November Update

November 28, 2009
butterflybush

Bumble bee forgages in my butterfly bush

It’s supposed to be cold this time of year, but we really haven’t even gotten a decent frost yet!

It is slim pickings for most bees except in my yard, where my golden butterfly bushes still bloom. The purple and white ones are long done, but the yellow ones still flourish. They might not be the most attractive of colors, but definitely the most vigorous and hardy of all my flowering plants. There are also still a few dandelions around, but those are mostly gone, too.

So when I think about bee pasture, these bushed look like sure winners, provided the bees can what they need from them. And so it was, a few days ago I was inspecting one of my bushes, looking at the various pollinators who were foraging when I saw her…the first honey bee I’ve seen since I started scouting several months ago!

I have no idea where she was coming from. I know of no hives within 3 miles, but there is plenty of territory for wild hives, if they are around. There was just the one bee, foraging and working the yellow flowers, while the large bummble bees were being lethergic by comparison. She didn’t hang around too long, either. Certainly not long enough for me to get my camera!

Butterfly Bush

This is the big bush on the front yard

This bush is about 7 years old and each year I cut it back down to just 2-3 feet high. And every year, it grows back to over 8 feet tall and nearly as wide! I have successfully rooted and raised several cuttings from this bush as the pruning yields a lot of material and these do root fairly easily.

The bees and butterflies do love these, and this variety is called “Honey Comb” oddly enough.

I have registered for the short course from the Metro Atlanta Bee Keepers association in January, so that is something I look forward to blogging up the line.

Bee Class: Atlanta Botanical Gardens

October 31, 2009

Last weekend, we did go to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and I attended a beekeeping class while my wife and the boys toured the gardens and looked at the scarecrows.

It was a bit of a rush to get there, all the way in the back from the entrance, but once I arrived, there were about a dozen or so of us in the class. The class was taught by Curtis Gentry, who has been beekeeping…well pretty close to forever! He had brought in sample hives from around the world and even from the days of his grandfather. Basically, one of the take-home points of the class was that the biggest enemy of the bee colony is the beekeeper as the bees pretty much know what they are doing.

We discussed some of the issues about raising bees amongst neighbors, and I asked him whetehr it was better to warn a neighbor or just get the bees and then let them find out later. Basically, he said that if they never knew about it, that would be best, but that also means doing things to protect both the neighbors and the bees from each other. Keeping the hives out of site and having protection around them helps hide the bees, but also forces the bees to fly up and high enough that they won’t run into the neighbors. And a pound or two of hney at Christmas can also help smooth things over.

We then trekked up the hill to see the apiary of the botanical gardens. It wasn’t much to see, unfortunately. There were no bees, but we did get a chance to look at hives and hive parts. The wet weather and just overall lack of attention spelled the demise of the garden bees. I don’t know about anyone else, but that gave me cause for pause. I mean if bees aren’t going to make it in the relatively pristine conditions of a place that always has blooming flowers, plants and trees, what chance would any of the rest of us have?!?

After the tour of the hives and looking at the empty observation hive, we went back to the classroom and discussed basic bee biology, life cycle and the seasons of beekeeping.

Raising bees is a difficult proposition nowadays, as there are a host of threats and diseases that did not even exist 25 years ago. But i’m still keen to give this thing a try. I now have my bee suit, so I might as well keep going. I’m still keen to give top bar hiving a go. I may just try one of each, and see what happens. it would be useful to do a direct comparison of effort, cost and effectiveness of these two methods.

A little video humor…

October 26, 2009

Norm is trying to demonstrate how to install bees, and Linda is struggling with her husbands new hobby….

New Installation and Wife Going Crazy

According to the commnets, she has been caught watching them.

My wife is a bit skeptical but somewhat supportive….from a distance.

Metro Atlanta Beekeeper Meeting

October 15, 2009

Tonight, I braved the mists and rain to attend my first beekeeper meeting at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The Metro Atlanta club meets there every 2nd Wednesday. Getting there from Covington is just a bit of a hassle and took a little less than an hour from my house, with me mostly trying to figure out where I was going.

When I arrived in the parking garage, it just so happens several other beeks were arriving at the same time, so I just sort of followed the crowd. I would never have found Mershon Hall otherwise.

The Metro club is big. I’m sure there were over 50 people there, nearly filing up the large room. I arrived just as they were beginning, and made my name tag. The meeting began with all of us newcomers introducing ourselves. I estimate that there were 10+ of us who were brand new to the business. As far as I could tell, I was the only one from Newton county.

Linda introduced the featured speaker for the evening, Dr. Keith Delaplane. He is head of a project involving the investigation of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and recently obtained a 4.1 million dollar grant (pdf file) toward this research. Tonight’s talk was similar to an earlier presentation he did, and was blogged by Linda.

Many of the same points were covered tonight, where basically CCD is still something that is not well understood. But he did speak at length about the migratory nature of the pollination industry, where huge stocks of bees are driven from harvest-to-harvest, charging $175 per hive to pollinate various orchards, especially almond orchards in California.

He presented some graphs depicting two diverging and antogonistic trends. Mainly that the total number of bee colonies kept in the U.S. has declined significantly in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the number of foods cultivated that require bee pollination has steadily increased. The decrease in colonies is unique to the U.S. and former Soviet Union, whereas the number of colonies cultivating in the rest of the world is increasing, as is the demand for insect pollinated crops. So there are many concerns in the bee industry, and many of these are unique to the U.S.

My thoughts are that the concentration of so many hives among a few beekeepers does put the colonies at risk on several levels. This is similar to other areas of agriculture where large operators control certain commodities. at what point does a single operator become too big to fail without risking the whole industry?

And then the bees are trucked all over the country. During late February/early March, colonies by the thousands from all over the country are trucked to California to pollinate almonds. At this point, several diverse colonies are intermingled in the same place, thus intermingling various diseases and pathogens which get carried along the migratory circuit wherever the bees go. It’s positively amazing the whole of apiculture hasn’t collapsed already. While bees are social, they are not migratory but we’ve made them so, artificially!

Delaplane then took a few questions about mites, feeding and the current state of beekeeping. He kind of reinforced a belief that has been growing in the back of my head ever since I started looking at this business. Basically, the real money in beekeeping isn’t going to be in the honey as much as raising queens and rearing stock. Losses seem to be running 30%-50% per year among hive owners. Among various beekeeping blogs I read, losing queens seems to be very, very common. Those who are rearing queens can barely keep up with demand. Nucs regularly sell out long before the first swarm! When it comes to making serious money, the honey crop is barely a sideline. Making and selling equipment and rearing bee stock will yield a more efficient and steady return.

Think about it: If bee colonies continue to collapse, people will want more bees to replace lost stock. If the times are good, they will want more bees AND equipment. The folks who are trying to get honey are the ones assuming the of risk. They risk depriving their bees of what they need for the winter in order to get the honey.

This year has been particularly difficult because all of the rain has prevented the bees from being able to forage enough to load up on their winter stock of food. Too much rain is difficult for most insects, and bees are no different. So even though there has been a lot of goldenrod the bees haven’t been able to take advantage of it.

It was an interesting meeting, and it was interesting to see so many folks interested in the business. I’m not sure if I will be a regular at these meetings, though. First off, it is a bit of a drive. I was fortunate that I had this week off, so wasn’t too crunched for time. Also, this is a HUGE club, relatively speaking, but no one from my area. I need to find people closer by to hobnob with. I think I will still be taking their short course in January, but first there is the 1/2 day shindig on the 24th that I signed up for.

I wonder where my tickets are?

You Live and Learn

October 14, 2009

I just got a first lesson in beekeeping, recently as u

I made my first purchase toward this new little hobby. I bid on a bee suit on ebay. And won.

I sort of wish I hadn’t won, as once I went over $70, I knew I had probably overpaid for the thing. Egad, I hope it fits!

Flowering plants October 12th

October 12, 2009

Goldenrod, black eyed susan. butterfly bush, dandelions, daisies

Getting Fed

October 11, 2009

Linda’s blog is an amazing resource, and it’s impossible to visit without learning something new. She provides lots of pictures and video to support of her posts which are well-written.

Her latest post was about feeding the bees. It seems odd that after the bees work so hard to store up for the winter, that they now face undernourishment. It also seems odd that they would need to be fed here in Georgia since there are still many flowering plants. Not as many as in the spring, but there’s quite a bit of goldenrod and my butterfly bushes are seeing a lot of activity from the bumble bees. And my neighber, who doesn’t mow his lawn very often, has a good crop of late dandelions blooming. On I-20, around the Salem Road exit, there are a bunch of some sort of purple flowers blooming. I’ll have to see if I can get some picture of these, as they were obviously planted, but I don’t know what they are.

I just listened to Langstroth’s chapter on bee feeding and he was generally against the practice of toomuch supplimental feeding, but then went on and told exactly how to do it. He also said that if a hive was too weak, no amount of feeding was going to help them make it to the spring. But apparently, this was and still is a very common practice, at least for those using the Langstroth hives. I’m interested in finding out what the top bar hive people have to say on the subject, especially since there is much less honey to be had with those hives.

I haven’t been to the botanical garden in almost 20 years, but my wife has a family membership there. we may have to take a family trip earlier in the week. I’m seriously thinking that I’ll attend the metro beeking meeting this Wednesday, and if I do I’ll surely blog about the experience.

L.L. Langstroth’s The Hive and the Honeybee

October 6, 2009

I’ve been “reading” bits and sections of this book for a few days. You can read it, too, as it is in the public domain and part of the Gutenberg project. You can also listen to it on your mp3 player as a free audio book, courtesy of Librivox, which is what I’ve been doing. The recording was just completed in August by a fellow going by the moniker “Livelyhive”, so it’s pretty new.

L.L. Langstroth is a person who looms large in the bee keeping industry, and is credited with inventing the movable frame hives that more or less bear his name. As a congregationalist minister, he took up bee keeping which seems to be a vocation that was often taken up by clergy members. It makes sense, as clergy who live in rural areas can engage in production agriculture without a large land requirement.

Langstroth still has something to say to modern bee keepers, even 150 years later. When you read his judgment as to the sad state of bee keeping in this country, it is something that applies equally well today. Has there been progress?

Langstroth does a good job of making a case for the domestication of bees, and explains how he has been able to tame them. Basically, any animal raised by people can be made to be aggressive given enough abuse and neglect, and bees can be just as tame as a horse if given the same attention and care. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I remember getting kicked plenty of times while milking cows, usually because the cow was sick or I was doing something careless. The same is true of bees, as they will get irritated if they are sick or provoked. At the same time, I’ve been bucked off of horses, had my feet stepped on by horses and cattle, bitten by dogs, bitten and scratched by cats and scratched by rabbits. Any animal can injurious and aggressive, and Langstroth makes the case that bees aren’t a lot different than any other livestock.

His writing style is fluid and descriptive but it isn’t always easy to follow or keep up. I can almost imagine being in the reverend’s congregation and finding my mind drifting off or falling asleep. In fact, while listening there were times when I had to go back and review some parts where I had mentally spaced. While this book was the reference of its day, I found the most interesting parts of the book were when he was sharing his own feelings and beliefs about a particular subject. For instance he contrasted the behavior of the bees toward the queen with how children of his day (and even moreso in ours) treat their mother. The worker bees honor their mother and help her in her duties, while children tend to approach their mother with a sense of entitlement. It’s obvious throughout the book, that Langstroth has a deep respect, admiration and even affection for his honey bees. But at the same time, he kept much of his attention on maximizing their production, which led to a much more efficient hive for inspection and extraction. He understood the direct relationship between the comfort of his animals and their output. By not stressing his bees and taking care of them, they took care of him by producing more.

I highly recommend the audio/mp3 version of this book, as I think most bee keeping enthusiasts will enjoy it. Plus the price is right, and the medium is right for those of us who might want to listen to something while driving or exercising. Often, when my eyes are too tired, I can find some extra energy to listen to an audiobook . And even if I fall asleep, I might absorb some of the knowledge by osmosis!

Waxing on about keeping bees and me

October 3, 2009

I’m starting this blog because there’s not enough neglected space on the internet!LOL!

I have two other neglected blogs out there, one about special education and the other about Linux. They each have good information and entries about their respective subjects, but now I have a real urge to explore something new so it’s time for a new blog. Attention deficit much?

So why am I blogging bee keeping? Well, because I seem to have caught the bug and it hasn’t diminished the past month or so, and the more I read/see/hear the more I like it. First off, I don’t own any hives. I don’t know anyone (right now) who does. So how did I get interested? While the foundation was laid a long time ago, I can tell you just how it got started.

About a month ago, my oldest son had to give a presentation for 4th grade on some animal. He had to tell how in over-wintered and about its habitat. His topic was wasps. I had a few ideas about how we might do it, and we began looking for a few books, and some resources. Then, we went outside to take some pictures of wasps. I knew just where to go to get these pictures, as I had some garlic chives that were blooming. There are always tons of a certain type of wasp that enjoy pollinating these flowers, along with other assorted wasps and bees. We did get a few good pictures, but I was struck by how few wasps and bees there were among these flowers on a sunny late afternoon day. A visit to the butterfly bushes did not serve us any better. There just weren’t that many bees of any type.

I happened to be a regular listener of NPR’s Science Friday podcasts, and happened to see that one of the segments had to do with honey bees. I thought this would be a good thing to listen to with my son, since it was kind of related and it might be useful to see if I could get his interest in something besides the Titanic. As we listened to this particular episode, the ideas began coming together all at once. I had seen firsthand what was happening with the pollinators in my own yard, and discovered that this was something that was affecting our whole country, if not the whole world! In fact, it makes the whole global warming thing very, very pale by comparison. I knew I could do this, and it occurred to me that I might actually enjoy it! As we’ll see, this particular hobby intersects a lot of my interests and background. So I began seriously researching. I began watching assorted YouTube videos that various beekeepers had made, reading a few blogs and visiting other websites as well as listening to beekeeping podcasts. My fascination just deepened. And then I stumble upon the PBS Nature’s broadcast about the bees, and the sense of urgency, along with my interest, deepened.

So now my short term goal is to have a great beekeeping blog by someone who does not keep bees, at least until I begin keeping bees myself. To my knowledge, this is the first pre-bee beekeeping blog around, so y’all can follow me along as I look at honey bees and how it fits into my own personal ecology, theology and psychology.

Background

I’m a school teacher who teaches individuals with severe and profound disabilities and I’m a parent of a son on the autism spectrum. You can read all about that on my other blog. I’m also a computer enthusiast, so you can read somewhat about that on my Linux blog. While those two things about me are nice and current, my interest in bees goes back much further than either of those interests. I grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Iowa and graduated with a degree in agriculture education from Iowa State University. So there is a great deal of intersection between beekeeping and where I came from.

I do have a basic understanding of what it takes to care for animals, which is why I haven’t had a lot of interest in it prior to now! It’s a ton of work and it is a huge responsibility that I don’t think many people take seriously or understand. Maybe more on that later. But milking cows 2x a day everyday taught me all about the serious work of caring for animals. I studied a broad variety of subjects for the Ag Ed degree, including some entomology but my main interests were in botany and horticulture. So there’s at least some rudimentary knowledge to apply here. I have also taught biology, chemistry and physical science in an earlier life.

As far as practical knowledge, I don’t have a lot about raising bees. I spent most of my life killing bees, frankly. I’ve been stung by bumble bees, wasps, hornets and yellow jackets at various times. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it from a honey bee, before though. I’ve gotten stung more by the fire ants here in Georgia than anything else. Hovever, once I saw the Nature program, that radically changed.

Environment

I live in the metro Atlanta area in Newton county. I have about two-thirds of an acre of land in a fairly rural area. I do have a number of neighbors, including one who raises pitbulls. I figure if he can raise pitbulls, honeybees shouldn’t be an issue for the neighbors! But I plan on talking to those who are right around me, about it before diving in too deeply.

I have a number of peach trees, plum trees and other trees that bloom in the early spring. I also have a number of blueberry and blackberry bushes as well as a bunch of butterfly bushes on my property. One thing that alerted me that there was a serious pollinator problem is the fact that I haven’t gotten any peaches in over 3 years. I haven’t ever seen a plum on any of the trees, but I understand they don’t do well here anyway. And where my butterfly bushes used to be extremely active, there is only a fraction of activity there as there was 5 years ago.

Based on these observations, combined with the news that I’m just now getting up to speed on, I knew we were in serious trouble, as far as pollination and our food supply. The knowledge and realization all intersected and gelled within the past month.

Plans

So, what am I going to do? Well, I’ve signed up for an introductory ½ day course at the end of this month at the Atlanta Botanical Center. It’s about 35 miles away, but hopefully traffic won’t be so bad that early in the morning on a Saturday. I’m also looking onto going to the metro beekeeping club meeting in a couple of weeks at the same location. As far as my yard, I do have a fair amount of material for bee food, but I’ve already begun propagating more butterfly bushes. In a sense, I’ve been caring for whatever bees have been around by having a lot of flowering plants for them to feed on. At the moment, the major pollinators are bumble bees with a few varieties of wasps helping out. However, I’ve noticed that the wasps seem to be pickier about which plants they choose to visit. And overall, there fewer and fewer of all of these over the past several years. I’m sure some of the late freezes we’ve had in the past have had an adverse impact on the bees and their flowers.

As far as keeping hives, I know that I’m not keen to make it a business. I briefly considered it, and it may yet turn into something, but at the moment this is purely a sideline in order to help my trees and fruits produce. Some honey would be nice, but I think I would be overwhelmed by much more than 50 pounds. And since I’m not keen to invest a lot up front in money, the top bar hive looks very appealing. By the blogs and podcasts I’m following, it appears as though there is a growing interest in this flavor of beekeeping and it might be just the thing for me just starting out. Since deciding to get in the bee biz… Beekeeping inherently makes a person more aware of their environment, or at least certain aspects of it.

As an Iowa farm person, I have an appreciation of corn and soybean fields and cow pastures that most nonfarm people would be hard pressed to understand. Driving on country roads during the evenings in August and looking at the cornfields was a major pastime where I grew up. It’s not something I would just go out and do today, but if I happen to be among crop fields, it’s just a matter of instinct to look at them and appraise how they are doing. Now when I drive around, I look at the terrain and the habitat, especially for the flowering plants in the area. In my own yard, I’m making closer inspections of the flowering plants that are growing, and the activity around them. I can see why beekeeping thrives in Georgia, because we have things flowering and shedding pollen almost the whole year ’round. The metro Atlanta area is ground zero for pollen and the associated allergies, so I would imagine this would be prime bee country. However, the metro area is over run by people and most of them don’t understand how important honey bees are to our economy. Georgia’s largest industry is agriculture and most of that relies on pollination of some sort. If the bees suffer, farmers suffer and the whole state suffers. Not to mention all the animals depending on the assorted seeds and fruits for food.

Hello world!

October 3, 2009

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