Category Archives: bees

Loss

It’s been a rough week for our little backyard farm.

On Christmas Eve, Jess discovered that one of our hives had died. We decided to look for a bright side. There is a ton of honey left to harvest. This will make it easier to move the hive to a different spot as planned. We still have one surviving hive, and we can get more bees in the spring. We’re not sure what happened, although Jess’ theory is that on the day I was stung by several bees she may have somehow killed the queen in her haste to get the thing closed up.

Yesterday, just as our Christmas cheer was winding down, Levi said he heard a chicken noise in the yard and went to investigate. I made him stop and put on his boots because I didn’t want him running outside in his new slippers. The chickens make crazy noises all the time, it wasn’t dusk yet, and a few of the chickens were visible from the door. I will probably always feel guilty for making him change his shoes, even though it is very unlikely he could have saved our precious Hatchet-Face.

Levi returned from the yard a few minutes later, visibly shaken, announcing that Hatchet-Face was dead. I was completely stunned. I ran outside and stood over the huge mess of feathers, just staring at her for several minutes. I couldn’t believe she was gone, even though most of her body was right in front of me. Only the neck was missing and her head was unrecognizable. We’re pretty certain a raccoon was the culprit. What a terrible waste. I am trying to tell myself that it was probably over very quickly.

We were so fond of that goofy bird. We know that keeping chickens means dealing with loss and often short little lives. I just feel so cheated, though. She was our little heroine; the runt who outgrew her flock mates in the end. Despite her rough start in life she was delivering us a beautiful blue egg almost every single day. I have never seen another pure white Easter Egger with dinosaur green legs like her before. It never failed to cheer me up to look outside and see the way Hatchy ran across the yard with such gusto, or the funny exaggerated head-bobbing as she walked. We would be heartbroken to lose any of these ladies, but this just seems so wrong. We were talking about it today, and both realized that in the end it makes sense that she was the one to get picked off because she was a loner (a rebel), often off exploring by herself.

Rest in peace, Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malnorowski. We already miss you.

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Hive Inspection Gone Awry

Saturday’s hive inspection started innocently, as most of them do. The bees seemed busy, so I decided to open up the hives and make sure everyone’s ready for winter. The day was a little cool and gray, but not rainy or cold: good enough for a hive check in October.

The lady bees were busy bringing in bright pollen and many of them seemed to be bringing in heavy nectar loads, too. They fly a little bit drunk when they’re weighed down.


My guess is that this is goldenrod pollen.

I jiggered a 10-frame box to “fit” my 8-frame hive, which meant my bees built all kinds of burr comb that I had the displeasure of removing when I took off the box. (burr comb is comb that is inconvenient for the beekeeper – and it is usually the beekeeper’s fault).

I left the mashed up comb in an empty box nearby for the bees to lick clean. It would be more ideal to avoid burr comb entirely but, well, this is all a work in progress.

And then things took a turn for the worse. I cracked a box open and a cloud of bees flew out, directly into the unfortunate face of the resident photographer / my beloved wife, Krista. One bee stung her, and the isoamyl acetate started flowing. This chemical smells strangely like banana candy, and it calls all of the bees in the vicinity to join the attack. I’ve been in a cloud of isoamyl acetate myself, and it is a fairly horrifying experience to be the target of a lot of angry bees. It was Krista’s first experience with the banana smell, though. Her total number of stings since we installed the hives went from zero to seven in a matter of 60 seconds. I actually killed bees on purpose in my gallant efforts to rescue her. It was a first for both of us – Krista’s multiple stings, and my deliberate murder of bees.

I closed up the hive quickly, probably killing more bees in my haste, and went inside to check on Krista. It turns out that she inadvertently made a video of the bee attack. The video is a lot like a horror movie with all of the “Get them off of me!”s and slapping noises as I smacked the bees. As tempting as it is to upload it, we deemed it just too horrible. Fortunately, we discovered that Krista is barely allergic to bee stings. She said afterwards that the frightening cloud of bees trying to burrow to get into tender flesh was worse than the pain of the stings. I am very sympathetic to that sentiment; I feel exactly the same way.

This isn’t exactly normal behavior for a hive, so I guess we’re going to go back to using a smoker and consider upgrading our armor bee suits. Now, when someone asks if we get stung keeping bees, the answer is finally, Yes, every single one of us. The honey is sweeter for all the stings.

xoxo,
Jess

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could somebody bring over some scones?

Stat!

I remember buying honeycomb with my mom at a farm stand as a child. I learned recently that a lot of people have never tried honey in the comb. What!

I guess I better get to baking. We’ve been on this whole grain kick, but I think this is asking for some buttery, white flour-y scones, don’t you?

Thanks, honey, for taking all the stings.

(No, the stings don’t happen too often but we had one angry hive this week.)

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misumena vatia

The other day as we parked in the driveway and walked past our little front yard garden Jess noticed in our California poppies a little yellow spider that had captured a bumblebee.

We felt bad for the little bumblebee but mostly we were struck by the sight of this bright yellow spider with little stripes of red down its side. In almost 35 years of living in the northwest I don’t recall ever seeing one of these little guys.

I quickly found the wiki for misumena vatia, also called the flower crab spider or goldenrod crab spider. Maybe I had seen one before, because they aren’t always yellow. They can change at will from white to yellow to camouflage themselves and are often found near goldenrod. So how is it hanging out in our bright orange poppies?

Jess quickly reminded me that we do have a yellow flower nearby. We had a plant that popped up in that container that we let go for months in case it was one of many varieties of poppy seeds Jess had planted around the yard for her wife (me) who loves poppies. The thing got huge and took ages to flower. We talked about just yanking it several times, but we always let it be just in case. Then it finally formed little clusters of buds and clearly was not a poppy.

Maybe these tiny little flowers are home to our bee eating spider friend.

So is it goldenrod? Unfortunately not. Goldenrod is edible and medicinal and even considered a sign of luck, but we think we have this plant now figured for tansy ragwort, a noxious weed. How funny that we may have never seen this sight if we hadn’t given that weed a home for all these months? Seems like a bit of luck if you ask me.

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Check out that proboscis!

Since it’s a whopping 82 degrees, our bees have been spending a lot of time at the watering hole I built for them. This little lady fell in, and I caught her drying off.

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Summer progresses: blackberries, bees & honey

The blackberries are blooming in my neighborhood. I’ve written about our blackberry issues in the past. They are invasive weeds with sharp thorns, certainly, but lovely ones.

The bees go crazy for them. There is a lot of freshly capped honey in the hives.

Later, we’ll extract the honey. Something like this:

In a few short weeks, we’ll pick the neighborhood blackberries, make jams, jellies, syrups and shrubs. I can’t wait!

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a little solstice indulgence

Since we recently took our first jar of honey from the bees, I decided we should make something a little extra special with some of that honey. What could be more special than homemade ice cream? And what better day to do this than yesterday, the longest day of the year (not to mention it got up to 79 degrees for us and our tomatoes).

While Jess and Levi were at work I prepared a simple mixture of four ingredients: organic cream, organic whole milk, honey from our backyard, and two vanilla beans.

Yes, we like to do some things old school around here. Ice and rock salt and man power.


Clementine helped oversee Levi’s work. He insisted he do all the cranking, which was fine by me.


And then she took a nap because it kind of takes forever to make ice cream.


We peeked inside 3 or 4 times before finding this.


Yes, it does taste as good as you imagine. Better, even.

I used this recipe.

And Jess is celebrating extra. Now that I’ve tasted the rewards of all the work we’ve put into the bees, I don’t want anything to go wrong so I’ve agreed we could fit another hive or two into the yard. I’m so proud of her for keeping these bees going through their first year, and now we have two busy hives pollinating the neighborhood and making our lives a little sweeter.

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2011 Mason Bees

Here’s a montage of the 2010 mason bees:

I have written about our mason bees before:
In March 2010, when we installed the bee house.
Again in March, when they started to emerge.
When they filled the first hole in April 2010.
We checked on their progress in May 2010.
In June 2010, when activity slowed down in the bee house.
And, finally, in February 2011 when they were all quietly waiting for spring.

But a lot has happened between now and then, and somehow I never got back here to do a 2011 clean-up and re-start mason bee post. Now it’s June again and I haven’t written a thing about them. This generation of mason bees has some serious second child neglect. Please don’t tell them you prefer photos of fluffy adorable chicks.

In March 2011, I brought the mason bee house inside and cleaned it out. This is important because I left the bee house outside all summer, which meant that summer bees built on top of spring bees. So when the spring bees hatched, they would either die because they couldn’t get out, or kill the summer bees on their way out. Ideally, a person might have a system to accommodate both spring and summer bees but, well, we’re experimenting. Anyway, I cleaned out the bee house.

Inside, each tube has layers from the front to the back.
mud wall – cocoon – frass (waste products) – mud wall – cocoon – frass (repeat)

A single cocoon looks like this:

Then we hung the house out again, nice and clean. I put all the cocoons in an up-cycled yogurt container. Krista asked me why I insisted on stuffing garbage into our cute bee house, so I guess I need a new strategy for next year.

The weather this year has been, in one word, awful and the masons have struggled accordingly. We have seen some activity around the house, like this little lady. It was a relief to spot her after I had almost given up on any mason bees this year.

They filled the first hole at the beginning of May — later than last year. The bees seemed busy every nice day we had, but there weren’t many. Now it is June and the mason bee season has passed. Forgive this stylized camera phone photo; we got new cell phones and I’m a little obsessed. This is the progress they made.

At this time last year we had 20 mud-filled holes. This year, we have 12. I read the Cliff Mass Weather Blog, which has great information on western Washington weather patterns, and they are reporting:

The new numbers for the average March through May temperatures at Sea-Tac are in, and by any reasonable measure (average temperature, average maximum), this has been the coldest March through May at Sea-Tac since dependable records are available (1956).

Lets begin by viewing the 5 coldest springs ( average daily temperature for March-May) in the last 55 years from 1957 through 2011 at SeaTac:

1) 2011 47.6
2) 1975 47.8
3) 2002 47.9
4) 1964 48.0
5) 1962 48.0

My bee experiences are only anecdotal, but I suspect this weather affected my mason bees. Other western Washington beekeepers are reporting normal to good mason bee production this year, so maybe it’s just me. Furthermore, I hypothesize that some of our mason bees are using alternate accommodations – cracks between the wood shingle siding of our house, perhaps? I am not going to excavate the siding to find out, but I have seen enough bees buzzing around to think it might be true.

Last year, we had a flurry of summertime solitary bee activity. I don’t know what species they are, but they managed to fill another 8 holes before fall. So now I’m waiting for the summer bee activity – we have plenty of room for them, obviously.

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Bees at Alcatraz

When we get busy, updating the blog is the first thing to fall off the “honey do” list. I guess that’s normal. We had Spring Break (WhoOoO) and took a 1700 mile road trip to Northern California so we could feel the sun on our faces. It is well-documented that we really love road trips. I got sunburned, of course, and it was a little difficult to come home to our soggy, gray town. But in California in April, the sun shines. The weather was warm, and everything is growing, blooming & buzzing. Do you know how magical that is to those of us under the constant PNW drizzle? Very magical.

While in San Francisco, we took an Alcatraz Cruise over to The Rock. The decaying prison facility & history are interesting, but what I really loved was the Alcatraz Island garden. The Army started bringing dirt to the barren rock island in the 1850s, back when it was Fort Alcatraz. People who lived on the island brought plants from home, and prisoners worked on gardens over the years. When the island was abandoned a few decades ago, many transplants escaped. Lush gardens have taken over, and a group of volunteers is in the process of restoring them. The Alcatraz gardens were my favorite thing on our trip and I can’t stop talking about them.

Alcatraz is an island, of course, so I wasn’t surprised that we didn’t see honey bees. The island might be a great place for a bee hive, but the National Park Service probably isn’t maintaining one and honey bees are not known for their trips across bodies of water. However, we found bumble bees hard at work in the old prison. Bumble bees are suited to life on Alcatraz. They don’t need humans meddling and there’s plenty of food.

I took a photo of a bumble bee with the golden gate bridge in the background. I believe this flower is Pride of Madeira, but please tell me if I’m wrong. Levi identified this bumble bee as Bombus bombus, which is kind of a nerd joke, like “I know it’s a bumble bee but I don’t know what kind because there are hundreds of them.”

Back at the dock, the National Park Service has container gardens featuring many of the plants from the Alcatraz Island Gardens. The container gardens give you a feeling of continuity on both sides of the boat ride, like a preview of the gardens you’re going to see while you’re waiting in line for the boat. I stopped to check out the Pride of Madeira potted up on the dock. No surprise — I found a honey bee working the flowers at Pier 33. My book research indicates the flower is a good nectar source for bees, and my field research seems consistent with that finding.

Bees. They’re pretty much everywhere, thankfully.

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Hello from Olympia

I remind myself of Dolly’s words of wisdom, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” We’ve put up with the rain. March came in like a lion, and seems hellbent on going out like a wet house cat. I’ve heard that this month was breaking precipitation records, but I haven’t fact checked that. It seems possible.

This is not the best forecast for the bees. Things are starting to bloom, but wet bees can’t do much work. My kale is getting ready to go, and bees love kale flowers. I hope they get to enjoy them.

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