Or, more appropriately, I have the mind of an eight-year old child. Once the webcam was in place, the bees proceeded to build comb eerily reminiscent of the male genitalia. Nature, she works in mysterious, low-brow humory, ways. And it will make me giggle like a grade-school boy, always.
Ever wanted to spy on the secret life of bees? Catch 'em in the act of stashing pollen and nectar? Well, now you can with BeeCam! Maybe. I guess it depends on how my network is behaving. Or if I use up all my bandwidth. Or if there's a power outage. What I'm trying to say is I set up a webcam in one of the hives!
BeeCam is a Raspberry Pi 3, with an IR camera attached to it, and some IR LEDs to illuminate the interior of the hive. It was supposed to solar powered, but it's not currently. More on that in a moment. Below I'll go through all the steps I took to get this going.
Step 1 - Parts
Ok, this is the easy part (and the fun part! New stuff!) Here's what I used to make this:
- Raspberry Pi 3 with wifi
- Raspberry Pi case (any case will do, really)
- Raspberry Pi IR camera
- 2 Lithium Polymer batteries (3.7v)
- 6 volt solar panel
- DC Power barrel adapter
- 5 volt power booster
- 5 Infrared LEDs
- 5 resistors so we don't blow out our LEDs (I went with 330 ohms so still got plenty of light)
- Solar/Lithium batter recharger
- USB Power supply (in theory for testing, but in reality... uhm, for actual power)
Step 2 - Set Up Pi
I won't go over actually getting a Pi set up with an operating system, there's boatloads of sites out there for that. In fact, there are even a bazillion pages on getting the camera set up. There's really not much to those.
Probably the hardest part is getting the video feed online. And this is actually the last step. For that, I'll just point you to this awesome set of instructions that worked great!
Here's what I will say about setting the Pi and camera up: those ribbon cable connectors are freaking fragile. When I first started this project I was using an original Pi. Broke the connector. Upgraded to a Pi 2. Broke the connector. With this Pi 3, I was so paranoid that I was exceedingly careful. I hate those things. Hate HATE HATE!
To drive the LEDs, I use the 5v supply off of pin 2 of the GPIO and the ground connector on pin 6. My original idea was just to take a snapshot every minute or so, and only light the LEDs when needed. For that I would need a programmable pin. But who wants to wait a minute between images? Instead I opted for video, and that requires constant illumination. Bees don't see in infrared, so, in theory, this light should not bother them. We'll see.
Step 3 - Put it all Together
So, here's the first iteration of the BeeCam with everything all together:
You can see that power is coming from the solar panel into the charging circuit. This charges the batteries (which are connected in parallel) that then supply power to the power booster which takes the 3.7 volts and ups it to the 5 volts required by the Pi. The Pi, then is attached to the camera, which you can see at the end of the ribbon cable. All that's missing here is the IR light source.
It should be noted that the connector that comes on the solar panel does not fit the charging circuit, thus the need for the adapter.
Of course, it can't stay like that. Things need to be more contained, and the camera with light source needed to be together. I found some good project boxes at... well, I can't remember the name of the place. Once upon a time it was a Radio Shack, but it's not anymore. Everything seems to fit in this quick fit check.
Unfortunately, while this looked pretty awesome at first, with the Pi running off of solar power, it quickly became apparent that it was draining the batteries faster than the solar panel could recharge them. The Pi would die after a few hours.
For now, BeeCam is running from a USB power supply. But I haven't given up on solar power. We get a lot of sun here in Fairbanks during the summer, and I'm sure this can be done. But with the camera and wireless network, the Pi just draws too much current for this set up.
Step 4 - Insert BeeCam
So below is a picture of all the items for the final product. I only had a chunky USB hub for the USB power supply, so for now, this goes into the hive. I'm sure I can find a cheap ass USB power supply, but since my goal is solar power, it's a low priority.
Sorry for the blurry image, my phone camera sucks. Anyway, the BeeCam is velcroed to the top of the Pi case. Any opening big enough for a bee on that case has been covered with tape.
I then installed the camera in one of our top-bar hives. This type of camera wouldn't work in a Langstroth hive as there simply wouldn't be enough room. The top-bar hive is only about 15 yards from our house and gets a good wireless connection.
The camera is placed as far back in the hive as it can go. This is because these cameras are notoriously hard to focus and the farther away from the subject the better. In theory you can turn the little lens, which is on a threaded mount, to focus, but my attempts only managed to scratch up the plastic around the lens. Here's the camera in the hive.
It is now as far back as it can go, and honestly, if you look at the video, it is still pretty badly out of focus. Maybe if I move the velcro to the back of the Pi, I can gain another inch or two, but I doubt that will make much of a difference. Improving the brightness of the LEDs might help, as well.
Obviously, making this thing properly solar power is a priority. While I doubt this thing is gonna kill my electric bill, it's just the principle of the thing. My goal was to create a Raspberry Pi solar powered webcam and I didn't make it. I didn't properly plan for the total current draw with both the camera and wireless enabled.
Next is to improve the focus. Two things to work on here; lighting and the lens. If I can figure out a way to adjust that tiny lens that would be perfect. Improving the lighting may be as simple as using different resisters in series with the LEDs. I went with a safe value, but perhaps I was too cautious. LEDs are cheap, so I shouldn't be afraid to burn out a few.
I also need to make the page the video feed is on nicer. I can add information, improve the layout (wouldn't be hard since it's just plain ass HTML with only one header and a paragraph at the moment...) and useful links.
But hey, it's online and working! Yay! Again, that URL is: http://urbanraven.hopto.org.
Yeah, not a single post from last summer's bee raising experience. That could be that last year, beyond a shadow of a doubt, sucked ass. This post is about why that is and what we are going to do this year in an effort to do better.
We ordered six boxes of bees. I built two new langstroth hives and two new top bar hives. We had our original two hives at my mother's house. Our efforts to overwinter the bees there was a failure, despite doing our best to insulate the hives. One hive had apparently become a block of ice, and in the other, it looked as though the bees starved.
This time we had the two hives at my mother's, two hives at our place, and two hives at Sarah's mother's place. Each location started with one top bar and one langstroth. At our place we found a spot in a small clearing of trees up a small hill near where we planned to have a garden. At Sarah's mom's we placed the hives just inside the tree-line near the rear of her large property. She lives on the same main road outside of town that we do, but a few more miles down, towards Chena Hot Springs.
This year we decided to mark our queens. We didn't do that the previous year and we could never find the queen when we looked. I think this is where one of our problems came in. It's tough to get a bee to go where you want it to go, particularly if that place is a tiny queen marking tube. I wound up being rougher on the queens than I wanted, which I suspect led to issues later.
Bees installed, it was now time to let them do their things. Enter crappy weather, and lots of it, for most of the summer. Within the first few weeks it was obvious one of the hives wasn't going to make it. The queen was not laying, the population was dwindling and no stores were being kept. We eventually moved what bees were left to another hive. We had quickly gone from six hives to five.
Things didn't improve much from there. No hive was bringing in much in the way of stores. Another hive eventually collapsed, leaving us with four hives. I blame the combination of a summer of bad weather and my abuse of the queens when trying to mark them. Road construction near my mother's house continually disturbed the bees there, which kept them extremely agitated and on the verge of swarming several times.
Even with four working hives, at the end of the season, we got about as much honey as the previous year, when we only had two. We did get more wax, which was nice.
This year we chose to do only four hives. My mother is going all chemical warfare on some of her outside plants due to a mildew infestation, so we won't have the two hives there.
Sarah found a local supplier of bees here in Fairbanks in the form of Toklat Apiaries. They also have classes, which we are thinking about taking. A ton of good information can be found at their website. A bonus: Toklat marks their queens for you! No more roughed up queens because of my clumsiness!
Overall, we refuse to be discouraged. It's always sad to lose bees, but last year was only our second go at it, and we learn from each mistake.
Ok, so a lot has occurred in the past few days, so this is going to be broken over two posts!
This past weekend was the day of reckoning for the two hives we have been working with this summer. Time to crack them open and rob those bees of their precious, golden treasures. Since these were first-year hives, we knew we were not going to be getting a lot. Our plan was to take two frames (or combs in the case of the top-bar hive) from each hive. We would then leave a brick (errr... loaf?) of bee candy in each to help the bees replenish their suddenly dwindled honey supply.
After getting geared up we cracked open the Langstroth hive. Even though this hive was three supers deep, the bees had never really moved into the top super above the queen excluder. They had, however, pretty well filled out the two bottom boxes. It wasn't difficult to find two frames that contained just honey.
If you want to piss off bees, steal their honey. One managed to get a sting through my pant leg and just above my knee. It only hurt for a second, but itched like mad for a few days - like a mosquito bite from hell.
After that, we took two empty frames from the top box and placed them where the two honey frames had been. Then in went the bee candy.
Closed up the box and then proceeded over to the top-bar hive where I failed to take any pictures. Sarah, however, managed to get this awesome shot of me glaring at a bit of tiny comb.
Apparently, I get cranky at tiny combs.
When we had inspected this colony before, it seemed like there were a number of heavy, honey-laden combs. However, this trip we only found one worth harvesting. Sarah cut the comb from the bar into our container, and I placed the bar back into the hive. Like the Langstroth before, a brick of bee candy was placed inside the hive.
So other than my sting, we got out of there pretty unscathed. It did, however, show the different temperaments of the two hives. The bees in the Langstroth hive were very aggressive. They did not like the honey frames being removed and replaced by empty frames. Or maybe they just did not like the intrusion. The weather had been pretty crappy leading up to this, so foraging had been at a minimum.
In contrast, the top-bar hive seemed pretty chill about the whole ordeal, even when the bees that were on the comb we took were jarred from it. They may have had a rough start in spring with robbers, but they definitely grew into their hive and became quite productive.
Once the combs were safely packed away in our plastic storage container we took them home for extraction. I took lots of pictures of that process and will create a separate post for that.
Cliches aside, this really has been a busy week. Sarah has been running around the kitchen making jelly from locally harvested chokecherries and rhubarb. Our landlord has a number of chokecherry trees and kindly let us grab as many as we want. My mother grows a couple of rhubarb plants, as does one of Sarah's friends. Sarah can cook up some yummy jelly.
For my part, I've been playing around with stuff for the bees. In preparation for colder weather, I made a bunch of bee candy. Bee candy is a supplemental food for bees to help them get through winter. It is primarily carbs in the form of pure sugar. I've added pollen for additional protein. I also took the small amount of wax we have collected so far and melted and filtered it. I'll go over both of these projects below.
The Candy Man
Usually, first year hives don't produce a ton of honey. The bees spend a great deal of their energies building comb, sealing cracks and general housekeeping. However, Sarah and I are going to be robbing their larders anyway. Well, at least a little. We want to test out our extractor for Langstroth frames, and see how much honey we can get from a few combs of the top bar, as well.
Since I want to try to over-winter these bees, that means I need to be able to replace what we take. To do this, I've made bee candy following the general guidelines I've seen on a few web pages. No two recipes seem to agree, but they all generally have one thing in common - crap-loads of sugar.
Started with 12 pounds of sugar and three cups of water. In retrospect, I probably would have used less water. While I was able to get solid blocks, they did have sticky wet spots.
Added to the sugar was about half a pint of pollen granules for protein. Most of the recipes I saw called for putting a pollen patty into candy. However, while we were at the Tanana Valley State Fair this year, a vendor booth was selling jars of pollen. Always love to support Alaskan businesses.
Finally, with everything well mixed, I used bread pans as molds. This makes a rather thick candy, but I couldn't find anything thinner. In Langstroth hives, a thin board is used that fits above the supers. I have no idea how top-bars do this. My plan was to use some wood blocks to support the candy above the bottom mesh.
This is really soft when placed in the mold (and sticky!). As water evaporates, it becomes harder. Everything I read said give it 24 hours. However, with these being thicker, we gave them several days before placing them in the hive.
Ok, the bees technically made the wax, I just melted it and cleaned it. At this point, we didn't have a lot of wax, but my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to see if I could melt and clean it up.
I used a double boiler with the wax on top. It was mostly a combination of bridge comb and cross comb we pulled out of the top-bar hive.
There was rather a lot of dirt and dead bees in this. It looked pretty gross as it melted.
I wasn't exactly feeling hopeful at this point. Bees, pollen, dirt and god knows what else was floating in the melted wax. Still, the next step was filtering, so surely it would look better.
We had recently purchased a stand to hold a jelly filter, so I figured I'd give that a try here, too.
This is a pretty basic set up. Some cotton filter cloth is pinned to the stand, which is above a pot of cold water. Both wax and any residual honey pass through the filter. The wax solidifies and the honey either dissolves or sinks. Worked better than I expected.
I was impressed with how clean this came out with such a basic setup. Gone was the brown goop that was in the pan and in its place, nice yellow wax. This I remelted in a small aluminum bread mold (amazing how versatile bread molds are!)
You can see there are still a few impurities, but its way better than I was expecting for a first try. It did crack in the mold, I didn't have enough wax to make a very thick bar. I love the way this wax smells.
Sarah and I did harvest honey today and placed the bee candy. I will go over that in the next post!
Ok, while I can honestly say I've never quite "got" this particular Beastie Boys lyric (I'm gonna guess it's *gasp*sexual*gasp* in nature), it's also a fairly accurate description of what the bees have been up to lately: making new comb and honey.
Sarah and I recently opened up the top-bar hive to see how things are going. The answer appears to be "very well." The bees have been busy building new comb and setting up stores of honey and pollen. They now occupy at least two-thirds of the space in their box, with fresh comb both in front and back.
This was the furthest back comb. Not much activity on this side. It was a bit more eventful on the other.
This side is nearly all honey. There is a bit of pollen near Sarah's finger. This is the dark patch, filled with the blue pollen of local fireweed. Most of the new comb is being filled with honey and pollen. It seems the bees are in winter-prep mode.
In cutting some cross comb we did hit a few spots that let the honey flow. We could not resist tasting and I can say, in all honesty, that it is so much better than store bought. Store bought honey goes through so much processing that it just does not taste the same. I look forward to harvesting time.
We have had quite a bit of rain lately, and I have not seen the bald-faced hornets since the last post. Even though they were killing bees, they were fun to watch. I suspect that something happened to their hive, though I was never able to find it. Yellow-jackets still fly near the hives, but I've never seen them harass the bees. They seem to look for already dead bees. Maybe our yellow-jackets are just freakin' lazy.
Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will go check out how the Langstroth hive is doing.
One of the amazing things about keeping bees is learning about things that are not bees. There is a lot to learn, after all. In recent weeks, Sarah and I have noticed a number of other flying insects interacting with our bees. Usually, not in a good way.
One of our first encounters was about a week and a half ago, while we were checking on the Langstroth hive. We were worried, as we had not seen much in the way of larva the last time we checked, and suspected we may have lost the queen. While this trip proved that assumption incorrect with a plethora of larva, we apparently caught the attention of some sort of wasp.
While sorting through the frames, one of the workers stung my glove. I brushed her body onto a nearby empty hive box and continued my work. A few minutes later, Sarah called for me to look at something.
It is kind of hard to tell, but that wasp is just a tad smaller than the dead bee it is attempting to cart off. It was trying its damnedest to bite the head off of the dead bee, but utterly failing. I have no idea what kind of wasp this is. I am used to yellow jackets, but they are, well... more yellow than this.
A second bee made some valiant attempts to rescue her dead sister, harassing the wasp until it flew away.
Cue to this weekend. I usually have dinner with my mother on Saturdays, and I arrived a little early to check on the bees. As usual, we hung out on the deck for a few minutes just chatting. While chatting we noticed what we thought was a large, dark bee fly by. I didn't think much of it, though she commented that since we had bees this year, she thought she was noticing other insects she hadn't seen before.
After a few minutes of chatting, I got up to check the hives. I could tell from a distance that something was up with the top-bar hive. Bees were weaving haphazardly around the entrance, and the last few feet of their flight path. The entrance was covered with guard bees. As I got closer I could see a few dead bees on the ground.
I sat and watched for a few minutes and noticed two of the dark "bees" occasionally would fly into the area and attack the bees, grabbing them in mid-flight and sending them falling to the ground. Once the bee was dead, they seemed to lose interest and would fly off seeking another victim.
But the dead bees were not left alone. A single yellow-jacket was also flying around, picking through the corpses and enjoying a free meal. What was left over from the yellow-jacket, carpenter ants were picking through and hauling off.
My closest guess to what the dark "bees" where is the bald-faced hornet. Bald-faced hornets will kill bees to feed to their larva. However, if this is the case, these hornets sucked at their job. First, they were not killing many bees; they had a high miss ratio, either missing when they went for the kill or getting run off by defenders. Second, they never ate a single bee while I was observing. Usually, the dead bee would fall to the ground completely ignored by the hornets. The yellow-jacket and ants seemed to be the beneficiaries here.
The hive entrance has been wide open for a few weeks. We initially had trouble with robber bees, so I sealed the entrance until only a couple bees could pass through at a time. This makes it easier for the bees to defend the hive. However, after a few weeks, that issue passed and I opened it back up. Now, faced with aggressive hornets, I sealed it back up again, though not as tightly.
When Sarah and I returned the next day, things were looking much better. The two bald-faced hornets were gone, though a yellow-jacket was still there probably wondering where all the free food had gone. I did see a few carpenter ants, probably wondering the same thing. I'll leave the entrance narrowed for now and see how things go.
So my mother may be right. Or maybe these things have always been around in plain view and we are now only noticing them. Raising bees has certainly brought me more in touch with the sting-y bits of nature.
Too many words, not enough pictures:
Normally, 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.
The 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. >:(
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.
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.
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.
Raspberries seem to be the source of the whitish colored pollen. They grow in a couple different locations.
Bluebells also grow in a number of areas. I'm not sure if the bees visit them, as the cups are small and narrow.
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.
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.