Monday, April 20, 2015

A New Season Bee-gins

Wow, it's been almost a year since I last wrote. Life is busy and between the family, running a business, writing a book and of course, tending the bees, there isn't much time for me to keep this blog updated. Anyway, another winter is in the books and it was not a kind one! Sustained cold temps  were very hard on the bees (and the people!). We didn't get a ton of snow here in Philly, but it was below freezing for much of the winter and the bees didn't have many chances to come out and relieve themselves. Bottom line for me was that I went into winter with 7 hives and only 3 survived. Not very good odds. One hive disappeared, gone without a trace. The other deceased hives died from a combination of varroa problems, small populations and some nosema.

One of the hives that survived this past winter and looks amazing right now is a swarm that was given to me last May. A beekeeper friend called me one day (thanks Stuart A.) and asked if I wanted to capture a swarm. I said "Of course, I'll be there ASAP." By the time I had mobilized myself, he called back and asked me if I wanted him to bring the bees to me. "Uh, yes please!" He showed up at my door with a box 'o bees. One swarm delivered, no extra charge!

This hive is now known affectionately known as "WB Mason"

I moved the bees into my handy dandy Bushkill bee vac setup so that I could easily leave them confined in there for a day or two. This confinement decreases the likelihood that they will swarm again and it also allows the queen to start laying eggs immediately in the empty comb I provided.

Dumping bees into bee vac box

Sealed up and ready for transport

I installed this hive at my Francisville apiary and they made it through winter in great shape. The queen is now laying strong, they have plenty of honey and already have begun to store fresh nectar.

I once again broke my resolution not to buy any bees this season and I purchased a package from Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries. Sam is a great guy and a great beekeeper, known for his singing and for his natural approach to keeping bees by getting out of the way and letting them do what they do best, be bees! Sam stopped in Philly during his wanderings and brought some packages for me and another beekeeper. I met him in a parking lot and there he was standing at the back of his little hatchback Honda with about 15 bees buzzing around his head. In a lovable and most admirable way, Sam reminds me a bit of Pigpen from the Peanuts, but instead of being trailed by a cloud of dirt and dust, Sam's constantly surrounded by a cloud of bees! Last year's bees from Sam didn't make it, they were the hive that totally disappeared without a trace some time between October and February. But I will try again and see how it goes. Below is a video of installing the bees at my Woodford Mansion apiary (video by my 6 year-old son and assistant, Jonah). Nothing too exciting in this video, although for me, it reminds me of how much anxiety I used to feel when installing a package of bees like this, but these days, it ain't no big deal at all.

That's the latest and greatest from Philly. See you soon and may the Force Bee with you!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Winter Recap and SWARM!

Well, it's been almost a year since I wrote, wow! I wrote lots of posts in my head, but they never quite made it to the screen! 2013 was a good year for the bees, until winter hit! I went into winter with 9 hives, most of them looking pretty strong. We had a brutal winter, with lots of snow (3rd snowiest ever I believe) and sustained cold temperatures. It was really hard on the bees (and on most people I know!) and I ended up losing 6/9 hives! One hive just up and left in the fall, a couple of others had a population crash and were too small to survive the cold. One hive died in late winter/early spring due to a cold snap that lasted almost a week. The Birthday Swarm hive didn't survive, but the Oscar the Grouch hive did! All-in-all it wasn't quite as disheartening as last winter's mouse debacle, but still pretty upsetting. The silver lining was that all of those dead hives left me LOTS of honey!

I had resolved not to  purchase any bees in 2014 and I was doing alright until I learned that Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries was bringing a load of his bees to Philly. I have always wanted some of Sam's bees but had never made the drive to his place in the Hudson Valley to pick some up. But now that he was bringing bees to us, well, I decided to buy one little ol' package of bees. This brought my total going into this spring to 4 hives. I had also resolved to consolidate my apiaries because having 5 sites was too much for me. So, I am no longer keeping bees at The Spring Gardens or at Strawberry Mansion. Now I have one hive at my house, 2 at Field Street and 2 at Woodford Mansion.

That brings us to the first swarm of 2014. I got a call at 5pm on May 12th about a swarm in South Philadelphia (thanks to Lynn for calling!). I loaded up the V-dub and arrived to see this -

Swarm hanging out, nice and low!

This was a pretty large swarm. The bees were super calm and content just hanging out there. They had just arrived a few hours earlier. I had a big crowd of people watching me, cause hey, it's not every night that you see such a crazy sight on the streets of South Philly! One guy Robert, took a bunch of video (thanks Robert). Here I am shaking the bees into my swarm catching box -

Get in the box already girls!!

And one other video from Robert - this is after closing everything up and then discovering a large bunch of stragglers clinging to the underside of my swarm box that I needed to get inside the box; you'll see me dumping them in. As I mentioned before, this was a large swarm -

I got 99% of the bees into the box and drove them home (no, they didn't get out this time!). They spent the night in the swarm box in my yard and in the morning I took them to my Woodford Mansion apiary and set them up.

All sealed up, ready for placement

Removed bottom of swarm box and placed on hive stand

Top of swarm box is off

Getting comfy in the new digs

Sittin' on the stoop, just like in Southie!

So there you have it - a recap and a new start. Looking forward to a great year in 2014 - I'm actually happy to have fewer hives to manage, it feels more relaxed to me and I can take my sweet old time with the bees.

Friday, June 7, 2013

"I Love Trash..."

I think that most of us probably remember this...

Well, this past week I met some bees who also love trash. Got a call from a woman who had been away for 2 weeks and returned home to find some bees living in her trash can. This is what I found when I arrived...

Bees attached comb to trash can lid

Well, I'll be! I guess the bees don't care too much about where they make their home! You can see the trash bag in the can, the can was practically full of trash and the bees had very little space. But that didn't stop them from settling in. Makes me laugh when I think about how people will argue over which kind of bee hive is best for the bees - Langstroth hive, Top Bar hive, Warre hive, Golden Mean hive - well, I think I'm gonna start marketing the "Rubbermaid Trash Can Hive" (comes with trash)!
I decided that instead of doing the removal in this little courtyard, I would take the entire trash can lid, comb and all, and bring it to one of my apiaries so that I could relax and take my time and set the hive up immediately. Here's how I transported the lid (what else would I use in this case, but a trash bag)...

The second part of the video shows me placing a nuc on top of the trash can in order to collect all of the foragers that were out working when I relocated their home. I went back the following night and collected the nuc. It worked beautifully.

I brought the bees to my apiary in Francisville where I had an empty hive looking for some new bees. I turned the lid upside down and started to gently remove the fragile comb.

Most of the comb removed

My work station, on top of an empty top bar hive

Placing comb in the hive

My queen luck has been very good lately and that trend continued. I was able to find and cage the queen in this hair clip style queen cage. There are a few workers in with her. Caging the queen helps to ensure that the bees won't up and leave their new home. I will leave her in the cage for a day or two and then let her out so she can get to work.

Queen at the bottom, the one with long slender abdomen

Queen cage is under that mass of bees

Here I moved the queen cage down in between the frames

So that was basically it. I closed up the bees and left them alone. That was the quickest and easiest removal job I have ever done! I'm lovin' it!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

First Swarm of the Year, North Philly

I got an early birthday gift (the day before my bday) from the Queen Bee Goddess. She sent me a beautiful swarm. Thanks to Alison for reaching out to the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild about the swarm in her yard (and for taking video). And thanks to Russ for helping me catch the swarm. I was able to find and cage the queen, which helped make the swarm capture very easy because the workers all followed the scent of the queen whom was placed in the swarm box. After catching the swarm I took it home and set it up on the roof. Have a look...

UPDATE: I released the queen today (May 20th) and the worker bees quickly proceeded to kill her! I believe that she was the old queen and she was probably well past her prime. I was able to find another queen in the hive and she appeared to be younger and maybe even a virgin. I will give them a few weeks and check for signs of a laying queen. It is not that unusual for a swarm to have more than one queen, like an insurance policy until they get settled into a new home.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My 15 Minutes of Fame

Last month I was interviewed and photographed by the awesome folks at Grid Magazine. Well, here's the fruits of their (and my) labor. Click the picture below to enlarge it. And check out the rest of the magazine while you're lookin'. If it doesn't open directly on the page, navigate to page 14 to see the article.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"Oh Doom and Disaster, What Absence of Mind!"

The title of this post is taken from a favorite children's book that we read in our house, Schnitzel Von Krumm - Forget Me Not and it succinctly sums up how I felt when I discovered the disaster in my bee yards this winter.  In the story, a family is packing their car to go on vacation while their little weiner dog, Schnitzel Von Krumm, excitedly runs around getting in the way of everything as they continually shoo him out of the way, too busy to mind him. Turns out that the family is so busy getting ready to leave that when they actually do leave, they forget to bring the dog with them. The following is the story of how I was so busy that I forgot some very basic beekeeping rules. I have been putting off writing this post because it still hurts when I think about what happened this winter with some of my bees; something that could have been prevented with a little less "Absence of Mind". If you are a beekeeper, please learn from my mistake! Well, here goes nothing...

On one of the warmish days in late February, I took the opportunity to make a quick check on my hives. I went to Woodford House first to check on the Honda swarm hive and the Conshy swarm hive. I pulled up and saw that the Conshy hive was flying but the Honda hive was not, which was a little strange because Honda had been the stronger hive and was heading into its 3rd summer. As I inspected the Honda hive, I didn't see any bees until I got to the 2nd to last box and I came upon a small cluster of dead bees. Hmm, OK, not the first hive of bees to have died under my watch, let's take it apart and see what happened this time. I go into the bottom box and I see an absolute mess. I see the rest of the cluster of dead bees, many of them decapitated. And I see comb that has been destroyed and chewed up, small wax flakes all over the place.

I'm thinking, what the hell could have done this? I have never seen this kind of destruction in a hive. Takes me a minute to realize the answer - Ohhh, I know, this must be what mouse damage looks like! Upon closer inspection, the tell-tale sign of mouse poop confirms my suspicion. I look down at the entrance to the hive and the entrance reducer, the little piece of wood that limits the size of the entrance, is not set on the smallest setting, which is what I usually do heading into winter to keep the mice out. A big mistake! Do I know for sure that the mouse was the reason this hive died? No, and it is even possible that the bees were already dead when the mouse moved in. But in this case I am going to assume that the mouse was at least part of the problem, if not all of the problem. There was plenty of honey in the hive, so that wasn't an issue. If a mouse takes up residence in a hive when the weather is still pretty cold, the bees won't break their cluster to try to drive the mouse out or kill it. So as long as the mouse stays away from the cluster of bees, it can have its way in the rest of the hive. DAMN, very stupid mistake!

I took a box of honey from this dead hive and put it on top of the hive next door, which was doing just fine (no mouse problem because the entrance was reduced to the smallest possible size - about the width of a few bees). So the tiny silver lining is that I have plenty of honey to donate to the remaining bees and maybe even enough for a small spring harvest. Here are some pictures...

Dead cluster of bees around the middle frame

Damaged frames, comb is chewed out

Top frame has wood damage in bottom left corner. Bottom frame has no comb left at all.

Bottom Board full of debris, dead bees and wax

Still kicking and cursing myself, I left Woodford and figured I should go check on my other Francisville hives just to take a quick look. Both of the hives in Francisville have been strong and healthy for the past few years. One of them was from a Wolf Creek Apiaries package and the other was from the removal job at Oakland Cemetery.

When I get to the apiary, I don't see any bees flying - not a good sign. I quickly open up one hive, taking off box by box and I am not finding a single bee inside the hive! Nothing, nada, zilch, zip, totally empty! As I get to the bottom two boxes, I see the same type of mouse damage I saw at Woodford, double DAMN! Now I am really upset. I move over to the next hive and repeat the same woeful experience - zero bees to be found, mouse damage for a third time! I am beside myself. My guess is that the mouse moved in and was somehow disturbing the bees so much that they said "We're outta here" and they just up and left, in the middle of winter, leaving behind pounds and pounds of honey!

Oh doom and disaster! A perfectly preventable disaster, assuming the mice were the cause. This was my worst day of beekeeping since I started this whole endeavor. The thought occurs to me that I am going to quit this beekeeping thing and the thought stays with me until I get home and pick up the phone to order some new bees for the summer. Is that a sure indicator that I am a full-fledged bee junkie? Wait, don't answer that...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Keeping Busy and Waiting for Spring

It's that time of year, when all of the beekeepers (and let's be real, everyone else too) are getting antsy for spring. It's been a few months since we had the chance to really look in our hives and we need to know what is going on in there. Yes, there have been a few warmish days when we've had the chance to see the bees flying (or not, as is the case with some of my dead hives - more on that later) but no chance for full inspections.

After 2 years as president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, I have stepped aside to let someone else take the reins (Suzanne Matlock is now Pres, along with a great group of other officers). Even though I am no longer president, I have been keeping busy this winter with Guild events. We had our big symposium a few weeks ago and by most accounts, it went really well. And we have our beginners beekeeping course coming up this weekend, which I will be helping to teach.

I have volunteered to videotape the Guild's Natural Beekeeping Symposium events for the past 2 years and I have finally uploaded those videos to YouTube. You can view footage of John Seaborn and Sam Comfort from last year and Michael Bush from this year on my YouTube Channel. Below is the first part of Michael Bush's talk from this year. I'll be back soon with another blog post.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Treatment-Free Conference - Leominster, MA

Photos from the Northeast Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference in Leominster, MA 

July 27-29, 2012

(Hey, better late than never!)

Dean Stiglitz out in the apiary

Michael Bush Speaking

Dee Lusby Waiting to Speak

Sam Comfort Releasing a Queen 
Sam Closing Up the Package He Made

Sam Looking at a Top Bar 

Erik Osterlund speaking, all the way from Sweden

Kirk Webster Checking Out Some Top Bar Bees

Les Crowder Talking Bees
Treatment Free Mascot

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fun With Hot Wax....

...No, not that kind of fun! I'm talking about making beeswax candles! Needing my honeybee "fix" during the cold winter weather and needing some holiday gifts to give, I decided that I would make candles this year. It was fun and it went well. I have been collecting and saving wax for the past 3 years and it was time to put it to use. Here are some photos to help tell the story and learn you how we did it...

First step in cleaning old comb, melt in water bath

After melting the wax in a water bath, I let the wax cool and harden. The debris will settle to the bottom of the wax "cake". You can scrape off the large pieces of debris. Then melt the wax again and pour the liquid wax through a fine strainer to get the small pieces of debris out. You may need to strain it a few times. When it looks really clean, pour it into a mold (Tupperware container, Trader Joe's cookie container - see wax below). If your wax is too hot when you pour it, you will melt your plastic containers (I speak from experience on this one!). And oh yeah, don't use your cooking pots for doing this stuff, they will get ruined.

Cleaned Wax

Above you can see the cleaned wax. Notice the different colors. This is mainly determined by the age of the comb - the older the comb, the darker the wax. Some people use chemicals to lighten the wax and some say leaving it in the sun can lighten it. I kind of like the variety of colors. The lightest wax is obtained from the wax cappings you get during honey extraction.

Melting Clean Wax Before Pouring in Molds

To prepare the wax for pouring into molds, you want to melt it using a double-boiler, water bath method. Don't melt the wax directly in a pot over fire, wax is flammable and no one wants a fire in their kitchen!

Here you can see me helping the kids pour the hot wax into the votive molds. Notice the beehive skep mold also, it is filled with hot wax. Rubbing some vegetable oil inside of the molds helps the finished candles to release from the molds more easily (they also sell silicone sprays for this). I bought preassembled wicks for the votives (see below). I had to install the wick in the beehive skep mold. The wick comes through a tiny hole in the bottom of the mold and then must be secured at the top so the wick stays straight. I tied the wick to a small piece of wood on top (piece of shish-kabob skewer).

Putting the wicks in the votives. You must wait until the wax cools a bit, or else the wicks will wilt and won't be straight. Once you see a little cooled wax around the rim of the mold, you can gently insert the wick. The kids did a great job.

Cooled and Ready to Remove


We also poured some tapers. These were the most challenging, mainly because of installing the wicks. The wick had to be threaded through a small hole in the bottom and then secured on top, just like the beehive mold (except 10 inches long!). With some creative threading, I finally got the hang of it (used the shish-kabob skewers again). They do sell wicking needles for this, but I didn't buy one. When pouring these, one must not forget to plug the wick hole in the bottom of the mold, lest hot wax comes oozing out all over your kitchen table (yes, speaking from experience again!). You can use a small bit of hard beeswax to plug the holes and it works just peachy.


The tapers were also a little tougher to get out of the molds. After they had hardened and cooled down, I placed the entire mold in the freezer, which caused the wax to contract and made it much easier to get the candles out. 

The fruits of our labor. Not bad for our first attempt. I have a bit more wax left for some more candles and we're also going to try to make some lip balm. Fun fun fun...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Honey Bees, Wasps and Hornets - Oh My! Or, What kind of "bees" are these?

Since I started doing bee removal jobs in the Philadelphia region, I have fielded tons of calls that end up being about stinging insects other than honey bees. I don't deal with these other insects, I refer them out to someone else. I wanted to create a quick guide that will help people to learn about whether their bees are honey bees or not, because even though we like to call everything that flies and stings a "bee", that is surely not the truth.

Is it a Honey Bee Hive?

Is it hanging from a tree or from the eaves of your house or your window? Does it look grayish and kind of papery? Does it look like clay or mud? Does it look like any of these? Did you just notice it in July as it started to grow larger?

Images from Google Search for "Wasp Nest"

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes", then we are not dealing with honey bees. In fact, chances are, if the hive is out in the open and you can see it, they are not honey bees.

Honey bees usually build their colonies inside of structures (whether those "structures" are walls, eaves, roofs, trees, planters, birdhouses, fire hydrants, etc - doesn't matter too much to the bees). And remember that honeycomb is made out of beeswax, not mud or twigs or papery substances. There are rare occasions when honey bees will start building their hive from a tree limb out in the open, but that doesn't happen too often in our climate. And if it did, the comb would look white and waxy, not gray and papery or muddy and you would see many, many bees on the comb. Here is what honeycomb looks like...

Large sheets of honeycomb

Comb in a wall

Wavy comb in the ceiling

One other important point is that a honey bee hive will have LOTS of activity and traffic on a nice summer day. You will see tens, if not hundreds, of bees coming and going every minute. If it is a nice warm summer day and you are only seeing a few insects here and there every few minutes, chances are they are not honey bees. A mature honey bee colony will have tens of thousands of bees in it, while most social wasp and hornet colonies will have hundreds (or less) to maybe a few thousand.

Is it a Honey Bee Swarm?

I also get calls about a "humungous swarm of bees" flying all over our yard and attacking our children - only to find out that its 10 yellow-jackets eating a lollipop that one of the kids threw on the ground. A swarm of Honeybees has THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of bees in it. If they are flying, they will fill the air like a scene from a hollywood movie. If the swarm has landed, it will be the size of a grapefruit at the minimum and a beachball or larger at the maximum. No other stinging insect swarms like this, so if you are seeing this phenomenon, it is most assuredly honey bees that you are seeing. Swarming is the natural way that honey bee colonies reproduce and it is a totally normal and typical event for honey bees.

One other important thing to remember is that honey bees that are in swarm mode are very docile. So even though it looks scary, there is nothing to worry about. Before leaving their previous home, they all gorged on honey in order to have some resources on hand when they set up their new home, so all of the bees have that post-Thanksgiving day dinner tryptophan feeling. If they could be sitting on the couch watching football, they would be! While the swarm is gathered on the tree/fence post/fire hydrant/wherever, they are scouting for a new home (hopefully not in the walls of your house) and most swarms will move on in a day or two if left alone. But, if you see a swarm, definitely call me (click the "Call Me" button in upper right of this page), a beekeeper loves to catch swarms and it is pretty cool to watch. If you can't get a hold of me, try this list of beekeepers willing to pick up swarms. Here are some photos of honey bee swarms to help...

Swarm on bleachers

Swarm on tree limb

Swarm on ground in bush

Swarm on tree limb
Yellowjackets, eating pear.  Bellwood Mansion, Dover TN.  10/07/2OO9 Photo by Coleman Tilghman Jr.
I wouldn't eat that pear, but it's not a swarm! These are yellow-jackets.

And a (grainy!) video of a swarm in progress (turn up the volume!)...

And finally, I know it can be tough to differentiate between a honey bee and a yellow-jacket and a bumblebee and a hornet or one of the many other flying, stinging insects. Here is a decent guide. And here is an adorable picture of a honey bee, notice the fuzzy mid-section, which wasps and hornets do not have (photo courtesy of Amy Hsu)...

You can always call me to help you identify the insect, but hopefully this little guide has helped!