the effort. It’s not really alchemy, not always chemistry, but there’s always a hint of magic in what you might find.

Pure beeswax

Encouraging Gravity

“Gravity and entropy are powerful processes in the natural world.” This quoted from Rick Hanson, PhD, noted neuroscientist. Gravity draws things together, toward a center. This is my hive. Entropy scatters them in disarray, an ever-widening circle into the universe. This is my basement at the end of beekeeping season. Honeybees have a system from which they never deviate under normal conditions. Frames in the brood chambers show brood nestled in the middle, surrounded by pollen and nectar, tended by nurse bees, the diligent young workers that haven’t graduated to foragers yet. Honey supers, starting as empty frames, are drawn out with perfect hexagonal comb, then filled with nectar which is converted to honey, all step by step.

As orderly as the hexagonals in a frame are, the corner of the basement where I store my beekeeping supplies is the polar opposite. My system of organization and procedures fails me regularly by this time of year. Most basements are pretty messy already – a reservoir for little-used items and boxes of old clothes and bric-a-brac for a future tag sale, maybe a freezer, some tools. For many, it’s the someday room, as in someday I’ll get around to this. It waits patiently. To really mess up a basement, get a hobby, like beekeeping. Other hobbies would do of course, woodworking perhaps. That’s my husband’s corner of the basement. Yet even the wood scraps are propped neatly against the cement wall according to type and height. My corner is unabashedly, beautifully messy. It reflects all the busy-ness of an active season. There is equipment to be cleaned; boxes and frames to be scraped of propolis and extra beeswax; and plastic take-out containers overflowing with wax in its raw form. Scattered white pine needles – great natural fuel for the smoker – spill from a bucket and lend an outdoorsy smell that blends with the heavenly scent of beeswax. A spare pair of socks peeks out from under a shelf.

It’s time to invoke the gods of gravity and bring it all together into some semblance of order.

Here’s the check list (and a good one to keep for reference, fellow beekeepers).

• Scrape excess propolis and beeswax from frames and boxes. Separate the two if you have enough take-out containers; the wax you render will be that much cleaner.
• Scrub boxes, inner and outer covers, and bottom boards with a mild bleach solution to kill any mold. Set these aside with plenty of space between them so they dry completely.
• Store any drone frames in the freezer for the season; the bees will clean them off next season. Ignore all protestations from other family members that squishy larvae are next to the burger patties and ice cream.
• Wash your hive tool, bee suit, veil and gloves; hang to dry.
• Store clean sugar-water jars upside down and cap any unfilled honey jars. This keeps resident spiders out. We have our share. I’m ok with this because they in turn keep other bugs in check.
• Establish a bin for miscellaneous stuff: extra entrance reducers, the flat pieces of wood used to prop sugar-water jars in the hive, frame-building supplies, etc.
• Rotate any frames pulled from the hive through the freezer at 48-hour intervals to kill any wax moth larvae. Again, ignore protests. Store these on their long ends, like so many books on a shelf.
• Make sure all your honey extracting equipment is meticulously cleaned and covered.
• Wax rendering equipment is inherently messy, but do your best here to at least consolidate it on one shelf.

Order from chaos. Entropy to gravity, so to speak.

I love stepping back after this cleanup process to survey my corner, as neat and tidy as beekeeping equipment allows. And then, I proceed to unravel just a corner of it as I pull out all the wax rendering equipment. This is the amazing part – watching the transformation from a pile of raw wax complete with bee legs, antennae, and odd bits of organic matter to pure wax. It’s alchemy at its best, beeswax defying gravity to rise out of the muck as a golden disc.

From this:

Raw beeswax

To this:

Pure beeswax

I’ll take you through the process next time.



Autumn Beekeeping

Life gets in the way. Isn’t that a song line? Between traveling, which includes pre-travel frenzy and finding my rhythm again post-travel, I haven’t been able to spend too much time in the hives lately. Not to mention that this organizing part of my brain keeps the writing side of my brain hostage.

So, yes, life gets in the way, but life also goes on. (Sorry for the clichés.) Bees are sturdy critters. Unlike most livestock, they don’t need to be tended to daily. Especially now that the cold mornings are here.

Aside from refilling sugar water supplies, it has been almost two weeks since my beekeeping buddy and I ventured into the hives. That day, Tim coaxed a frame from the top box of my hive, sticky propolis threads trailing. “What do you see?” Ugh, he was testing me again. Like any good teacher, asking questions instead of making statements. He tilted it so the sun caught the beads of nectar in a thousand reflections. I looked long, not quite sure what he was asking. A few capped brood cells winked up at me from the center of the frame. “Lots of nectar. That’s good, right?” Good because it’s October. If this had been June, it would have meant a failing queen. “Right, the workers are starting to shut the queen down.”

We were fully dressed in bee suits, veils and gloves; the smoker was fired up to calm extra-vigilant guards. Bees are more protective this time of year. This abundance of nectar in the top frames, mostly from goldenrod, asters and supplemental sugar water, was a good sign. As fast as the last brood cells hatch, workers fill them with nectar. This forces the queen down in to the deeper, warmer parts of the hive. We removed empty frames and consolidated full ones to take each hive down to 3 boxes. Too many boxes and the hive is like a big drafty house; the cold seeps in and they have to go too far to find honey stores.

It’s about this time of year that my worry gene kicks into high gear. Do my honeybees have enough stores to get them through the winter? Have I done enough to keep the mite level low? What if a mouse makes its home in there? There have been bear sightings not far from here; should I invest in an electric fence?

Worry, of course, gets me nowhere. A quick peek into the hives this afternoon tells me they’re alive and well. Lifting the inner cover would send waves of cool air into the depths so I only top off the sugar water up above and slip an entrance reducer in place down below to discourage mice who happen to like the warmth of the hive as much as bees do on chilly nights.

There’s not much out there in the way of flowers anymore so workers keep busy inside making honey. Beating their wings over 200 times a second, they fan the cells, taking the water content of the nectar down to 18%. They add enzymes and other compounds to keep it from spoiling, then cap it with a coat of wax. This will be their food for the winter. The queen stops laying, in tune with her own instincts as much as she is guided by the workers’ activities. The last generation of eggs hatched will be non-foraging workers that will maintain the hive and protect the queen through the cold months. Cold, lifeless drones lie at the entrance most mornings, evicted by the workers, their job done for the season. Hefting the hive from the bottom, it should be about 100 pounds. My shoulders feel the weight.

Fall is closing in, winter on its heels. These mornings I fold chilled fingers up into the sleeves of my jacket. The sound and scent of brown flavors the air, its earthy essence crackling in the leaves pushed along the road by the wind. Hay fields take on an amber tone and there are longer intervals between bird calls. The frogs have long grown silent, replaced by crickets and katydids, their beat steadily measuring the earth’s elliptical orbit. Even these have grown quiet. The sun sends the memory of all its summer sunsets into the maples reflecting yellows, reds and oranges so vibrant they crack my senses open. All this against an unblemished blue sky. I have to look into the pockets of shade tempering the brilliance, for counterbalance.

It’s the end of the active season for bees and beekeepers. But endings are also beginnings. A new cycle begins silently inside the hive. The queen is protected and fed, waiting for cues to start laying again. This period of dormancy before the frenzy of spring activity is vital – bees need the rest in their cycle as much as anyone. My beekeeping chores shift too, taking me inside to the cluster of supplies in a corner of the basement. There’s equipment that needs cleaning and organizing, containers of raw beeswax to render into blocks of pure gold, candles and lip balms to make, jars of honey to label. Beekeeping has its cycles too – like the bees, I’m ready to come inside.


The Dilemma of Domestication

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines domestication as the process of reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms . . . to meet specific requirements or whims. [These animals and plants] are adapted to the conditions of continuous care and solicitude [that] people maintain for them. ( Basically, living things in the natural world were brought into the fold of human everyday living to enhance survival by offering protection and reliable food sources.

I also believe that there’s some innate desire to bring what’s out there, in here, closer to the practicalities of everyday life because instinctively we’re aware that nature has a way of balancing us. We’re wooed by shampoos with natural botanicals or laundry products that are free of chemical dyes, and everything from breads to dairy products that are labeled all-natural with no additives or preservatives.

This softening of the edges between outside and in is more pronounced in some and is expressed in other ways too. In our house, there are little collections of the natural world gleaned from walks near and far on windowsills and bookshelves, filling elegant glass containers and the odd plastic cracker sleeve alike. The windows are usually open, even if just a crack in winter (if I can get away with it). The cat adorns my pillow by night and the piano by day; the dog has his spot on the couch. Spiders nest freely in the upper reaches of the cathedral ceiling, not because I can’t reach them but because I like them there looking down at me. They also find little habitats within my plant collection. About the only living thing I won’t allow inside are ants . . . and the occasional tick I find crawling up my leg from a walk through the woods.

To invite the essence of the natural world into our lives means that unwanted pests hitch a ride on the animals we domesticate – bacteria, viruses, mites, fleas, ticks . . . the Pandora’s box of vermin. So we need to take responsibility for those creatures we domesticate. The spiders are on their own but my dog is protected against fleas, ticks and heartworm on a regular basis. He gets his vaccinations. My cat, also vaccinated, is not allowed outdoors to share parasites with the chipmunks, or play hide and seek with the coyotes that watch from the woods.

Likewise, I take care of my honeybees, even if they’re not invited inside. I provide them with a home, food when necessary, and an added layer of protection against winter winds. I monitor for mites and other pests, treating both mechanically and chemically. Just like I treat my dog. I won’t get into the pros and cons of various chemical treatments. Some beekeepers use chemicals, some don’t. And I understand this – why pump a creature of nature full of chemicals? Everyone has their favorite side of the fence. There are as many ways to protect against honeybee pests as there are flea and tick products for dogs.

Mites, nosema and American foulbrood are the most notorious honeybee pests. Any of these infestations can stress a colony, weaken the bees’ immune systems and decrease honey production – honey they’ll need in winter. Mites also vector some pretty nasty viruses. American foulbrood is deadly, and contagious. The only course is to burn your bees and equipment, a huge loss. If there is one pest to treat for prophylactically, this is it.

Why can’t we just let the bees be? For the same reason many of us don’t allow our dogs to roam the woods unprotected from ticks and why dairy cattle need to be vaccinated and dewormed. It’s about quality of life. My lab mix can expect to live a healthy life of about 12 – 14 years. The average lifespan of a wild coyote is only 6 – 8 years. A housecat can live to 17 or 18; a bobcat lives only 7 years. The average natural lifespan for a domesticated cow is 25 years; a deer only lives a measly 4.5 years on average. Many of these animals in the wild succumb to illness brought on by other living creatures that take up residence in or on them. Deer in the woods live unprotected from ticks, deerflies, and the diseases they carry. They’re hunted by predators that carry their own load of pests. The image of Bambi with his shiny healthy coat and bright eyes is an exaggeration. Animals in the wild don’t have it easy.

If we’re going to domesticate animals for our pleasure and use, we owe it to them to care for them properly. The ultimate health and well-being of our domesticated pets and livestock (yes, bees are considered livestock) depends on it. It’s in the definition of domestication – continuous care and solicitude. How you do it is up to you. But please do it.


How to Frame a Mite

“Sorry, boys. It’s just gotta happen.” I was talking to my bees, which I admit happens often. The green drone frame I pulled from the hive was brimming with drone pupae, their caps rising above each hexagonal like fresh baked muffins. Given 3 or 4 more days, they would hatch into thousands of drones. Instead I was about to put them in the freezer.

Drone frames filled with capped drone pupae

I know. Me, killing things, right? The one who won’t sweep the spider egg cases and their mamas from my front porch. All that work those mamas did to make and protect those egg sacs. I just can’t. And yet, all the work the queen bee did to meticulously place an egg in each cell, all the effort from the workers to feed and protect them. Here I am sinking these drones into deep freeze. Why?

The short answer is mite control. I’ll try to keep the long answer short too.

Mites have been pestering bees for almost as long as there have been bees. Mites themselves aren’t all bad. We too have our own mite populations that devour our dander and dead skin cells. Without them, we’d be up to our knees in the flaky stuff. Itchy yet?

The species of mite that lives with honeybees, (Varroa destructor is it’s scientific name) does basically the same thing. But when they get out of hand or when viruses piggyback and infect a colony, it’s disastrous for the hive. Until the 1970s, mites and bees lived pretty much in balance. Then a strain of mite hitched a ride on honeybees imported from Europe in the 1980s, settling in and overwhelming their hosts. Colonies abandoned hives just to get away. Worse, these mites carried viruses that American bees had little resistance to. This fueled Colony Collapse Disorder, that mysterious, multifactorial syndrome that’s been so hard on bees and their keepers. There’ll be more about CCD in later posts.

The little red critters on this drone’s back are Varroa mites

But what’s all this got to do with drone pupae? Drones, those lazy males, have risen as shining stars in mite control. Just like when they mate, once again, these guys sacrifice their lives for the good of the colony.

Here’s how it works. Remember, drones are bigger than workers and this is true throughout every stage of their development. A drone frame is specially designed to have slightly larger hexagonal cells than a standard frame. Queens, in their mystical wisdom will lay drone eggs in these frames, keeping them in a tidy group. The really cool thing about drone pupae is that mites happen to like them best. In early stages of development, the cells are open and mites will climb in and settle down to mature right alongside the drones. On day 10, the cells are capped (the equivalent of a chrysalis) and the mites are trapped. For every capped drone, there can be as many as a half dozen mites developing. To remove a drone frame and replace it with a fresh one every 3 weeks is to significantly reduce the mite population. Less itch, less ditching the hive. Healthier bees, happier beekeepers.

There are other ways to combat mites. Sprinkling Confectioners’ sugar in among the frames every couple weeks annoys the bees but eliminates some mites. The bees, looking like little white ghosts, groom each other, removing mites in the process. But I’m certain this sugary coating weighs them down. Carrying extra baggage and spending time grooming aren’t the best use of their time and energy. Chemicals are a choice but can be expensive, require precise timing, and tend to be hard on the queen. Scientists are also researching ways to genetically select for workers with the increased tendency to attack and eat mites on their fellow bees. Imagine. A mite-preening trait, a colony of mini-chimps grooming each other, mite-less and pesticide free.

Until that happens, I’ll stick to the drone frames, apologizing to the boys each time. Out loud.
Drones really are the colony heroes.

Bee trivia by the numbers

If even 6 mites developed with each drone in a full drone frame, it would potentially remove 31,000 mites every 3 weeks!


A Promise and a Worry

“It still seems quiet.”
“Especially compared to your big hive.”

We noticed the difference Monday evening at the end of our Wally-walk. For those unfamiliar with my other obsession, Wally is our 10 year old black lab/pitty/boxer mix who insists on his walk after dinner. We oblige.

As he zipped past the apiary and through the fence, curly boxer tail high, I took a longer look at the two hives. My burly hive, six boxes tall, was covered with honeybees at the front entrance, like one huge extended family sitting on the front stoop to escape the heat inside on a muggy summer night, gesticulating with their wings and gossiping with their pheromones. Next door at the small hive, just a few bees idly walked the front porch of their home. They weren’t being unneighborly, it was that much cooler inside their home with fewer wingbeats generating heat.

But were there enough bees inside to sustain the colony?
And was the queen laying?

Tuesday morning, I lugged my equipment from the basement to the apiary, reciting the mantra “Check Your Bees.” Smoker lit, hive tool in hand, and another gallon of sugar water at the ready, I removed the covers and began my descent into the belly of the hive. They seemed contented enough, a communal buzz rising from the depths of the frames. This usually means the queen is in residence and wafting her all-is-well pheromones through the hive. I pried the end frame up and found barely drawn comb, a few bees. Ok, I told myself, so bees move up and out; the end frames are the last ones they work. This was true. Frames 2-7 each had an ample nursery of capped brood surrounded by nectar and pollen. The queen has been busy!

A bird’s eye view of bees and brood

I hefted off this box and set it gingerly aside, apologizing to a couple squished honeybees. In the middle box, I found more of the same, with lots of testy workers. Humans aren’t the only ones who get grumpy in hot and humid weather. By frame #8, that contented buzz had changed its pitch as guards rose up in defense, pinging my veil and generally letting me know I was no longer welcome. Enough. I’d seen what I needed to see.

The queen was present, if unseen. There’s still one nagging worry, however. I did not see any eggs or uncapped brood. Different stages of development tell me that the queen is actively laying over time, so important as they enter the fall season. The last eggs she lays in the fall will become the winter workers that protect her through the winter.

Cooler mornings are coming soon and I’ll get down to that lowest box. Right now, I’m breathing a partial sigh of relief.
Check. Your. Bees.


Honeybee Trivia by the Numbers

A medium frame has about 3100 hexagonal cells per side. At 2 sides per frame, that’s 6,200 cells. With 8 frames per box, that’s 49,600 cells to put eggs, nectar and pollen.

Medium frame showing hexagonal cells

The queen lays between 1,000 and 3,000 eggs per day.
Workers travel up to a mile and visit 50 to 100 flowers each time they leave the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
Fill ‘em up, girls!

close up of frame with brood