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Summer Bumbles and Bees

July 8th, 2008

The month of July in Missouri is a lot of things.  Good things like tomatoes, barbeques, cooler mornings and maybe a few rainstorms if we’re lucky.  And then there’s the other things… the heat and humidity, weeds and trimming, and tons of insect critters that find their way into everything, usually leaving us itchy reminders to deal with.

I guess the bees fit that insect category, but they’re pretty neat to have around.   Unlike a few other critters such as ticks and chiggers.  Now I’m sure the peskier bugs serve some functional purpose for the web of life in our evironment.  But there’s times I wish they would serve that purpose somewhere else!  If you’re going to live in the country however, you have to take the good with the bad, and I’m learning that the good far outweighs the bad over the course of time.  

It’s not hard to appreciate our pollinators though.  Those amazing bees that go buzzing around and help us grow our fruits and vegetables.   Isn’t this a cool looking bumblebee?  This one is working a lavender plant, darting from flower to flower. 

Bumblebee and lavender © Fox Haven Media

And did you know that bumblebees are the primary pollinators of our tomato plants?  I’ve seen them all over our tomatoes, but I didn’t realize until recently that the way bumblebees pollinate tomato plants is through sonification.  The bumblebee pulls the tomato flower down to a vertical position, and vibrates their wing muscles at a certain frequency after which the tomato flower pollen falls out of pores in the anthers.  When the pollen falls down, it sticks to the bumblebees fuzzy body and, oh by the way, the bumble just happens to be rubbing that same fuzzy pollinated body against the tomato flower stigma, and because of his fuzzy little travels, voila! pollination from one flower to another occurs.   I think of bumblebees with appreciation every time I eat a tomato!

Here’s another important pollinator below, but it’s not a bumblebee.  Instead this is a Carpenter bee about to dive headfirst into a hydrangea flower head.  Carpenter bees are not thought of very highly because of the tunneling damage they can do to wooden beams, decking and the wood in houses and barns.  Yes, they actually bore holes and tunnels in wood!  We see them around here, but I’m not sure where they are nesting. Sometimes you see the male buzzing up and down in a certain area, seemingly harassing you if you try to walk by.  That’s just his way of protecting his territory or a nest nearby, but he’s actually harmless and can’t sting.  Not very fun to have a big buzzing critter zoom at you however.

Carpenter bee and hydrangea flower © Fox Haven Media

But our other favorite pollinators are the honeybees of course.  Our two hives appear to be doing just fine, although one is a lot stronger than the other in terms of the number of bees around the hive.   And yesterday there were hundreds of bees clustered outside the hive.  Are they getting ready to swarm?  Fanning to cool the hive?  Just new bees getting outside for some fresh air!?  I don’t really know, but with lots of space in two relatively new hive body supers, I think they’re just staying cool.  They have quite a bit of shade under some oak trees, but it has been very hot and humid lately.

Honeybees clustered outside the hive on a hot day

The other hive which is weaker didn’t have many bees hanging around outside however.  In both hives, the bees were coming and going just the same, and working flowers around the property.  It’s interesting to see the differences though, and I’ll be opening the hives up sometime the next week to see what else I can find out.

The Garden, the Lab and the Honey Bees

June 22nd, 2008

My goodness the weeds and grass can really grow while one is gone, and to see how fast it all grows in the space of a couple weeks is amazing. We’re catching up at home this week after a trip with the family, and have returned to see many parts of the central U.S. inundated with flooding from the Mississippi and other rivers. The rivers are cresting now, and several towns are waiting to see how much more flooding there will be. Many of the levees have failed, but others are still holding with water right to the top. Our hearts just go out to those who will begin working to recover from all the flooding this week. There are also a few thunderstorms about, but strangely in much of our area the topsoil is becoming quite dry.

We are thankful to live a little higher and have started watering the plants around the house and garden now. And it’s time for vegetables as we’re picking the peas, beans and lettuce that is doing so well. I’m surprised the peas and beans have not grown higher up the supports, and I wonder how long they will produce this year. But it has been a cool week in terms of temperature, so that helps keep them flowering and producing.

Fox Haven garden in late June

I think the corn looks great in the garden and I thought of a dumb question today since we have not planted hybrid corn before… How many ears of corn can we get from one stalk with our garden variety hybrid? I’ve seen some of the field corn growing in our area with 2-3 ears per stalk. But a little web research indicates we’ll probably get 1-2 ears from most smaller hybrid plants. We’ll see how it turns out in a month or so as the tassels are just forming at the top of the stalk now. But the tomatoes are also coming along- small and green, and soon we’ll have more than we know what to do with.

An early morning yesterday as we went across the pond dam to check the property. The yellow lab was like a kid in a candy store after coming home from the kennel. He did very well while we were gone, and didn’t miss a beat when returning home. Maybe a little too much energy saved up for romping around the property. Come to think of it I could use a little of that extra energy… the grass on the pond dam needs cut for the year again!

Yellow Labrador Retriever on pond dam

By the way, the bees are doing pretty well so far. I’ve put on a second super (hive body) for both hives and the bees are working like crazy each day. One of the hives appears much stronger in terms of numbers of bees, so it will be interesting to see how they do this year. Today I removed the entrance reducers I had placed last month while the new hives built up their strength in numbers of bees and stores of food. They didn’t fuss too much and (all anthropomorphism aside) actually seemed to enjoy the opening being wider. I probably left the reducers on a little too long while we were away, and today it was like seeing a little traffic jam of bees getting in and out of that smaller 3 inch entrance slot.

Working with honey bees at Fox Haven

So to remove the wooden stick that blocks the entrance, I took my hive tool and pried up the corners and under the reducer to loosen all the joints. Then as I wedged and held up the hive slightly, I slid a stiff hooked wire through the hole and gently pulled out the wooden reducer. The bees didn’t seem to mind a bit. So now both hives have a full entrance on top of the bottom board (actually a screen) to come and go. And it was fun watching the returning bees covered in pollen… a welcome sight. It’s also great to see them covering so many flowers around the property. Keep working little bees!

 

Catching Up with Bees and Brush

May 27th, 2008

We’ve had so much rain lately that everything goes squish! I will say the grass has come in very nicely this year, especially the areas I’ve planted seed. But the garden plants are hoping for a little more sun and hot weather. More rain today, but after this we may have a good break for a while.

I need to head outside and plant a few more evergreens to grow as a windbreak near the beehives. The bees are doing well, but the windy and rainy weather has also cooped them up a little too. I’m feeding them sugar syrup still and checked on them this weekend. I found the queen in hive #2 looking strong and going up and down a frame of comb. I couldn’t find her in hive #1, but the bees in both hives had built out new comb on almost half the frames in the lower hive body already. On some frames they had even put up honey as well. It’s amazing how fast they work and build the wax comb.

The beehives sit on a southern slope near some oak trees. They get a lot of sun during the day, but also some afternoon shade. We’ll see how the location works out for these two. I’m not sure if it’s the best spot, but I really like them here.

Beehives on the slope across the pond

Even though I didn’t see the queen in the #1 hive, it looked like everything was fine. The bees had built a little filled comb in wider space near the top, not quite on a frame. So I scraped it off and saved it for the boy and we had a taste of honey! I’ll check on their progress again next week and by then we will have much warmer weather each day. There are a lot of flowers blooming now, so the bees won’t lack for pollen or nectar.

Otherwise we’ve been clearing a lot of brush along the fencerows. The tree branches really grow and overhang too much if you let them. Every couple of years you have to cut them back as they grow taller, or cut them out altogether. A good chainsaw and a polesaw works wonders. The young boy really helped me out the past few days, and after cutting up the branches we made 4-5 trips with the tractor piled high. It doesn’t look like much but it took hours to finish.

John Deer 2320 tractor piled with tree branches

Thank goodness for the tractor and the loader bucket; it’s not big, but it does the job very well. Kind of like having a really large hand to carry and move things around. After making a huge pile behind the barn I stood out in a rainstorm and made a big fire to burn up the brush. Between cutting grass, spreading mulch (and everyone pitching in to clean the house!) those were the big events this weekend as we prepared for a nice visit with family.

Sweet Dreams

May 13th, 2008

It’s official, this is the wettest spring on record in our area.  At least for the 100+ years that they’ve been keeping records.  I find that amazing, considering the drought we’ve had the past few years during the summer.  Hopefully this summer won’t be quite as dry.  Tonight we’re due for a heavy rainstorm, but hopefully the warmer weather will set in this week. 

I’ve been busy recently preparing for our new arrivals to Fox Haven… we’ve got bees!  Yesterday I received the packaged bees in the mail (yes, via the post office!) and helped them into their new homes with new queens.  I’m a little late in the season putting the bees in hives, but with as cool and wet as the weather has been, it may work out just right.  Depending upon how they do this year, I hope to have another hive or two next year.   It was pretty fun to do, and was a beautiful 75 degree day for the bees to move into their new homes.

New bees for the hive!

Some more experienced beekeepers do this without protective gear on, but I’m a newbie beekeeper and prefer not to deal with welts on my face or hands right away.   The bees were not really upset at all, but I’m a little clumsy and squished a few by accident.  They weren’t very happy about that, but in each package there’s more than 9,000 bees. I was pleased that very few had died in transit in the packages.

But while installing one of the packages, the bees were a little more agitated for whatever reason, and I worked in a cloud of buzzing bees.  Heck I would be buzzing around too if somebody dumped me unceremoniously in a box!   But this package was much quieter, and the bees settled down fairly quickly.  After getting both hives together with some sugar syrup to feed them, they were pretty quiet and settled in for the evening.

 Queen cage for hive with bees

Here’s a picture of the wooden queen cage with the queen and some workers inside.  Hard to get a picture of just the queen, but she was in there running around.  The white stuff to the right is a gooey candy material that provides some food for the queen, and a block to prevent the other bees from getting in and hurting her.  There’s actually a cork too that must be removed. 

When they ship the bees, they are from different hives than the queen, so they must all get to know each other.  Over the course of a few days they will become familiar with her scent and eventually chew through the candy material and let her out, hopefully accepting her into the hive.

It’s neat to watch them, and in a few days I’ll check and see how they are doing with the new queens.  I’ve got a lot to learn but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they turn into productive hives.  We probably won’t take honey from them this year to make sure they have enough to get through next winter.  But I may not be able to resist a frame or two in late summer if all goes well.  So begins the journey of keeping bees! 

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