Hello, Spring. Goodbye, Bees.

Photo Apr 03, 2 05 22 PM

Today was the first time we’ve gone up to our community garden plot this spring. There are a few signs of green besides the occasional weed, including those healthy looking chives. I’ve dropped by a few times over the winter, but today we actually did a little bit of work, mostly clearing away last year’s asparagus stems. We found shoots!

Photo Apr 03, 2 03 12 PM

Out of all the plants, I think this might have been the only female and I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between it’s sex and that it’s the first one out of the ground. More likely it’s just the best-protected plant.

Photo Apr 03, 2 05 05 PM

These scallions that I left in last fall are going to be ready to harvest soon. I need to make a note to grow them over the winter again. They’ve done well.

Photo Apr 03, 2 03 24 PM

In another Allium area we found the garlic looking great. I did a quick scan of the anal-retentive grid I planted them on and it looks like every bulb I put in survived and has emerged.

Photo Apr 03, 2 05 38 PM

This Allium, which I thought might be Korean chives, has come back strong. I am curious to really identify it, if possible, now that I’m reading Around the World in 80 Plants.  There are so many edible Alliums! It sounds like even experts have a difficult time telling some of them apart. Which reminds me, back in the perennial garden at home my ramps, a.k.a. Allium tricoccum are up. I hope this year I can get some seed from them.


I need to find an unobtrusive way to mark where they are planted so I don’t accidentally dig them up during this summer’s planned garden update. Maybe a circle of stones.

Hellebore 1

Elsewhere in the perennial garden the hellebores are stealing the show. After yesterday’s on again/off again snow and sunshine—seriously, it was a weird day— I got out to look around and admire a few blooms.

Hellebore 2

Hellebore 3

Hellebore 4

Hellebore 5


This clump of Helleborus niger var. macranthus is starting to look a little beaten-up. No surprise since it’s been blooming for about a month and has been snowed and sleeted on several times.


The H. niger is under the cherry tree where I replaced the trashed cigar box birdhouse (thanks for nothing, squirrels!) with this one I scavenged from my late father’s shed last fall. There is already some nesting material hanging out of the backyard wren house so I thought I’d better get this one out.

Which brings me to the other animal housing update…

Bee Blocks

Here are the deserted blocks that, until last weekend supported my beehives. A couple summers ago I discovered the hard way that I’ve developed an allergy to honey bee venom. (The emergency room just over the hill here is very nice.) Since then, I just haven’t felt comfortable around the hives without being fully suited up. Consequently, maintenance of the garden has suffered. I recently made the hard decision to give up the bees and turned them over, along with all my equipment to my beekeeping partner to liquidate. Helen, the last hive I had has survived through two winters so he’s going to attempt to make some splits. They should be rather desirable on the local market. I’m going to miss watching the annual cycle of the hive and caring for the honey bees. They’re fascinating creatures I’ll always appreciate. In their place I’ll be caring to the extent I do to the native bees and other pollinators around my home gardens and in our community garden plot by providing food plants and housing opportunities for them.


The food, of course, includes my nemesis, the dreaded Scilla. I’ve given up trying eradicate it from the back garden and hope just to keep it from invading the front. It’s still a noxious, alien weed in my eyes, but knowing it provides food for so many kinds of bees has changed my opinion of it, but only grudgingly.

Hope Survives

Actually, it’s the hive I’ve named Bernice that is known to be surviving at the moment. I don’t have any named Hope but that’s not a bad idea, now that I think about it. In any case, I checked the two backyard hives yesterday and found the workers of Queen Bernice dining on the sugar that I placed in the hive last fall as insurance. The cluster was already at the top of the hive back then despite having at least one full super of honey below the top super. It looks like they’ve gone through more than half of the ten pounds of sugar and I’ve got some sugar cakes made should they exhaust this before nectar is available this spring. I also gave them a little pollen patty, that brown thing on the right, in case they get a hankering for that.

Live Bees on Sugar

The other backyard hive, a split from the only hive we had survive last winter was dead. The cluster was huddled toward but not in one of the corners of the lower of two medium boxes. The super above them is still full of honey and then there is ten pounds of sugar on top of that so I’m pretty sure they didn’t starve to death. If I had to guess, I’d say they froze because the cluster was too small. We’ve had some unusually long stretches of brutally cold weather without a break and other beekeepers in the area are reporting smaller clusters perishing for no other apparent reason. I’m going to take this as a lesson to make sure hives have a good population going into winter and to take extra precautions with nucs, should I end the season with any.

The 2014 beekeeping season is going to be different for me. My partner and I are going to go more our separate ways as we have different goals and amounts of time we’re willing to allot to the bees. I’m going to have two to three hives in my back yard and let him take over the other hives we’ve started in the other four locations. My idea is that with fewer hives and a convenient location I’ll be able to give them more attention and, I hope, learn more and become a better beekeeper in the process.

Signs of Life

After some discussions with some members of the beekeeping association The Other Mark and I decided it was high time we checked our beehives to see if they were still alive and if they needed feeding. I had confirmed that Dagmar, the colony in my back yard was dead recently and it made me concerned for the other three. This afternoon we trudged through the snow first to our more rural apiary to check on Mary, the first cutout we did, and Lisa, one of the hives we created with a Varroa Sensitive Hygenic queen. The Other Mark had just returned from helping a more experienced beekeeper feed his bees so he had some tips on what to look for with our hives.

At first glance Mary looked promising; there are icicles hanging off the cover and there are dead bees in the very recent snow in front of the hive.


 Bees in Snow

With these encouraging sights I put my ear against the upper entrance—daring, I know!—and knocked on the hive. The buzzing was loud and clear. We have live bees! Unfortunately there were no external signs of life from Lisa and when we checked the fourth hive which is in town it also looked dead. That one we opened and confirmed the sad news.

I was feeling a little pessimistic after finding the backyard hive was dead so discovering that we still have a live hive to work with really lifted my spirits.

Bee News Updates: Bad, Good and Good!

Life’s that thing we all do that requires taking some bad with some good and hopefully making the best of things along the way. We’ve had bad and good news lately regarding the bees, but fortunately the good is winning out.

When we were out adding supers to a couple of the busier hives in the country apiary the other day we got the bad news: An elderly neighbor who had problems with the way we were keeping our bees –he thought we should have them in the shade!—was still pestering our host. In the interest of maintaining good relations, we agreed to move them to a new location. Fortunately, and I mean really fortunately, another neighbor of our previous host was not only willing to host them, she has a nearly ideal spot, doesn’t mind how many we have, and says we can keep there for the foreseeable future! On top of that, I’ve renewed an acquaintance from twenty-plus years go. With a new site available, we screened off the entrances, tied and taped the hive components together and loaded them on and in The Other Mark’s van.

A short drive later we had them placed and leveled. The whole process went quickly and smoothly and we never suited up or used smoke. We put brush and boards in front of the entrances so they’d be confused when they emerged and have to reorient to their surroundings. This should keep them from trying to fly back to their previous location when they come back in from foraging. Fingers crossed.


The other news concerns the queen cells we installed when we did the splits as related in my previous post. The split we made from Margaret, the booming package hive, had its queen emerge normally, but the one we made from Mary and placed in our back yard never emerged at all. I was able to obtain another VSH queen cell and install it a week after the first one. Today I opened the hive to check and found an encouraging sight.

See how the end of the cell is opened in a nice, neat circle? That indicates that the queen, the “real” Ruby for record-keeping purposes, emerged normally and should be somewhere in the hive. I didn’t go looking for her. I’ll leave the hive alone for a couple of weeks to give her time to mature and mate and then do a full inspection to see if she’s started laying eggs. Wish her luck!

That Time I Did the Splits

Yesterday morning The Other Mark and I got together at the apiary and did splits. We had been discussing for a while whether we could or  if we should even try. With the input of more experienced beekeepers we decided to go ahead and give it a try. What? You knew I was talking about beekeeping, didn’t you?

The Dane County Beekeeping Association received a grant to obtain and propagate Varroa Sensitive Hygiene Queens. In brief, these queens have been selectively bred for behavior that protects their hives from a plethora of pests and diseases greatly reducing the need for nasty chemical interventions. And they’re expensive. The grant and generous work of one of our members allowed others in the association to purchase them for much, much less so I ordered two intending to use them to requeen the two package hives we got back in May. Then, we learned at the last meeting that we could use these queens to make new hives by splitting our existing ones

Splitting a hive involves removing frames of brood, pollen and honey along with any bees on them from an existing hive and putting it into an empty hive to start a new colony. This is one of the honey frames we took from Mary, the hive we rescued from a wall. We also took a couple of frames with brood in various stages including capped, and another frame of honey and pollen.

The queen cells were brought home in a wooden block that had holes drilled to accommodate them. The queen cell hangs down from a little plastic cup. How it’s constructed I don’t know but I should read up on that. It’s doubtless an interesting process. We selected a frame that had a nice patch of brood in various stages of development…

…and just jammed the cell into the middle of it maintaining the vertical orientation.

Then, we placed the frames in their boxes and, in the case of the split we took from Margaret, positioned the hive on the last vacant stand in the apiary. The one from Mary—and this is the exciting part!—I loaded into my car and brought home to a spot I’d prepared in the back yard. Meet Ruby.

Ruby We did the splits early in the morning before the foragers had started flying for the day. When I got home and removed the screens we’d stuck on for transport they slowly, placidly began coming out to explore their new home. By mid-morning there were a good number of gentle, relaxed bees flying around the hive. I spent a good part of the day just watching them.

This is the time of year to be getting a beehive ready for winter, believe it or not, and that’s done by making sure you have a young, laying queen in residence. These queens should emerge in a few days, spend about another week maturing and then yet another week or so after that making mating flights. After that, we should start seeing eggs in the new hives. Our fallback plan, should the new and/or existing hives not be strong toward the end of summer, is to remove the old queens and combine each new hive with an old one. I’m really hoping it doesn’t come to that.

The Queen is Dead? Long Live the Queen!

A little over two weeks ago we obtained our first colony of bees via a route I hadn’t quite planned on. Armed with a saw, crowbars and various other pieces of equipment we extracted from the wall of a house. When we were done we were not sure whether we had gotten the queen or not. Since installing them in a Langstroth hive the bees have been coming and going, bringing in pollen which is an encouraging sign.

Yesterday we finally opened the hive for the first time to see what was really going on in there. The anticipation was killing me. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but considering how it was established, we weren’t surprised. One of the two boxes of frames had only empty cells and capped brood we presumed was dead since the bees weren’t on that comb to speak of at all. In the other box we did find nectar and honey stores, lots of workers, lots of drones, and no eggs or larvae. We also found queen cells!

The queen cells we saw were opened on the side like these two. This is the result when the first queen emerges and then goes around destroying her rivals. It means that there may be a virgin queen wandering around in the hive. The weather here has been cool and overcast for a while now. If she’s in there, Mary, or perhaps we should say Mary II should come out on a mating flight some sunny day and then eventually start laying eggs. This would be the ideal outcome of this situation since that would perpetuate the genes from the queen that had a hive survive through the winter. I’m crossing my fingers and hope to report good news before the end of May.

We Have Our First Bees!

A couple days ago The Other Mark called to say he had responded to an opportunity to remove a colony of bees from someone’s house. The notice was posted on the local beekeeping group’s listserv and he jumped right in to say we were on it. We loaded up all the equipment we could think of that we might need and headed to the home to check it out and possibly even do the removal right away.

When we got there it was sunny and warm enough that the bees were flying in and out of a hole in the siding waaaaay up on the second floor.

Fortunately the wall was an exterior screen wall and was easily accessible from the narrow, top-floor deck. After some discussion we decided to postpone attempting to remove it for a couple of days to wait for cooler, overcast weather and an earlier morning start.

So, this morning we packed up again and headed to the home. When we arrived a peek over the wall revealed that only a couple of guard bees were outside the opening and none could be seen flying around. We had listened with a stethoscope previously to guess at the extent of the colony and planned to start removing siding boards at the bottom and work our way up to try to catch the queen if she ran down when the wall was opened.


We all know, of course, that no matter how you plan, there are usually some surprises along the way. When we removed the first siding board thinking we were going to be looking at honeycomb and joists we instead were confronted with a layer of plywood sheathing.  It’s apparent on the left where the wood is damaged from the moisture of the hive inside.

Fortunately the homeowner had a circular saw and with a few deft cuts we were back in business and had the wall open. The colony appeared to be limited to the outermost space between the joists.


With the wood completely off, we could see that the honeycomb hung approximately three feet down. The Other Mark started cutting off sections and we bundled them into frames with string and rubber bands and placed them in the hive bodies we had brought along.


Since this was when things started to get really busy and really sticky, I didn’t take many more pictures of the process. The homeowners, however had front row seats behind the window and watched the entire rescue, taking pictures and fetching us the occasional useful item.  During the time we were working, the bees were remarkably gentle. There were moments when there were quite a few flying around us, but I only noticed a couple times that they were bumping my mask. I didn’t get any stings and The Other Mark had only one fingertip sting when he was cutting.

The colony turned out to be four layers of comb and in the end, we filled up two ten-frame medium hive bodies with lots of comb full of eggs, brood, honey and pollen. They’re pretty messed up at the moment so I hope the bees can clean up and sort things out in their new home. We’re not entirely sure we got the queen but think she might have been in one of the first clumps of bees we dumped in the hive body. Fingers are crossed.

The homeowners couldn’t have been more gracious. When we were all done with the rescue  they served us lemonade and we tasted the honey from a clean section of comb that Mark had saved. It was delicious—sweet and remarkably floral!

We securely taped together the hive and drove it to our first apiary where we’d prepared to put our package bees.  This hive has been christened Mary in honor of the homeowner. She wanted to keep the bees alive rather than have them exterminated since she’s become aware of the plight of honeybees over the past several years. The bottom two blue hive bodies contain the comb we removed from the wall. The one above it has empty frames in case they decide they still need more room to expand and the top on is where we placed the comb we couldn’t fit in the boxes for them to clean out and utilize.

After they’ve had some time to settle in we’ll check to see how they’re doing, hopefully finding eggs indicating the queen is in there, alive and well. For now they’ve got a big enough task reorienting to their new surroundings and just figuring out how to get in and out of the hive.

Beehives Decorated!

Yesterday we gathered a small crowd of the young and the less-young to put the finishing touches on our beehives, aesthetically speaking. Unfortunately the weather was on the chilly and gray side but the activity in the garage was colorful. The Other Mark started out with an explanation of the parts of a beehive and why we wanted to decorate the fronts—to help the bees know which ones are their homes.


He then modeled his new bee suit for the amusement of the gathered artists.

Then we all got to the task of painting. We used stencils to make the job a little easier and faster. They worked really well.

One of the artists had had a unit on honeybees in school and knew about the dreaded varroa mites.



The Other Mark even enlisted another artist to decorate his new bee suit.


Once we had enough boxes done to get us started for the season we moved inside to enjoy hot chocolate and cookies and talk bees. The kids were really interested in all aspects of honeybees and beekeeping so we’re hoping to include them in hiving our first packages and in future apiary visits.


The bees will have to be completely insane to swarm and leave these hives!


For now the rest of the boxes are back in our basement where I’ll work at adding decorations over the coming weeks. After I posted the plain painted beehives a friend of mine shared a link to some Slovenian beehive folk art. Check it out. They’re charming.


Have you decorated your beehives? I’d enjoy seeing them if you have. Looking around the Internet, some people have really had fun with making their bees’ homes unique.

Beehives Painted!

After hours of skillfully wielding a paintbrush I’m happy to say all the beehive parts I got from the other Mark have been painted. He built them and primed them and then I took over from there.  Starting with leftover paint from the garage—sage green–I purchased a small can each of steel blue and lavender to provide some interest. This weekend, provided the weather cooperates, we’ll be gathering with some children and adults to stencil and paint flowers, bees and who-knows-what on the boxes. The additional artwork and different-colored hives should help the bees keep track of which hive is their home.


Beekeeping Planning

The preparation for starting our beehives is proceeding with what feels like increasing speed. When we first decided to undertake the pastime I had already been doing some reading, watching videos and listening to podcasts. At first I was all “this isn’t so complicated once you understand bee biology.” Since the three of us all have backgrounds in science I figured we could understand enough to get started and then learn from our inevitable mistakes.


Then I ramped up my reading, consulted more sources of information online and looked into some of the seemingly endless variations in hive construction and management. Information overload set in with a side order of analysis paralysis. I became overly concerned with doing everything the right way from the start. The problem, however, appears to be that there isn’t one right way, but probably many.


Bees on CloverA little peace of mind came from the local beekeeping association. At the last monthly meeting we finally had a chance to chat with several members who were more than happy to inspect the trial hive body the other Mark had made and talk with us about the ins and outs of getting started. We also visited the home of one of the members where she enthusiastically showed us how she builds her equipment and tends her hives. By the time we left we were charged up and ready to settle on the equipment configuration we will start with.

  • All medium depth, home-made, 10-Frame Langstroth hive bodies. My thinking is that most of the people we’re going to be learning from at this point in our beekeeping careers are using Langstroths and so will be most knowledgeable about them. I do reserve the right to try out some of the other styles once we get the basics down.
  • A mix of home-made and purchased foundationless frames. We’re hoping small, natural, bee-sized cells will help hold the Varroa mites back a bit as has been reported.
  • A screen bottom board. Again, Varroa defense allowing the little buggers to drop to their deaths. An insertable white board will allow us to do mite counts when we want to. The screen will provided more ventilation, too.
  • Buying package bees, most likely three pounds per hive. We’re having a bit of sticker shock now that we’re shopping for these. I don’t know where I first read prices way last summer, but what we’re seeing quoted now is more than twice what I had been expecting. Consequently, we’re most likely starting with two hives rather than the five “someone” was hoping for. Nucs are way out of our range at this time.

As for plans/hopes for the probably more distant future we’d like to try our hand at queen rearing if we wind up having some good survivors. The thrill of the swarm capture is also appealing. And, as I mentioned before, we’re interested in building some other hive designs. Now the more I learn about beekeeping the more I see it as having potential for lifelong learning and experimentation rather than being completely unapproachable.


[For the record, I believe the pictured bees are wild native bees, not honeybees]