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has CCD come to Front Royal? )

The hive and the combs were completely empty except the top two boxes still heavy with the spoils of summer. This is how I've read reports of colony collapse disorder - where bees inexplicably abandon their hives, and just within the last week I've seen various reports of where a fly, Apocephalus borealis, once considered only a parasite to bumble bees has recently made the jump to honeybees and is implicated in CCD.

Yeah, there were a couple of suspicious looking gnats spooking around the entrance of the hive before I tore it all apart. . . .
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The bees of Isis are definitely dead. I tore down their hive on Thanksgiving Day, one of the Japanese frameless that I had started to transition earlier in summer. Much like the Kenyan top bar that died ealier and only a few yards away, their combs were empty, no stores, no brood. Unlike the Ktbh here was no sign of any kind of infestation; no small hive beetle or varroa, no nasty smell of dead bees or fermenting honey. I didn't tear into the combs, only separated the supers into manageable pairs, enough that I might move around and look down inside. Only the dry, empty and perfectly straight combs with a few hundred dead bees.

The hives in Front Royal are still pulling strong, particularly Brigid which has had no interventions and is busily filling her combs with bright orange pollen even today. I wonder if the demise of both Annandale hives is a pesticide issue. I already sent in a sample from the Ktbh to the BARC and the results from the lab didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, and didn't mention anything deeper. Somehow I doubt it would do any good to send another sample with the suspicion that it might be related to pesticides, for that is a very special and guarded type of corruption.

I will leave the Front Royal bees to die, too. In the Spring we'll part ways with this house for better or worse. I haven't figured out what I'll do should I actually have living colonies in the Spring.
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It's been cold and wet for the last few days in the Mid-Atlantic. I looked in on Isis yesterday for the first time in two weeks, there were a couple dozen or so mites in the drawer, where her western sisters seem to have all but completely stopped shedding mites back in October. Once the mite drawer is removed it allows ample light in from underneath with which to view the screened bottom board through the entrance. After the demise of the Kthb I've been using this technique to further monitor colony health. Granted, we're talking a pass/fail system here. I wonder how many conventional beekeepers bother to check on the mortality rates of their colonies after the earliest extended stretch of cold weather as it is expressed by the carnage on their hive floors. I have nothing to compare this to other than the condition of the Ktbh earlier and, so far, it's not as bad as that was. . . yet. Isis' screen was stacked with dead bees. Hundreds. I would be surprised, amazed if she survives the winter.

Brigid and Lada, on the other hand, seem to be doing quite well, especially Brigid who occupies the exact location of the prior two hives from the 2010 and 2009 seasons, under a large elm where she catches the very first rays of the morning sun, is situated in dappled shade throughout the rest of the hot summer day and, finally, spends the entire winter in the direct sunlight after the leaves have all dropped. In short, a rather ideal placement - location, location, location!!!

The next point I'd like to make about Brigid is that I'm relatively certain she swarmed back in May, and probably shed several casts since that time. That the Mother of Brigid is a product of natural selection and mated with local bees, probably those across the river from the apiary up on Guard Hill Road, as can be seen in summer coming into town. I've noticed that the bees of both Brigid and Lada have taken on a darker appearance than the bees of the original swarm that came with the packages. This is a positive indication that I'm probably correct about her having swarmed, breeding and I'm encouraged by what I've read that darker bees tend to be more hardy than lighter strains.

The last point I'd like to make about Brigid is that is this hive has never been opened, was not fed sugar or anything else at inception, was not augmented with extra boxes back in the summer; in fact, has had absolutely no human intervention since the package was installed in April, 2011. The bees of Brigid are those that, now well into November, are showing no signs of varroa on the mite board (only shed wax scraps from cappings) and are still quite active on any day when the temperature edges into the 60's. The only thing that concerns me about Brigid (I mean, other than the fact that they were all founded from artificially inseminated and packaged bees) is that she's still only a single cinder block off the ground.
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Date Recieved: 10/21/11
Date Notified: 10/28/11
Apiculture Number: 2899
Sample Information: BEES, COMB (KTBH2011)
COMB - VARROA MITE (Varroa Destructor) AND SMALL HIVE BEETLE LARVAE (Aethina tumida)
Diagnosis By: I.B. SMITH, JR. Date Diagnosed: 10/28/11

The small hive beetle infestation was fairly apparent when I went to render the wax from the comb. I have a small 10 qt. kettle dedicated to wax rendering so I often have to do it small batches. Small hive beetle larvae were everywhere in the plastic bag that I had wrapped the part that I wasn't able to get to immediately. Small hive beetle is the grossest, foulest smelling mess I have yet to see associated with keeping bees.
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There was a day last week that I was up early guiding myself around the yard through the wet grass by a cup of hot coffee I held out in front of me like a lantern against the chill. The horizontal top bar was silent when I passed by, and I imagined the cluster inside clinging to their comb at the ceiling of the hive like a cloud of living steam. "It must be nice to exercise the sense to come in out of the cold and rain", but didn't think much else of it. Thirty feet away the girls of Isis were relentless in their coming and going. Well, as relentless as cold bees can be but, nonetheless, steadfast in their foraging. I checked and cleared their mite board, I don't remember the count specifically but it was nothing I was immediately concerned about, either. I timed the rest of my visit by my cup of coffee just watching them come and go. . .

Yesterday morning was similar with exception of Autumn's mix-&-match relationship with the barometer in Washington, DC. shuffling mild days and clear blue skies with the moody, dank and chilly days like cards in a deck. The bees of Isis, in the frameless vertical tiered top bar hive, with the new and "improved" top-barred double atrium (supered from underneath for spring, and to get the cluster as high off the ground for winter as I could) were as busy as ever. The corpses of a few drones littered "the jungle", the area of the ground in front of the hives where scavengers and predators alike come to break bread provided by the honeybees' roller coaster economy. A single bee with DWV (deformed wing virus) threw herself bravely off the balcony of Isis and trudged fearlessly into the jungle to meet her fate. A less intrepid drone was hauled outby a pair of his sisters who, together, flew him a few yards from the hive entrance and dumped him into the vastness of a lawn haunted by bee-eating birds, spiders, and wasps. The circle of life.

When, finally, the sunlight came from an unfamiliar angle and with my coffee cup empty I decided it was time to head for work. I passed by the Italians in the KTBH and noticed that the drilled entrances along the side were barren and the hive silent. They're dead. . . A beekeeper knows without having to look. I set my laptop down next to my empty cuppa' and carefully raised the lid. I lifted a top bar from the uninhabited portion of the hive and the screen bottom board, even there, was covered thick with dead bees. There was no time to confirm the obvious. I hurried home that evening racing the western horizon for the very last rays of the sun. As with any inspection I began with the first top bar just after the follower board into the brood chamber. It snapped free from the brittle comb running perpendicular to it but I was able to remove a entire group of the next few top bars propolized together as an integrated whole with comb intact, crossing from one to the next representing one of the cul de sacs that bees form instinctively for the purpose of trapping nest scent and heat. The combs were light and completely devoid of stores and mostly of brood, as well. A few capped cells speckled the broad matrix of comb. The rest of the top bars came apart in a similar cluster, attachments for the most part, were limited only at the box's upper edges and minimally to the hive's sides. The condition of these was the same: No stores, no brood, no hope.

I took the beautifully, if deserted, sculpted comb to the hippies around back who sat in a circle by the fire to ask if one of them had a camera. Katherin offered her shitty camera on a shitty phone to document my shitty fortune with this hive in the last shitty light that was left of the day. That's about the time the marked queen, the original from the package, climbed to the outside edge of the mass of comb I held bottom-up, still alive! I was hoping at least that they had swarmed over summer but it was apparent something had been wrong with this colony for a long while. If it was starvation (the lack of stores) that killed them there was certainly something else afoot that prevented them from building reserves throughout the season when the forage was rich. When I divided the tiered hive to add supers the top two boxes were quite heavy and the brood pattern that I could discern from the division was dense and uniform, in fact, the tightest brood pattern I'd ever seen. The Russian packages had originated form a different apiary out of Kentucky, these were from an unknown Georgia apiary. Had I discovered any symptoms with the KTBH earlier I'm not sure I would've chosen to feed them, being the difference between the two colony was so remarkable, so obviously "wrong".

I scooped piles of dead bees from the screened floor of the hive into a nearby basil patch depositing a scoop of a hundred or so into a small jar to be filled with 70% isopropyl alcohol and sent for biopsy to the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center in Maryland. I'd also like to send a sample of the comb with a few of the capped brood intact, but that might have to wait until next week after the queen expires. I put the hive back together, the doomed queen with no (or painfully too few) attendants, and no winter stores to await death. I considered pinching her but I felt that I'm already deeply included in the karma of this colony and, should this experience reveal nothing else, indeed that of all my bees.
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Chuck informs me that two of the eight nucs we placed the reared queens in to are infested with wax moths. I have no experience with this. . . All I know is that wax moths don't infect healthy colonies.

Destroy the comb with brood? Is there a way to clear the bees from the comb, house them in a temporary box with new frames in the same place as the nuc, freeze the original comb (killing the moths and larval bees) then replace the combs with "undamaged" honey and dead everything else back in hive? I also saw a single wax moth maggot in the uninhabited space of the Khtb hive when I went in to give them a couple extra bars. I think the cleaner bees had deposited it over there after removing it from somewhere in the nest. Because of the cross-combing I can't very well get into it to check. At least with the tierd boxes I can access at the individual box level. Not so with God's bees, the "faith colony".

I hope they do okay. . . .

BANV has a meeting Geo Mason Gov Center, 7:00pm. tonight. I don't get the notifications, but then it's not like I have a whole lot to contribute to the conversation about conventional beekeeping.

Well, other than. . .
Why you make keepeing bees so fucking complicated?
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Larval drone bees are ejected from their combs en masse after the nectar flow ends in late summer, 2011
Dear Drone,
I've found something far sweeter than your lollygaggin', goldbrickin', mite covered asses to fill my combs with. . . "
On another day stolen away from the cube farm, J-Man and I returned from breakfast at Wynn's to discover that we'd finally transitioned off the grid, albeit not successfully in the sense that I'd often imagined - Front Royal had turned off the water and electricity at 1006 due to lack of payment. On our way back into town with the check book and Helen's camera in hand we passed by my tiny apiary so that I might garner some solace in the wonderful little self-sufficient communities residing there, ideal little worlds populated with perfectly adapted, hard working, non-offensive citizens who mind their own business, are unfettered with trivial politics and bottom lines, and care for their own from cradle to grave.

Imagine my surprise to discover that the continuum of "cradle to grave" was at that moment being ruthlessly abbreviated for the drone bees of Brigid. A couple dozen pasty white larval bee corpses littered the porch and a dozen more at least were scattered through the rocks and grass around the hive entrance; the freshest of which were being devoured by hungry yellow jacket wasps (the cannibal zombie hordes of the Hymenoptera world). My first thought was that I was witnessing the hygienic behavior indicative of the Russian strain in response to a sudden outbreak of varroa and that these rejects had been singled out due to their cells being infested, but upon retrieving a couple from the porch I was relieved to find that none seemed to have any obvious signs of varroa and that they were all drones. Although I'd observed plenty of instances of worker bees expelling adult drones from the hive at the beginning of periods of dearth I'd never before seen them culled from their cells in the "purple eyed" stage in large numbers, as these were. Apparently, Mother Nature's okay with abortion when it's for the greater good of the host organism, and where the choice is theirs'. Okay with the choice but not particularly proud of it. . . I was stung taking the picture for this post, where I can generally stick my nose in the hive entrances without repercussion. I'm just glad she saw fit to level her attack at me and not the boy I was carrying in the sling over my shoulder. I'm not ready yet to find out whether or not he's allergic to bee stings.

Almost an hour later, back from the hike into town to settle up with the Company Store, I go back for a follow-up visit with Brigid to discover that the porch had been completely cleared of the carnage as if the eviction had never happened. These are the kind of oddball events that I too often miss out on by being a "commuter" beekeeper.
"There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention." ~The How-To-Do-It book of Beekeeping, Richard Taylor
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The following series was brought to my attention by Wisteria Kae, thanks for sharing!

Part 1:
(notice how when they identify a weak hive they switch the location with a stronger hive to bolster the weak hive with returning foragers from the strong hive. The conventional beekeeping method is to replace a frame from the brood nest of a faltering hive with one containing open brood and eggs from a stronger hive.)

Part 2:
(care and feeding of your coil woven, reed stitched, cow dung plastered skeps & managing swarms)

Part 3:
(catch swarm! because I need to more reasons (and time!) to sit around the yard staring at my bee hives!)

Part 4:

Part 5:
(moving skeps to the heather moors)

Part 6:
(sulphuring bees! so much for low-impact!)

Part 7:
(honey pressing)

Part 8:
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Just like Frank said, grafting is simple. Pull a frame of open brood and eggs from a favored hive and gently extract a few dozen small C-shaped larva from their cells and float them off the tool and into primed cups and put that frame into a nuc with bunch of nurse bees, pollen and honey. The "A-Ha" moment was when Frank Jr. showed me explicitly what a 4 day old "egg" looks like and where to find them - This is when I wish I had the camera. The rule, as best as I can explain it: Select a frame of open brood and eggs from a colony that expresses desirable traits such as hygiene, gentle temperament, productivity and disease resistence. On this frame brood is generally organized into little patches where the older brood is toward the center becoming gradually younger in a spiraling pattern outward until you come to what's mostly freshly laid eggs standing upright in the cells toward the perimeter. Reversing the spiral pattern, look a row or two of cells back toward the center to find eggs that are just starting to "lie down" in the cells. Yeah, they're the ones that are particularly hard to see.

Four dozen harvested eggs yielded 20 accepted grafts after 2 days (that's an almost 40% return. . . not shabby!) I attribute much of the success for the frames I grafted to having the sun at my back and using a cheap little plastic Chinese grafting tool that uses a little spring action plunger that pushes the egg along with a small glob of royal jelly off the end of the scoop without rolling it (eggs that are rolled suffocate). Those frames were transfered into "finishing nucs" which are placed over top of production hives divided with a queen excluder. Tomorrow we'll go through and populate the eight nucs that Chuck's assembled (this is part I'm concerned about) with frames of brood, pollen and honey from his production hives. Assuming we put two queen cells in each (a sort of insurance policy against failure) we'll still have a few queen cells left over.

Neat stuff, but very work and schedule intensive. I'll probably get better (but probably not more definitive) results from making "walk-away" splits to expand when I'm ready. A post for another day.

Although my camera's still in the shop, Helen's replaced it with a Nikon D60 digital SLR (not to be used at the bee yard!)
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1 gallon baggie feeder atop a wooden skepNow that we're clear on the rules let's talk about breaking them. "A swarm in July ain't worth a fly" goes the adage but I'd gladly take one if it showed up on a fence post or as a nuc from a friend. The challenge is in getting a cast to build sufficient stores to overwinter and that means feeding them, and since they're new bees without stores of their own that requires feeding them sugar syrup, and a lot of it! That goes against rule #9 Don't feed bees. . .sugar!

We're going to use refined white table sugar. Stir equal volumes of sugar into water, warm to help dissolve but avoid boiling the sugar. Caramelization will make bees sick, as will natural impurities like the molasses in cane sugar. Add a couple tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a little wintergreen oil, some lye for bees, or bee meds (if that's how you roll) and spoon the mixture into the 1 gallon baggies leaving a small air bubble. I built the simple shim that houses the baggie from untreataed 2x4's to match the footprint of the hive, but could be made of anything rigid enough to support the roof and solid to keep out scavengers. Push a couple of holes in the top side with a sharp tack and flip the bag over onto another empty, flattened plastic bag of the same size. This limits the rate of flow and routes the leakage to the edges of the lower baggie serving more bees at the same time, allowing them to take the syrup at their pace and not channeling it all over fresh comb, possibly chilling brood.

This extra room goes just above the crown board (the wire mesh) that covers the top bar grid. Directly above this would go the quilt and then the roof. It's easy to check on every couple of days to get a feel for how fast they take it (they'll be putting a lot of in cells, too!) and it's a good idea to wear a veil and maybe smoke them (if that's how you roll) because bees have access through the mesh, assuming ¼ inch mesh.

You might think of feeding your bees if you got a late start and are using big clunky langs (60 lbs of store to overwinter a 10-frame is recommended). It's one of the beautiful aspects of using the frameless "chimney" hives is that the cluster requires less stores to overwinter (< 30lbs.) Any package started before early June in a chimney hive is probably set for the winter. I used a gallon of sugar syrup per package to stimulate wax production when I established the skeps in late April right as the flow was getting under way. Shortly therafter both colonies started to ignore the baggies and I removed them a couple weeks later still almost half full.
This is the time in northern Shenandoah when the bees will start transitioning from putting away more than they consume to cutting into stored nectar. If I had taken honey this season I'd probably be feeding now to hedge against the possibility of dearth later in the season. I'll harvest honey in the Spring after the bees have spent the winter thriving on their own stores and I get to keep what doesn't get used. I've also heard that it's a good idea to let honey season in the hive over the winter.

Dogs willing. . . .
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#1 Use organic practices

#2 Strengthen bee immune system instead of "attack and kill" (an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure)

#3 Insecticide-free hives (bees are insects!)

#4 Bees draw their own comb (smaller bees emerge sooner than mites)

#5 Obtain genetics from swarms and nucs, "survival of the fittest" as opposed to mass-produced queens where weak hives are medicated

#6 Swarming is a natural way to good genetics

#7 Local bees have adapted to local conditions

#8 Stop moving bees

#9 Feed bees honey, not sugar

#10 Bees should forage on a polyculture flora, not monoculture

#11 Stop using insecticides on crops (A single bee returning to the hive covered in insecticide can kill an entire colony)

#12 Raise hives off the ground at least 30" **** (Cold doesn't kill bees, moisture kills bees)
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It was already late in the evening (or rather, very, very early the following morning) after arriving in sweat home Front Royal from an extended weekend in Philly for the 4th, Momma and J-man were curled up together in bed and I could not sleep. I quietly collected the little kitchen flashlight and stole down through the backyard for a peek at the hives at a time when the bees of Lada and Brigid were most unaccustomed to my observations. Although in a smaller sense than Brigid had cast her swarm earlier, Lada's bees were bearding thickly on the front porch with the contented roar of a hive busy making honey. . . and preparations! The guard bees at the periphery of the cluster were quite active for this time of day (I guess) and were increasingly willing to fly into the night or, at least, into the fading beam of the little flashlight as I stood in the sweet, warm, floral scented breath from the mouth of the hive. I switched off the tiny beam and stepped back a few feet sensing that my presence was becoming disruptive.

Over my shoulder just a few degrees above the southwestern horizon I saw a peculiar "star" shimmering brightly where I'd never noticed one before. Granted, I'm not astute enough with astronomy that I'd notice a star here or there out of place but this one attracted enough attention for me to stand and stare for a while like any other hillbilly at his first UFO sighting. The star had a odd multi-colored shimmer to it that, at first, I attributed to the angle at which the lower (therefore, thicker) atmosphere tends to distort light on humid evenings. First blue, then yellow and, I think red, as I don't "get" those frequencies of light very well due to a mild red/green color blindness, and the lights didn't blink in a regular interval like the markers of an airplane. Instead, they displayed a cluster-like behavior such as one might observe from a giant distant disco ball and was suggestive of a random pattern of rotation. I looked closely at its position in regard to a distinctive cluster of trees on the horizon and two visible stars flanking the strange lights to try and determine a trajectory, assuming that it must be a satellite.

After a couple minutes of blinking and eye rubbing I discerned that the object was indeed moving but in a completely different manner than I'd ever seen any other airborne object or creature move before. It hovered gently in a tiny space between the other stars almost like a wasp caught inside bubble, or the twinkling focus of a laser pointer spelling out long lines of text one character directly atop the next. I watched the thing for twenty minutes or more before getting almost bored with its antics to go inside and post crazy updates to [stupid social media site] about watching a UFO from my backyard at 2:30AM.

When I came back outside a few minutes later to look for the thing from the original spot in the lawn I had marked by leaving behind the little flashlight it was still in the same general area of the sky between the two stars. As I watched, trying to recognize a pattern within its gentle hovering bounce, I notice that it was also slowly drifting further away from me, not only in relation to the trees but also that the lights were becoming dimmer and, I assume, more distant. Soon it was practically to the point where I could barely make the distinction between it and any other star in the night sky. I waited patiently only to see it return to what appeared to be very close to its original position when I first noticed it. It continued the tight little hovering motions which, at times, very much resembled the waggledance as performed by honeybees through which they communicate the location of nectar and pollen sources to their hive mates. Eventually my UFO drifted off into the distance, whether the outer or orbit or merely over into West Virginia to hassle some other hillbillies there. What better place to test secret military technology than over the once wild, craggy hills of West, By God, Virginny!
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Translated directly from German: Nest scent heat trapping. First described by Johann Thur as a "sauna" of anti-microbial propolis:
During overwintering with no brood, the average temperature of the middle of the cluster is 22–25ºC (~71 - 77°F). In contrast, the normal brood temperature is 34–35ºC (~93 - 95°F). . . But the average air temperature is well below these limits. Brood and bees are essentially without their own bodily warmth. The difference between the temperature of the air and that required by the bees has to be produced by the bees themselves throughout the entire year, summer and winter. Their fuel is honey which they have to consume greatly in excess of their bodily needs in order to produce heat. For example, in accommodation with enclosed natural comb, the winter consumption in the six months from 1 October to 1 April comprises about 2 kilograms, whereas in the conventional, heat-dissipating framed hives, 6 to 8 kg or more are needed. This excess consumption within six months of, on average, 5 kg per colony is purely excess consumption in maintaining the very essential minimum temperature.
(Now, consider your own home throughout the year without air conditioning or heat).

Framed hives destroy it.
". . .as a result of the spaces between the combs being open on all sides, the nest scent and heat escapes, and with it the germ free, disease-inhibiting scent-substances. The honey supers situated above multiply the wastage of the nest scent and heat. Each time they are extended more is wasted. And when on top of that the hive is opened, the nest scent and heat floods out. Certainly in naturally constructed nests – for example in hollow tree trunks – there is comb a metre long on occasion, but never empty honeycomb above the brood."

Also, my camera is broken and that makes me feel like an amputee.
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I would love to take advantage of Sarah's clearence sale except that I have no available equipment to house frames in unless I can construct something suitable from scrap lumber. Needless to say, I have reached my budgetary limits for beekeeping this year and, honestly, budget is my primary constraint right now. Chuck's been very generous in his material support and he and I are trying again this year with making nucs, and have been in a constant state of setting aside nuc-worthy frames with extra queen cells, etc. when we find them. It's something of a standing objective when we inspect his hives it just hasn't born any fruit yet. Hence the packages. . .

Chuck advised early on in my beekeeping career that it was very common for packaged bees to re-queen themselves so the issue with non-local, bee mill genetics is something that we've been aware of and working at for the last two seasons. A couple of the nucs he and I made last year were meant to be for me to expand my meager apiary or replace potential losses, but we discovered at about the same time I found my hives dead that our nucs had also failed, as well as 3 of his 7 established hives. The singular advantage of packages is that they reliably show up at the doorstep on schedule. After that, it's a gamble. Just as Mike Palmer said, "It's not about the Russian strain or Carniolans, etc. . . it's about starting with the bees you already have." Admittedly, I haven't gotten even to that point yet. It's a shame to admit that after 2 years I still haven't really "kept" a bee. Chuck suggested the Mike Palmer lecture, found through someone at the BANV (Pat Haskel, maybe?)

Even as I placed that order for my shakes this year I knew that it would be the last time I bought packages, hopefully indefinately, even if that meant throwing in the towel. Fortunately, we've since connected with Frank Tilco in Ft. Valley who's been raising queens and over wintering nucs for a few years, now. So, barred anything catastrophic, Chuck and I can obtain nucs and/or queens through him next year, if need be. It's the breakthrough that neither of us had been looking for! Had I met Chuck a couple months earlier than I did I would've started with 8-frame langs and mooched a nuc from his stock that had been doing well for 2 or 3 years prior and probably would've enjoyed something like instant success, and never would've looked further into any alternative methods for hiving bees. My further exploration has been spurred on by these early failures, and I'm okay with that! I'm okay with failure.

I guess you could call my approach holistic. Certainly unconventional, which is why I haven't really clicked with a beekeeping group yet. Having too many people telling me I'm doing it wrong and I might actually start to believe them rather than asking the question of the universe and the bees, themselves. It becomes discouraging and stifles creativity. I do consider the hive to be an integral part of the colony's super-organism, its exo-skeleton, and a have a sneaking suspicion that it's far more important than "just a box". The concept has fascinated me since I recognized the pattern of my own losses. I never saw any of Chuck's dead outs, but with mine it was always the same - whatever other problems they might've had, a diminishing winter cluster would eat their way into a distant corner of an otherwise well-stocked frame but were unable to work their way back across the 'desert' in the event of a cold snap. Whether it was from freezing or starvation, I suspect the 10-frame lang was simply too large a space for a small, perhaps weakened, cluster to heat efficiently. Fixed-comb does away with dead space created by frames and allows the cluster to work upward into the bubble of warm air that naturally pools at the top of the hive cavity while keeping the stores liquid and edible. It was a simple idea, inexpensive to initiate, totally organic, closest to the natural cavity and when I learned that it was also illegal I simply could not stop touching it! What's more is that it pre-empted me giving up beekeeping all together, which was where I was right before I discovered it, having no inherent faith in packaged bees and no other options on the foreseeable horizon. Call it providence, but I feel obliged to ask the question, even though it does lock me in to it for a season, even if the outcome remains the same. And if it solves my short-term challenge - the ability to over-winter *any bees* at all - then I have the green light to look further into queen-rearing. If they still die then Frank's offered a locally-reared alternative and it's on to the next bottleneck!
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

~Al Einstein

Skill and Persistence!
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homemade observation hive made from standard 2x4 lumber and a couple sheets of plexiglass Chuck and I went to visit Frank in the Ft. Valley last week and he loaned me his homemade observation hive so that I could take measurements and whatnot to make one of my own. Sure, I don't have any framed hives, but suspend your disbelief.

Comprised of six 2x4's, a couple sheets of plexiglass, and a handle; some holes drilled (Frank suggests fewer than he has here) screened closed and a couple of brackets to support the frames, the design is simple and inexpensive. Frames are taken directly from the "donor" hive, ideally the frame that the queen is found on, and should be returned to their original hive at the end of a day.
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cross comb in a Kenyan top bar hive I really have no idea how people work these top bar hives. Clearly I've a lot to learn. Upon lifting the first bar it was obvious that these bees don't give a rat's ass for guides or order anything beyond their own. I couldn't really tell from here how extensive this pattern was throughout the hive so I closed it back up on this end and started at the other end of the hive where the follower board divides the space. . . .

cross comb in a Kenyan top bar hive When I established this hive I put in a couple of top bars in this end (roughly the middle of a ~4' hive) which had been drawn and harvested with "well-formed" comb and a couple others with guide strips in place. Oh, so this is where they drew their inspiration! Clearly, not from any serving suggestion on my part. . . But then, what do I know about organizing a brood nest? A lot to learn. . .

cross comb in a Kenyan top bar hiveIt is also fairly apparent that Brigid has swarmed. Without opening the hive I guess that I'm missing 6 to 10 thousand bees. Last week the daily temps were in the upper 90's and they looked mostly like the photo, only worse. This week in the mid 80's there's nary a bee on the porch that isn't coming or going and the lemon yellow comb has been drawn all the way from the ceiling to the floor (almost) and is visible at the entrance of the hive, Hell, the entrance of the hive is visible!!! Lada appears to be well on their way to doing the same. Godspeed, ladies! Go forth into the world and do some good!

I can't say that I wasn't warned that Russians had a particular tendency for swarming. That, their hygienic behavior and a gentle temperament are what attracted me to give them a try to begin with. Plus, it's not like I had plans to take any honey from them this year anyway. This is the year of quiet observation and laissez-faire beekeeping; not trying to control everything; asking rather than demanding. I only wish I could've been present to recover the leavers. That was a prodigious set of ovaries that took to the wing.
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The bees of Brigid beard heavily across the front of the hiveIn all hives there is a inexplicable lack of evidence for varroa. I've build each hive with screened bottom boards that are either wide open or have a simple drawer for capturing hive junk. Granted the season is still young and varroa really don't start getting bad until later in the summer but with prior packages I'd still find at just about every stage of the season some evidence of varroa (usually the actual mites, themselves) even though I had no idea what I was seeing at the time. On Lada I've installed a diy sticky board that's covered in (vegetable oil) wax scale, ants, pollen gobs, flecks of flotsam that would require a microscope to identify but not a single mite. The only possible exception was a dead bee I found on the porch of Brigid, there were no mites on her although she was tiny but otherwise not deformed; and a bee from Isis that was suffering from a shrunken abdomen (something I've seen prevalently in the dead-outs) that I've come to associate with the virus transmitted by varroa, as if being a blood sucking fiend isn't bad enough by itself. They're not completely pest-free, though. A couple of weeks ago when I removed the baggy feeders from under the quilts I did see a single small hive beetle in each of Lada and Brigid (the Front Royal hives) but nothing of the sort in Isis (Annandale, where there're just ants). Here's hoping that those were isolated individuals imported with the packages and not something that's gained a foothold. A small hive beetle infestation is a nasty mess, much like a corpse full of maggots. But that's actually part of my top secret agenda in keeping bees, maintaining a bee population that eventually comes into balance with their pests. The first couple of years I let them do what it is they do. This means if Brigid wants to swarm then they'll swarm. If I can recover the swarm so much the better but the idea is to observe what feral bees do in natural settings.

From a lecture by Mike Palmer in Centreville a couple months ago and again at the screening of Queen of the Sun I've made contact with the Prince William Beekeepers Association, particularly Karla Eisner and her ongoing efforts at queen rearing and over wintering nucleus colonies. Fascinating stuff here! And I think this work is absolutely imperative. She's invited me to come out and look over her shoulder at some point soon when she plans on setting up the nucs for next year. In perusing her report I've wittled my own efforts down to a single purpose that wasn't exactly clear when I started in the very early, cold and dark days of the year, and this is to:
Keep a few colonies of bees under as close to feral conditions as possible with minimal intervention or human interference and with the intention of bringing a (packaged) colony with, perhaps, a less than an ideal genetic basis through the average mid-atlantic winter season.
The packages being the majority of my expenses, this model fits my diminutive budget and to attempt raising queens in the manner described by Karla would've been economically infeasible for me this year. That said, the majority of my bees are in wooden skeps and I'm unable to even inspect the hives, much less harvest eggs and royal jelly that are required in her work. Even if I knew how to rear my own queens I have yet to see one of my colonies prove worthy to be increased. This may well be due to the fact that these colonies were all started with packages to begin with.

It makes perfect sense that inferior genetics from mass produced and artificially inseminated mothers would have a hand in the the silence of bees, and that locally adapted and naturally bred mothers would have an obvious advantage. But it's kinda like that episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye and Honeycut patch up the injured soldiers just to send them back into battle being which for the bees are mono-cropping, pesticides, and genetic pollution (GMOs). However, over-wintering nucs and breeding local genetics is really the only aspect of the decline where we can exercise some control.

Chuck and I talked about the possibility of he and I overwintering a couple nucs this year and came to the conclusion that this was also imperative. He agreed to donate the eggs and the frames of nurse bees. I'd make some yogurt and prepare a couple of modified 10 frames deeps to cobble together some duplex nucs. I think the only other things we need are the queen specific stuff, grafting tools, cups, funky queen frame and to work out a schedule. Like brewing some of the this stuff needs to be done at specific intervals. We have about two weeks to get things together before we need to make a serious attempt at harvesting some eggs. In the mean time the "managed feral" model colonies here will have serve as the control until the they express the traits desirable for increasing and not just a knack for dying on Christmas.
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I thought, from the reflection on the trees in my peripheral vision, that what I was seeing were the lights of an emergency vehicle. I glanced up in time to see a large meteorite streaking across the western sky over Front Royal lighting up the trees in the backyard with its bright yellow corona and blue green tail that extended half way across the visible night sky. It was gone in a second. I listened for an impact and braced for a shockwave that never materialized.

The bees of Lada and Brigid were bearding around the entrances in the still, muggy night air. A couple thousand, or so, congregated there on the front porches fanning hot air that smelled of lemons and butter out of the hive and the mellow hum of their wings had a quality not unlike a purring kitten. Could it be that I'd been looking for the eternal buzz in the wrong sources all these years?
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