8 June, 2013

Holy Crap Bees, also I am a forgetful planter

So I have no idea what the viney things at the south end of our garden are this year, other than “Some kind of melon or squash” but whatever they are, we are going to be drowning in them. The strawberries are already producing epic amounts of berries compared to previous years, the zucchini have just started flowering and as soon as a flower open a bee gets to it and it closes and sets fruit, it seems like.

Turns out having a busy hive of resident pollinators really does make a difference. I’m more than a little bit afraid of what’s going to happen when the beans and peas start flowering. The peas nearly buried us last year and that was without a beehive 50 feet away. This year I suspect we’ll be trolling the streets of Fredericksburg and Culpeper looking for cars with their windows down so we can leave bags of peas in them, and with an 80 Gallon air compressor so we could steal it. Ok, that last part may be a lie!

But next year I’m definitely keeping a record of what I’ve planted where, so I have some idea what kind of fruit or vegetable the garden is about to bury us in.

10 May, 2013

Busy bee watch the world go by

I did my first hive inspection since releasing my queen bee from her little cage yesterday, and am happy to report that the hive is thriving! There was brood in all stages of development from eggs to larvae to pupae to capped, there were cells of stored pollen, and best of all the bees had drawn at least some comb on all eight of the bars I’d started them on. I gave them two more bars to work on, a new jar of sugar syrup, and opened up another entrance to the hive so the foragers would have an easier time getting in and out.

Establishing the hive has been a fit of drama in and of itself. I got my first package of bees this spring from Virginia Bee Supply, one of two local apiaries, after doing my internet research and finding nothing but good reviews. I picked the package up at the end of March, brought it home, went to install it in the hive and…the queen was dead.

A beehive cannot live without a queen. In a normal hive if something happens to her, the workers will make an emergency replacement if they have brood of the right age to turn into a queen cell. But a package of bees doesn’t have any brood, it’s just 3 pounds of loose bees who have to start from scratch. With no queen, they’re basically a headless body and doomed to die.

So I called immediately and let Virginia Bee Supply know that my queen was dead. They told me to wait 3-5 days because there was probably a queen loose in the package. Weather conspired to make me wait a week, and when I opened the hive all I Found was dead bees. I sent them an e-mail to explain that to them, and they told me to combine the remaining bees with another hive. No good, I didn’t have another hive. Anyway, what I had paid for was 3 pounds of bees and a live queen. Not, y’know, 3 pounds of dead bees who just didn’t know it yet. I sent them another e-mail and suggested that the appropriate thing to do at this point would be to refund my money.

And then I didn’t hear from them for two weeks. At which point I e-mailed them again because what I had left was six bees clinging morosely to the inside of the hive. I recapped our previous correspondence and again requested a refund. This time they got back to me and said of course they’d refund me, since they hadn’t heard from me since the initial call to say the queen was dead, they assumed everything was fine.

Insert sound of record screech. Wait, what? I had the e-mail right there in front of me where I explained that I didn’t have another hive and would like a refund please. You know, the one they ignored. Right. Anyway, I got my refund out of them about a month after receiving a box of dead bees flying. Meanwhile I had ordered another package from Pigeon Mountain Trading Company.

I waited anxiously for a ship notice from them, and never got one…but one morning while the neighbor was working on my truck and my CRV was still dead, I got a call from the post office saying that there was a box of bees waiting for me. Wait, what? So I called the neighbor and got him to hurry on my truck and went and got my bees a couple hours later, much to the relief of the postal worker. He was pretty sure the three hitchhikers on the outside of the package meant that the bees were escaping, despite my reassurances.

That second package arrived hale and healthy and ready to go, with a marked queen in her little cage. She was significantly larger than the dead queen in the first package was, for that matter. And her colony is thriving, working away at filling up the hive with comb and brood and food. They’re building beautiful straight comb on the top bars just like they’re supposed to, almost as if they’ve read the same books on top bar beekeeping that I have.

It’s fascinating to just stand outside the hive and watch them work, really. You can get quite close and they do not partiularly care; once you get to about three feet out a guard bee will bonk you with her head to warn you off but otherwise they are too focused on gathering pollen and nectar to bother a quiet human who just wants to stand and watch the foragers zoom in and out.

At any rate, Virginia Bee Supply may be a great place to get hives, and even a great place to get bees if everything happens like it’s supposed to, but my experience suggests they’re rather useless when something goes wrong. Bees from Pigeon Mountain are great, and they have good prices on things like protective gear, but don’t send shipping notices when mailing you three pounds of stinging insects who will make your post office personnel very, very nervous. Hopefully this will be the last time I need to buy a package, though. I don’t intend to go into professional beekeeping, after all, and would like to top out at 2-3 hives. I hope to be able to establish those hives by splitting my original hive, since these are such lovely, peaceful, productive bees. I’ve also contemplated ordering a queen from hardy survivor stock that a localish apiary sells when it’s time to split the hive.