Monday, July 18, 2011

apple tree swarm

Tom stuck his head through the front door and told me to grab my camera. He doesn’t do this too often, so I thought it might be worth dropping everything to do it. When I got outside, he was holding a branch from our apple tree, looking like a boy who had caught a trophy fish, and dripping off of it were about 1,000 bees in a tiny swarm cluster.

Sometimes, half of the colony will swarm and that could be about 30,000 bees. He walked away with them down the driveway and shook them into one of the empty bee boxes in the back field hoping that they’ll like their new home enough to stay in it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

cutting the catmint

Today, I’ll cut back the catmint (Nepeta). I always put it off whenever it’s time because visually, it’s stunning and the honeybees and bumblebees are still working it. But if I don’t do it now, it may not re-bloom later in the season.

These large purple clouds are probably one of our bees’ most favourite and most visited plants in the gardens. Hummingbirds also hover in them too. It’s one of the first plants to leap out of the ground in the spring with its gray green foliage and it quickly forms itself into a rounded mound of prolific blossoms.

Catmint at the end of the driveway.
Nepeta doesn’t mind the lean sandy soil that we have here and while it thrives in sunshine, will do reasonably well in partial shade. I prefer the common N. x faassenii, - about 24-30”, but also have smaller varieties, as well as a taller but rather sprawling pink flowered variety, “Dawn to Dusk”. Catmint grows in zones 3 – 8. It almost looks like lavender from a distance, and the neat thing is that it’s amazingly easy to propagate. Just snip the tips off the plants, and plunk into some pots or plug trays. It’s also deer resistant!

Honey bee working the catmint.
 Still have lots of other purples left – the sages and lavender hyssops are still blooming and the “Grosso” and “Munstead” lavenders are just about ready to bloom.

Monday, July 4, 2011

queen of the sun

"What are the bees telling us?" asks Queen of the Sun, Lavender Hills’ food-for-thought film. As honeybee die-offs continue, filmmaker Taggart Siegel takes up this question with beekeepers around the world. From rooftop hives in London and New York City, as well as beekeepers in France, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, the messages come in, teaching us about our shared crisis with the honeybee, but also about the richness of our shared history.

Taggart's three-year effort has resulted in a beautiful, moving, and lyrical production, full of insights from beekeepers, many of whom are organic or biodynamic. We also hear from an entomologist, a biochemist, a philosopher and a playwright, with cameo appearances from food activist and author, Michael Pollan and environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. We see honeybees at work interacting with flowers and beekeepers interacting with their hives.

 Philosopher Rudolf Steiner's powerful indictment of modern beekeeping weaves through the footage, often interpreted for us by biodynamic farmer Gunther Hauk. In the 1920s, Steiner predicted that continued industrial style beekeeping would destroy honeybees by the end of the 20th century. The Colony Collapse Disorder we're seeing now, Hauk says, is "the bill we are getting for all we have done to the bees."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

cranberry bees

This week, Tom is moving the bees to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh to pollinate the blossoms. The bees have to be moved at night so they will re-orientate themselves with the sun in the morning. As a matter of fact, if you move a colony of bees even ten feet in the middle of the day, the bees can’t find their way back to the hive. So, it’s night work.

Last night it rained, and made for a nasty move (read: bee knuckles). It was warm, too, so many of the bees were hanging outside the boxes. Tonight is very cool, so all the bees will be inside and less stinging for Tom. We’ll only be moving about 30 of our 120 hives. In addition to the cranberry blossoms, Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh has a diversity of forage derived from wetland and boreal plant species that will provide a multitude of pollen and nectar sources for the bees.

In contrast, about a million and a half bee colonies are moved into the California almond orchards in February. More than 80% of the world’s almonds are grown there and more than half of all the beehives in the U.S. are trucked in for pollination. These huge tracts of almonds create enormous swaths of monocultures – whereby the bees have only almond pollen to feed the hives. This lack of diversity is potentially problematic for bees.

"Monoculture is the original sin of agriculture," asserts author Michael Pollan. Scientists are finding that bees fed pollen from a range of plants showed signs of having a healthier immune system than those eating pollen from a single type.

Monoculture of almonds growing in California.
Spectacular losses have been seen in the U.S. where entire colonies have been wiped out. However, the exact cause has remained elusive. A possible conclusion of the new research is that the bees need to eat a variety of proteins in order to synthesize their various chemical defences; without their varied diet, they are more open to disease.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

black eyed bees?

Came across a great video produced by Haagen Dazs – the ice cream folks. They’ve done lots of work to increase awareness in the honeybees' precarious plight. Yo, yo, yo, get low – black and yellow in de hood.

how are the bees?

Tom inspecting one of the nuc frames (yellow coreopsis blooming in the field)
A lot of people ask us, “How are the bees?” I suppose the answer depends on the time of year. Coming off a spring that was wet and cold, the bees looked pretty dismal going into May and June. This spring for us saw a loss of about 40%. The norm has historically been around 15%. 

Because there are so many losses, larger beekeepers are now realizing that in order to have enough bees to provide the honey demand, they have to build up colonies. That usually means splitting the healthy hives, and re-queening them as well as putting new queens in many of the other hives. This ensures a healthy and vibrant queen who gets down to business laying brood and building up the colony. 

Last week Tom started a number of nucs (pronounced “Nukes”) and set up an electric fence to keep bears at bay. We’re pretty lucky here as far as bears go, but I did wake up not too long ago to see a huge male bear out in our wildflower field. When I said that I saw a bear, Tom nearly levitated out of bed holding visions of the bear tearing apart the beeyard. It sniffed the oak tree and lumbered away over the fence row.

Now at the end of June, the bees are filling up the hives to overflow. Beekeeping is so weather dependent. If we have a week of overcast weather, the bees tend to stay inside the hive, and the population will get larger very fast until they start to swarm. Then we may lose half the hive if they fly off. Sometimes you get lucky and just happen to be in the yard when they start to swarm and we (Tom) may be able to catch them. It’s loud, full of energy and quite exciting, but very frustrating to watch 25,000 bees fly away.