Bees in an icebox

This story from a brand new beekeeper is filled with the excitement of acquiring that very first colony. Her passion—and the odd place she found her bees—makes for a fun read. Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your story.

I am very new to this even though I have family members up in Ohio that are beekeepers; I wish they were here in Texas to help me.

I noticed that there were not as many honeybees in my yard or anywhere else like there use to be, so I thought I could help by becoming a beekeeper. I even called the Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) about where I could purchase honeybees. I was told I would not be able to find any because most beekeepers were out, but to catch a hive if I could, and was told what to do. I began to slowly buy my equipment.

I drive a school bus out in the hill country and for the longest time we didn’t have a office but an icebox that we used to store our keys and papers. Yes, it is redneck, but we finally got a trailer for an office—but no toilets!

Our old office still sits under a massive oak tree and the maintenance men still cut the grass around the old icebox. One day, a bus tech was watching it and started to complain to the drivers that it was invested with bees and needed to be destroyed!!! The drivers came to me and told me of the situation.

I went to the old icebox with four other drivers, and we watched a small hole in the back were the plastic had come off. Not once did we get attacked! I got my phone out and recorded as I slowly opened it. The drivers and I saw the most beautiful creation ever!!! In the corner, top, six golden honey combs are hanging with yellow honeybees!!! We knew it would be destroyed by the school once they found out; school was ending in three days, which meant that I could not get back in once the gates were locked up for the summer!!!

I sent the video to my Uncle in Ohio and called him a few minutes later. He told me what to do but I had to do it at night so none of the bees would be left behind, and he thinks they are Italian. Saturday night, my husband and I had a date with the honeybees. We went back, watching the little entrance were they go in and out, nothing, all is still. With my gloves on, twisted newspaper in one hand, and strips of duct tape in the other, I began to plug it up!!! The honeybees were furious but never got out.

The icebox has a metal stand attached to it, which made it so much bigger to carry so we had to have our faces up against it!!! You could hear and feel them moving inside and they were mad!!! We loaded it up into the truck gently and strapped it down so that it would not slide around as we drive home; a 15-minute drive seemed like forever because we drove so slow. We unloaded the truck and waited for an hour to remove the plug. Once we removed the plug, some of the honeybees came out but went back in.

The next morning I had to work at my second job but when I got home, my husband ever so gently put a chain under and around the steel base of the icebox and put a lock on it so no one could open it nor steal our hive. He said that the bees never stung him, just flew around him to see what he was doing and left him alone when they saw he was not going to harm their hive.

Once I get my tbh, how do I transfer their combs into the tbh? I thought of unscrewing the lid off but the screws are so rusting I don’t think it will be possible. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

Lisa
Spring Branch, TX.

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The old office. © Lisa Barrientes.
Ice-box-2-Lisa-Barrientes
Combs hanging from the lid of the icebox. © Lisa Barrientes.

Book review: Hives in the city

Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World

by Alison Gillespie (Croydon Hill 2014)

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Hives in the City a fun read about urban beekeepers.

This entertaining book is not about beekeeping but about beekeepers—and a strange group they are. Gillespie, an environmental journalist, shadowed urban beekeepers through several eastern cities as they tended hives on rooftops and balconies, in vacant lots and forgotten alleys. Whether her cross section is typical is impossible to say, but she found some winners.

She interviews a beekeeper who erects a ladder in his bathtub and climbs through a skylight to get to his rooftop bees. She rides with another in a bucket truck to extract a huge colony three stories up in an antebellum building. The book offers an intriguing look at how urban beekeepers cope with landscapes, laws, and attitudes that are often antagonistic to the notion of stinging insects.

To be honest, I almost didn’t read the book. Being somewhat fanatical about the vocabulary of beekeeping (who me?) I nearly hyperventilated over her use of certain terms, super vs brood box being chief among them. And of course hive vs colony and caste vs sex. I longed to send her a copy of my post, “English for beekeepers,” but deciding that was impolitic, I put the book down and walked away.

I finally reminded myself that Gillespie is not a beekeeper, that she learned the unfortunate terms from beekeepers, and that beekeepers don’t care about them anyway. In short, after seven days and a sizable swig of whiskey, I convinced myself to get over it—and I am glad I did.

Although Gillespie begins with beginners, the text often reads like a who’s who of beekeeping in America. She managed to get interviews with many names you’ve heard before, including Toni Burnham, Kim Flottam, Andrew Coté, Tony Planakis, Bill Castro, Jeff Pettis, and Sam Droege. She is nothing if not complete.

Gillespie covers in depth the issues unique to urban hives, including air quality, amount and distribution of forage, the danger of hives being blown from their rooftop perches, antiquated laws, and the fear of swarms. But she also discusses the pride urban farmers have in their hobby, their honey, and the feelings of accomplishment they share with their cohorts.

Her portrayal of the various personalities drew me in, as did her description of beginner beekeeping classes in the downtown, and extraction demonstrations at the Maryland State Fair. Her prose is straightforward but sometimes touches on the lyrical, as when she describes bees in the cityscape:

“Gardens full of bees thriving in the middle of that urban core seem to mean the city is safe, livable, hospitable. Indeed, for some of the people I’ve interviewed, the bees form an unexpected sign of the urban good life. For centuries the honey bee has symbolized industriousness or selflessness, but now—in a new urban twist—it has become a symbol of a human willingness to acknowledge and connect with the natural, the good and the pure even in the most unlikely places.”

A chapter titled “What is killing the bees?” is particularly well crafted with solid explanations of why bee health is such a complex subject, and why answers are so slow in coming. She provides a short history of pesticide use and abuse, and provides a glimpse into the challenge of maintaining native pollinators.

The one thing I found lacking in the book was a good proofreader. Errors are sometimes funny—such as cows that have utters—and sometimes confusing. After one sentence (“A man is walking by below the hill where I’m sitting with a very well-groomed German Shepard on a leash . . .”) I spent considerable time trying to figure out when she acquired the dog.

In spite of a few rough spots, I think the book provides a fair and unbiased look at the urban side of beekeeping and an especially good portrait of the personalities behind city hives. If you are interested in urban beekeeping or the people who do it, the book offers a comprehensive peek into a very different—and sometimes strange—world. Go ahead and give it a try.

Information on purchasing the book in paperback or various e-book formats is available on Gillespie’s website.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Why is beekeeping so hard?

Beekeeping is tuff. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. I mean, how hard can it be to raise bees that have been raising themselves forever? ——John

When you are feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of beekeeping, the thing to remember is this: Although bees have been raising themselves forever, they haven’t raised themselves in our present environment.

Evolution is a glacially slow process. As the environment changes, lifeforms slowly evolve to fit the changes. But humans have altered the planet so fast—especially since the close of WWII—that only species with multiple generations per year and extremely flexible genetics have been able to keep up. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, and many single-celled organisms, for example, have managed just fine. Many species have not.

So even if you are a natural beekeeper following biodynamic or organic principles of beekeeping, the environment where the bees are living is not natural. Like it or not, our present conditions are clearly man made.

For example, the air is polluted. It has been found that bees in polluted air have more difficulty finding forage because it interferes with their sense of smell. Some of the air pollutants stick onto raindrops and fall into the world’s water bodies, causing them to be more acidic. The acidity of water changes what will live in it and affects the things that drink it.  We don’t know the details of how it affects all living things, but we know the potential for harm is there. We know there is much we don’t know.

In addition to the air, the soil and water are also tainted with industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizers, and nuclear waste. For example, high levels of progestin and estrogen have been found in fresh water supplies. These hormones have been found to persist in spite of water treatment and they interfere with the development of aquatic animals. Although some places are worse than others, the earth is a closed system. Eventually everything spreads everywhere; like oil on water, it gets thinner but it doesn’t go away.

Agrochemicals have allowed us to take something nature hates—the monoculture—and put it everywhere. Farms, which for thousands of years were a tapestry of plants and animals, have been split into various specialties. The corn is grown here, the pigs there, the cows somewhere else. Each of these monocultures requires more and more chemical intervention to keep them alive.

Even honey bees placed in an almond orchard are a monoculture in a monoculture—all the other insects and plants are killed before the honey bees are brought in, which means our bees are competing with each other for resources, and their pests are free to move from bee to bee with nothing to get in their way. And don’t forget: the residual poisons are left for the bees to eat.

We tend to think that other people are responsible for monocultures: it’s them, not us. But the biggest monoculture in the U.S. is lawn grass, and homeowners tend to use higher concentrations of weed killer than farmers–weed killers that wash off the lawns and into the water supplies and fish-bearing streams.

Hardly anyone remembers the majestic beauty of the American elm. The tree was tall and stately. It had few, if any, lower limbs which meant it was perfect for lining streets and parks and ball fields. It was so shady, so magnificent, that it was planted everywhere in the Northeast and Midwest. The towns became tree monocultures. So when Dutch elm disease struck, it ripped up and down those leafy roads and byways and knocked out virtually every tree, state after state, until not an elm was standing.

But monocultures and pollutants are not the only features of the modern Earth. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that monarch butterflies are covering just 1.65 acres of their wintering grounds in Mexico this year, down from 44.5 acres in 1995. The reason? Habitat fragmentation, urban sprawl, herbicides: cities to big to span, food too hard to find. This egregious loss, like many others, has happened on our watch. If it continues, our grandchildren will read about monarchs they way we read about passenger pigeons, eastern elk, and silver trout.

I could go on, but the point is that it is not always your fault when bees die. You cannot get discouraged. You have to remember that everything is different for them regardless of how natural you attempt to be. The modern Earth is not the planet they evolved on. Your attempts to do things right will always be tempered by environmental conditions that are new and rapidly changing.

Perhaps there will be a breakthrough: A chance mutation? A better breed? A magic bullet for mites? We don’t know what it might be or whence it may come. But every last beekeeper is an important part of the process. So hang in there. Believe in yourself. Keep learning. Who knows? The ultimate answer may come from you.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Top eleven questions of the week

You know I try to answer all my e-mail questions, but sometimes I just can’t think of anything to say—they more or less leave me speechless. Here’s a list of mystifying queries from the past week. If you have a good answer, please let me know . . .

“Do they put honey on the roads in Oregon?”


“Can you smoke bee pheromone?”


“Why is my face so big? It got stung by a bee.”


“Is there a type of mold that can be mistaken for honeycomb?”


“My bees are dead. When can I start them up again?”


“Are tomatoes polluted by honey bees?”


“If honey is bee vomit, why does it smell so good?”


“Why are bees aggressive when I’m cutting down the tree they’re in?”


“Do dead bees eat mice?”


“I put a carpenter bee in my ant farm. Do you think the bee will kill my ants?”


“Can I measure my bees on a pH scale?”

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Tree
Where on the tree are you?