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.


Pass It On

If you’re new to all this, you might be starting to pick up on some of the vocabulary of beekeeping. Maybe you can envision a frame now, and a super; you might have figured out that bees not only bring nectar to the hive but pollen also; and you sort of know what propolis is. Words like smoker and frame that you understand in everyday context have new meanings.

So vocabulary is important. A vocabulary list is just a complex process or story taken apart and put in alphabetical order. While it helps us to understand the terms, the words make the most sense when we weave them into the context of the bigger picture. Nature has its own ideas of order, despite our efforts to classify and pigeonhole. Everything – the weather, flora and fauna, stones and water – is intertwined in the dance of nature, choreographed in real time. The natural world is a hodgepodge of organic beings and fundamental elements woven together in an intricate story, beginnings and endings circling each other. Lining them up anteater to zebra would be like putting the words of the Star Spangled Banner in alphabetical order. There is history behind those verses that connects humans, just as food webs and the water cycle connect all of nature.

That’s where a teacher comes in, someone who throws the words in the air so students can watch them whirl like maple samaras and settle into the forest floor; words for anatomy intermingling with words for nutrition and protection and other beings, and coexistence with those other beings.

New beekeepers need a mentor. Someone older (at least to beekeeping) and wiser when it comes to bees, methods of beekeeping, and timing. Because on one hand, beekeeping is easy. After all, if you offer bees a hive, they will move in and do what bees do naturally. But these new homeowners also need key things at key times from their caretakers. Like children do. You can’t leave a child generally untethered and expect a valedictorian to walk across the stage at 18 years old; likewise, you can’t install a colony of bees in April, go about your business, and expect 30 pounds of honey in September.

When I first started beekeeping, it felt like I’d become a worried new mom, responsible for thousands of little lives. Did they have enough to eat? Were they warm enough? Too hot? Were they safe from robber bees and skunks? Should I give them a night light, check on them at 2 am? I guess the term ‘raising bees’ is an appropriate one. It’s like raising children. I had millions of questions. Luckily, I also had Tim, my mentor.

A beekeeper for more than 25 years, Tim was there when I installed my first hive on a chilly April morning 6 ½ years ago and he still willingly checks on the status of my colonies whenever I ask. We tweak equipment, find the queen, high five at the sight of a full honey super and support each other through mite infestations. He taught me to never, ever give up even when my colonies became totally unbalanced and queenless, teetering on self destruction. He taught me patience, taming the need to hover, my big human face staring at my bees through the inner cover. If they could talk, they’d be grumbling, “leave us alone, we can do this,” just like any independent-minded kid. Just enough hands on and just enough hands-off is a fine line to walk.

Because in reality, honeybees can’t do it alone. They have become, if not domesticated, then at least necessarily managed. More often and with greater intensity, bees are exposed to the activities of human living. The bottom line is that if we want to eat, we need pollinators. And if we want to keep pollinators alive and instrumental in pollinating our crops, we need to mitigate the negative effects of human behavior with some positive or protective measures.

New beekeepers can’t do it alone either. If you’re considering keeping bees, make sure you have a mentor, whether it’s in the form of an internet forum, a book, or a real human. I vote for real humans; the others are supplemental. And then, as a real human with real beekeeping experience, you can pass it on when the time comes. There’s a fledgling beekeeping group at Connecticut College that needs a mentor and I’m stepping up. Of course, the biology teacher in me loves this, nerd that I am, and big fan of young adults in general. Like Tim, I will coax out the answers to their millions of questions by asking my own. I’ll be right there with them when they go into the hives, interpreting what we see. I’ll help them learn that elusive menagerie of skills called patience, trust, and resilience. Their bees will be ok, through storms and swarms and summer droughts. And if a colony dies, they’ll learn to begin again. Just as nature does.



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!

Honeybee Biology

The Background Hum



Drone bee on honeycomb

Here in Honeybee Biology, I’ve been describing the members of honeybee society: Her Majesty, the queen, the industrious female workers, and now the … hmmm . . . how does one describe a drone? They’re freeloaders yet vital to the colony’s success. Most of the time they’re laid back bordering on lazy, yet they give it all to their mission when pheromones beckon, dying in the process. They’re allowed to play in the hive all season then bullied out in the fall. It’s all about colony survival. In a healthy hive, drones are the background hum, the harmony behind the melody, a small but important part of the symphony.

Characteristics of Drones

Remember, in a honeybee colony the girls rule, even if the male drones are bigger in size. Drones are pretty docile in comparison too, defenseless without stingers. This is small consolation, however; the ratio of workers to drones in a healthy hive is about 20:1.

Most of the time, adult drones hang out inside feasting on the nectar and pollen supplies. They don’t clean house, defend the hive or watch over the youngsters. They get away with all this because their most important role is to mate with new queens from surrounding colonies. On these mysteriously chosen days in the spring and summer, they’ll fly to an open field called a Drone Congregating Area, drawn by one or more queens with her come-hither pheromones. Mating on the wing, their back half is ripped from the front half, and they give up their lives to the preservation of the species and genetic diversity.

As fall approaches, they’re kicked out of the hive on cool nights by the workers. It’s interesting to watch as they try to make their way back into the hive only to be driven out again and again. It’s not always easy being a drone.

How do you know a drone when you see one?

So, to bring these 3 posts together, the queen lays the eggs, the female workers bring home the pollen and nectar, and the male drones mate with queen. But what do they look like? If you’re a beekeeper you’re probably way ahead of me and know this already. If you’re a beginning beekeeper or are just plain curious, this will set you straight.

Queens are the longest, but not the widest. They have slender tawny colored abdomens, a cone-shaped back end, and small wings compared to the others. When it comes to finding the queen, you almost have to look for her out of the corner of your awareness. If you look too hard, she’ll be elusive. On days when I stop trying so hard, she generally pops right out at me. Workers are the smallest with well-proportioned eyes. They’re fuzzy too, which almost makes them cute in that cartoony sort of way (except for the stinger). And that stinger on their hiney? It’s the remnants of their reproductive system; workers are sterile. The queen doesn’t tolerate competition. Most of the honeybees in a hive are workers so they’re hard to miss. Generally, they’re the ones out on the flowers too. Drones look a lot like workers except they’re bigger and their eyes take up most of their head. You’ll find enough of them wandering around the frames to make the distinction.


Oh, and one more thing: an update on my smallest hive.

Checking last week with my beekeeping buddy Tim, we found young uncapped brood, a good sign. The queen is still laying. I can breathe a sigh of relief that there will be enough workers to snuggle with the queen over the winter.

You can see little white bee larvae in some of these hexagonals. The golden ones have already been capped.


Ok, one more thing: the bee fact of the day:

Drones eat three times as much food as workers.

Next B-day: How to Frame a Mite (and it’s all about the drones)

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