Saturday, April 21, 2018

Swarm Basics for Non Beekeepers

It's swarm season. Basically, this means that the house is a mess and all creative projects are on hold while I run around playing with tens of thousands of my closest friends. Swarming is a mystery to most people, sometimes even the beekeeper, so I always get lots of questions about it this time of year.

What is is: Swarming is how a colony of bees reproduces. About half the bees in the hive leave, taking the old queen with them. They often settle on a nearby branch or fencepost for a few hours or days until the scout bees find a suitable location for a permanent home. The bees remaining in the hive then wait for a new queen to hatch out. One colony has now become two. It's a sign of healthy bees and a productive queen.

What it looks like: It may look like a dark noisy cloud in the sky if you are lucky enough to see them traveling. Generally, though people notice swarms when they are collected on a temporary spot. You have probably seen this on the news in the spring. If it's on your car you can call a beekeeper to remove them. If it's on a shrub or tree in your yard, leave them. They'll usually leave within 3 days.

Why it's good: It means that the hive is populated enough for the bees to feel crowded. It means there are now enough bees to split into two complete colonies. Plus more bees! Always good! And it's just a really cool and exciting thing. But really...more bees!

Why it's bad: The only reason it's bad is for a beekeeper. Unless you find and catch the swarm you will have lost those bees. There's also a saying that you can either have more honey or more bees so swarms can mean a decrease in honey production for that hive. Also since they take the old queen the beekeeper loses a queen whose genetics she's paid for.

What the beekeeper does about it: Swarm catching is the thing that makes all beekeepers look insane. We will climb trees. We will climb ladders. We will put ladders in the backs of pickup trucks. We want that swarm! The beekeeper will capture the swarm in a box, bucket, or hive that has one small hole. As long as the queen is captured all the other bees will go willingly into the container. After dark, the container is sealed up and the bees can be moved to a new location.

What happens to the new colony: After a few days the queen and her offspring set up housekeeping and get back to work. Then the process starts all over again.

Have you ever seen a swarm?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Making the Most of Your Phone's Camera on Vacation

Are you old enough you remember people inviting your parents over to see their vacation photos on a slide projector? Doesn't that sound like a fun evening? Complain all you want about social media, its invention has saved all future generations from having to keep from falling asleep in the dark while a neighbor explains some unfunny thing that happened to him and his wife at Niagara Falls.


I love taking photos of all kinds but left my good camera at home for a recent trip to Pensacola. That old photographer's axiom about the best camera being the one you have with you proved true. You can still get quality artistic photos with your phone. Here are my best efforts last week on my iPhone 7.

...and yes, were plenty of silly shots on the beach with friends but I'm guessing they look just like yours. The top photo is of a friend in the distance picking up seashells. Every beach photo doesn't have to be at sunset with smiling faces. This photo actually captures our friend's personality quite well.

Experiment with close up...

 ...and far away.

 Look for beauty in the details.

Try black and white for dramatic images. 

 Capture the theme of beach week with something other than feet in the sand.

The best thing you can do to improve your photos is to study photos in magazines that feature the kind of pictures you most want to take. Looking at great photographs will teach you about composition and inspire you to try new things. Bad angles and composition won't be undone with even the most expensive equipment.

Happy photo taking!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

So What Was Up With That Testy Hive?

Before I went on vacay I posted about some problems I had just resolved with the help of a local bee expert.

Read the whole story 

Since I kind of left you hanging and then left town I thought I'd fill you in. Let's start with some bee genetics. Now, aren't you glad you showed up? 

Don't worry. All you need to know is that bees are like other forms of livestock or dog breeds in that certain traits are desirable and others undesirable so bees exhibiting desired traits are bred for them. Beekeepers look for behavioral qualities like being docile and not swarming frequently and physical traits like resistance to diseases.

For bee genetics, it's also important to know that a queen bee will mate with as many as 20 drones on her mating flights. It would be highly unlikely that all these drones would be from her own colony so by doing this she ensures a wide variety of genetic traits in her offspring and improved resistance to disease.

For a beekeeper, however, if you have paid for a bee with certain genetic traits and she is killed or lost in a swarm you have no control over your virgin queen's choice of partners. She may mate with drones from colonies that have undesirable qualities. She is also likely to mate with other races of bees that have inherent differences which you may or may not want to be introduced in your bee yard.

The most well-known races of honey bees in the New World are:
  • Italian Bees, Apis mellifera ligustica.
  • Carniolan Bees, Apis mellifera carnica.
  • Caucasian Bees, Apis mellifera caucasica.
  • German Black Bees, Apis mellifera mellifera.
  • Africanized Honey Bees, Apis mellifera scutellata and its Hybrids.

Enter the testy hive.

My original colony of bees was Carniolan but over the past 6 years those bees have multiplied, swarmed, and produced many queens. Last year for the first time I began to notice smaller black bees in my hives and garden. Bees from German stock are known to be a bit more defensive than Carnies and in the end, this was most likely the explanation for the "hot hive."

Other things can make even a normally easy-going colony hard to handle. 

Recent predators like skunks that set the bees on edge.
Opening the hive on cloudy, stormy days.
A dearth of resources often in late summer or fall.
A beekeeper who handles the hives roughly or clumsily.
Lawn equipment.

Knowing your bees and what constitutes normal for them is an important part of being a good beekeeper. Of course just when you think you have it all figured out the girls throw you a curve.

Welcome to beekeeping. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Few Simple Bee Facts

Did you know that honey bees are not native to the western hemisphere? That's right! All the honey bees (and there are seven distinct species) in North and South America were brought here from from Europe.

Honeybees live in colonies of tens of thousands. The colony is considered a super organism. Bees cannot survive as individuals but depend on each other for survival.

The queen bee, though she gets a lot of attention and praise doesn't actually run the hive and tell all the other bees what to do. She flies out of the hive once, to mate, and then spends the rest of her life laying eggs. Technically she is the mother of the hive. She may lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. Doesn't sound as glamorous now, does it?

Honeycomb is made up of wax that the bees secrete and it is made up of hexagon shaped cells that are filled with honey, brood, or pollen.

Bees in the colony have different jobs depending on their age. They will perform all the jobs during their lives: Clean up crew, nurse bee, builder, transferring pollen and nectar from foragers to cells, honey maker, guard, and lastly, forager. As foragers they literally work themselves to death. 
Bees communicate by dancing. It's known as the waggle dance. The colony is almost all female so...of course there's dancing!

Swarming is the result of a crowded hive. A new queen is raised and half the bees leave the hive with the old queen to look for a new home. This generally happens in the spring and they may be seen swarming in unusual places for two or three days while the scout bees look for a permanent home.                                                        

When a bee stings it's insides are ripped out and it dies. The same goes for a male who mates successfully with a queen.

Since 2006 a strange phenomenon that scientists named Colony Collapse Disorder has been mysteriously killing entire colonies of bees. While an exact cause is still up for debate, there are quite a few things at work: pesticides/fungicides, commercial farming techniques, new pests, and new diseases.

 These are some simple things that are good to know but I have found that bees are endlessly fascinating. There is always something new to learn, new research being done, and stories from fellow beekeepers I haven't heard before. Sometimes the bees completely surprise me. They haven't read all the books written about them and don't always behave accordingly. But the basic things listed here for your information are actual facts that don't change.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What to Plant Now to Help the Pollinators

bee on flower

It's spring and time to start planting the garden! But please note the local frost date for your area. In Southwest Tennessee, it's April 15th which seems crazy when there are gorgeous days in March but guess what-- it was actually predicted to hit freezing last Saturday night. Which means on April 7 IN THE SOUTH there were snowflakes on my weather app. Again, mind your local frost date just to be safe. 

As a beekeeper and gardener, I often get the question about what to plant for bees.

Read about how digging in the soil can make you happier.

 In a previous post, I recommended planting a pollinator garden as another way to help our buzzing friends. If that's how you choose to be part of the solution you may be wondering what to plant that would most benefit the bees in your area. Here are some tips to help you get started once you have decided to make part of your yard, garden, or balcony a friendlier space for bees. Read about a day in a bee's life. 


What to Plant

1. Plant colorful showy flowers. Bees are attracted to flowers with bright colors, particularly those in the blue-violet range of the color wheel, along with white and yellow. They don't see red but plant those if you like for the butterflies and hummingbirds. Good examples are bee balm and Russian sage

2. Plant flowers that have one large blossom so that the hefty bumblebee can land on it securely. Think of sunflowers, zinnias, rudbeckia. And plants that have tiny flowers for small bees. I like lamb's ear and salvia.

3. Plant plants that have hollow stems. Many varieties of native bees are solitary and nest in holes in the ground or in hollow stems of plants. All of the brambly canes like raspberry and blackberry are wonderful choices along with many types of ornamental grasses. 

4. Plant types of flowers in big patches. This helps increase the bees' foraging efficiency. 

5. Use low maintenance plants. The less we disturb a pollinator garden the better. This is not the place for plants that need deadheading and pruning. My favorites are bee balm, coreopsis, and many types of herbs like oregano. 

6. Plant for consistent bloom. As soon as bees emerge in the spring they need nectar. After the big blooming season of spring and early there can be a dearth of flowering plants. Add things that bloom in late summer and early fall. Where I live narcissus, forsythia, and apples bloom very early. My absolute favorite for late summer to early fall is garlic chives which have white blossoms and do a wonderful job of providing nectar in that late summer dearth. 

7. Plant flowers that have single blossoms. Many of the big showy double blossomed hybrids cultivated for enjoyment in the garden have little or no nectar for bees.

alaskan dandelion

Other tips

8. Garden, don't landscape. Don't mulch or use weed barrier everywhere. 70 % of native bees nest underground. 

9. Don't use chemicals. Even if you end up with a few weeds it's okay, they are bee friendly. Bees actually suffer when weeds are completely eradicated.

10. Leave stalks standing to overwinter. For those bees that like to nest in hollow-stemmed plants, it's important to leave them a place to hibernate and nest next spring. 

With the loss of native habitat to bees happening all over the world, it is more important than ever to garden with them in mind. Planting one or all of these plants is a great way to help them in their time of need whether you are doing it in a spacious backyard or in a container on your apartment balcony, every pollinator-friendly plant matters now.

Now you can head out to the garden center with a plan in mind! Happy gardening 
(and you know, saving the world)  Y'all! 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

She Was a Good Queen in a Bad Location

This picture is of a purchased and marked queen, not the tyrant that is the subject of this post. 

There's always that member, coworker, neighbor. You know, the one that can't get along with anyone and keeps everyone else on edge. Last week when I finally got around to doing thorough inspections I had that one...hive. Every other hive had been such a joy to work. No aggressiveness. Everyone was in a great mood and the weather was perfect. I used very little smoke on the bees and at one point I thought I could be doing the inspections without my suit.

I never do that though, just in case. And this is the just in case. 

When I got to the last hive it was a different story. They were quite unhappy to see me. Many more bees than normal came out to fly at me, bouncing off my veil and I could feel them hitting my suit. I only pulled out a frame or two for a quick check before I closed it back up. I couldn't risk a thorough inspection on a Saturday when the neighbors are home.

Above everything else, I'm trying to be a responsible beekeeper. Especially since I'm keeping these bees in a neighborhood. The only reason I was even doing checks on a Saturday was that the weather has been so uncooperative that it was literally the only day I had to get it done and I needed to check for laying queens and swarm cells. Generally, I make every effort to open the hives on workdays when most of the neighbors are at work. It's also helpful in case something goes wrong like I realize there's a bee in my suit and I start stripping in the backyard.

You know, little things like that. 

I knew immediately that I would be moving this hive. This aggressive queen and her testy progeny cannot coexist peacefully with me in the garden.  After closing up the hive and stepping away a few yards there were still bees buzzing around me. Again, not normal behavior. Into the potting shed. Still bees. Around the corner and onto the patio. Still, bees harassing me. Then the dog went tearing through the back porch to the back door and I realized she'd been stung. I opened the door and slipped her inside.

I went inside the cottage taking a few bees with me. I checked my self in the mirror before removing my suit. I went around the front way to avoid any angry bees to find that my husband had already caught and thrown out 8 bees and that the cat had now been stung and was running all over the house at breakneck speed appearing as a black and white flash as he flew from one room to another.

I know you think this sounds so fun you are already wondering where you can get some bees for your own yard. 

In 6 years of beekeeping, I've never had anything like this. Even last year when I had my first hot hive. Plus there were a few bees at my kitchen window. Later when I sat on the screened porch they showed up and hit the screen from time to time. Then I heard a closer buzzing and realized there was one caught in my hair. Had she been there for an hour or did she just find me?

No matter who you are, a buzzing bee caught in your hair is extremely disconcerting. I ran into the cottage and brushed her out without being stung. Later my husband had one caught in his hair as well when trying to sit on the patio. During this entire scenario, no people were ever stung.

But still, you know what I started thinking...

Is it possible?

This far north?

And after such a cold winter?

No. They couldn't be Africanized...still...

Have you ever noticed that in the midst of some minor drama your worst fears pop up? 

I made the decision to call, David Glover AKA The Bee Whisperer who lives nearby. He agreed to come and have a look. As it turns out they were not dangerous, just too defensive for this location. We inspected the hive together and found a few queen cells.

"Maybe they don't like her either," he said.

I'd had that happen with a hive last year that I had to move. They were testy and I did move them but then the bees requeened themselves anyway.

He spotted the queen and took her with him to find a new home where she and her offspring will have plenty of space to make honey without bothering anyone.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. No, Y'all, I mean I was so relieved. 

I still had to move the hive and since my husband injured his leg a couple of weeks ago my neighbor agreed to help me do the heavy lifting. After dark, I carefully taped up the hives paying special attention to any holes or gaps. It was a cold night and the perfect time to move a hive. Due to the chill, the bees all went in early making my job easier. Around 10:00 we relocated them and I brought the nuc back to the garden to take their place.

Do you have amazing neighbors? I hope so. 

The next afternoon, when I went out to the garden, peace and order had been restored (Just like the end of Mean Girls only no one got hit by a bus) with only happy bees buzzing around paying me no attention at all.

In 5 or 6 weeks when all the old mean bees die out the defensive hive should calm down. Hopefully, those queens they are raising are of the gentle variety. I won't' be able to tell for a few weeks.

So what was going on with the unruly bees? I'll explain in the next post.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Spring Report From the Bee Yard

It's the busiest time of year for bees and beekeepers. The queens started gearing up the egg production in late winter and on any warm day in March I could see bees orienting in front of the hives. Orienting is when the bees leave the hive for the very first time and they spend a few minutes flying in ever-widening figure eights in front of the hive to mark its location in relation to landmarks.

It means you know there's been a laying queen in there recently without even opening the hive.

Due to weather and scheduling issues, I was much delayed in getting in the hives. There was a full month between my first and second inspections which is far too long this time of year. 7-9 days during spring is what I normally aim for.

On my March 3rd inspection I'd had one dead hive which I had cleaned up and was sure I'd be able to replace either by catching a swarm or making a split from a hive with queen cells. Last Saturday I had no idea what I might find except that from the outside of the hives all was well.

At the neighbor's:

I started with hive #5 because it contains the queen I purchased last year so I'm keen to prevent her swarming because she should have the best genetics. The genetics I paid for anyway. She was laying away and I gave them another box so they could spread out. No queen cells.

The next hive #3 (4 had been the dead out) was full of cheerful bees, brood, and a few queen cells. I took some frames of queen cells, brood, honey and pollen out and moved them to a nucleus. Beekeepers call this a nuc for short and it contains 5 frames of bees and everything they need to get started. This is an easy way for new beekeepers to get started or for a beekeeper to start a new hive of bees. It's temporary. I placed it in spot #1. I had combined that hive with 3 going into fall because it looked a little weak.

Hive #2  looked good so I just reversed the hive body boxes. Lots of beekeepers think this helps prevent swarming but I do it sometimes and not others. Like most other things there's some discussion among beekeepers as to whether or not it helps. Some find it unnecessary. Others swear by it.

Welcome to beekeeping. 

In the garden: 

Hive A was bursting with bees but too hot to handle. (I'll explain in the next post)

Hive B was also bursting but I couldn't do a split because I'd already riled up A and it was a Saturday when my neighbors were home.

After this things got interesting...

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Rapping Up Our Trip With a Little Gephyrophobia

cozumel cruise stop

Three things here: 1. Yes, I know that I mean wrapping, but I'm trying to be clever. 2. This photo has nothing to do with today's post but Casey took it and I think it's adorable. 3. Gephyrophobia is the fear of bridges.

I guess I could have chosen a simpler title. 


On the morning we returned home we had one last breakfast in the dining room before walking off the ship with our bags. If you are a light packer it's less trouble to just take your own bags off the ship. As we drove out of NOLA we had to cross the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge. Debi is afraid of bridges, something I wasn't aware of until this trip. She tried to convince Maggie to find a different route but the causeway saves a lot of time. Casey suggested music might make a good distraction. Debi chose Nelly because It's Gettin Hot in Here is the solution to so many problems.

Taking off all your clothes might not help with anxiety but singing about it at the top of your lungs actually seems to help. 

While we were dancing and singing some guys in a white van next to us at the last red light before the bridge started waving at us out the window and dancing too. As we pulled away I could see the side of the van and it belonged to the local sheriff's department. We thought that was so hilarious until I got home and my detective son-in-law informed me that the van was a prisoner transport.

Oh. Suddenly much less funny. 

My friend survived the bridge while we all reassured her that it was perfectly safe. It is considered one of the world's scariest bridges, however. It's the longest continuous bridge and you can't see land at all from the middle 8 miles. While it's on several lists of fear-inducing bridges when you see the others listed in Travel and Leisure's list, it seems like nothing at all.

Researching the scariest bridges made me want to cross all of them. Check out this list from Conde' Nast Traveler: The World's Scariest Bridges. 

All this talk about being afraid of crossing spans made me remember a little video I shot last year in Alaska from the platform of the White Pass Yukon train.

Are you afraid of anything? Bridges don't bother me but I'm afraid of getting stung by bees (true story), being surprised by any creepy or slithery thing, getting old, and running out of tequila. Not necessarily in that order. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A First Time For Everything List

On our last day at sea as the Triumph crossed the gulf on its way back to New Orleans, we soaked up the sun with a bit of sadness that our trip was drawing to a close. The night before I had gone to the salon to get my hair cut after seeing how fantastic Debi's hair turned out. The Scottish stylist, Emma knew exactly what I wanted before I finished explaining. She gave me a great cut and just when I thought she was finished she went back in and cut out what looked like enormous swaths of long hair.

There was a gasp from my entourage. We'd all been the cheering section for Debi when she got her hair cut and now they were there to be my moral support. There was a lot of hair on the floor. It looked amazing when she finished blowing it out and curling it.

It has never looked remotely like that one time since I returned home. 

Our last day at sea was extremely chilly compared to the other days. A cold snap had swept south while we were away so I was glad I'd made the most of the waterslide the day before. We spent our last day reading, laughing, and semi-packing. Packing to go away is so exciting. Packing to go home is always depressing. 

I decided since I've never been on a cruise without my husband before I would make this a trip of other firsts.

I kept a list in my travel journal: 

Girls' Trip Cruise

Having my picture made with the captain.

Getting my hair done.

Going to the dance club. (every night)

Having bacon at all 3 meals one day.

Shopping for jewelry while doing tequila shots

Doing the Cuban Shuffle in the ocean.

Getting a henna tattoo.

Dance party in a Mexican taxi.

Eating a Guy's Burger Joint burger. Ahem...on the daily. 

Trying almond and chocolate tequila.

Going to Guest Services myself to get my bill straightened out. (usually my husband's job)

Salsa lesson.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why "We're Never Going To See These People Again" is My Travel Motto

What are we doing? WHATEVER WE WANT!

My friend Debi and I sang this over and over while jumping up and down in the water and throwing our hands up in the air. If you've been reading along you know we were on this trip with her daughter, Casey, and her niece, Maggie who was turning 21. Sometimes you just need to act like you are six years old and it's usually best to do that when you can say "We're never going to see these people again."

You know you are living your best life when you are wearing a sun hat big enough for you and your bestie to get under. 

No one was interested in going to Chichen Itza (Read about my two previous trips to the ruins here and here.) so the four of us opted for a private beach excursion complete with an authentic Mexican buffet and unlimited drinks. Unlike Cozumel, Progresso is a place I don't feel comfortable just strolling around. There's a beach just at the end of the pier where the ships dock with great food and drinks and where you can get a massage on the beach. A couple of years ago my husband and I did that and it was fun but there were people coming by constantly to sell things and I knew our girls' group wouldn't want to deal with that.

After a 20-minute bus ride from the pier we arrived, changed and grabbed some lounge chairs. I now realize I never sat down in mine. When it was billed as a "beach house" I thought they were kidding but it really was a house with a private beach.

We started with drinks and food, then headed for the water. It was one of those beaches where you can wade out a really long way without it ever getting over your head and the tour guide had promised us no sharks. I still can't help but keep an eye out though. Thanks a lot, Jaws and Shark Week.  It was glassy smooth at first but later the waves picked up and one particularly roguish wave pulled down Casey's bathing suit rendering her topless while facing the beach.

Apparently, in Mexico, this doesn't even earn you any cheap plastic beads.

I was so helpful with my laughing hysterically and jumping up and down. Why is every little thing exactly one million times funnier on vacation? Thank goodness we are never going to see these people again! 

Over the loudspeaker we  occasionally heard them announce different activities you could join in between the music. We couldn't be bothered to get out of the water and so I have the most wonderful memory of us all doing the Cuban Shuffle in the gulf. They did call Maggie's name and request her presence for a birthday celebration. They put a funny hat on her and gave her a free drink and a miniature cake. It was all super cute.

Casey and I took part in the salsa lesson and Debi found an 86 year old man who was a hit among the spring breakers in the club every night and danced with him on the beach. She'd bought a hat in Cozumel and looked like a Cuban cigar heiress. Now that's a style goal!

While Debi and I were jumping up and down and singing "What are we doing? Whatever we want!" a man and his wife waded out to us to tell us that they'd seen us around the ship and thought we looked like we were having more fun than anyone.  We'd already had this discussion among the four of us and were pretty sure it was true. Debi and I recalled trips to Italy and New York where we also had reputations as the people having the best time. It's a travel goal!

Eventually, Casey and Maggie made us get out and helped us get our stuff together, while Casey was helping me on with my caftan which was tangled up over my head I heard her say "I told you we should have made them get out sooner."

I guess we also looked a bit like six-year-olds. I'd lost count of my rum runners but it suddenly seemed really hard to figure out complicated things like two arm holes and a neck hole. 

There was a bit of a rush to collect ourselves and get back on the bus for the ship. After all, we had to get ready for a lovely dinner, karaoke, the comedy show, and hitting the club.  Our evening goals. So very different from the ones I have at home. 

You know it was a good day when you have had salsa AND a salsa lesson.