Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Hive of Activity


We've been inspecting each of our hives, every other weekend. This week we looked into the Elizabeth Taylor hive. We'd had a bit of rain this week, and when we took off the hive covers, we revealed a bit of condensed water, which this little bee drank right up. I never fail to be delighted by bees' tongues.

We went through all three of the hive boxes, frame by frame. To minimize the disruption for the bees, we keep the boxes covered with tea towels. These provide some darkness, but aren't likely to crush anybody. It also reduces the amount of chaotic flying around, which is less stressful for the humans.

We had given the bees strips of embossed wax "starter strips" on which we hoped they would build their combs. For the most part, the comb they built was smooth and even, but there were two or three frames of idiosyncratic structures. As long as we're able to remove the frames without too much damage to the bees' home, I'm not terribly worried about this.

I did knock off a little bit of this comb, when I was lifting it out of the hive box. A couple of larvae fell off, but I'll spare you the photos.

The bees were also building comb on the inside of the hive box. We thought that this would cause trouble down the road, so we cut it off. It's kind of uncanny, how little this seems to bother the bees. I proceeded slowly and did everything I could to avoid hurting the bees, and their tiny little feet.

The bees didn't even fly off as we were moving their comb. I was never particularly afraid of bees, growing up, but I have to wonder about the children and parents who would freak out when they saw a single honey bee. Bees are utterly uninterested in humans. They are totally focused on their tasks, and are remarkably non-aggressive.

(For those wondering, the feather in the background are our home made "bee brush." I collected these on a walk in the woods in rural New York state a few years back. Because I was being foolish, and wearing flip-flops while hiking, I managed to tangle with both poison ivy and stinging nettles that day. You would think I would have the good sense to wear appropriate clothing, as I train people in workplace safety.)

Robb took the cut-off wax and attached it to an empty frame. We'll see if the bees accept this. I'm curious if they'll use the lower portion because it's upside-down. Bees build their combs at a slight upward angle, which keeps the contents from leaking out. Makes sense, right? The lower wax paddle is oriented in the "wrong" direction, so goodness knows what the bees will do.

We found one frame, which was incredibly heavy, and almost full of honey. The bees take nectar from flowers, and process it with enzymes from their bodies. That's what honey is. They also evaporate excess water from the nectar, and when it is the correct viscosity, they cap it with their wax. This is stored food, for the future. Once ripened and capped, the honey can last for years. You'll see that the cells in the lower portion of the frame aren't yet capped.

Bees build in arc-shapes. Their paddles are curved, and they seem to work in arcs as well. Notice how the capped honey arches over the uncovered nectar. We see this sort of structure, over and over again in the hive. Brood cells tend to be in the center of the hive, surrounded by pollen, nectar, and then honey.

I thought the light shining through the ripening nectar was particularly lovely. That golden glow... Below the nectar are capped cells, containing bee pupae. Unlike the hive we inspected last week, this colony doesn't seem to be producing young drones. I have no idea why this is.

This photo shows another mystery. When we "parked" our empty frames in Taylor's hive, we used mostly was "starter strips" meaning that we attached a small "flag" of embossed bees' wax to the frames, and let the bees build how they wished. We did install a few full sheets of embossed foundation, to offer the bees have a structural guide for building their combs.

Embossed wax comes in many different styles, and in the years since it was invented, the manufacturers have been producing wax sheets that would encourage the bees to build larger and larger honeycomb. The thinking behind this is that it would maximize honey production. The unintended consequence seem to be that because bees are pupating in larger and larger cells, the bees themselves have gotten larger, and are pupating longer. There's a school of thought that says that this change in comb (and bees) has given parasitic varroa mites too much of an advantage. Many organic beekeepers have been "regressing" back to small sized comb. (Apparently many commercial beekeepers think this is naive, if not downright insane.)

We bought small-cell wax, because we figure that it couldn't hurt.

The only style of small-cell natural bees' wax foundation we found was made with embedded wires. The wires add strength for when honey is removed from the comb, via centrifugal extraction. We're probably not going to harvest this way, so we don't particularly care about the wire.

What's strange is that it seems that the bees may have been re-sculpting this sheet of wax. It looks as if they have removed some of the original store-bought wax, and are in the process of re-building. I wonder what that's all about?

We've been experimenting with inserting these flags of embossed wax both horizontally (affixed to the top bar of the frame) and vertically, as pictured above. Overall, we think that the vertical method works best, because it seems to give the bees a "ladder" of wax to crawl on. This photo shows that even if we offer the bees a structure in which to build, they are as likely as not to do their own thing.

This week, we started making drawings of all the frames, as we inspect them, so we can easily track the within the hive. We're interested in seeing how this frame progresses in the next two weeks.

This seems to be a more typical progression. The bees build off of the starter strip, and then continue on their way.

We both thought of this as "elephant" comb.

This comb was built off of a horizontal strip. We didn't extend the starter strip all the way across the top of the frame, because we were running short on wax at the time. Perhaps this is what caused the bees to build the structure shown on the first photo of wax comb on this blog post.

I have to say, that I find the bees endlessly fascinating. It's so interesting to watch them go about their lives. I'm so happy that we brought bees into our lives.


Minette said...

Wow! I love following the bee saga. Great information and photos, L. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Sheila said...

That IS fascinating! How much fun it must be to see them working and watch the progress!

lkw said...

Goodness, what a wonderful story about your bees -- I'll look forward to hearing more, too.

Town Mouse said...

Very interesting! I had no idea that so much guidance was involved in the beekeeping operation, but it sort of makes sense. Or maybe not :->

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Oddly, we're pretty hands-off, as far as bee-keeping is concerned. You'd be amazed how much "hive manipulation" gets done, in order to make the bees "perform" better.

We're not interested in that. But we also don't want the bees to expend energy, building structures that we're going to destroy when we open up the hive box.

Sylvana said...

I've been showing my husband some of your posts and he is now talking about getting bees. I' think I might bee up for that :P

Mark said...

Wow! This is fascinating stuff. I really want to keep bees at some point in the future. Keep us posted with progress!

Kristen said...

Fascinating as usual. Do the bees ever stop using areas of the comb for baby-makin' and just fill them with honey? If not, how do you harvest their delicious golden vomit without hurting the kids?

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

From our bee studies we've learned that the baby raising part of the hive is generally in the center of the action. Apparently, it moves up and down throughout the year, as honey is consumed.

All that golden bee barf tends to be stored around the edges, so it's possible to harvest honey without having to strain out larvae.

I'll bet you're going to have nightmares about this, huh?

Sarcasmo said...

Your bee blogs are great. I look at them differently now. They seem less "pest-like". But I have have admired their work ethic for some time. Do you think your recent bee-capades will work their influence on your artwork be-it (no pun) work related or stamp related (letterbox carving)? I imagine you could do a wonderful series on local floura and fauna. Thanks for sharing, your pictures and storytelling lift my day.
'Sarcasmo' A/Q

camissonia said...

I really enjoy your postings about the bees. They're quite industrious, doing all the good works that bees generally do, and they're also kinda cute & charming in their own special bee way (never thought I would say that about an insect, but I feel the same way about our eight-legged tarantulas).

Anonymous said...

Very interesting information! I know a few people that tried to keep bees, but during winter most of the bees died. Now they are getting new ones.

Melanie said...

How exciting and fascinating to watch what they are doing.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...