If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

Is there anything that is not available in pumpkin spiced flavor this time of year? Coffee, soap, candles, dips, oreo cookies and even hand sanitizer are pumpkin spiced these days. Now a little pumpkin here or there is not a horrible thing (except maybe the oreos), but the tough part for me is that this scent goes hand in hand with the ending of summer. I’m a summer girl. Give me flip flops and shorts, fresh air and sunshine. While the rest of my friends are buzzing about hoodies and hot chocolate, I am bemoaning that pumpkin spice soap means old man winter is on his way. I know, I know…I shouldn’t let the worry of tomorrow ruin my enjoyment of today, but still the thought of freezing temperatures just snatches all the fun from me.

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But I must confess, even I caught a smidgen of fall fever this week, and I spent a little time in the kitchen with a new pumpkin muffin recipe. My old standby was pretty heavy on the oil, making it moist and wonderful, but not too healthy. This revamped version, minus the oil and plus a dollop of honey from the Bee Sweet girls, came out pretty scrumptious, if I do say so myself. It got high marks with all the little beekeepers here and my husband too.

As I was measuring out the honey for this recipe, I got thinking about how hard our girls honey in jarworked to make each little drop of liquid gold. It takes 144 bees their entire lifetime to bring in enough nectar to make 1/4 cup of honey. Wow! What if that were your life’s work? What if it took you and 719 of your closest friends your whole life to harvest enough nectar to fill the jar in the photo. That’s a pretty powerful work ethic for such a tiny creature. Now before you start feeling too sorry for the hardworking ladies at Bee Sweet Bee Farm, remember that these babees will make honey, whether we eat a single golden drop of it or not. That is what they love to do. In fact, if they are trapped inside during bad weather, they get grumpy. (Much like little kids stuck inside on a rainy day with no access to electronics.) We do our best to not even open the hives unless the weather is bright and beautiful, meaning most of the workers are out happily gathering nectar. Nobody wants to open up a box boiling over with disgruntled worker bees unless you absolutely have to.

Anyhow, if you’ve got a hankering for something pumpkin spiced, give this oil free recipe a shot, and while you are cooking, take a moment to think about all the hard work that bees put into making the honey we all enjoy!

Honey Maple Pumpkin Muffins

  • 1/4 c Bee Sweet IMG_3641Bee Farm honey
  • 1/4 c maple syrup
  • 1/4 c brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup old fashioned oatmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions: In your mixer, beat honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, applesauce, eggs, pumpkin and milk. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt. Add the dry ingredients slowly to pumpkin mixture and blend until just combined. Spoon into 12 greased or lined muffin tins. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cooler weather is coming, whether I like it or not. At least the chill in the air is a good excuse to have a muffin and a second cup of (non-pumpkin spiced) coffee. Y’all snuggle up and Bee Sweet!

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Bees’ biggest FAN!

Tom Bodett and Motel 6 will leave the light on for you and me, but how do our bee friends know which hive is the right place for them? Do they click their little bee heels together and whisper “there’s no place like hive” to themselves? Probably not, but just how do they know? We talked last time about bees having a fantastic sense of smell. This is useful for locating a new food source, whether it be flowering fruit trees in a nearby orchard or sugar syrup placed in the hive next door. Bees can also use that sense to discern between different hives of bees. Bees from other hives have a different smell than their own hive mates.

One of mGland close upy favorite things that bees do is to help their friends find the hive again by fanning.  It is almost like the bees’ emergency lighthouse beacon. Bees will gather at the entrance, stick their fannies in the air, and flap their wings like crazy. The part we can’t see is that they are releasing pheromones or chemical scents from their body at the same time. The wing flapping, or fanning, spreads the scent into the air for the other members of their colony to smell and be attracted to the hive. If you look closely in the photo, you can see a white area on the tip of her tail end. This is call the Nasonov gland, which is the spot that releases the pheromones. Fanning happens when the bees are upset from the beekeeper opening the hive or when moving bees from a package to a permanent hive. Kind of like they are shouting, “Yes! This is the place! Enter here!”

032The bees also use this chemical communication when a hive swarms. For me, it’s tricky enough to move the five members of our family from inside the house to the car, much less ten thousand bees moving from one hive to another. The leader that knows where the hive needs to move, sends out the signal that it’s time to swarm. They usually exit the hive and gather in a big cluster on a nearby tree branch. From there the bee leaders take the swarm and the queen to the spot they’ve identified for a new hive. Beekeepers use this to their advantage by baiting swarm traps with similar scents in hopes of attracting swarms that are looking for a new home. Lemongrass is one essential oil that mimics the the pheromone and attracts the bees, so don’t wash your hands with your lemongrass scented soap and go hang by the hive! They’d likely want to investigate you up close. Too bad a little lemongrass oil doesn’t make all my kids want to follow me from one place to another. We seem to have better luck with chocolate. Or me picking up the phone to make a call. Somehow that attracts them immediately from all corners of the house.

Fanning from aboveBee fanning can also be used to cool the hive and to cure their honey. That fanning simply moves air through the hive, but doesn’t distribute a chemical signal. You can tell a difference by looking for the Nasonov gland being exposed and how high their bottoms are in the air. For cooling the hive, the ends stay low, but for signaling they really show their tails!

Thanks for beeing a FAN of the Bee Sweet Bee Farm girls! Remember watching the bees show their tails is cute, and a miracle of nature, watching you “show your tail” is not, so please BEE SWEET!

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Local to Cleveland County, NC? Come out and visit the Cleveland County Beekeepers’ at the Cleveland County Fair, October 1-11, 2015. You might get to meet a Bee Sweet beekeeper!

Like A Hive of Angry Bees

A couple of weeks ago, we had a fun time introducing our kids to the sport of wrasslin’ through a few comical You Tube videos. (Not to be confused with wrestling, which is a real sport with rules and such.) Having lived all my life in the South, I’m not sure if this is a southern thing or just what, but when I was younger, wrasslin’ had quite a following. The boys at my elementary school could recount every move that their favorite star had made on tv the night before. They probably tried out their own moves on the playground, but I was far too busy talking high fashion, like Swatch watches and twister beads, with my friends to notice. My husband’s grandfather was such an avid viewer that he wouldn’t allow anyone to talk in his house when wrasslin’ was on the air. Me personally, I’ve just never been a fan. Somehow watching sweaty, grown men in costumes beat up on one another never held much fascination for me.

Really fighting of any sort didn’t draw me in, until there were bees involved. That’s when I became a spectator!

IMG_2911The Bee Sweet girls are normally so calm that they can be worked with little or no protective equipment. My husband and kids usually wear their jackets and veils, in case a bee gets upset, but I just stand in the middle of these girls in my regular clothes to watch and take photos, and I have yet to be stung. (The bees are probably watching me type through the window, and I’m sure tomorrow will bee the day they teach me a lesson.) Now I’m not advocating that you go hang out at any old beehive, up close and personal, cause our girls are probably just weird…everybody else in our family is, it stands to reason that our bees are too.

Sunday was a different story altogether!

Background info: My husband is trying to entice a small nucleus colony (basically a small hive of bees that we’ve babied all summer) to build more honeycomb in their hive. Bees have a small wax gland (who am I kidding, everything on a bee is little) that they use to make IMG_3459beeswax, one tiny flake at a time. Ten to eighteen day old bees have the job of making wax for the hive. (Talk about child labor! And my kids think loading the dishwasher is torture.) After they get older, they move on to other jobs. It takes a lot of energy to make beeswax, so to help speed production we’ve been feeding these girls a supplement of sugar syrup. In turn, they make extra honeycomb to store more nectar during the fall nectar flow. They could do some of this on their own, but feeding sugar syrup helps them build comb easier and faster. Much like me after I’ve had my second cup of coffee every morning…I can just make more things happen when I’ve had a little extra caffeine. The photo shows honeycomb cells, some empty, some filled with nectar, and some already full of capped honey. Honeycomb in other parts of the hive is used for eggs, larvae and baby bees.

Not only do bees have to worry about bears, skunks, raccoons, ants and pesky beekeepers coming along to take their precious honey stores, but also neighboring hives of bees. Honeybees have a keen sense of smell, so they know what’s happening in the ‘hood, just like we know when the neighbors are throwing steaks on the grill. If a hive is not strong enough to protect itself, the neighbors will come over, steal their honey or nectar, and transport it home for their own use. Each hive has guard bees that stand in the entrance and watch carefully for intruders of all sorts.

bitingBee Wrasslin’: Evidently, the neighbor bees caught wind that the small colony had been fed a tasty ration of sugar syrup and they sent bees over to collect their share. The guard bees alerted the workers, and these girls came out fast and furious to protect their precious honey, making professional wrasslers look calm in comparison. Whoever coined the phrase “like a hive of angry bees” wasn’t kidding! I had the experience of watching these girls in action. From a distance, there were tons of bees flying erratically all around the hive. By looking closer, I could see the outside of the hive was dotted with bees locked in battle.

Gang upThe first thing a bee tries to do to protect the hive is to bite the foreigner. A bee can bite many times, but as we learned last week, she can sting only once, so biting is much preferred! Several of the skirmishes showed multiple bees ganging up on one intruder. Eventually, if necessary, each bee is willing to IMG_3584sting an intruder and die to protect the hive. I watched, fascinated at how our sweet girls turned into fighting machines. The ground in front of the hive was littered with little bees that didn’t survive the skirmish. Hard to say which side the dead bees were from. (It was our loss either way, since those bully bees are ours too.) Would good prevail over evil? Could the larger hive be stopped? No need to worry! These little ladies had things back under control in just a little bit, and hopefully their neighbors will think twice about venturing next door to steal again. I was amazed at the vicious, head to head combat that our sweet babees were capable of. They could put a professional wrassler to shame! Maybe I’ll think twice before I head out uncovered again!

Until next time, Bee Sweet, and don’t mess with a beehive or they might unleash a Smackdown on you!

A Tisket A Tasket…Bees Have A Pollen Basket

Square goldenrodIt’s been really dry here in the NC Foothills. In fact, we live in one of the two driest counties in our state. This puts the bees around here in a tough spot. When the weather is dry, flowers don’t bloom. When flowers don’t bloom, there’s no nectar or pollen for the bees. No nectar or pollen means no food. The struggle is real!  Finally after weeks of no rain, we had a few showers, and goldenrod is blooming!!! Yes, I have reached a point that I am excited to know that weeds are in bloom. If you’re allergic, this probably doesn’t sound like good news, but for beekeepers, it’s pretty awesome.

Since their birth, I have been on an endless pursuit to capture the perfect pictures of our children’s milestones. Birthdays, first days of school, riding their bikes, family vacation. I live to document each of these precious moments. Thousands of photos, carefully preserving each detail of our lives. The little beekeepers here hate this! Someday they willCropped two colors of pollen thank me, I feel certain, for this painstaking endeavor. So I push on, asking for one more smile. Dare I say they dread to see me with the camera? But the bees…they don’t mind at all!! The cool thing about bee photography is that you get clues as to what is happening inside the hive. For instance during my recent Sunday afternoon photo shoot, I saw three distinctly different colors of pollen being taken in the hive. Pollen ranged from bright orange to yellow to pale green, letting us know that the bees are foraging from at least three different types of plants.

IMG_3501Pollen is important to the bees. They make a special mixture of pollen and nectar to feed their babies. Healthy hives raise thousands of babies each year, and that requires a whole lot of pollen. Pollen grains are pretty small, so bees have to visit lots and lots of flowers to get enough pollen to feed each baby bee. (And I think I have it rough trying to make sure we always have milk in the fridge for just three kids!) A worker bee can fly about 500 miles in her lifetime. If she had to make a separate trip for each grain of pollen, that would use up a lot of her flight miles pretty quickly, but thankfully, bees are equipped with pollen baskets. This is a dented, spot on her leg with lots of long, coarse hairs. (Perhaps you know some human legs like that too? I don’t of course, but you might.) She places the pollen there and mixes it with a little nectar so she can efficiently gather as much pollen as possible before making a flight back to the hive to unload. As the bees visit each blossom, they pollinate the flowers as a fringe benefit.

Close up goldenrodAside from making you sneeze, pollen is packed with protein and fats for the bees’ diets.  Worker bees carrying pollen take it inside the hive and off load in into empty cells in the honeycomb for storage. (Somehow a honeybee knows to do this by instinct, but no matter how many times I mention it, I still can’t get my kids to take their shoes to their rooms. What am I doing wrong?) So local honey contains bits of pollen from the plants that bloom in your area and has been found to help relieve allergy symptoms for sufferers. It has to be LOCAL though, because the bees in other areas don’t visit the same plants that you have a reaction to. So shop local for your honey, and if you see my husband, tell him I need a macro lens for my camera!

Y’all Bee Sweet!

To Bee or Not to Bee

Welcome to Armchair Entomology 101!

You’ve all heard somebody say they’ve been stung by a bee. But why does the poor honeybee always have to take the blame for the stings? Yes, a honeybee can and will sting, but bees rarely sting when looking for food or water. Since bees have barbed stingers, the act of stinging tears away part of her abdomen and she will die. Not really the highlight of her day, eh? So it stands to reason that honeybees are not out seeking a human to sting.

Of course, honeybees are protective of their hives, because they don’t really want to share their honey. Guard bees stand at the opening of the hive, ready to discourage intruders of any kind. Even then, they give warning signs like buzzing near your head, before they actually sting. And of course, if you step on a bee or swat at her, she will sting you in self defense. Our silly Maltese dog manages to step on them on a regular basis, and he is a pitiful patient. He walks with a limp for several days afterward because it earns him extra goodies from the treat jar. Compared to other insects, like wasps and yellow jackets, the honeybee pretty much wants to mind her own business and do her job.

IMG_4254Lately, here at Bee Sweet Bee Farm, we’ve been having trouble with European hornets. Now there’s a vicious insect for you. The first ones we saw were in our house, which is a little unnerving. This hornet is pretty big, and if she can find a way to creep in our house, no telling what else can get in. These hornets caused a huge uproar with the little beekeepers that live here.

My middle child suffered a hornet sting on the top of her head last summer, and she has yet to forgive that creature. (We shouldn’t be surprised since she still bears a grudge from a cat bite when she was three, that left her declaring that all cats are evil.) Anyway, to put it mildly, she was alarmed. Next we began seeing these hornets out at the beehives. A European hornet is large enough to grab a honeybee out of the air and haul it off for a tasty snack. Biology student me says this is an amazing demonstration of the food chain in action (Primary Producer Flowers<Primary Consumer Bee<Secondary Consumer Hornet<Tertiary Consumer Bird), but these bees are our pets. We couldn’t just watch them get abducted in our own yard. I mean, if a predator were trying to nab your little Fluffy, you’d do what you could to save her, right? So my problem solver husband took action and swatted her, saving many innocent honeybee lives.

Now before y’all get all crazy because we killed this hornet, please know he brought it in for thorough scientific identification and investigation. (Smart on his part, since hornets give off pheromones when they are injured, alerting all of their friends that the crime has been committed. If he had hung around, it might of turned ugly.) Anyway, she did not die in vain. If you notice there’s a quarter in the picture for size reference. The hornet’s body was curling up at this point, so her size is not as awe inspiring as it would be if she were stretched out. Worker European hornets are about 25mm long. Compared with the 15mm worker honeybee, she’s pretty big.  Along with munching on smaller insects, these hornets also gather some nectar from plants, and you can see a bit of pollen on the hornet’s hairs in the photos.

The hornet is larger and has a more defined waistline than a honeybee. Lucky hornet gals don’t have to work very hard to maintain their girlish figures. Their color IMG_4257markings are also brighter yellow and black while bees are more often a brownish yellow. Their stingers are not barbed, like our friend the honeybee, meaning they can sting you multiple times without dying. There will be no stinger left behind to remove, instead just wash the area and apply ice. (And for heaven’s sake, go somewhere else for medical advice! What was the commercial…I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV? I am in no way a medical professional, and I only don that hat when parenthood necessitates splinter removal or temperature taking.)

I know, you might not be nearly as fascinated by that dead hornet as we were, but welcome to the crazy world that is Bee Sweet Bee Farm. Just let it bee a little reminder that not all stings are bee stings. Have a great day and Bee Sweet!

Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch…Sweet Talking Our Queen

Can you spot the queenWhen I was in high school, Where’s Waldo was a popular character. People spent hours looking for the guy in a red and white striped shirt, carefully camouflaged but in plain view. Finding the queen in a hive is like that. There’s one in the photo above. She’s a lot like the rest of the girls, but if you look closely, there are a subtle differences. She bigger than the worker bees, and her abdomen is long and pointed. That point makes it possible for her to deposit an egg inside the tiny cell of the wax honeycomb. Her wings are short compared to the rest of her body. After her mating flight, she spends most of her time inside the hive laying eggs, so wings are not a major need for her. (More about the “birds and the bees” in a later post. It’s fascinating! Okay, that made me sound a little weird, but I was a biology major in college. Creation amazes me!)  Normally it’s GREAT that the queen stays in the hive, all safe and sound, but remember we had to get these girls out of our front porch column. To do that we had to get the queen out, and to get the queen out, we had to outsmart her.

Sounds easy enough, you say? I mean her brain is pretty tiny. What could be so hard about that? For starters our bees had to learn to fly in and out through a specially built hive box. This is where that whole civil engineer (let’s build something to fix this thing) came in really handy. IMG_0534Instead of flying in and out like normal, my husband built an attachment that the bees had to navigate on their way to find food and water. They hated this! They found an opening along the other side of the column to come and go. We tried filling that crack with latex caulk, but they just ate their way out. One tiny, bee bite at a time. They were determined not to use that adapted entrance. After multiple trips up the 20 foot ladder, surrounded by unhappy bees, silicone caulk finally kept their back door closed. After that, he adapted a traditional hive box that attached to the tunnel for them to fly through as well. The hive box was filled with frames of foundation (wax sheets molded with guidelines for building honeycomb) in hopes of enticing the queen and her workers to move out of our house and into a home of their own. It was going to take more than a deluxe apartment in the sky to get her movin’ on up.

So if you want to catch a mouse, you’ve got to bait the trap. In this case, instead of peanut butter, we used fresh bee eggs and larvae from our existing hive. IMG_0884 (1)If you look really closely in the photo, you can see teeny, tiny worm-like things in the bottom of the honeycomb. Those are baby bee larvae. Now don’t panic, they keep the larvae separate from the honeycomb that stores the honey. After the queen lays an egg, the worker bees spend about a week feeding the larvae. When the baby has gotten her allotment of food, the workers put a wax cap over the honeycomb cell and allow the baby to grow. It takes about 21 days for the egg to hatch into a newbee…not a scientific term there, y’all…don’t be throwing that out, trying to impress your friends with your new found entomology knowledge!  The smell of fresh bee eggs and larvae, makes the queen curious. I mean, if somebody continually left babies in your attic, you’d eventually go check things out, right?  In truth, she gets upset when she thinks another queen is laying eggs in her house, and she comes out to investigate. We had to keep watch to catch her in the act. Once we found her in the new hive, we placed a device called a queen excluder in the tunnel between the column and the hive box. The excluder kept her stuck in her new home because she was too big to fit back through the holes. Thank goodness! We were on the home stretch!

IMG_0896 (2)We had to wait another month after the queen was out to give time for all the eggs and larvae in the column to hatch and reach maturity to fly out. A one-way bee escape placed between the column and the new hive kept the bees from going back in the old hive. Operation Outta Here was a success! Now the bees could be safely moved…well as safely as you can move a hive of refugee bees from the top of scaffolding. From start to finish, it took several months to lure all those silly bees out of our house. Much to our neighbors disappointment, this was just the tip of the iceberg on that blue scaffolding though. Complete restoration of our front porch is still a work in progress, but that’s a topic for a completely different blog!

So what was inside that cozy hive?IMG_1437 Well, bunches of beeswax and loads of honey! The really sad part is, we had to throw it out! Normally the undertaker bees carry the ones that have passed on to that “great field of clover in the sky” straight out the front door of the hive. In this case though, their door was at the top, and most of the dead bees fell to the bottom of the column to rot. The smell of that many decomposing bees is less than pleasant, and it left the honey and wax with an harsh scent. Ick! But it was still amazing to see the long sheets of honeycomb carefully glued to the ceiling of the column. Let’s think about this. Once a year you, an intelligent human, try to hang a banner from your ceiling announcing little Suzy’s birthday, and it takes six pieces of tape, two thumbtacks, and a stapler to hold it up for a party that lasts about 3 hours. These honeybees, who are less than an inch long, can glue tiny pieces of wax to a wooden ceiling, in the dark. These bits of glue hold up a six foot long, heavy chunk of honeycomb, filled with honey or baby bees. No wonder my engineer husband is amazed by them!

So now you know how we became beekeepers, but I’m pretty sure that it’s the bees that keep us! From this crazy beginning, Bee Sweet Bee Farm now has ten hives. We are continually amazed at the humble, hardworking honeybee, and we hope you will be too. Please take a moment to follow our blog. We’ve got more stories to tell, and “maybee” you’ll learn a thing or two along the way. Until then, Bee Sweet!

Oh! Did you find the queen? In case you missed her, she’s near the bottom of the frame, just slightly off center to the right. Some beekeepers mark their queens to make them easy to spot, but we prefer a challenge!

You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You’ve Gotta Go

We watched and waited, and our bee friends only grew in number. No beekeeper in their right mind wanted any part of hive removal from the top of a second story column, not that I can blame them. It WAS a sticky situation and getting stickier by the minute. Column Top before trap outAll those busy bees were busy doing their work, which meant drawing lots of honeycomb, filling it with loads of nectar, and eventually turning it into lovely honey. The trouble is, honey is HEAVY! As I mentioned before, our house is vintage. Eventually, the weight of the hive took its toll on the column they called home, and it sank about an inch from the roof that it supported. The time had come to evict these little squatters. But how???

My husband is a civil engineer. If you don’t know any engineers personally, I’ll give you a quick overview of how they work. Engineers are detailed problem solvers. It is what they do best. Day in and day out, if you need a problem solved, ask an engineer, they’ll get right on it. Civil engineers especially like it when the solution to the problem includes building something…bridges, walls, roads, lakes, buildings, bee hives…whatever it takes.  So, true to his vocation, my husband developed a detailed blueprint for eviction, make that beeviction.

Step one: Bee-come beekeepers!

Package InstallationAs background research for this little project, my husband took a beekeeping course from our local extension service. (Again, these folks have so much to offer you in your home and garden keeping efforts. Go see them. Take a class. They are super nice people.)  We also purchased a package of bees to start our own hive. Side note: A package of bees is a wire mesh and wooden box containing about 10,000 worker bees. These bees are placed in a hive along with a queen to form a bee colony. If all goes well, the queen begins to lay eggs, all those worker bees care for the eggs and together they populate the hive with baby bees. “Babees” for those of your that like puns as much as I do.

scaffold croppedNext we installed two stories worth of lovely, blue scaffolding (our lucky neighbors) on our front porch. The top level served as a base to work from for bee removal. I mean, nobody really wants to work with a hive of bees from the top of a swaying ladder. Now, we were ready to…

TRAP OUT!

Now to me this sounds like a highly intense police maneuver, designed to capture a fugitive, but really it’s a method experienced beekeepers use to remove bees from any place they don’t belong. It’s relatively easy on the bees and allows you to move them safely to a standard hive. Notice I said “experienced beekeepers” there. As we found out, a trap out can also allow ambitious, inexperienced beekeepers to move bees as well.

I know, I know! You’re on the edge of your seat. Hanging on my every word. Will they succeed in removing all these bees? Can they fool thousands of bees into leaving their home? Will they get stung? Will their porch fall down in the process? What will they find in that column? Stay tuned, and in the mean time, BEE SWEET!