Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The honeymoon is over

We don't even mean that figuratively.  It is literal.  I suppose we have a few announcements to make.

5th Street Apiary mead
An announcement about 5th Street Apiary
You see, after thinking long and hard about the sustainability of the apiary and the welfare of the bees, Grant and I have made a strategic business decision.  We got married. Yes, it is a sacrifice, but one that we are willing to make for the ladies. We committed ourselves to each other in early October.

This is why we’ve been scarcely able to blog about any of the fun stuff happening in the beeyard, though we do apologize about the long hiatus.  We’ve been making mead for the wedding, donning another kind of veil, and yes, we just returned from our honeymoon.  

An announcement about our honey
In the midst of all the flurry, we have also been selling some honey!  So much so, that we have another announcement to make.  We are sold out of honey for 2011.

We've been really excited about the great reviews our honey has received and we'd like to thank everyone who has supported us so far.  We look forward to growing so we can get more honey to more friends!

lip balm!
beeswax lip balm
An announcement about a new product
We introduced our lip balm this summer at the markets where we sold, but barely breathed a word of it on the internets.  But we sell lip balm now, too! We collect beeswax from the ladies and add sweet almond oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and various essential oils to make these little lovelies.  We sell them for $3 each and currently offer three flavors:

peppermint eucalyptus
rose geranium
mojito (lime, peppermint & honey).

If you are interested in any of these to prep for the encroaching winter, let us know at

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Honey Harvest

So.  Honey harvest.  Let's get to it.

the robbing commences
Since we're all starting at different places in learning about bees, let's start at the beginning.  Honey is the dehydrated nectar of flowers. As bees forage, they store it in their honey stomachs to transport back to the hive, and as they regurgitate it into the honeycomb, they value-add some enzymes that help preserve it. Then they beat their little wings to circulate air and encourage evaporation in the nectar, thus slowly reducing the water content. Nectar is roughly 80% water; honey is roughly18%.  That's a lot of little wing beats. And it is important to wait til the nectar is truly honey, because the additional water could cause it to ferment/spoil. But fortunately, it doesn't take much figuring to determine if its right.  Bees won't cap honey til its correct, so if you wait til the comb in a frame is capped, and you know that you have honey.

capped honey!
So, here we are in the hives, searching for frames of capped honey.  Let's be clear that a frame of capped honey is a beautiful sight. The wax is buttery and opaque, hinting at the wealth beneath. 

wax cappingsIt is also heavy--an early indication when you reach for a frame that its full of the good stuff.  The first thing to do is get the bees off the frame.  As a general rule, there are usually fewer bees on capped honey to begin with because they aren't using that frame (if it is capped, they aren't eating it, and otherwise, they are tending to the frames with brood).  But there will always be some bees, and there are a variety of ways to remove them.  For brevity's sake we'll skim over the others and just note that we use the old fashion brush (see picture above).  Admittedly, they hate it. But you are robbing them after all, so you've kinda already accepted a certain imbalance of justice.

Once you've gathered all your frames, you contain your excitement and move inside (don't want to tempt the bees by extracting near them).  Be sure that you have thoroughly cleaned your workspace and all tools and equipment.

The next step is to cut the wax cappings from the comb.  The cappings are literally wax that bees cover ripe honey with to contain and protect it, designating it as storage.  This is really the only wax that should be used for cosmetics (and is what we use for our lip balms & salves), because it is by nature clean and fresh.

Once you've cut away the cappings, take a moment to stop and admire the unique color of whatever-season honey you're extracting.  Hold it against the light, squint, smile, whatever.  Just notice it.  Then, place it your extractor.

homemade extractor

Our extractor is a little different, just like our bee suits are different (costumes we call them), because it is homemade.  Such are the perks of having a carpenter/tinkerer/seamster on your team.  Our extractor works the way commercial ones do, for the most part.  That is, it spins the frames--which are placed like spokes in a wheel--utilizing centrifugal force to push the honey out of the comb.  The honey flies out, hits the side of the extractor, and collects at its base, where you have a spigot for easy release.  As you pour the honey from the extractor to your storage container, you filter out
any wax
or other remnants.

And that, my friends, is all.  Pure, raw, filtered honey.  And it is soooo good!

After we harvested some honey from each of our city and country hives, we compared them.  Woo hoo! Just like last year, we were super impressed with how bright, citrusy, floral, and generally fun the city honey was.  Whatever you are doing, neighbor friends, please keep it up!

If you are interested in trying some of our honey, we are finally ready for sale!  We sold some of our honey and lip balm at the Gear Up for Good event last week and had a great time, hanging out with our good friends (and family) at Al's, Broke Spoke, and more.  We will also be selling honey at the East End Community Market on Saturday mornings from 9am-2pm.  That market (on 3rd Street and Midland Ave), opened last week, but we won't arrive there til next week (July 23rd).  Alternatively, you can always email us at and we'll work something out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gear Up for Good: Life on the North End

Whew, it has been a busy month!  We promise we'll describe the process of the honey harvest soon, but in the meantime, we are preparing for an event that we're pretty excited about...and is time sensitive (as in, tomorrow).  So, we'll talk about that for a minute.

As proud members of the dynamic North Side community, we'll be participating in the upcoming Gearing Up for Good: Life on the North End, which is a Debra's Social $timulus event. What that means is this Friday evening (July 8th, 5:30-9pm), we'll be hanging out on 6th Street and Limestone with our buddies at Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, Al's Bar, Bullhorn, Homegrown Press, SideCar, Supreme Service, Sprocket Jockeys, etc., to celebrate the cool stuff going on in our neck of the woods.  Food, music, and great company are free.

We'll also be selling our spring honey crop (so you can see what Lexington really tastes like) and giving tours of the apiary (via a brief ride from the Sprocket Jockeys or a 4-block walk).  Debra Hensley's done a lot of amazing work pulling this event together and we'd like to offer a big thanks to her and Melissa Watt (who filmed these videos).  They both came by the apiary last month to video the two of us in our native habitat (below).

In other neighborhood news, we are also proud members of the East End community and will be participating in the East End Community Farmers Market at the corner of Third Street and Midland Ave (at the brick Community Ventures Corporation pavilion).  Though we won't be starting our run there until July 23rd, it is celebrating its Grand Opening this Saturday, July 9th (9am-2pm this and every week).  Check it out!

If you are unable to make either location, but are interested in some urban honey, shoot us an email at and we'll see what we can do.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


This post begins with us sitting in the backyard with our gin & tonics, watching little flags of white darting past through the sky. The white doesn't show on the video, but it's a pretty fun scene. It's our bees, of course, cleaning out their hives. We'll get into the whole white thing a little later.

Last time we wrote about our efforts at requeening, and have been told that it was quite the soap opera. Sorry to leave you hanging if you happen to be as interested in this stuff as we are. It has been a busy couple of weeks! In a really great way though.

see the marked queen?
As we discussed in our last post, we purchased 6 hygienic queens to either requeen poor performing queens or make splits to ultimately increase our beeyard (we made the decision that this year we would focus on colony expansion and try to create many small hives that could grow into solid production hives next spring; this is our attempt to move away from buying packaged bees from more southern climes and really start to develop a local population of bees that are adjusted to our conditions). This is why we've jumped from 4 hives to 19...and is part of why we're back down to 17.  In any case, to provide an epilogue to our queening adventures, a couple of the queens we tried to introduce into hives were killed by the workers. Boo.

However, the most important one, Quinn (who subbed for Doris), was accepted! I can't tell you how excited to learn this. She was the only hive that we REALLY needed to introduce new genetics to, and the very reason why we needed them requeened was the same reason that made us fear it would be difficult: they're just so mean! In fact, not long after they heard us celebrating Quinn's acceptance, one crawled up my pant leg--finding the one chink in my armor--down my big rubber boot and stung me on the ankle. I didn't even care. In two months (it should take that long for Quinn's bees to really become the hive), that colony will be a completely different animal.

Without going into too much detail, we'll try to offer a condensed version of why we think the cards fell where they did for each new queen. One reason has to do with the bees' natural reproduction cycle. Doris, the aggressive hive that accepted her queen, has been gearing up to swarm all spring. However, due to the perpetual inclement weather, she never actually did. Because--we hypothesize--we requeened her before she achieved a swarm, maybe we caught the workers at a point where they were expecting a new queen soon (remember that the old queen leaves with the swarm and a new queen--reared by the worker--stays at the current location) and may have been more inclined to trust a new queen. The hives that killed the new queens all had something in common...they were our packaged hives that we were using the new queens to split. So basically, they'd already gone through a requeening process about a month ago. They weren't at a natural swarming point, and may have felt less inclined to trust a new queen when they could just raise their own. Who knows. It's a possibility.
hive skirt

In any case, I think it's easy to relate to the plight of a colony in that situation. Here you are, queenless, with a window of only three days before the old queen's eggs hatch and it will be too late to raise your own (to make a queen workers feed any egg an excess amount of royal jelly).  Then here comes this queen in a cage.   She's fully grown, yes, but how can you really trust her if you've never seen her lay an egg, knowing that her ovaries are wholly responsible for the survival of your colony? It's crazy! If you take the chance to rear one yourselves, you at least know that she's going to be made of the same stuff that you are. Makes sense.

So here's the fun part, the part that brings us sitting in the back yard with our gin & tonics watching little flags of white dashing through the sky. In order to merge the now-queenless splits we'd made from our package hives, we would have to recombine them with the colonies they came from. We were hoping this wouldn't be too problematic, since the week prior they were all one colony, but there is a little trick you can do when combining a group of bees (queenless) with another group of bees (queenright) to ease
tissue between bodies
the transition. You stack the queenless hive body on the queenright hive body, separated by newspaper (we used the paper that wax foundation comes wrapped in). The bees are separated at first, but by a pervious paper layer that allows their phermones to mingle. As the bees pick through the paper, the queenless bees can sense the presence of the queen, and the queenright bees can get used to the notion of a few thousand more bees joining their ranks. Because bees are usually pretty clean by nature, they should ultimately remove the paper barrier (thus leading to the flying paper scraps zig-zagging across the sky). By the time they've opened the space up between the two hive bodies, hopefully, you'll have one harmonious colony.

That's all for now. Next time, honey extraction!!

Monday, May 23, 2011


better than a singing telegram!
better than a singing telegram
Ahh. What a weekend.  After weeks of slimy weather, we had a weekend that was both mostly sunny AND mostly warm!  We hit some personal beekeeping milestones: we harvested the season's first honey from one of our country hives, we killed our first queen (not to make this light, we'll revisit our reasons for doing so later), and we received a package of six queen bees in the mail and then requeened or split several hives (tally's up to 19 now!!).

Because so many of our milestones included queens, let's focus there.  First off, we have a hive with a temperment that--we've slowly noticed--is terrible.  Her name is Doris. When you smoke them, half fly off to attack the smoke (the "normal reaction"* is to retreat between the frames and gorge on honey). When you gently blow on them, entreating them to disperse so you can see the comb beneath, they bristle and buzz and half fly off to attack the wind
our new hive labels
our new hive labels
(the "normal reaction"* is to simply disperse).  When they were a smaller hive, we'd noticed this spastic behavior, but it wasn't yet a problem.  Their enlarged size seems to have emboldened them more (or maybe they just have a larger population of guard bees, whose job is to protect the hive).  In any case, now that they are grown up (like the 6-hive-bodies-tall that they are right now), it takes longer to work them, which has proven a dangerous proposition.  Even though they are doing a bang up job of bringing in the nectar (we just harvested 5 frames of light-colored honey from them), we can't afford to have bees that nasty, so we've decided to requeen (as the queen is the mother of every bee in the colony).

To this end, we ordered several queens from a genetic line that is known for its gentleness, acclimation to Northern climes, and its cleanliness (this can help in the management of pests and pathogens).  That was the easy part.  The hard part was just FINDING Doris's queen.  When you must meticulously analyze each frame in a 6 body-tall hive (that's 60 frames) looking for one specific bee among tens of thousands of them, well, let's just say it takes a while.  Over the past few weeks, we'd been through every frame at least twice and hadn't seen her.  

the queen is dead
attending their dead queen
But this weekend, we were motivated.  We'd invested in a queen that was going in that hive. So, new queen in hand, we changed our strategy and both inspected each frame so there would be two sets of eyes checking for her.  Gratefully, this method unveiled her early... and Grant squished her on the spot.

It was an inglorious way to end a dynasty--really, one that we resented but also really really respected (many say that aggressive bees can be the better honey collectors and survivors).  We just didn't want to spend our lives with her.  It seemed dangerous to us to have bees that pose a threat to people in the area.  Even her drones would affect the genetics of other hives we'd keep out there.  No, she had to go.  Sorry, Doris.

We're not really sure how long it takes the bees to communicate to one another that they're queenless.  We do know that when you take a queen from the hive, the nearby bees know it and may start fanning (releasing a certain phermone from their nasanov gland) to indicate to her where her hive is (see the video below for a shot of some bees in another hive doing this).   After we killed Doris, we temporarily placed her on a board near the hive.  Several bees attended her.  We let them, thinking they could be the messengers.  After a while, we moved the queen to the car and found that bees continued to linger in the spot where she'd lain.

queen cage
We also know that a hive will not remain queenless for too long before they start the business of rearing a new queen.  We've read accounts from varying beekeepers citing that this can happen within an hour, or could be as long as a day.  Our experience last year was that a day was too long to wait before introducing a foreign queen. The bees were already committed to rearing their own and killed the queen we introduced.  We didn't have an hour to wait with Doris, so we crossed our fingers and inserted the new queen almost immediately.  Let's hope they like Quinn and decide to keep her.  Though,  to quote Winnie-the-Pooh, "you can never tell with bees."  The video below shows the first reaction of Doris's bees to their new queen in her cage.  We discuss this process a bit in an earlier post if you'd like some insight into what's actually happening here.

On a different note, we'll end on a treat that also involves queens.  While working one of our favorite hives (and also our first) this weekend, we caught sight of the queen in the process of laying eggs (this was the first time we'd witnessed this process) and got a brief video.  Enjoy.

*I will qualify "normal" as being normal to an Italian stock of bees that are the most popular in beekeeping due to their more docile personality.  Of course one should not really refer to genetic traits of one type of bee as 'normal' and genetic traits of another type of bee as 'abnormal', but we're allowing ourselves some liberties.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


nurseryIn under two months, the number of hives in our backyard has more than quadrupled. From 3 to 13 hives in five weeks...whew.  It is a lot of hives to host in town, and really, once they are full grown, it will be too much and we'll have to move several of them to other locations.

plus two In the short term, the populations are low and we like the convenience for monitoring their progress.  We've expanded in three different ways this year: bought packages, caught swarms, and made splits.  All of these methods begin humbly with small populations of bees trying to build up a new colony.  Specifically, these bees must first draw the wax into the honeycomb form they use for storing food and raising brood*.  For packages, where you introduce a population of bees to a foreign queen, it is particularly important to be able to monitor whether or not the queen has been accepted by the workers.

So while the populations are small and somewhat "needy" (note that we say this strictly from a management perspective), it is ok to keep 13 in a city plot. But that's why we've started calling our
three new hives
three new hives
backyard apiary a "nursery"--most of the hives we keep here will always be young and may need extra management.

But one potential problem of this high density approach is the bees' ability to distinguish their hive from the others.  Bees have quite a sophisticated sense of navigation, but it is also unusual in a natural setting for so many similar looking hives to be in such close proximity.  Because they recognize colors and shapes, one technique to help them find their home is to tack different shapes above each hive's entrance. I won't lie, it also
on a lighter note
branding helps us feel special
serves as a mnemonic device for the beekeepers as we try to keep Hyssop straight from BeeBee or Cay, or Jonquil or.....

Now, the little 5 branding...that's strictly for us :)

*Wax is secreted by glands on the underside of a honeybee's abdomen.   But it requires a lot of energy.  For every 1lb of wax secreted,  it takes approximately 6 lbs of honey.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Swarming

swarm catcher kit
our swarm catching box!
There's a lot to talk about this time of year. But we'll restrain ourselves for now and get this post started with some pretty exciting news.  We caught a swarm!  And not just extracted one like Grant did last week--where he propped a ladder up to a tree and shook a bunch of bees from a branch into a box (not to downplay how much fun that was...) No, this one came to us.

But first, let's talk a minute about what a swarm is.  It is the time of year where bees are wont to do this sort of thing, so as our neighbors, it is important that you understand it a bit.  Swarming is a natural part of bees' life cycle:  it's how they, as a colony, reproduce (it doesn't take long to realize that the real organism with honeybees is the colony, not the bee).  And just like any living thing, bees are strongly motivated to do so.  As a beekeeper, you want other hives to swarm (so you can harvest them) and you try your damnedest to prevent yours from doing so.  That's a lot of bees to gain or lose.

capped queen cell
capped queen cell
So this is the process.   The influx of pollen and nectar in the early spring flow gives the bees confidence that an offshoot colony could survive, so they go for it.   The queen pushes into overdrive egg-laying and the workers, when the time is right, rear a new queen.  Yup, the workers make a queen.  First, they build 'queen cups,' or slightly larger cells that extend beyond the normal profile of the comb.  When a queen lays an egg in this cup, the workers feed it royal jelly (which they make).  All larva receive some royal jelly as they develop, but queens receive continuous and copious amounts of it through their entire larval and pupating life.  It's what makes a queen a queen.

Several cells will get this treatment, as insurance.  The eggs destined to be queens hatch, eat the royal jelly as larvae, pupate, get sealed into their cell by the workers, and eat more royal jelly.  Despite the fact that the queen is a significantly larger bee, with a much longer lifespan, her adolescence lasts a significantly shorter time than either workers or drones (16ish days vs. 21ish days for workers and 24ish days for drones).  This is most assuredly because when a queen is needed, she's NEEDED; she's the sole egg-layer for the entire colony.  Yup, that royal jelly is really something.
a proper home
subbed a proper medium  hive body

Once one or a few queen cells are capped, theoretically, the old queen will swarm with a sizable chunk of the bees in the colony, leaving the first pupating queen to emerge as the new matriarch (the first one will sting the remaining cells, killing them; if two emerge simultaneously, they duke it out).  The old queen and the group of bees that leave with her...that's a swarm.  They are looking for a new home.  Because they don't have one yet, they have nothing to defend.  Without a home, they are docile.  This is important for folks to remember about swarms and  the nature of bees.  They don't want to sting you unless they really think you pose a threat to the colony.  The act of stinging kills the bee, so it is therefore an act of hive defense, not self defense.

swarm queen
we marked the swarm's queen
A swarm doesn't know where its new home will be when it leaves, so it will often camp out in a temporary location for a while (often in a tree).  Scout bees will shoot off and scope out prospective homes.  When one returns with a good location in mind, she'll signal the other bees via the waggle dance, and the swarm will move on it.  It is in this staging area where they are most desirable and easiest to gather.  This is the kind of swarm that Grant collected in the previous post from the upper boughs of a pine tree.

So, how does one catch a swarm without going through this 'harvesting' process? We set out a wooden box with frames and a little bit of lemongrass oil (the lemongrass oil is actually very similar to the scent produced by a bee's nasanov gland, which communicates a hive's location to other members of the colony).  Basically, we wanted to just the sort of habitat a bee would look for. A scout bee from a swarm found our box and convinced the colony that she'd found the best new home.

So now we have a new hive.  With local, survivor genetics from a proven queen.  And what a queen she is.  I think anyone can appreciate an abdomen like that!

Friday, April 15, 2011

First Swarm of 2011

kayswarm hive on the right
With the gracious help of Brian Ronk I collected our first swarm of bees for the season! Brian and I climbed to the top of a two story house, and then I climbed up another twelve foot of extension ladder, leaning from the top of the roof up to the uppermost branches of a pine tree, to collect the large swarm of bees. 
They have been added to the 5th Street Apiary and seem to have settled in despite the rainy weather.  Hopefully Brian was able to get some good video and maybe we can get a link up.
If you see a swarm give me a call, 312.2122, and I will do my best to collect them.  Swarms do not have a great chance of surviving if left on their own and they may end up somewhere they are not wanted and be subjected to a can of wasp killer.  Not a good outcome.  Your reward is a free jar of honey!

UPDATE: Once the hive was settled in, we found (or rather didn't find) something unsettling.  The queen didn't make it with the rest of the bees.  Ug.  Fortunately, we'd made a split from Columbia last time we inspected her because we'd found capped and uncapped queen cells*. When no queen was evident in the swarm (you can tell because they don't act settled like they do when they're queenright), Grant combined the split nucleus we'd made from our booming hive (replete with a number of queen cells.  He inspected again yesterday afternoon and found a small queen had emerged!

* This time of year, when you see a hive building queen cells, it likely means they want to swarm.  Swarming is really just a hive--as an organism--reproducing itself and we'll probably need to dedicate a whole post to that process.  However, it is important to know that swarms are quite docile because they don't have anything to defend.  Anyway, so the workers need to make a new queen so the old one can go with the swarm, so they do so by making queen cells.  You, as a beekeeper, may try to prevent this by making a split.  More on all that later.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More Bees Please

bulk bees
our five new packages
So after a few harrowing weeks of worried waiting, we got our packages!  Well, technically they're from a different company than the ones we originally ordered, but they're here!

So what are packages anyway? In a nutshell, they're bees in bulk--which is undeniably weird.  They are also the most basic of the three main ways you can get started as a beekeeper.

If you don't have hives to make splits from (or you don't want to reduce your current hives' population to make those splits), you have three options. You can get a fully functioning hive, which includes 2 hive bodies, 20 frames, brood, honey, pollen, several thousand bees and their queen ($$$); OR you can get a nucleus, which includes 5 frames of brood, honey and pollen, 10,000 bees and their queen ($$); OR you can get a package which is 3 pounds of bees in a box and a queen in a cage ($) (check out a video of the queen marking process here).

I say a queen instead of their queen because in packages they don't know each other yet.  And this is actually the riskiest part of the whole 'bees by the pound' process: the workers aren't guaranteed to want or like the queen you give them.  A queen a big commitment for them; they need time to figure her out.  In fact, if the bees don't like the queen (unfortunately, last year lent us some experience with this), or if something catastrophic or annoying happens to the hive during this introductory phase, they'll blame it on the queen, kill her and try to raise a new one (we'll go into that process later).  This doesn't necessarily spell doom for your hive, but it will set them back a few weeks.

Beekeepers have a neat way of enabling a gradual introduction of the queen with the hope that the workers will grow to trust her.  When you get a package of bees, the queen is actually in a little cage with a few "attendants."  A thick chunk of soft candy plugs the exit, which the attendants eat and then feed the queen. When you put your bees into their new
jess shaking the bees in jonquil
shaking the package into the hive 
home (again, weird; you just shake them out like grain), you suspend the queen cage between two frames.  While the workers are busy eating their way through the candy, the queen's pheromone slowly disperses through the hive.  As social insects, pheromones are key to the way that bees communicate with each other.  Bees that interact with the queen through the cage will pass the pheromone along through the ranks.  If they accept the queen, her pheromone will become this hive's identity.

We were fortunate on Sunday to have BEAUTIFUL weather, hot even.  Despite the light wind, everything worked out really really well with the package install (below is a video of Grant installing one of them) and by the end of the day we saw bees hauling pollen back to their new homes!
We keep telling ourselves these bees are not really ours.  They are not domesticated, they don't need us, and frankly, they'd probably rather do without our intermittent poking and prodding. But we can't help feeling like their guardians now; that this process is one of adoption.  "You're in a good place, ladies," we told them. "there's a variety of great food to eat,  no major pesticides, no bears.  We'll do our best to keep off the mites & pests and you'll be just fine."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

...And Healthy Bee Bellies

Still no packages.  We're really trying to maintain our composure, but after two weeks, our excitement has fermented into anxiety, and we're wondering if we need to form a back-up plan.

Of course, one way of getting your mind off the worry is to just walk back to the beeyard and sit for a while.  This weekend's weather finally afforded us this opportunity again. We found evidence that the bees were just as fed up with the cold as we were.  They were BUSY.  And packing in every color of pollen.

streaking on columbia
Unfortunately, they were also messy.  Messier than last week even.  In a previous post we talked about the bees' need for cleansing flights.  They've tried to make due with the brief, sunny, crisp spells we've had, but we discovered this weekend that those haven't been enough.

We're still learning about this bee-physiology stuff, but you could easily see by the streak marks on Columbia that these cleansing flights were a long time coming.  One thing you always worry about with streaking is Nosema.  Nosema is essentially a severe dysentery caused by a fungus that's been charged as a possible accomplice in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Some beekeepers suggest that you preemptively treat your hives for Nosema by applying an antibiotic.  We do not wish to do this, though we did have to treat Ada last year when we found she had Nosema (it's actually quite common). To be safe, though, we didn't pull honey from her.

make-shift laboratory!
To test for Nosema, you can do a few things.  There is a bee researcher at Kentucky State that will analyze and diagnose your bees if you send him several sample bees (preferably some that you collect live).  First, you drown them in an alcohol/water solution and pack them in a ziplock bag.  We started this process last year, but then Grant pulled out the microscope and so we did it in-house.  The first stage was actually tragically comical, because I didn't drown them long enough or in a potent enough solution.  As they dried, they actually came to, drunkenly buzzing into walls.

The next stage is pretty murky.  You can macerate, blend, or even use a coffee grinder, but you have to make a bee paste to analyze under the microscope.  The Nosema fungus is in the gut and this is a straightforward way to see inside there.

We haven't done this test for the bees this year.  Honestly, we're just hoping that they've been cooped up for too long and just had to accommodate a lot of traffic at once.

bee poo 200x
However, Grant could not resist the temptation to dissect some of know, just to see. We'd found a fairly large number of dead and/or crawling bees outside the hives we could pull the sample from (again, the girls are neat by nature and it is not uncommon to see this sort of "spring cleaning" if they've been unable to remove their mess for a long time, so we're not necessarily worried about this). What we found is that their intestines were bursting with waste.

So then what? Under the microscope it goes! This isn't the proper test for Nosema or any other pathogen that we are aware of, just another way of seeing things.

All for now.  Fingers crossed for our packages, for more warm weather, and healthy bee bellies.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Chilly Spell

cleaning her proboscis
So we didn't get our packages.  Due to a queen shortage experienced by our supplier (which hopefully doesn't portend bad news about winter bee losses), we'll be waiting another week to expand.  Given the freezing temperatures that swept through Kentucky this past weekend, it was probably for the best.

When you do your winter reading about bees, you'll often find that they won't/can't fly if the temperature is below 50ish (well, of course you'll find a number of thresholds cited, but they all kinda hover in 50s).  When you talk to other beekeepers, they'll affectionately remind you that bees don't read books. Point taken.

This Sunday, the temperature hovered in the low to mid 40s.  I'll admit, the bees didn't seem very adventurous.  Like kids cut loose for the first time from their parents, they seemed uninterested in straying too far from the hives, and instead scoured a 20 foot radius for ANY sign of nectar, pollen or water.  It created a weird phenomenon.  Walking back toward the beeyard, you eventually crossed this line--right about at our last raised bed--into wall of soft buzzing and a thin carpet of bees.

Poor girls seemed desperate to work anything they could, holding out that perhaps THIS lettuce head offered nectar within its leaves.  I was able to capture a pretty cool video of a bee drinking from a large water droplet on a sedum plant.  You can see the bee's tongue (proboscis) fully extended slurping it up.  Water droplets just look so solid and buoyant on sedum, don't they?

This video of Columbia's entrance--in addition to being hypnotic--shows another problem honeybees experience with cold weather: the need to eliminate.  Even in winter, bees are still processing honey and pollen and like all of us, need to pass waste.  Bees are quite fastidious, generally speaking, and dislike doing their business in the hive.  In winter, those random, freak warm days are essential for the bees to be able to take "cleansing flights."  You can tell they left the hive in a hurry by the high volume of bee scat on the alighting board below.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


one of ours w/ pollen baskets
feb 27th
We spend so much of our time staring at the pollen baskets on the ladies as they come back to the hive, we can't help but make guesses as to what it is.  We love this game, and recently, we've loved taking it a bit more seriously.  We have Grant's humble Tasco microscope from 8th grade that we've been playing with, though we can't really make assertions as to what pollen we're collecting from the bees, just seeing the diversity in the composition of different pollens is its own revelation.

unknown pollen
gathered feb 20th
The two "unknown" pollens pictured here were pulled from our bees' baskets.  We believe the one to the right to be maple (gathered on Feb 20th), but are not sure.  We'll continue to pull pollen and analyze it as the season progresses, but have not yet found a reference guide (or maybe the time) to identify it using this method.  But it's fun anyway.

To help us build our vocabulary, we've started taking walks around the neighborhood to get a better feel for what's in bloom and to collect pollen samples from known sources.  I love this habit. One of the
unknown pollen
gathered march 20th
beekeeping side effects that we most eagerly anticipated was the
heightened awareness of plants' bloom cycles. When you know that the health and productivity of your hives depends on the success of surrounding flora, you're more invested in the flowers and trees and you pay more attention.  It is pleasant enough to see trees and flowers abloom simply for the sake of their beauty.  To also see them also as dinner for the girls and as the makings of a fine-flavored honey is even more pleasurable.

Below we have pictures of just a couple of the plants in bloom around us now, alongside their pollen, magnified 200x. 

cornelian cherry in bloom
march 14th
cornelian cherry pollen
march 14th

glory of the snow pollen
march 14th
glory of the snow in bloom
march 23rd

And tomorrow five new packages of bees arrive.  Ten thousand bees in a box, how fun! Check back for an illustrated explanation of what a package is and what you do with it.

Monday, March 14, 2011


hive bodies waiting for spring
Winter is a waiting game for beekeepers. We approached our first winter informed through others' accounts that a beekeeper's winter work was that of building equipment, reading bee books, and waiting. The first two are easy.

We can officially testify that the latter is not quite as passive as it sounds. Especially during a winter as cold, snowy and altogether trying as the one we're finally leaving, the waiting game is one of anxiety, fretting, worry and every other synonym you can think of. And then there's the withdrawal.  For three months there's just no bee watching.  No analyzing pollen loads trying to guess what's in bloom, no playtime (where new foragers orient themselves to the hive's location before they're off), no peering into honeycomb looking for eggs.  The bees do what we do--hibernate--and you just miss them.

Our inspection this Sunday, however, proved our fears wrong and our patience worthwhile.  Aside from a bit of varroa mites and small hive beetle that seem somewhat inevitable, we were pretty pleased with the population and health of the hives. Huge sigh of relief.

Last week we quickly popped the top off the three hives in our backyard (Ada, Billy Jean and Columbia) and checked their lower boxes in the hope we could remove them. Here's why we did that. It is somewhat common practice to use two deep hive bodies for the brood nest and then use medium or shallow boxes up top for honey storage. Because frames with honey are significantly heavier than frames filled with pollen or brood, you typically use a smaller box for honey supers to save your back. An increasingly popular practice is to use a uniform size of hive body to increase interchangeability of your frames/hive bodies and also to decrease the back strain of lifting the heavy deeps.

comb cobbled from a deep's excess

As with many aspects of beekeeping, you can ask a few experienced beekeepers for their opinion on the matter and get a few dozen responses back. We really just needed to grow into our own opinion on how to organize and last year we opted for one deep on bottom and medium bodies on top. One year later, we find ourselves in the uniform equipment camp and were interested in converting the deeps we've already invested in into medium bodies. Therefore, our first item of business was to remove the deeps from our hives and cut them down.

That was last week. This week, we took the newly fashioned frames (the great part is that some of them had bee bread--honey+pollen=bee bread--still in them) and frames of fall honey we'd saved for the spring jumpstart and gave them back to the ladies. This time, however, we placed the boxes on top of the brood nest.

Afterward, we poured a tall glass of water and admired the girls.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

First Inspection of the Year

Through the winter, the bees form a three dimensional cluster and kinda do a group hug. They clasp their legs together and vibrate their wing muscles--which they very impressively disjoint from the wing. This generates heat and keeps the cluster of bees warm. They fuel this months long activity by eating the honey they've stored, gradually moving through the hive in search of more. If you plan well and are lucky, they are able to migrate to it as they need it. If you are unlucky, during prolonged cold or a cold snap they can starve to death within inches of honey to spare. Fortunately, we have not witnessed this firsthand. However, their movement through the hive often causes them to drift upward.

Due to the settlement patterns of our hives in the fall, we were unable to shrink them down to three hive bodies, so we had some deceptively tall hives through the winter months. It was finally warm enough this past week to quickly pop them open. All of them had--mostly--exited their bottom hive bodies and were hanging out in the upper bodies. We pulled off the bottom body (a deep)and gave each other a hive five. I was excited just to get back in them (I found out about 2 months into getting the bees last summer that I was allergic and had been banished from the beeyard while I had my allergy shots through the summer & fall), and Grant was excited to get the deep bodies off so we could have one interchangeable size of frame (we'll discuss that in a subsequent post).

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bringing in the Pollen

The bees were busy again this weekend and have found new source of pollen. We saw both creamy yellow and orange pollen on their baskets. With the impending storm they seemed particularly focused on packing it in. They barely paid us any mind as we sat by Columbia's entrance just watching them.

Grant had a great idea to place the camera just above Columbia's entrance. You can see the flight pattern the bees perform before landing on the alighting board. A few seconds in you can see a curious bee cleaning the camera lens.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Midwinter's Respite

Glorious warm weather!  The daffodils have ventured their first shoots, the maples are blushing red at their branch tips and the bees' pollen baskets are full!  We're reluctantly celebrating the break in the weather because we know there's likely more snow and ice ahead, but we're celebrating nonetheless.  We spent our first coffee break of the season staring at the hive like we did so often last summer.  I crept up near our third hive, Columbia, and took a brief video on my phone, posted below.  A bee alighted on my finger, noodling its little proboscis under my fingernail looking for nectar.  I must have still had some grapefruit remnants on my fingers from breakfast because I kept her attention for a  long while.  Fun.
We're trying to discover what pollen they're bringing in.  Grant collected some from a bee with bulging baskets of the orange-yellow stuff and analyzed it under the microscope.  We have a hunch that it is witch hazel--which is supposed to flower in February around here--but we haven't found a pollen sample online, nor a flowering tree nearby to corroborate it.  Could it be pussy willow?  We'll keep investigating.

In the video you can see the bees taking off through the entrance which has been reduced for winter.  As I look at the still image of it, I can see a few bees with swollen pollen baskets on their legs.  Watching for pollen baskets as the foragers return to the hive has become one of my favorite backyard activities.

Monday, January 24, 2011

And so it begins

Hello and Welcome to 5th Street Apiary.  We are pleased you have found us and would like to introduce ourselves.  5th Street Apiary is Grant Clouser, Jess Miller, and our four honeybee colonies.  We started beekeeping in the spring of 2010 after attending a lecture by Tammy Horn at the University of Kentucky.   Jess and I had a shared interest in exploring beekeeping but had thought it would fit better in our later lives.  This lecture provided that last push of energy to move us from seriously thinking about beekeeping to actually doing it.  After reading and researching about keeping bees in the city, our minds were set, and we ordered our first hive.  We found ourselves in awe of these superorganisms and their amazingly complex social structure, much of which remains a mystery despite the thousands of years humans have interacted with honeybees.  The hobby quickly become a passion and we expanded to four hives.  But not without some challenges.  Chilled brood, pesticide kill, nosema, parasitic mite syndrome, varroa mites, deformed wing virus, small hive beetles, laying workers (and a bee sting allergy) were among the setbacks of our first year.  However, these are the obstacles that honeybees face.  Helping the bees overcome them was and is a strong motivation for us.  Once we tasted the bright, complex honey that our urban bees made this past season, we found our motivation further bolstered.  We have made plans to add more hives in the spring of 2011.  We're excited about the upcoming year: what the bees will teach us, how our and neighboring gardens will influence their honey, and what other bee products we will start developing.  We'll post our musings on keeping bees here.