Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Drama Queenbees

Oh there has been quite the drama with the queens this year let me tell you.
But first let me catch you up on the prep. Most of these photos were taken mid April. Thus the very sparse growth in the background. I will have to post an image from a month and a half ago along side one from today. You wouldn't recognize it! 
Anyway - as I was saying - catch up.

When keeping bees, it is always recommended to start with two hives. That way if something goes wrong with one of the hives you might - might! - be able to help it from the strong hive. I decided this year I should follow this advice. Two hives. 
Apparently the boxes and beehives from previous years have been abandoned to me. I haven't heard from the person who left them in more than a year so now, I've claimed them. They are mine. I also decided to collect the abandoned equipment from a friend. This is a huge savings for me because purchasing the bees, while isn't cheap, isn't that expensive either. The equipment is $$$. 

I have plenty of room for the both of them.
 But I am tired of the ugly green and the stupid geckos.
Time to change that. All the boxes were stacked in the garden on a sunny day with no threat of rain.

Paint was chosen from the basement: left over paint from my bedroom. A cheerful yellow.
Much better!
You'll notice in the above image that there are different sized boxes. The larger ones are called deeps. I'm using two deeps for my brood chambers. The brood chambers are where the queen runs around laying eggs. The mediums (the narrower ones) are the ones to put on top for honey.  

Then there are a few extras, spacers and bases and stuff. Well, those had to be painted chartreuse of course.
 Finished! And don't' they look lovely? I thought about putting a little extra decoration around them, but by the time I had my bees it was too late. Maybe next year. Ya gotta be careful. Bees don't like paint fumes.

This year I decided to take the beekeeping class from Worcester Honey Farms and it has been excellent! I've learned so much about them and they are so interesting. It is quite a system they have worked out to survive. There is one queen. She is the mother to all the bees in the hive. At peak season that can be up to 100,000 bees.  Mostly she makes daughters. These are the worker bees. They live for six weeks and have different jobs at different stages from the moment they hatch. The drones are the boys. There are not as many of them, and they do absolutely nothing except mate with other queens. At a certain point the workers kill them all to be done with them. The queen makes new ones in the spring.
For one of our classes we had to practice picking bees up with our bare fingers. 
I was not thrilled because that lesson came when i was feeling particularly awful from allergies/upper respiratory infection mentioned in the previous post. But I'm rather proud of myself because I did master the art of picking up bees. First we picked up drones. They don't have stingers so you can pick them up by the thorax. They sure buzz a lot but you can keep a pretty good grip on them. We practiced marking them as if they were queens with paint pens. I have found the value in having a marked queen. She is much easier to spot. Even though she is significantly bigger than the workers, she is still hard to find on a frame covered with stripey bees. After marking the drones we had to pick up workers bees. This was the part I was really not interested in. When I get stung I swell up badly. Last summer I had to be on a steroid to get the swelling down. It was not fun. And I needed to be able to use my right hand on Monday! But I have to say, bee people are the nicest people you could ever meet. I was late to class (on account of feeling awful) and everyone had already mastered grabbing little workers by their wings and picking them up. I had to do it with a full audience. But everyone was kind and helpful and encouraging. They helped me find the ones with their wings in just the right position to be picked up. It sure made the job easier. I managed to pick up three bees without getting stung. I wasn't able to shove them into queen cages though. But at this point I'm still proud of my accomplishment. It came in handy later too.

So the drama of the queens this year! Good grief!
My teacher also sells the bee packages way out in in Blue Bell, PA. It is a 45 minute trip with no traffic. Which on the Schuylkill Expressway is a fluke. There is always traffic. I made it home with both packages. The queen was still alive in the first one so I installed it - no problem. The second hive the queen was dead. Called my teacher and made arrangement to drive back out on Sunday to pick up new Queen. Queens are bread separately from the Package of 9000 bees you purchase. They are housed in queen cages with a few attendants until the package gets used to her pheromones and accepts her.
Tuesday came and it was time to let the queen from the first package out of her cage.
She was dead.
I checked the other hive and the new queen was thankfully still alive.
Wednesday I had to head back out to my teacher to pick up another queen. You can't have a hive without a queen. She is the only one who is fertile. When I arrived he said, "you know, you should check to see if there isn't a rogue queen in the package. If there is, they'll never accept this one and they'll just kill her." Well. Okay then. I couldn't install her until Thursday morning and while I looked very carefully at the package and thought I saw someone extra large, I couldn't be sure.
I took the opportunity of being suited up to release the other queen but she had already escaped her queen cage and was contentedly wandering around on a frame. Yipee!
That Sunday was class and I thought I should look one more time to see if I could find a rogue queen. If I did, I could take the other queen back to my teacher. Again - a fleeting glimpse of one that might have been the queen but she was too quick. At class we picked up bees and had a very informative question answer session before we were rained out. I told my teacher what was going on and he said to let him know because he'd be checking on his hives at UPenn and could stop by and pick her up is she was indeed unneeded. By the time I got home the weather had cleared and so I looked one more time and this time I spied her! There was a rogue queen! I double and triple checked to be sure and then emailed my teacher. 
Tuesday morning when he was to stop by I retrieved the queen from the hive and there one one little worker bee who would not let go of the cage. She clung on through smoke, and shaking and brushing aside. Finally, I decided to put my newly acquired bee-picking-up skills to work. I deftly plucked her up by her wings and flung her back in the direction of the hive. Boy, if that doesn't give you a sense of empowerment I don't know what does.

And now... I can't find the rogue queen again. 
And I don't think she is there. No idea why. Did she leave? Did she die? Did I accidentally squish her? Evidence that she is no longer there: 
1. This is not a happy hive. They are extremely agitated when I open the hive. 
2. There are no eggs.
3. There were significantly less bees than the other hive.
4. There are four queen cells on the bottom of a frame.
The long peanut looking things are the queen cells. The other flat orange disks are capped brood. There is a pupating larvae in those (worker larvae).  The fact that the queen cells are on the bottom of the frame indicates that they might be wanting to swarm. Maybe the queen already left!? I just don't know. What absolutely cannot happen is that the workers start laying eggs. They aren't fertilized so they will just be drones. The drone larvae are bigger and will destroy the comb. (The queen lays the appropriate egg for the size of the cell. Smallest are worker bees, larger are drones, and the workers make the queen cells. They decide when they want a new queen.)
So here is a frame from that hive of a circle of capped brood. I am hoping that the empty circle in the middle is because they all hatched and they are still working on these other ladies hatching. But there are no eggs in there :(.
I've emailed my teacher and so we'll see what wisdom he shares with me. If there is one thing I've learned from this experience is that this profession takes a lot of experience to master. There are just so many variables and so many different things that can go wrong.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

April showers bring May allergies.... and a new patio

This year was the worst for allergies yet. April 28th, Friday evening, my allergies hit me with the force of all that is evil. Eyes itchy, sneezing non-stop, completely congested... oh brother. I was out of commission. Unfortunately I couldn't be out of commission. Saturday the 29th I had to pick up my bees. I ordered two bee packages this year and took the class. There was tons of drama with the queens, but that is a story for another post.
Long story short - that weekend I sought the advice of my local pharmacist who gave me excellent recommendations:  keep taking the Zyrtek, supplement with Sudafed for allergies, Flo-nase for the congestion and if that doesn't work, come back for the Zatidor eye drops before you rip your eye-balls out. By Monday I had to get the eye drops I was so miserable. By Thursday, it turned out, I was allergic to the eye drops. You've never seen anything like it. My eyes were completely blood shot, tearing, and itchy like crazy. Not to mention the gunk! There was so much gunk coming out of them they sealed shut over night. All of this stress strained the rest of my system and by the following Tuesday (when I could see a doctor) she decided that in addition to all of the allergy nonsense I had an upper respiratory infection. I took an entire week off from work because I was totally useless. And I'm still coughing, although things have gotten much much better. And to top if off, May has been a little bit miserable. We had a three day heat wave, temps in the 90s out of nowhere, and then promptly back to the 60s. I'm not complaining about the cool weather because soon enough it will be broiling, but it's still weird. And the cool weather allowed me to take care of another long overdue project, replacing the "deck".
Remember the deck? I layed down four wooden pallets, topped it with weather proof fencing and voilá! Instant deck. This worked just fine until last summer when the pallets started rotting through. It started to become more of an amusement park fun house ride than a safe and secure deck. So it was time to replace it with a patio.
Here is the deck in its last hurrah. It served it's purpose well. 

One of the collapsed pallets that proved the most wobbly. 
 The Senior Inspector was curious but didn't seem to exhibit any great feelings about the removal of one of his garden thrones.
 Once the furniture was moved, he did settle comfortably in his favorite chair.

Meanwhile, the Junior Inspector monitored everything from the ground. 
 Cleared space is approved.

Next came the incredibly laborious job of leveling the ground. Ooff! What a job.

 Once it is mostly flat sand needs to be added.
I added 200lbs of sand and smoothed it out. I was so tempted to run the rake through it to make a faux zen garden. But the thought that I would have to smooth it out again took that desire away right quick-like.
And as I stood there surveying my handiwork at the end of the day, I realized I could not be done this evening. What does that giant sand pit look like to you? Now, what do you think it looks like to a cat? A deluxe kitty litter box! Am I right? So the work continued to prevent any treasures appearing in it overnight.

I was removing bricks from the walkway next to the porch for this project.
The walkway is only ever totally clear in the winter time when I'm not really using it. And the rest of the year it one giant weeding nightmare project. Plus the flower beds between the walkway and the porch just aren't substantial enough to do anything wonderful with. I decided that if I lifted the bricks from there for the patio, I could then expand the flower/vegetable beds. 

After getting the first load back to the deck in the wheel barrow (checked out from the West Philly Tool Library - yay!) my earlier suspicions about the vast sand pit were tested.
The Senior Inspector was mighty interested!

But to my great relief and surprise, that sand pit looked like the best kitty-bath in the world!
The Senior Inspector had himself a grand time in the sand.
And I let him.
(Sorry about the video quality. I'm working with my vintage Canon from ought five.)

I managed to make quite a bit of progress before it really was time to call it quits.
I covered the leftover bit with an old shower curtain to thwart any other kitties who think more like me.
At the next opportunity I finished my patio!
The sand is key. It allows you to make the whole thing completely level and for a time, thwarts any weeds from sneaking into the cracks. 
The above brick was sticking up at least 1/4" higher than everything else. So you just pull it up, scoop out some sand until it lies flush with the rest of the bricks. Fabulous technique!

Once I had reinstalled the furniture, the Junior Inspector checked things out. 

 New deck approved!

The project made quite a mess of the garden, and I'm looking forward to having that cleaned up. 
My lovely new veggie garden at the side of the house has tomatoes, kale, and fennel along with various flowers.
But I don't think this project is quite finished. I have extra bricks and I think it would be wise to make a pathway from the patio connected to the rest of the bricks in front of the shed. This would be nice just for general barefoot travel and also for a good place to put the grill.