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…


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!

A Beeline Into Our Hearts

Sometimes you make a conscious effort to add a new activity or hobby to your life. Perhaps you decide to start running or stamp collecting.  Maybe you learn to knit or you collect rocks….

BUT SOMETIMES your new hobby falls out of the sky and lands on your doorstep. At least that’s what happened to us. No it was not delivered by a new Amazon drone either. One warm, early summer evening my husband and I were in our front yard when a swarm of honeybees came out of the sky. We were literally standing in the middle of bees in all directions. I mean bees everywhere. Not just ten or twenty, but thousands. And they were making a beeline (pun intended) for a column on our front porch. It seems they had decided to move in.

There’s nothing like an uninvited houseguest, right? How about 10,000?

Now let me back up a bit. Our house is older. It is a work in progress. At the top of one of our front porch columns, there was just enough room for these tiny creatures to move in and set up shop. We watched in fascination as they made themselves at home, in our home.

What do you do when bees move in? Well, we called the local extension service. If you’ve never contacted these folks about anything, well you should. They are a wealth of knowledge about your garden, your kitchen, animals, plants, and yes, even bees. Our extension agent encouraged us to leave our new neighbors alone. He figured they might not live through the winter, and the problem would be solved.

So we began to live, side by side, with our new pets. We watched them. Winter came and left. The bees remained…

And that’s how we became beekeepers. We didn’t really choose them, but they knew we needed them. Stayed tuned to hear how we evicted these little honeys out of our home and into our hearts in You Gotta Go Somewhere!