Thursday, May 6, 2010

From the Green Mountains to the Concrete Jungle

I promised more stories so here they are...

When I ordered bees way back in February, like last year I ordered two packages from the Seaborns in Tennessee and I ordered two small-cell nucs from Denny White in Williamsville, VT.  Small-cell nucs are not easy to find and Denny does not ship bees so I would need to drive to Vermont to pick them up - a bit of a long drive but I figured it would be a beautiful one.

So I left Philly on Saturday afternoon and drove to Pittsfield, MA where I spent the night with my friend Nicole (thanks Nicole!).  Then I woke up early and drove 2 more hours to get to Williamsville. I arrived and Denny was ready to pack up the nucs for the trip back to Philly. I was picking up two for me and two for another member of the Philadelphia Beekeeping Guild.  We drove a short distance from Denny's house to one of his beeyards. The setting was absolutely beautiful and idyllic - all I could think was "Wow, these bees are going to have a much different view when we get back home!"

Being up in the mountains presents different challenges than urban beekeeping.  Denny has had bears disturb his hives in the past. The white fence is electrified and that slab of meat on the fence is bacon - the idea being to get the bears to go after the bacon and touch the fence and ZAP!

As we packed up the nucs Denny and I had a little chance to talk about beekeeping and related topics.  He is a great guy and I could tell by the way he handled the bees and talked about them that he really cares deeply for the bees.  I think I could learn a ton from him and it's too bad we don't live closer - he would be a great mentor.  It is not easy to find people who have a lot of experience practicing small-cell, organic beekeeping and Denny is one of those people.

After packing up all of the bees and making sure there were no holes for the girls to escape from, we loaded them in the car. I drove home with 50,000 or so bees riding in the trunk behind me.  Fortunately we had done a good job sealing them up!

After about 5.5 hours driving, I was back in Philly.  I installed the bees in their new home right away - with some help from my assistant.  This site is a small abandoned park a few blocks from the other site.  Penny is planning on using it as a staging area for plants for her greening projects and also for raising cut flowers.

Here's a good shot of the queen - she is marked with a blue dot.  This makes her easier to find but also each year has a designated color so that you can know how old your queen is.

The installation went very smoothly.  The bees were mellow and no stings at all.  They were set up in their new city home.  I came back the next day to check on them and to feed them some honey to help get them started.  Much to my surprise, I arrived to a scene of destruction.  This was the view right outside the park.

Somehow, one day after I installed the bees, the owner of the vacant lot next to the park had decided he wanted to have the LARGE tree, which overhung the park, cut down.  I mean, give me a freakin' break - look at that tree, it has to be at least 15 years old if not more.  What are the chances that the day after the beehives were installed, the tree has to get cut down? I go inside the park and this is what I see - a large branch at least 6 inches in diameter is literally touching one of the hives.  The hive had moved a few inches but nothing was broken or damaged - unbelievable!  A few more inches and the hive could have been toast!

I was in complete shock.  I called Penny and she had no idea that this was going to happen.  The guys that were cutting down the tree had no idea there were bees in the park, just a few feet from the tree they were cutting down.  I showed them and they came in and cleaned up the area and were more careful with finishing their job.

So, the Green Mountain bees got a rude introduction to city life, but I think it will just make them tougher!  The plan for now is to keep them in this spot, but as I have quickly learned, with beekeeping you never know what will happen next!!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bees That Way Sometimes

My stepdad has all these crazy sayings that he spouts when he wants to succintly comment on some absurdity of life (actually, usually he just says them because he likes to say them).  Last week he busted one out that I hadn't heard in a while "Be(e)s that way sometimes" - now with my new hobby, that saying has taken on new meaning!  (One of my other favorites is: "It's not so oft the cough that takes you off, it's more often the coffin they take you off in.)

What a spring we are having - the bees are loving it - the pollen and nectar are flowing and they are busy working. We have had some really hot days already - this past weekend it felt like July.  We've also had some good rain, which will ensure that a good nectar flow continues for the bees.

With all of the crazy snow we had this winter, our roof sprang a few small leaks.  I enlisted the help of Cory Suter, from BioNeighbors, to repair our roof. We agreed on him installing an environmentally friendly white roof coating. Other than Cory deciding to move the beehive by himself and getting stung on the head, everything went smoothly! The bees are happy with their new, cooler roof -

Unfortunately I will no longer be keeping bees at The Spring Gardens community garden.  After the hive there died, I decided that I didn't want to keep trudging up to the top of that shipping container where the hive was.  It was a pain in the ass and I didn't feel very safe up there either.  I asked them if we could find a new spot within the garden for the hive but they were unwilling to allow the bees to be anywhere but up on the shipping container.  It's kind of a shame because the garden is a great place and I would love to be able to keep bees there and use the hive as an educational tool.  Oh well, their loss.

The good news is that I have made a great contact in our neighborhood who is totally supportive of the bees.  Her name is Penny Giles - community activist, environmentalist, general go-getter and I would say, unofficial mayor of Francisville (this is the name of the neighborhood where I live).  Penny has found me two sites where I can keep hives and I have already set up two hives at each of the new sites for a total of 4 new hives.

Here are some shots of the first spot. Penny is planning on putting in a bunch of grapevines and other garden beds in this lot -


 While I was cleaning up the site, I saw a couple of these little guys - kind of cool to see them in the city.  As totem animals, snakes are a sign of change - and change is coming to this run-down lot - so I saw it as a good sign.

 Here are the two hives -

While installing the packages of bees, I royally screwed up the entire process.  I lost one of the queens (she flew away!) and almost lost the other (so I had to order one replacement queen).  In addition to that, I was stung 8 times on the head and face, which was tons 'o fun - here's a look -

Speaking of stings - here is a great article on remedies for bee stings - the winner for best drug remedy was caladryl and the best home remedy, toothpaste!

Something interesting happened while I was waiting for the replacement queen to arrive.  I went back to check on the hives one week after installing them and I saw that the hives were incredibly unequal in terms of population.  About 2/3 of the bees from the queenless hive had migrated to the queenright hive.  This left the queenless hive very weak and low in population.  But, because the queenright hive had so many bees, they were able to fill ten frames of comb with nectar and brood in just one week (that is fast!).  Once the new queen arrived, I did a little switcheroo to try to equalize the populations of the hives.  I installed the new queen and then swapped the positions of the two hives.  Now, when all of the field bees from the strong hive returned they would, unbeknownst to them, become part of the weak hive.  Well, it worked.  I did that maneuver about two weeks ago and I checked on those hives today.  The populations are not totally even but they are much closer than they were.  The strong hive is still really strong and the other one is now about average size.

So, lessons learned from this adventure - wear my veil, be better prepared, don't rush, stay calm and most of all, be very careful with the queen!

I have some good stories from installing the other hives too, but I will post those adventures later.