Hive work – Spring is coming

Outside the coyotes that live on Frenchman’s Hill are hollering at the full moon. They’re so loud I can hear them down cellar where I’m painting hive bodies under shop lights. We’re all waiting for spring. . .

hive deeps or supers

I’m making some changes to my beekeeping practices in 2013.

1. 10 frames in 10 frame boxes. I used 9 frames for years – the idea is to make the boxes lighter and easier to heft. “Nine-frame” adherents insist that the bees don’t mind the variation in the bee space; the precise distance between structures that bees require for their comfort zone. This year my partner is interested in helping out so I won’t be lifting 120 wooden boxes full of bees and honey by myself, and my experience suggests that the bees DO mind the extra space, perhaps especially in our Northern climate.

2. Full-sized, or “deep” supers. Hive boxes come in three sizes: small ones specifically for the honey harvest and meant to be rotated out quickly during the nectar flows in spring and fall, medium boxes for longer term honey cropping and extra living space, and “deeps”, the largest size, meant to be the colony’s living space. I’ve been using only small and medium – again for ease of moving them around. Deeps can weigh >150 lbs fully loaded with bees, larvae, and food stores. Unfortunately, nuc boxes contain large frames, and transferring a “deep” size frame into a medium hive body requires stacking boxes to accommodate extra length. It’s not an elegant solution. This year I know in advance that I’m getting 2 nucs from Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan and have planned accordingly – 2 large supers painted “vanilla” and ready to go!

2. Stencils. You’ll notice that both the supers in the photo are the same color of exterior latex paint. I generally throw a few strips of duct tape on one of the hives to differentiate it to the bee population, but this year I’m going to be more purposeful and plan a decoration, perhaps a stencil? Or this. Wow, there’s a lot of choices out there – now I feel very inadequate about all those years of duct tape!

Winter bees

The blog was off line for a few days while we worked to update the database. Sorry about that! To celebrate our return (and hard-won triumph over WP2011) here’s a post about bees. It’s also a convenient way to get back to everyone who has commented and emailed lately about suggestions for hives to survive the Maine winter in good shape.

hive wrapHive wrap is great stuff, but I can’t give you much real data to back that up. It’s possible that any black covering would suffice to keep in as much heat as possible. Many Maine beekeepers still swear by tar paper but I find it tough to work with and I hate driving nails into my hivewear. Commercial hive wrap has a layer of insulation on the inner side and is dotted with tiny holes to keep moisture from building up against the wood. It’s easy to handle, fastens securely with a little duct tape, and will last 5 seasons or more if you don’t let the mice get to where you store it in the summer. I do know someone who slaps a coat of black latex paint on his hives once the bees are fairly dormant and paints them over white again in the spring. That seems like a lot of work to me. Increasing the hives ability to absorb and (possibly) store heat is the big idea – let me know if you have something that works for you?

shim and entrance reducer

There’s a nice steady stream of bee traffic into the upper entrance of the second hive in this photo!

Ventilation is important, particularly at the very end of fall and late spring, when daytime temps spike and then drop precipitously at night. They say that dampness caused by condensation in the hive is deadlier than frigid temperatures. I use a screened bottom board (all year round) and a top entrance shim to allow air movement. The hives are also tilted forward just a little bit so moisture that collects on the inner cover runs forward and down the front hive wall instead of dripping on the colony. Note the metal entrance reducer on the front hive in the photo to discourage mice from invading a weaker colony.

newspaper insulation

I didn’t chose this article on purpose, really.

 I wrap the hives, then remove the Beemax feeder (I leave this on all year as well) and add a layer of newsprint in the space formed by the top shim. Don’t extend it all the way to the edges, so that the bees can easily move around it when you’re feeding liquid sugar. It absorbs moisture and provides a little draft-proofing. I find it is generally wet through when I take it off in the spring. The bees will chew on it but it doesn’t hurt them – newspapers use soy inks these days. Put the feeder back on and lap the hive wrap over the edge, put the inner cover and telescoping outer cover on top, weight the whole thing down with a cinder block on top, and your done! Until it’s time to feed the colony on that warm day in early March. . .

May showers bring June flowers

That’s how the saying would go if the poet had lived in Maine. Flowers here in April are few and far between, especially when the bergenia has an off year. (I think of bergenia as indestructible, but it was a poor performer in 2012.) By May, we have:

Isatis tinctoria, Dyer’s woad. The leaves produce a blue dye famous in olden times, until it was supplanted by indigo. The blossoms are always full of bees.


Papaver alpinum, alpine poppies. Short-lived but amazingly generous in self-seeding everywhere.

papaver a

Hesperis matronalis, Dame’s Rocket. Another generous volunteer year after year.

Hesperis m

Tree peony, unknown variety because I bought it at Marden’s, our local salvage chain. The box was labeled as a yellow flowering type and I imagine that’s why it ended up there for $5.00. This plant has been growing on an exposed hillside for 15 years and has 15 buds on it this spring. I hear the peonies in the Emperor’s garden had 100 each. . .can’t wait.

peony covered in beeeeezzz

I think the buds look like strawberry ice cream cones.

single scoop

Centaurea, cornflower. This particular plant has proven a little too generous with the re-seeding – and it’s difficult to weed out, so I can’t recommend it. On the other hand, the bees love it in the morning. I’m still going to try to limit it’s range next spring.


Bees in a Bag

Three weeks ago we hived two new packages of bees from BeeWeaver Apiaries. The weather here has been unseasonably cool and rainy – even for Downeast Maine – but the bees are thriving.

two hives

There were a few dozen bees left in the box after I installed them, so I bagged the delivery box and stored in our hoop house to give them a fighting chance to make it through the cold, rainy night. The next morning I set the box down near the hives and slit the front open. Bees spilled out almost immediately and it looked like they were headed to their new homes (that’s the black garbage bag to the right of the hives in this photo).

two hives and a bag

I admit it might have been asking for trouble to leave the bag sitting there until Saturday. I have a day job, OK? Cut a girl some slack. When I came to dispose of the bag and empty packages I found that bees had moved in and started building comb. The bag was FULL of bees, lots of traffic in and out, loud buzzing, the works. They weren’t happy with me for trying to pick up their new home so I didn’t get a good photo, but you can see a patch of lovely golden comb in the bag’s opening. I’d estimate the bag weighed 5 -7 lbs.

bag o bees

I put together a new hive box, waited till late afternoon when everyone was home, and installed them (bag and all) into the new location – making sure they were oriented the same way. We’ve had another few days of rain but today, in the bright sun, there is heavy traffic in and out of the hive. They are friendly and social and don’t seem to be testy at all – a good sign since I don’t know this colony. The neighborhood children who named the other hives “Avocado” and “MilknHoney” have named this one “Surprise!”.

new home

The 2012 dandelion crop is spectacular.

dandelion harvest

There was a bee on every flower. Plenty of bee fodder in the alpine bed too: heaths, heather, and rockcress.

alpines heath heather rockcress

Bees in boxes

Co-worker Carl meets the BeeWeaver bees that were delivered to the office at noon today. The UPS driver was funny; “You want these inside the office? Really?”. It was pouring rain out there so yes, he brought them into the conference room for everyone to admire.

bee box

The bees did very well in transit considering the long haul from Texas in the rain. I sprayed them lightly with sugar syrup and HoneyBHealthy and loaded them into the car for the trip to the island.

There was an hour’s respite from pouring rain and dropping temperatures at around three this afternoon. (I work for a very understanding organization that’s all about flexible time off for agricultural crisis so I was home for a day.) I’ve been cleaning equipment and stockpiling sugar syrup for a few days now so was all ready to load up the smoker and hives some bees.


Where I ran into my first problem: what to do when the boxes are fastened together for ease of shipping? I tried levering them apart, but there are 3 deeply sunk staples in each of those cross pieces. I finally just opened one box and a time and emptied them into the hive as I would normally. It worked out fine – I think the bees were happy to have a warm dark place to dive into to – but I don’t know as it was the most elegant solution. Are you supposed to use a saw?

Almost everyone was in their new home by four o’clock. Now it’s 39 degrees F with a possible low of 25 and wind chill to 16 so I’ve tacked a skirt of insulation around  the hives to cut down on the air circulation around the screened bottom board. I checked on them a few minutes ago and can still hear the cluster loud and clear inside the hive, with very few bees lingering outdoors. The top feeders are full of sugar syrup and they’re as protected as I can make them.

active hives

And there will be peach tree blossoms to find tomorrow.

red haven peach


Bees continued, and some sorrel

I jumped the gun – to be fair, so did UPS – and our bees were not delivered today. They might not arrive until Monday or Tuesday of next week, which wouldn’t be a bad thing because the weather forecast is for cold and stormy weather over the weekend. We’ll see if my UPS tracking number changes status over night.

Meanwhile, there’s sorrel in ready in the garden.

sorrel in the garden

Time to pick a whole bowl. . .

bowl of sorrel

And process in a food processor with olive oil, garlic, sea salt and a few toasted pine nuts.

sorrel pesto

PS Just got notification – bees tomorrow!



Bees tomorrow!

Our new boxes of bees arrive tomorrow, UPS overnight from Bee Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, TX. We had originally paid for shipping via the US postal service, but BW is disappointed with the 4-5 day delivery time this year and upgraded us to UPS – which is newly certified to handle live animals. I hope my regular UPS gal likes bugs. She can bench press 250 and I’d hate to piss her off.

I think we’re ready for the new colonies. The hives, named Avocado and MilknHoney, are all set up. . .

bee hives

I have 2 gallons of sugar syrup laced with Honey B Healthy, my bee suit, a spray bottle of syrup for spraying on the boxes, the smoker is full of fuel, and the garden is full of heather and rock cress in bloom. My coworkers can’t wait to “meet the bees”, and I can’t wait for company in the garden. You can’t imagine what fascinating garden companions they are until you have a hive of your own.

bee food

Has anyone seen my hive tool? It’s here somewhere. . .



Paris Botanical Garden

I sat down to write a post on the tradition of burying one’s heart separately from one’s body – no, really – and was then distracted by the opportunity to visit Le Jardin des Plantes. Thank heavens, right? Turns out the gardens are right down the #5 Metro from our apartment, it’s a beautiful April afternoon, and admission is free.  I couldn’t resist.

So, this post is dedicated to SP, ChK, LF, KW, CT, and all my other  friends who commiserate with me about the poor dirt and harsh climate where we garden in Maine. Take a look at what 28 hectares of managed soil, mild weather, and 400 years can do.

avenue gran

They’re a bit further on into spring than we are, too.


This is their Sargent Crab. This Japanese variety is notable for nearly horizontal branching.  I have one of these too – the trunk caliper on mine is about two inches.

Sargent crab

I remembered the French for bee – Apis – and had a halting conversation with one of the staff about apis and miele (honey). They don’t have hives at the Gardens because too many visitors are allergic, but they have begun to foster orchard mason bees and other wild pollinators with “bee hutches”.

bee hutch

I wandered around in the conservatories for a while, past figs, bananas and date palms, through the orchids and into grasses and succulents. At one point I had the whole place to myself; I guess it was just too nice a day to be inside even in a place like this.



I found “Jardin de Roches” on the map and correctly translated it as a rock garden. I was expecting dry succulents and small arid plantings, but this turns out to be a very nice garden filled with very big rocks. Specimens from the Mineral Bibliotech that are too large (way too large) are arranged out of doors here with polite signs asking visitors not to sit on them.

rock garden

Beds of poppies were everywhere. The staff will begin to dig them out and replace them with summer plantings next week, as the roses begin to leaf out in the alles. Later this year they’ll be installing webcams so that, although we have to leave tomorrow,  I’ll be able to check in on the new plantings.






First garden update of 2012

The thermometer in the woodbin – under cover and without any influence from the spring sunshine – read 54 today. The Eagle Aboriculture crew dropped off three yards of bio-soil at the head of the driveway yesterday in the cold March rain, but it was warm and full of insect life this morning. I picked out red worms, pill bugs, and one large black beetle as big as my thumb in the first few shovel-loads.

D as in dirt

The raised beds directly in front of the house were planted with tomatoes last year. Then Hurricane Irene rolled through mid-season and soon every garden on the island had Fusarium wilt and the plants turned black and died. I won’t be able to plant tomatoes there for a few years so today I put in Giant Winter spinach, Green Meat radishes, and salad greens. The garlic I planted last fall is sprouting and will come up between the seedlings as the weather warms. Had to go rooting around in the boat shed to find the hoses to water everything in and then find the Agribon floating row cover.

Soon, radishes

The heather is in full bloom and full of tiny native pollinators, but sadly, not my honeybees. Mice attacked one hive, and when I dislodged them they evidently invaded the other boxes as well. No old colonies this year but I have two new ones on the way from Bee Weaver in Navasota, TX this spring. I’ll buy some metal hive entrance guards too.


Sorrel is my first real harvest in any year, maybe just two weeks away if this mild weather holds.


The alpine poppies are coming right along too. They bloom early, perhaps the first pollen for the new bees in late April. I remember buying these from Thompson and Morgan. The catalog described them as “rare but hardy, shy and difficult to grow”. A decade later they have seeded themselves in every stony nook and cranny of the yard – I have to regularly coax them out of the driveway and the cheery orange blooms are under foot in every path. Hardy they may be, but not so rare around here.

alpine poppies



This winter has been an odd season in Maine. Every storm that might have brought an insulating blanket of snow has made rain instead, an endless mud season. We’ve had cold nights lately but yesterday it was warm enough to check and feed the bees. It was a little breezier than I’d like, but sunny days with temps in the low forties are rare enough when I’m off from work that I felt I had to take advantage.

This year I’m feeding granulated sugar mixed 1:1 with organic (no GMOs) corn syrup. It’s much easier than cooking just the granulated sugar down to candy, and I’ve read research that indicates some added value in the composition of corn syrup, particularly for spring feeding. This being a discussion involving beekeepers there is, of course, a dissenting opinion or several. I’ve decided to try out this new mixture as long as I have a source for the non-GMO corn syrup and a small number of hives. This would be an expensive way to feed a larger operation.

I brought my equipment down to the hives at 1:00 pm yesterday. The hives were still in the sun  – not much shadow with no leaves on the trees – at the temp was 42 F. I went to the first hive and took apart the telescoping cover and the layer of newspaper insulation, popped the inner lid and dozens of bees boiled out at me like water from behind a dam. I was so shocked that I dropped the full baggie of syrup onto the frames and pulled the inner cover back down while I backed up and tried to brush bees off my ungloved hands. I was wearing my suit and veil, fortunately, but I never work with gloves unless I know in advance that a colony has been hostile. “Pistachio” has always been a very social, forgiving colony but with a large population near the end of their food stores they were defensive and easily aroused.

I found my hive tool and used it to brush 8 stingers off my right hand on my way back to the house to regroup. The old adage is true –  try to brush the barb away from your skin because squeezing it releases more venom. Guard bees followed me for about 50′, trying to get past my veil and generally harassing my retreat. Now that’s a vigorous winter colony!

I gave them half an hour to settle down and then suited up (with gloves) and returned to the bee yard to put the telescoping cover back on Pistachio and check a few more hives. There were no bees out – it’s possible that they had already found their food. I popped the cover on the next hive, Vanilla, and the insulating layer of newsprint had been chewed on – a bad sign. I lifted the inner cover and sure enough, a field mouse was looking back at me from between the frames. Cute in other circumstances, mice make a mess of the hive innards. Bees can usually defend against rodent invasions but Vanilla had been a rather quirky colony from the start and I wasn’t all that surprised to lose them.  I took apart the upper sections to chase the mice out over night and will take the rest of it apart this afternoon to start the long process of making the boxes habitable for a new colony in a month or so.

This morning I’m paying the price for being stung. It’s not as painful as stings I’ve had to the scalp although the swelling limits my  mobility a bit. In five years of beekeeping this is only the second time I’ve had multiple stings over a small area, but it does happen. Lessons learned. . .

ow ow ow