Archive for the 'Insects' Category

To Feed or Not to Feed the Bees?

Author: Meera, September 15, 2015

Mid-September is a time when beekeepers check their hives and consider the prudence of harvesting more honey or leaving it as well as whether or not to feed the bees. Honeybees, like many living creatures on our planet, need food and water to survive.



A honeybee alights on a fountain, searching for water

A honeybee alights on a fountain, searching for water



My wise beekeeper neighbor tells me that the hive needs to have sixty pounds of honey to make it through winter. He’s feeding his bees now a mixture of sugar and water.




black plastic feeder unit inserts fit directly into a hive like frames

Division board feeders are black plastic feeder units that fit directly into a hive like frames



The sugar-water inserts are black plastic holders that get inserted right into the hive in place of a frame. They are rigid enough to hold the sugar-water but pliant enough to swell outward, so conventional wooden frames of honey and wax help them stay in place. The downside is that bees can drown in these feeders. And if the beekeeper lets them go empty, the enterprising bees will just build comb and honey inside them.



There are several kinds of feeders–all with benefits and also drawbacks. For more information on feeders, see:



Closeup of a division board feeder unit

Closeup of a division board feeder unit



Last year, I didn’t take honey in the fall. I wanted to ensure the bees had what they needed to survive after they’d been through yet another summer of drought. There aren’t a lot of pollen-rich flowers to be found now. However, star-thistle still dots dry hillsides of Contra Costa County (where I live) and particular eucalyptus species that the bees like are blooming now.



I’m hopeful that this will be the last year of drought for a while. Weather forecasters say we have a strong El Nino that’s formed and will likely bring rain during our rainy season (November through April). That will be good news for the bees and those of us who love to plant flowers in our gardens to attract pollinators. But until the wet stuff starts coming down and new pollen sources are abundant, we beekeepers need to keep a close watch on our industrious little honeybees.






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Pulling Honey–A Bee-eautiful Sight to See

Author: Meera, July 28, 2015

Nothing compares to the reward of pulling honey from a hive when you are a beekeeper. Over the last two days, this is what I’ve done with the help of my world-class beekeeper neighbor who knows more about keeping honeybees than anyone I’ve ever met.




Honey bucket with strainer taped on and bits of wax in the honey on top

Pictured is a Henny Penny Farmette honey bucket with strainer taped on and bits of wax in the honey on top



His wife helped me scrape off the bee glue from each frame and then open the capped cells (a must) before draining the honey. We then used their machine that can spin twenty frames at a time. It has an electric motor and a control to increase or decrease the speed. Use slow speed to begin and then when the frames grow lighter, you increase the speed.



In all, I spun four hive boxes full (ten frames each), except for one box that had fewer because we left two frames behind in the apiary. They still had babies in them.



Honey streaming from the spigot of the electric power-driven centrifugal force spinner

Honey streaming from the spigot of the electric power-driven centrifugal force spinner




We taped fine-mesh filters over the tops of several five-gallon buckets. To spin the honey out of the first eighteen frames took many hours, from noon to about ten o’clock at night.  We left the machine spigot open all night to allow the draining to continue into the bucket. The filters caught bits of wax and even the occasional dead bee, ensuring the honey would be perfectly clean and ready to bottle.



I drained honey from the ten frames in each of my hive boxes–two of my hive boxes held the large frames and two held smaller frames. In all, we spun and drained enough honey to fill three five-gallon buckets and about one-fourth of a two and one-half gallon bucket.



Honey drains from the plastic container

Honey drains from the plastic container holding the wax we uncapped from the cells




Not a bad yield for a fairly young hive and during summer in a drought year when pollen-laden flowers are not be as plentiful. It’s a bee-eautiful sight to see!



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Ants in the Freezer . . . Seriously?

Author: Meera, July 23, 2015

Well, this is embarrassing. I found ants, a big pile of them, in the bottom of the freezer side of my double-door  fridge. I thought it was a mound of spilled coffee grounds. But that made no sense. Why would ants venture into the freezer in the first place. Crazy as it seems, I have an idea.



A knife is used to uncap wax cells to allow honey to flow from the frame

A single honey frame with wax and honey . . . right out of the hive box



A few weeks ago, my beekeeper neighbor told me about a little trick to sterilize frames before putting them into the hives. He said after I have drained a frame of honey, I should hang it outside in a tree near the hives for the bees to clean (they will eat the honey but leave the wax).


Then, I should put the frame of wax in a freezer so that any tiny pest like the larva of a wax moth or mites or ants will be killed.



After 24 hours, I can remove the frame from the freezer and store it until I’m ready to put it into a hive box. When I harvest honey, I can easily replace a honey-filled frame with an empty frame that has been sterilized in the freezer and already has beeswax. It’s less work for the honeybees to use that frame for brood or honey. Sounds good, right?



Well . . . I wrapped two frames with aluminum foil before putting them in the freezer. But I got lazy and just inserted one frame into the freezer without first wrapping it. It seemed very clean–just white wax left by the bees after they had devoured all the honey.



The unwrapped frame I put in my kitchen freezer must have leaked a drop or two of honey that I didn’t see. It drew those ants. Serves me right.



Now I have a designated freezer to be used only for honeybee frame sterilization. It will stand outside on my patio. I’m pretty sure the ants won’t be visiting my kitchen again. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.



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Increasingly, a growing body of science points to the role of bee-toxic pesticides (specifically neonicotinoids) in the global decline of the honeybee populations.



Healthy bees on a frame

Healthy bees on a frame



Lowe’s Home Improvement stores announced it will begin to phase out neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics are a class of pesticides harmful to bee health) as soon as suitable alternatives become available. The retailer will also provide customers with more educational materials focusing on pollinator health.



Home Depot has pledged to begin labeling plants on which neonicotinoids have been used. Other retailers are responding to consumer concerns as well.



East coast-based BJ’s Wholesale Club intends to require vendors to label plants free of neonicotinoids; otherwise vendors must label plants on which neonics have been used with a “caution around pollenators” tag.



Ten other retailers in states from California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Maryland have plans to limit or eliminate neonics.



A study published in the Journal Environmental Science and Pollination Research revealed that there is clear evidence that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides are a key factor in honeybee decline.






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My neighbor, a world-class beekeeper whose honey sells to many specialty markets and also Whole Foods, told me today honeybees in backyard hives in our East Bay communities are hungry. He has put out two five-gallon cans of sugar water to feed his bees.


I drain two frames at a time in a five-gallon bucket

A frames of honey in a five-gallon bucket



Interestingly, I’ve noted bees at my hummingbird feeders also usurping the sugar water meant for the hummingbirds.



The honeybees do not make honey from sugar water. They just consume it to have energy to forage for pollen and to cool the hives on hot days. The drought means people are watering less; flower gardens and local landscape are dry, and in places the clay soil is cracking open. Bad news for bees.



Weatherwise, it’s been triple-digit hot and then cold and cloudy. I guess the bees will adapt but old timers say, “A swarm in July means bees go bye-bye.” This isn’t the right time for swarming.



My hived bees are loud and energetic.  The bees faked me out with a small swarm about ten days ago and then returned to the hive; and now they are eating sugar water for energy to gather what pollen they can find to make honey. The honey will see the hungry hive through until the star thistle and the fall eucalyptus blooms. I’m torn between letting my bee-loving flowers dry up to conserve water, but I don’t want to lose my bees.



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What to Do When Ants Invade the Honey Bucket

Author: Meera, July 6, 2015

My five-gallon honey bucket with the spigot makes it easy for me to fill up a jar of honey for friends or family. For easy access, I keep it on a round table in the kitchen.



A single frame produced eight 16-ounce jars of honey

A single frame produces eight 16-ounce jars of honey




Yesterday morning, I went to refill our own empty jar and noticed ants on the exterior of the bucket. It has a lid on it, but not too tight-fitting, so I held my breath and pulled off the lid.



Removing the lid, I found the ants had infiltrated it and hundreds floated in the honey. Imagine my dismay.



I consulted with my beekeeper neighbor about what to do with the now-unusable honey. Much to my surprise, he said save it. He told me to put it in the freezer (the one specifically used to freeze frames and therefore kill any pests we can’t see on the wax before returning those frames to the hives). So the bucket with the ants went into the freezer I keep on the patio.



My neighbor says the ants will die. The bees can then eat that honey when there isn’t enough pollen around, for example, during the winter. It’s a win-win . . . except for the ants.



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A False Swarm . . . Sort Of

Author: Meera, June 23, 2015

When I heard my neighbors banging on a pan with a wooden spoon, I sprang into action. It is what we do when a honeybee hive swarms.



Healthy bees on a frame

Healthy bees on frames



As it turned out, my bees had swooped from the hive with their queen into the front yard, past the plum tree and were circling above the blood orange. My neighbors, who were in their courtyard, saw it and began the banging to confuse the bees so they would alight close to their home.



I ran out and, with direction from my beekeeper neighbor, placed the hive near the orange tree. I’d already placed eight frames with wax and my neighbor brought over two with honey on the comb. All seemed to go as planned. We shook the tree and the bees dropped into the prepared hive.



My neighbor went home, and I went back to my computer and the novel I’m writing. Thirty minutes later, the bees were swarming again. I ran out and banged on the pan. They settled down. All seemed well, except for ants that had been in the orange tree and now were in the hive box.



Frames of honey, fresh from the hives

Frames of honey before the wax caps are opened and the honey is drained or spun out



Around nine o’clock at night, I sprayed the outside of the hive with Windex and wiped it with paper towels. I repeated the procedure around the perimeter of the box, replaced the lid, and carried the hive box back to the apiary believing all would be well. It wasn’t.



This morning, I ran out and suited up in my beekeeper’s outfit and gloves, opened the new hive box, and looked in. To my dismay, all the bees were gone.



My neighbor later told me over coffee that the bees had likely returned to their old hive as small swarms sometimes do.  So . . .  I suppose I may be repeating this whole scenario at some point in the days ahead. My neighbor reminded me that the weather has been strange, and the weather affects the bees’ behavior.



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How My Real Life Informs My Art

Author: Meera, November 29, 2014

Every story needs a setting, a world in which something happens. For my cozy mysteries, I didn’t set out to create a new world for my coterie of characters, I just appropriated details of the life I am living as a farmette dweller.




Spring beekeeping involves rescuing swarms

Spring beekeeping involves rescuing swarms, which can be quite dramatic



Daily chores on our Henny Penny Farmette provide plenty of fodder for my fictional stories. Our daily activities include chicken care, garden and orchard work, beekeeping, cooking and preservation of vegetables and fruits, renovating the antiquated farm house, fixing sheds, and building fences and retaining walls.



Stories need a sense of verisimilitude for readers to suspend disbelief and join the fictional journey. Drawing upon my real-life experiences, I can easily integrate my adventures in my books. And not only my activities, but also experiences of my architect husband who is ever-occupied with making our old house more liveable.




Henny Penny Farmette house in 1953

In this 1953 photo, our little house sat in a great, big field with not much around it; the dwelling faced Mount Diablo (still does) and the Delta and great central valley lie to the northeast



The tax assessor told me that our dwelling might have been a mining shack in the late 1940s (we live near Mt. Diablo and Lime Ridge where mining and rock quarrying were once important industries). We’ve also been told that our little house might have later served as a farm home (we live less than two miles from designated agricultural farmland). The structure desperately needed updating when we found it almost five years ago. But as settings go, the house and farmette work great.




Creating a pattern for insertion

Creating a pattern for the kitchen counter back splash



We have since used recycled and reclaimed materials, sale items at big box DIY stores, and gifts (like lumber, stone, and windows/doors) from friends who do demolition on estates. We’ve visited companies that sell granite and asked for permission to take broken stone from their dumpsters. Thus, we’ve created a lovely bathroom floor with found materials that we’ve cut and sanded.




Light from a crystal chandelieradds drama to such a small space

Light from a crystal chandelier dances off the new granite counter, but the floors were not yet installed when this photo was taken



Of course, the exact details of our daily activities may not make their way into my stories, but versions of them sometimes do. At the very least, such activities inform my storytelling. I daresay the chickens and bees serve important roles in my mysteries. And each new day brings new adventures, from foxes showing up to skunks and raccoons raiding our fruit and nut trees.



Lately, a new chicken showed up on our property (a heritage chicken that had the ability to fly over my neighbor’s fence). She’s been staying here ever since. Wild turkeys often take a path through the property and once or twice a gorgeous stallion named Romeo and its owner ride by and say hello. Such events can add textural details to the setting of a story.



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Honeybee Hive Pests Include Real Vampires

Author: Meera, October 25, 2014
Massive swarm captured in a hive box with ten frames

A super or hive box with ten frames




Every beekeeper wants to keep his or her hives healthy. Staying on top of your bee’s health means early detection and treatment of pests in the hive such as Varroa mites, trachea mites, hive beetles, and wax moths.



Varroa mites–these small reddish brown pests are akin to tiny vampires, feasting on your bees’ blood. Non-medicinal approaches to treating for these mites include introducing a screened bottom board. Mites fall through and cannot re-enter the hive to reattach to the bees. Also a powdered sugar dusting of your hives’ top bars can dislodge mites.



Tracheal mites–these pests are more difficult to detect. My beekeeper neighbor showed me infant baby bees with partial wings and said he believed it was the work of tracheal mites. To rid your hives of these pests, you’ll need to use menthol crystals and grease patties.



Hive beetles–if you see an insect with a hard, small black shell in corners and dark places within the hive, you may have hive beetles. They devour bee brood, honey, wax, and pollen. Treat the soil in front of the hive and inside the hive, you can try hive beetle traps or treat chemically. The infected honey will be rejected by the bees and should be considered unfit for human consumption as well.



Wax moths–these nasty little creatures can been seen in honeycomb and leave a silky trail over your hive’s hanging frames. If you see evidence that they’ve tunnel into the wood, know that you’ve had the infestation for a while. Wax moths will weaken a colony.  Treat the infected hives with moth crystals formulated to eliminate wax moths in the hive.


Hives that are frequently checked their beekeepers stand the best chance for having healthy colonies of bees.



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Building A Honeybee House

Author: Meera, June 23, 2014

For my birthday this year, my husband surprised me with some practical beekeeping gifts and a promise to build an attractive bee house to hold our hives. In a plastic, five-gallon honey bucket, he’d placed a beekeeper’s suit, goatskin gloves, and a smoker.



Honey bucket makes it easy to drain honey into jars

A honey bucket with a spigot makes it easy to drain honey into jars



This weekend, he made good on his promise. Although the temps hit 85 on Saturday and Sunday, he suited up in a lightweight beekeeper’s topper with protective netting over the face and got to work measuring, cutting, and securing the waterproofing material, hammering it in place.


With the waterproofing material attached to the roof and sides, he then covered the structure with old fence boards. But it wasn’t easy to mark the cut lines wearing gloves much less cutting the boards with the arm and table saws. He peeled the gloves off.



The bee house access is through the rear; the upper story holds a supply shelf

Beekeeper access is through the rear; the upper story holds a supply shelf; bee entrances are at the front bottom



Now, I know one thing about honeybees. Knocking at their door (say, with a hammer) will bring the guards out and they’ll sting . . . which they did.


My husband was on a mission and wasn’t about to let a bee sting stop him. He rubbed the spot with an ice cube, refused to take any Benadry®, and returned to work. But, not before donning some gloves.


But the gloves he put on weren’t beekeeping gloves. They were gardening gloves, good for deadheading roses but not much of a defense against venom-filled stingers.


So, for a little additional insurance against any more bee stings, we lit the smoker to calm the bees a bit. My husband was nearly finished working around the entrance to the hive when one of the honeybees apparently took notice of the fabric portion of the glove and stung right through it.


Even then, Carlos didn’t want to stop working.  Only two metal roof sections remained to be cut, placed, and secured along with a shelf for the supplies. But it was sunset. The bees were going in for the night, and we were working in their flight path. We decided to call it a day, too.



Bees need about six feet of unimpeded space straight in front of their hive entrance

Bees need about six feet of unimpeded space straight in front of their hive entrance



The bee house roof will need to be finished before the rainy season starts in November. The good news is that the bees won’t bother Carlos if he stays in back of their house or on the roof. Activity at their front door sends an alarm through the entire colony that a predator is trying to get in. The honeybee defense is to go into attack mode, even if the “predator” in this case is the architect who designed and built their darling little house.


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