Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prep for painting

I've taped the edges of the hive boxes, outer cover, and bottom, all sections which won't be needing paint, which only goes on the exterior surface. The taping maybe overkill, but I'm not much of a housepainter.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The hive

has arrived.

R makes a deep. A rainy back yard kept us inside, so now the apartment smells of lumber.

A deep or brood box with cover. This is how the hive will start out. After several weeks, we will add

another deep, and a shallow or medium (those are actually different sizes). The smaller box is where our honey will come from if the bees have a productive first season. We will prime and paint these before exposing them to the elements.

It's getting closer and closer....

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bee visit

This morning I was early to work, so I sat on one of the granite planters at the ugly wedge of developer folly called “Forte” on Fulton and Ashland to kill some time. I pulled out a magazine to wile away the minutes in the glorious spring sunshine, and right away noticed a bee land on my right pants leg just up from the hem. She might have come from John Howe’s Fort Green hives. I crossed my legs to get a better view. What was she up to? She put her mouth right up to the fabric as if she was sucking it. Her abdomen was lifted and contracting. Fifteen, thirty seconds. Then she flew off, and I notice several little spots on my pants. She’d pooped on me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stop presses

Good piece in the Daily News about the effort to legalize beekeeping in NYC.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


A skep is an upturned woven basket most everyone recognizes as a beehive even though very few of us have ever seen an actual one. This is probably because this type of European hive has saturated our symbolic culture. It’s been used to represent the first French Republic, thrift, industry, and Utah, among other things. Skeps were once very popular in the iconography of banks. Old school banks, that is, not the loan-sharking and gambling operations of our era.

At the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street stands one of those old banks, the former South Brooklyn Savings Institution. It’s now a Trader’s Joe's. Over the Court Street entrance, there’s a nice stone skep as part of the decoration. Inside, and this is something I’ve never noticed before today, there’s a large metallic plaque with Justice and Prudence separated by another skep. I said to the friendly (clerk, associate, trader?) at the cash register that I wanted to come back and take a picture. Still unabsorbed by the Borg, he warned me, sotto voce, that I should be subtle about it, since they didn’t want people taking unauthorized pictures inside the building. Alert, alert, amateur photographer in aisle three! Evidently Trader Joe’s last name is Stalin. Stay tuned. I'll be shooting from the mocha-macadamia nut snack pile.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

From Thyme

The hive has been delayed. We now expect it next week. Won't you enjoy some wonderful Cretan honey in the meantime? This was given to me for my birthday along with some ouzo (we went to a taverna in Astoria, almost the Aegean), and there is still some of each left.
Can't you just taste the rocky thyme-scented ancient hills? Thanks, A & A.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

These just in

More gear has arrived. In the picture are a smoker and a hive tool sitting in a top feeder. Got these from Brushy Mountain.

The hive tool was discussed earlier.

The smoker is used to burn (pine needles, burlap, special smoker pellets, etc.) to create smoke, which is pumped into the hive via the bellows. The smoke should not be very hot, and the aforementioned items burn on the cooler side. The smoke calms the bees down. In my limited experience, getting the smoker going and keeping it “at smoke," is a bear of a problem (think like the bee, little grasshopper), possibly the most difficult part of beekeeping. It’s always the details, isn’t it?

The top feeder is used to supplement the hive’s food supply in the early spring, before the Niagara of nectar flow, and in the fall, before the dormancy of winter. One pint of water to one pound of sugar is the formula we will be using for spring feeding. This syrup is placed in this tray; the bees get it from the underneath along the sides (without drowning). This lets them concentrate on building wax comb, which is key to the first year of the hive, without having to spend too much energy foraging at this stage.
This weekend should be all about the actual hive. We will be collecting the wood on Sunday and putting together some part of it then. My co-conspirator will be revealed… as much as she would like to be revealed.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Beespoke suit

This was in the hallway when I got home this afternoon. I'll get someone else to take a shot of me in the full regalia (what's the opposite of the full monty -- the full python?) later, but for now here's a self-portrait in the bathroom mirror. I got this jacket and the gloves and some leg straps from the fine folks out at Mann Lake. Service with a smile (hell, they're Midwesterners, and if Midwesterners aren't smiling we're in big trouble); service without a sting.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

More bees at the BBG

Yesterday: the crocuses, the honey bees.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

In the BBG


Look at the shadow of the wings.
The bees were all over the crocuses today.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Making Brooklyn Bloom UPDATED

3/6 UPDATE: The schedule I printed out earlier this week turns out to be last year's. The chicken & bees workshop, which I attend then, is not running again. The BBG has since righted the error, and this is what's happening tomorrow.

Damn few blooms without bees. Owen Taylor of Just Food and Sarita Daftary of East NY Farms will be presenting a workshop on “raising chickens and bees in the city” at this Saturday’s Making Brooklyn Bloom conference at the BBG. There are more than a dozen other workshops as well as speakers, tables, movies, & gift bags at this very popular annual event, which is free if you present the flyer (printable from the website) for admission to the garden. Two years ago, honey bees were out and about foraging in the garden’s early flowers, and since the weather is supposed to be near 60 this weekend we might see them again if all this snow melts out of the way.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

An ad from 1861

Recall that into the early 20th century, the western end of Long Island, now Queens (where you will find Flushing today) and Brooklyn, was a substantial agricultural area. Slowly, but surely, we are bringing a tiny little bit of that back. The Rev. L.L. Langstroth patented a movable frame hive that is still very much in use today. Note also the long tradition of clerical beekeeping alluded to here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The basics: gear

I ordered a few things today from Brushy Mountain and Mann Lake.

Jacket with veil, gloves, top feeder, & smoker. I'll go into detail about these at another time.

About this blog

In this blog I will be documenting my experiences with, and practical discoveries about, the keeping of bees. As I glean through the rich history of the human/bee relationship, I will also post things about the culture of beekeeping (art, politics, philosophy, science, and whatever else) of this endless fascinating topic.

Some years ago, after a lifetime of being vaguely disquieted and unnerved about bees, I was invited to view some hives kept by a family friend in Massachusetts. We observed the bees entering and exiting two hives as other bees guarded the hives from intruders. It was a remarkable calming experience. Then I saw frames covered in bees, the very things that had frightened me, and I was not at all frightened. Since that day, I had an idea in the back of my mind that I’d like to learn more. There are many, many things to read about honey bees, for the relationship between humans and bees goes back to the beginnings of our species (bees go back even further), but there is no substitution for the hands-on. Yet I live in Brooklyn. How was I going to get involved in beekeeping? Where there even bees in Brooklyn? In fact, of course, the city is rich with life, and as my experiences birdwatching in the city tell, it’s all a question of looking. Take the time to look closely, to look patiently, and the world begins to bloom all around you.

So one day I was glancing over Meetup.com, the social networking affinity site, and discovered the Brooklyn Beekeepers Meetup (now the NYC Beekeeping Meetup). Ah, so perhaps it was possible to keep bees in the city. Since then I’ve learned much from the meetup’s organizer, John Howe, many other members of that group, and beekeepers Norm and Andrew Cote. One of the main things I’ve learned is that there is much yet to learn.

I hope you'll be coming along for the ride.

Note: For the first time ever I have “monetized” my on-line presence. (An ugly word for an ugly task.) It goes against my nature to do so, but unfortunately I am not made of money, nor am I a trust-fund beneficiary nor a lottery winner, and beekeeping is not without its expenses. So Google ads will appear in the right hand corner and any pennies thus earned will go towards the bees. Click or not as you wish.

The logo of Sweet Melissa Patisserie, still on their former bakery in Gowanus the last time I looked.

Virgil and CCD Radio

Amarilla recently sent me a link to Virgil’s Georgics (Book IV), where the master describes beekeeping in ways that sound awfully familiar. Virgil was one of the first to write about beekeeping, not including the Egyptians (Eva Crane cites 2400BCE as the date of first evidence of hive beekeeping). Always a good man to lead you through the circles of hell, that Virgil, but I digress.

And it is by nice coincidence that Lawlor should link me to an archived radio project by EE Miller and Ryder Cooley about CCD (and so much more), the second audio clip (Beehuman part 2) of which includes a passage from Virgil… read by Lawlor & Mellis. This audio collage series is fascinating and challenging and well worth the time, and intensity, of listening.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Beekeeping is more art than science. Two beekeepers will probably have three opinions, so take these idiosyncratic FAQs with a spoonful of honey.

How many bees are in that hive?
The hive was started with three pounds of Italian honey bees (Apis mellifera lingustica) raised in Georgia. Three pounds equals roughly 10-12,000 bees. If all goes well, at the peak of the summer we could have 50- 60,000 bees in the hive. That’s obviously a rough guess. During the day, about half the bees will be foraging outside the hive.

So what’s happening in there?
If all is well, the queen bee will be laying up to 2000 eggs a day. Tens of thousands of worker bees, all sterile females, will be performing tasks including constructing honeycomb, caring for the queen, feeding larva, cleaning the hive, making honey, regulating the hive temperature, and defending the hive. Male bees, which are called drones, are far fewer in number than the females. Their task is to fly out in the afternoons looking to mate. They only return to the hive if they haven’t mated. They don’t do anything else, except help spread disease between hives. (Quiet there on the distaff side of the peanut gallery!)

Where do foraging bees go?
To blooming flowers, mostly. They can fly three-four miles from the hive, covering thousands of acres.

How come I’ve never seen a bee in NYC?
Look closer. They are in this and other gardens, parks, street trees, backyards, balconies, even windowsills, wherever blooming plants are to be found. In addition to the honey bee, over 50 other bee species have been recorded in the city. Bumble bees, being large, slow, and adorable, are the most obvious.

What are they doing out there?
Foraging bees are searching for and collecting nectar and pollen. In the heat of summer, many bees will also be tasked with collecting fresh water, which is vital for hive temperature control. Foragers also collect tree and plant sap and resins for propolis.

What are nectar, pollen, and propolis?
Nectar is the sugary liquid flowers produce to attract pollinators. Bees collect it by slurping it up and bringing it back to the hive. Some insects simply feed on the nectar, but bees partially digest, regurgitate, and re-digest nectar in their honey stomachs (where it mixes with their own body chemistry). In the hive, the nectar/bee mixture is ultimately put into wax honeycomb, and evaporated (by thousands of beating wings) until it becomes… honey, the bee’s energy-rich food.

Pollen is essentially plant sperm. Protein rich, it is a coveted food source for the bees, who gather it from flowers, mix it with a little honey and pack it around special “pollen baskets” on their rear legs for travel. In the hive, the pollen is stored in the honeycomb.

Propolis is also known as bee glue. It’s used as a sealant to protect the hive from moisture, light, and drafts.

Will I get stung?
Mmmm-maybe. There are no guarantees, but these honey bees generally only sting to protect the hive or if attacked (swatted or stepped on). If you aren’t a bear come to rip open the hive, you probably will not be stung during normal garden activities. Most people who are stung are actually stung by wasps, far more aggressive cousins of the honey bee, but bees get the blame because they are the best known stinger. Fame has its price. Italian honey bees like these are considered the gentlest of the various subspecies.

What if I am stung?
Try to flick out the stinger from your skin with your fingernail. Don’t pluck at it, since this can force more the “sting” into you. Move away from the hive; the stinger releases pheromones which tell other bees to sting right there.

The sting is sharp and unpleasant and different people will react differently to it. In my experience, you should expect some swelling, which may not occur for a number of hours, and then last a day or two. However, a very small number of people are severely allergic to stings and since I’m not a medical professional and this is just a blog, you should consult one if you’re worried about this.

I’m afraid of bees. What should I do?
Become a beekeeper. That’s what I did.

*****Extra bonus FAQs*****

What are “killer bees”?
Hollywood hype/hysteria based on this: in the 1950s, Brazilian bee breeders hybridized a new subspecies now known as the “Africanized bee” by mixing Italian and African subspecies. These bees were either released or escaped and have since spread throughout South America. They have made it north, appearing in Texas and some of the other southern US states. They are very aggressive, but are not found in the mid-Atlantic states or New England. Is it too cold for them? Will global warming allow them to spread north? I am old enough to have been waiting the Attack of the Killer Bees for 30 years.

If they don’t sting so much, how come you’re dressed in a HazMat suit?
It’s called a bee suit. I wear it because I’m doing the thing bees like the least: invading the hive (albeit gently, cautiously, respectfully). Every beekeeper uses different gear; many long-time beekeepers don’t use much at all. I like the face protector because I don’t want bees flying into my nose. Also, as a newbie, it’s good for my confidence when I’m “covered in beeeees” (cue Eddie Izzard.)

So why don’t they attack you by the thousands?
Because I’m not a bear. Additionally, hive inspections are usually done after the hive is “smoked.” Cool smoke is blown into the hive, calming the bees. Some say it’s because the bees think there’s a fire approaching; knowing their hive might be in danger, they stuff themselves with honey should they have to flee an actual fire. This makes it very difficult to use their stingers.

How do you learn this stuff?
The human/honey bees relationship goes back for thousands of years, but I’m not that old. For the past couple of years I’ve been hanging around beekeepers, taking classes, and reading the voluminous literature.

Why “hive inspections”?
Honey bees are really a hybrid form of life, somewhat wild and somewhat domesticated. Humans “keep” bees for pollination, honey, wax, and more esoteric reasons, and part of the partnership (?) between hive and human is that we will inspect the hive looking for disease and problems with the queen, intervening when we can.

What’s up with all the threats to bees?
Colony Collapse Disorder, rather more descriptively called “vanishing bee syndrome” by the British, has been much in the news, but bees were in pretty bad shape before this latest decimation. Some claim there are no more, or very few, wild (a.k.a. feral) hives in the Northeast, for instance. Beset by other insect parasites, as well as viral and bacterial diseases, the honey bee has a tough row to hoe. Some blame human interference, particularly the industrial-like exploitation of honey bees by commercial agriculture (where they are shipped cross-country to pollinate many vegetables, fruits, & nuts), as well as associated petrochemical-based monoculture (where once there were meadows, now there is a toxin-doused genetic deadzones).

Additionally, as a beekeeper, you keep running into people who say, “my grandfather had bees…”. It was once far more common for people to keep hives, either as an adjunct to the farm or as a backyard hobby. The benefits of this variety and distribution, probably excellent for genetics, has largely been lost. One of the reasons I’ve become involved with honey bees is that I’d like to see more bees out there, mixing it up, doing the evolutionary thing to combat the threats.