Monthly Archives: June 2015

Letters from the HiveNormally, I wouldn't do two book reviews back to back. Unfortunately, either from being busy or rainy or smokey (there's a butt-load of forest fires going on around Fairbanks), we didn't make it out to the hives for a good inspection last week. However, I did finish reading another bee related book, so there you go!

Today's book is not a how-to. It doesn't cover hive management. You won't get hive building tips or queen rearing advice. Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind delivers exactly what the title says; a history of how we, as a species, have learned to live with bees.

Maybe I'm a giant cynic, but whenever I purchase a book purporting to be a history of humankind, I generally expect a thoroughly euro-centric viewpoint.  I was pleasantly surprised to find in this book many tales from around the world. From the Mayan's stingless bees, to the floating barges of hives along the Nile and the giant bees of Asia, the history of honey hunting is a global story.

We've been utilizing the products of bees since the days of prehistory. Some of the earliest petroglyphs and cave paintings depict the gathering of honey comb from trees and steep cliffs. In many places the ceremony (and danger!) of those ancient hunts can still be seen, even in a world of mechanization and mass production.

The book provides a look at how we have used honey and wax, the primary products of the apiary. From food to medicine, the hive provides for many of our needs. Included are a sampling of recipes from around the world and throughout history. From mead to medicine and often both, we have come up with a myriad of uses for the simple products of bees.

Author Stephan Buchmann is both a beekeeper and entomologist. He is an expert on pollination and the critters that do it, particularly bees. He examines the life and evolutionary history of bees and how we fit into the changing landscape (quite literally) of the bee world. Admittedly, this book, being published in 2006, came just before the onset of major cases of Colony Collapse Disorder, but already it pointed to many of the potential causes, including neonicotinoid pesticides, monoculture farming practices and habitat depletion.

For all of human existence, we have lived with bees, utilizing the products of their industrious work. We are now in the position of destroying a pollinator that is responsible for a large chunk of the food we eat.

Top-Bar BeekeepingThe top-bar hive is an amazing, almost natural way to keep bees. It tries to mimic the way bees would naturally build hives in hollowed out trees and stumps. While Sarah and I have a Langstroth hive, I also built a top-bar hive and love to keep track of its progress.

There are a ton of YouTube videos out there on keeping top-bar hives, but I always like to keep a book or two around on any given thing I'm working on, so began scouring around for one on working with top bars. I'm really glad that the first book I found was Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health.

One of the things I've noticed when scouring the myriad YouTube videos on beekeeping is the prevalence of mitacides, fumigants and antibiotics used by both professional and hobbyist alike. I'm more of a fan of allowing things to progress naturally without much interference from me and a medicine cabinet load of other things. This book takes that approach.

Crowder and Harrell take you through everything you need to know about raising bees using a top-bar hive. From the various designs to the complexities of hive management, the book covers each aspect in detail. A first person narrative guides you through the trials, successes and failures the author's have personally experienced. I feel it is this story telling way of getting out information that most drew me into this book.

Les Crowder has worked with bees nearly his entire life. His methods strive to be as organic as possible. Instead of antibiotics and mitacides, he instead stresses bee health and genetics. Many bees are resistant to disease and queens from these bees can help build strong hives without the use of potential toxins.

Heather Harrell is an organic farmer and emphasizes the philosophies of permaculture, or designing agriculture to mimic that natural environment. The top-bar hive fits into this system quite nicely.

Together, they have written a book that even the novice can read and learn from. Their methods fit in with a desire to do things as naturally as possible. In a world that is seeing bees die off at alarming rates, and more indicators that this is due to a complex of issues that includes pesticides and other pollutants, it is really good to see a book that recommends natural alternatives.

Fairbanks received one of its larger rain storms yesterday, so Sarah and I decided to have a look today to see how the hives fared. I was also curious if the bees had begun moving up into the new box.

Both hives seemed a bit subdued when we visited this afternoon. It was pretty cool outside, probably somewhere in the 60s. However, we did see foragers returning with loads of pollen, so that's a pretty good sign.

The bees are bringing back several different colors of pollen. Seeing whitish pollen for the first time a few weeks ago blew my mind. I'd always thought of pollen as that yellow crap that made my nose run. However, there are several sources of white or grey pollen. In fact, it comes in a wide variety of colors.

I was curious to look around my mother's yard to see what was in bloom. It's only a partial inventory of what the bees could be visiting, as they have a range considerably wider than her yard, but what the hell, why not.

Let's start with the most abundant. The hives are both situated right next to wild rose bushes. Also, apparently, an iPhone has no idea how to focus on something dead center its field of view. >:(

Wild Rose
Wild rose bushes are all over the place in this area.

I love wild roses and my mother's plot of land is filled with them. They're the first the thing the bees see when they leave the hive.

The first thing that bloomed, however, were the dandelions. Typically considered a weed, they are a great early blooming food source for bees.

Dandelions
Dandelions bloom early.

My mother said she'd try not to weed them. Sorry neighbors, enjoy the seeds!

Another plant that grows prolifically in the area is wild strawberry. They started out in a small area, but have spread all over.

Strawberry vines
Strawberry plants spread across the lawn.

Unfortunately, we don't get many strawberries from these. Bugs and squirrels tend to be the first comers.

Dogwoods grow in the area, as well. These pretty, four-petaled flowers grow low to the ground.

Dogwood
Dogwood plants grow near the hives.

Raspberries seem to be the source of the whitish colored pollen. They grow in a couple different locations.

Raspberry Bush
Raspberry bush growing about 20 yards from one of the hives.

Bluebells also grow in a number of areas. I'm not sure if the bees visit them, as the cups are small and narrow.

Blue Bells
Blue Bells growing near the front yard.

I'm sure there are other native plants growing in the area, including cranberry and possibly blueberry, but those were the ones I spotted.

In addition to these there are number of decorative perennials and annuals. There's also a small vegetable garden. Currently the only veggie that I saw blooming was a pumpkin. I've never been successful with pumpkins. Maybe the bees will bring me some better luck this year.

House with garden
Mom's house with plants and flowers.

Lots of stuff here to attract some bees including columbine and delphiniums.

Like I said, that is only a small list of what the bees may be visiting. Lord knows what is growing on the neighbors land. Bees have a good three mile radius. Our bees could be helping to pollinate the UAF botanical gardens or checking out Ester.

Late last month, I was about to go on a week of vacation, so wanted to build the next box for the Langstroth hive. Now, bear in mind, that a hive box is just four sides, no top or bottom. This should be simple. And it seemed simple. But failure is just a measurement away.

Anyway, let's get on with this. I'm gonna build a simple box. Only takes three measurements: height, length and width. Again, pretty simple. Apparently, I'm not good at simple. Below is a photo of the finished box. Looks ok, right?

deep super hive box
A deceptively simple looking box.

Pretty simple construction, three screws per joint. All of the frames fit, sort of. The tightness of the frames in the box should have been my first clue something wasn't quite right. It wasn't until I put the frame on the hive that I realized things weren't measuring up.

New deep hive box doesn't fit
New deep hive box doesn't quite fit!

The box wound up being just around an inch too narrow. It had the right length, but somewhere I either screwed up a measurement, or my math skills betrayed me once again.

I left the box on the hive while I was on vacation. With a few shims, there were no gaps allowing things to get in the hive. But I resolved to come back and build a new box.

Of course, I forgot to take pictures of the building of the new box. But with Sarah's help, we got a new one made. And it fit!

For a bit of fun, we decided to let Sarah's kiddos paint it.

Painting the hive box.
Sarah and her kiddos painting the new hive box.

Not sure which wound up having more paint: the box or the kids. But we had a good time painting in the sun on my mother's lawn. When we finished we set the box aside to allow the paint to dry.

I came by the next day to put the box on the hive, transferring the frames from the too-small box. The new box fit nicely.

New box on hive
Two sides of the new, painted, bee box.
New box on hive.
The other two sides of the new bee box.

We've placed the queen excluder on, so the new box shouldn't be used for brood. Hopefully, we'll see the bees move into their new space, soon.