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Book review | Following the Wild Bees

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. Copyright © 2016 by Princeton University Press. This review refers to the hardcover edition.

Back in college, my literature professor would have called this a “slim volume.” I never understood why such volumes were always slim and never thin, skinny, or just plain short, but that’s the way it was. But folded between the hard green covers of this slender book is a treasure trove of adventure, excitement, and the poetry of honey bees.

The book is the story of Seeley’s nearly forty years hunting for wild bee colonies, mostly in the forests of upstate New York. Bee lining, as it is often called, is a sport onto itself, one requiring perseverance, patience, intelligence, and a thorough knowledge of the ways of the foraging honey bee. As described by Seeley, the pastime has aspects of orienteering, treasure hunting, and geocaching.

The book begins with a history of bee hunting and a description of Seeley’s attempt to find information on how it was done. Practitioners of the once-popular activity left very little in the way of written records, while those who did write about it had little practical experience and questionable methods.

But once Seeley sorted it all out, he was on his way to a lifetime of bee stalking. He shares memories of remarkable hunts as well as the day-to-day movements of the bee hunter. He also provides equipment lists, instructions on building the necessary bee box, and detailed descriptions of how to use it all. Except for the bee box, which is simple to make, most of the equipment can be scared up from your garage or workshop.

The book contains beautiful photographs of bees, equipment, flowers, and bee trees as well as diagrams that explain the bee lining process. In addition, scattered throughout the pages are Biology Boxes, sidebars that contain information about how bees find their way, how they choose a home, and how they recruit other foragers to a food source.

I can’t imagine I will ever try bee lining even though I live adjacent to an enormous state forest. But that is beside the point. This charming story will pull you into the action and make you feel like an intrepid bee hunter without ever leaving your living room chair.

A side note: The book is printed on excellent paper. I was sitting on my patio reading when a honey bee dropped a load from the sky that landed squarely on page 12. I hurried inside, scraped the yellow worm-shaped glob off with a kitchen knife and dabbed the remainder with a dish rag. Just like new.

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting by Thomas D. Seeley is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats.

Honey Bee Suite

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How to fit deep frames into medium boxes

The question of the day seems to be “How can I fit deep frames into medium boxes?” This problem occurs most frequently when a beekeeper with all medium equipment buys a nuc containing deep frames. Often the quick and dirty solution is to stack two medium boxes together so the frames hang down into the second box. But this only makes the problem worse because the bees can now add even more depth to those frames by adding more comb.

So what to do? Usually I cut the comb out of the deep frame by running a knife along all the attached edges. Then I shorten the comb by trimming the bottom until it will fit into a medium frame. Working carefully, I wind a piece of cotton string around and around the frame and comb to make a sort of sling that holds the comb in the frame. Once you put the frame in your box, the bees will get right to work attaching the comb to the top of the frame.

String, rubber bands, or cotton strips

You can do the same thing with rubber bands or, if the comb is fresh and bendy, you can use strips of cotton fabric cut about an inch wide. This will give a little more support and is easier to work with. Fabric strips also work well if you are tying the comb onto a top bar without side bars and a bottom bar. The fabric strips are less likely to cut through the delicate comb than are strings or rubber bands.

Once the bees have attached the combs and everything is back to normal, they will chew through the supports and carry them outside the hive. You can remove them if you want, but it is not necessary.

What? Kill the brood?

Now, what if you don’t want to sacrifice the brood from the bottom of the deep frame? Instead of cutting away the bottom of the comb, just cut the entire comb in half lengthwise and tie each half into a separate frame. To do this, you need to start at the top of both frames, and your string or other support will be wound around just the top bar and the comb.

Do not attempt to put the bottom piece in the bottom of a frame. You are much more likely to get a straight comb if the pieces hang from the top. Also remember that cells tilt upward, so don’t turn any pieces upside down. The top must be at the top.

Cutting the frame

Another alternative, and one I have used, is to just shorten the frame so that it fits in a medium box. Take the deep frame, measure it against a medium frame and, using a hand saw or other cutting tool, cut the side bars and the bottom of the comb. You are left with a three-sided frame, but at least it fits.

These methods may seem like a lot of work, but it is much easier to fix the problem than to constantly mess with frames that don’t fit. Yes, you lose a little brood but it will quickly be replaced. The main thing is to know where your queen is before you cut. For my own peace of mind, I find it helpful to put her in a queen cage if I’m going to do a lot of cutting and tying.

There may be other ways of fitting big frames into small boxes, but these are the ones that have worked for me. If any of you have a better way, please let us know.

Honey Bee Suite

Mason bees actually sting, kind of

Yesterday I got my first sting of the season. That would not be remarkable except for one detail: the culprit was a mason bee. A mason bee! I have never before been stung by such a creature.

I’ve been keeping mason bees for about seven years, and during early spring the area around my patio is black with them. With all the carrying on they do, you wouldn’t even notice I have honey bees. Honey bees are always on a distant mission and they fly up and out. I only ever see them at the hive entrance. Mason bees, on the other hand, have an abbreviated foraging distance and do most of their work within several yards of their birthplace.

Overly-friendly bees

Not only are there lots of them in a small area, but they are quite chummy. By that, I mean they have no issues about being close to humans, very close, and they will often investigate your nose and ears as potential nesting sites. Talk about irritating.

Several species of mason bee live in my area and appear at different times of the year. The ones active now are the so-called orchard masons, Osmia lignaria. They appear about the same time as the orchard tree blossoms in the northern states and are quite content to pollinate them. But they are generalists and can also be seen on all types of flowers, including dandelions and flowering shrubs.

The sting of a mason bee

Yesterday I was on the patio cutting more paper straws to fill more cans. It seems I’ve been doing this every few days because as fast as I put up new ones, they get filled. I was measuring straws and cutting when I felt something on my wrist. I looked down to see a mason caught between my wristwatch and my sleeve. I pulled back my sleeve and she flew away.

For a while I wondered if she stung me. What I felt wasn’t really a sting but more like a little pinch. I couldn’t see anything, so I shrugged it off, thinking maybe I felt her feet while she was struggling to free herself.

But about five minutes later I noticed a typical sting mark: a raised white welt about a quarter-inch in diameter surrounded by a red patch about two inches across. So she had stung me! But seriously, it was something that would never pass for a sting in a honey bee’s bag of tricks.

I’ve been stung by alkali bees and alfalfa leafcutters, and they are less than 10% of a honey bee’s sting. But this sting was less than 10% of leafcutter sting. If I hadn’t actually seen the mark, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Attracting mason bees with paper straws

Over the years I’ve changed my nesting box set up. Now I use paper straws cut to fit the length of a metal can. I spray-paint the cans, although it’s not necessary, and simply fill them with straws of various diameters. When I started doing this seven years ago, about ten bees nested in my straws. Now it’s ridiculous how many live here, many hundreds.

In the autumn I put the cans of straws in my garden shed to keep them out of the rain. And then, in the spring, I put the straws in a hatching box. A hatching box is just a box with a tiny hole at the bottom. If you put the hatching box near a new set of straws, the bees will leave the hatching box and use the straws for their nests. By using new straws every year, you can reduce the number of parasites the bees have to contend with.

When the straws are full, your home will do

Even though I keep installing more straws, I have mason bees living in the drain holes of all our windows, nesting in the edges of the sliding patio door, tucked under the eaves and behind the fascia, squeezed in the siding, and folded into the outdoor chairs.

The orchard masons are just beginning to wind down for the year, but soon the green berry bees, Osmia aglaia, will start making their appearance. For now, they are still in the hatching boxes and waiting for warmer weather.

If you want to know where to find paper straws, everything I know about them is on a separate page called “Paper straws for native bee nests.”

Honey Bee Suite

Preparing mason bee housing
Preparing pollinator housing with empty cans and paper straws. © Rusty Burlew.
The straws get filled in just a few days. © Rusty Burlew.
hatching box
Hatching boxes. Just lay the straws inside. © Rusty Burlew.

When will a newly-hatched queen begin to lay?

A first-year beekeeper e-mailed to say he was excited to see a new virgin queen in the act of hatching from her cell. But that was three whole days ago and still no eggs! He wanted to know if he should should replace her.

My answer? Holy guacamole, give the woman a chance! These things take time. Newborn babes do not start mating and carrying on for at least a few days.

As a matter of fact, according to M.E.A. McNeil in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), a new virgin queen does not become sexually mature for five to six days after emergence. A number of things need to happen before she is ready to fly. Like all insects, the outer layer of chitin covering her body must become hardened and thickened, a process that may take several days. In addition, her pheromones must develop so she will become attractive to flying drones.

Multiple mating flights are common

Once she is sexually mature, the workers escort her out the door on the first sunny afternoon in the 60s or above. She flies to one or more drone congregation areas where she will be pursued by hoards of drones. If all goes well, she will mate with a dozen or more, and then return to the hive, guided by workers waiting for her return.

Sometimes, however, the number of matings from one flight is not sufficient and she must repeat the mating flight once, or even several times, until she has collected enough sperm to fill her oviducts.

Once the oviducts are full, the sperm migrates from the oviducts into the spermatheca, the long-term storage place for sperm. This is accomplished by a series of abdominal contractions and may take up to 40 hours. Any extra sperm is expelled from her body through the sting chamber and now the queen is ready to begin laying.

Count the days before she lays

Looking at the math, we can see that if everything went as fast as possible, the queen could begin to lay as early as 8 days after emergence:

5 days maturing + 1 day mating + 2 days sperm storage = 8 days

But that almost never happens. More typical would be:

6 days maturing + 4 days mating + 2 days sperm storage = 12 days

But toss in a week of rain and it might look like this:

6 days maturing + 4 days mating + 7 days rain + 2 days sperm storage = 19 days

In fact, many people believe 2 to 3 weeks (14 to 21 days) is a good rough estimate of the hatch-to-lay timetable.

Many risks and lots of days

All of these numbers assume that everything turns out right in the end: the queen didn’t get eaten by a bird, get caught in a rain storm, or remain hive-bound so long that she became a drone layer. Any number of  things can easily go wrong.

And that’s only part of the waiting game; once the first egg is laid, it will take three weeks for it to hatch. So be patient with your bees and think before you replace that new brand new queen.

Honey Bee Suite

Queen-bee-Pixabay photo
Queen honey bee. Pixabay photo.

An early swarm becomes two

One of the things I like best about the west coast is the height of the trees. They grow quickly and they grow tall. But as a beekeeper, what a pain.

Yesterday was no exception. I was chatting on the phone with my sister-in-law when I happened to glance out the back window. The sky had begun to flicker and the odd sensation caught my attention. The light, it seems, was being tweaked by thousands of bees swarming past my window.

I hung up the phone and reached for my camera on the way out. Unfortunately, most of the action was over by the time I got outdoors. One side of my double-queen hive had swarmed. I thought it was about a month early for that, but since I don’t think bee, I got it wrong.

The chaos divides

Oddly, the swarm split into two parts. The large part, perhaps 70% of it, chose the young western hemlock near my garden. It is young—I can remember when it was a sapling—but it’s about 50 feet tall or more. I could see the swarm swirling around some of the upper limbs and settling in.

A much smaller portion opted for a kiwi vine about four feet off the ground. I don’t know why the swarm split. It was confusing because the swarm was all one big commotion at first, and then it seemed to divide. And it did. I’ve seen them split in two as they were landing a branch, settling mere inches from each other, but I’ve never seen them split while still in the air.

I prised apart the swarm on the kiwi because I suspected it didn’t have a queen. Indeed I couldn’t find one, so when I dropped it in a nuc box, I added a frame of open brood so they can build a queen if they need one.

The aftermath

This morning when I went outside to check on things, I found a few dozen bees that had resettled on the kiwi. They were stiff and immobile, but not dead, so I collected them all and put them in the nuc with the others.

I started off this spring thinking I wouldn’t have much swarming because my colonies were weak from the long winter and repeated cycles of warm and cold weather. But I was wrong about that too. Just when you think you understand the little critters, they prove you wrong once more.

Honey Bee Suite

The large part of the swarm landed in this hemlock, about 40 feet off the ground. © Rusty Burlew.
I converted an enlargement of the hemlock to black and white so you could see the bees a little better as they were just beginning to settle in a cluster. © Rusty Burlew.
The smaller part of the swarm landed in a kiwi vine, about four feet off the ground. It looks like a study in randomness. © Rusty Burlew.
I like this photo because it dispels the myth that bees will not swarm when they are carrying pollen. © Rusty Burlew.
The next morning a few bees had re-settled on the kiwi vine. These bees were stiff and immobile. It was easy to pick them up and move them to their new hive, where they slowly recovered as the day warmed. © Rusty Burlew.

Bee with me . . .

Why keep honey bees? What are the reasons? Check out my thoughts on the whys of beekeeping at Natural Apiary.

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