Friday, June 27, 2014

The Easy Way

-Posted by Isaac

So if you want bees and you need them fast, you can always go buy them.
About three weeks ago that's exactly what we did. Back to Georgia, back to Gardners...
First, I thought we just had to take a morning with babysitter Libby and get all the previous year's packages cleaned up:

I knew that we'd get a little money on returns and thought that they'd appreciate these boxes coming back in primo condition.
After a few hours of cleaning I got the bright idea to call my beekeeper friend Dave Heilman and ask what Gardners was giving for returned boxes this year...
"Zero. Nada. Zilch. They quit doing that. Too many damaged boxes, and they can build them cheaper then cleaning them up. Now they just throw them on the burn pile."

Oops. Sorry kids.
They made a nice Ohio bonfire. Super clean.

The reason for the trip (this late in the year) is that I had a Florida nuc deal fall through. 120 nucs (baby beehives) made it up here right on time, April 15th. But I had needed 260! I had requested 260! The rest? They wouldn't be coming until mid-June. I was originally told mid-May. Communication was becoming a real issue with this deal, and three more weeks of uncertainty was just too much. Time to change plans.

So I hit the road on a spry June 1st afternoon having ordered 100 packages from Gardners. I had called five different places in Georgia and Florida, Gardners being the only one able to fill a larger order that quickly.
An hour or two in, it dawned on me that this route was hauntingly familiar. At least this time I wasn't driving through a snowstorm.
I elected to take our small piece-of-crap Ranger. Why? Better gas, better radio... and beyond all reasonable expectations, the truck just refuses to die.
Here is the West Virginia state capital seen through my busted and bird splattered windshield:

The irony was not lost. At some point on the trip it did occur to me that the cargo was worth way more then the motorized courier. Like 10 times as much! Really, I had no business hauling bees in that piece of junk. But it did the job. And it will still go 85 mph. Downhill.

I arrived a little early and had the chance to watch my order being put together.
Here are the queens:

These guys make fast work of it.

There were about 20 employees running around the day I loaded up. Four crews are involved with the shaking of package bees. Each crew has a truck and a swinger:
Everything seemed to run like a well oiled machine.
Which is what you'd expect. They had been at it for about three months. One guy told me that Gardners sold some 60,000 packages this year!

On the flip-side, they also do honey. I nosed around a little while and found the honey house:
A crew of four was in full swing.
Outside, a pile of broken frames gave a few scattered hives a delicious Georgia breakfast:
Sure beats grits!
In the office, Gardners had a line up of honeys from around the country:
They don't have to seek these out. Customers bring them! There are at least 100 bottles up there, honey of all types. I would love to sample some of these.

Well, I know what at least two of them taste like...

1500 miles in 36 hours. Long trip, little sleep.
I did sneak a few hours in before the big day of package installation. 100 packages in a single day makes for a long one, but the first 40 were easy:
These 40 hives are building up in Holmes county (Amish Country) at the moment. We took them up last week to work a couple patches of buckwheat which should be coming into bloom very soon. We'll keep you updated on this experiment as it unfolds.

So there you are... the easy way of making increase, albeit expensive.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Hard Way

-Posted by Isaac

It's not all fun, games and complaining about things here on the bee farm. At times we've actually had to work. One of the most pressing and important jobs in the spring is making increase. Meaning, building up our hive count. Why?
Before last month's tirade about farm chemicals, you'll remember I was going off about another subject-- the dreadfully cold winter. And the corresponding bee death. We lost a lot of bees!
I found this picture in Smithsonian Magazine:
Look closely at where that icy blue plume is sitting. This was our second polar vortex.
Wow. Go figure.
The only logical conclusion: God hates the Midwest.
And our little honeybees too!

So we needed to build up our bees.
There's an easy way and a hard way to do this. We do both. This post is about the hard way: making splits.

To start, you need a queen.
No, a decent laying queen is not always necessary. You can graft, you can introduce cells, you can make a "dirty split." (Forcing the bees to make their own queen)
But in this area, middle of May, a laying queen is the way to go if you want to catch the summer honey flow. We give the California based Koehnen company a lot of business.

The queens can go to the bee yard with you, but you don't want to leave them in the hot cab of the truck.
Don't Do This!
Keep them cool in the shade... but not directly under the truck tire!
 I have cooked queens. I have run over queens.

The equipment for the new splits gets laid out first. This was a yard of 17 decently strong hives.
I ended up driving off with 14 decently strong splits.

I really enjoy the actual splitting process. I offhandedly commented to Jayne one evening about this-- "It's one of the few things in beekeeping that isn't dumb repetitive labor... splitting takes a little skill, a little experience."
One of my favorite jobs and I love it.
Every hive holds its own surprise. Sometimes you're surprised with a big early box of spring honey!

Sometimes the surprise is an unbelievably awesome queen.
Dan Williams has been showing off his brood (strong queens) on Facebook. Thought I'd show you one of mine... she can rival the best of them:
I pulled a frame thinking, wow... good pattern, no swarm cells...
Pulled the next frame--- even better!

At this point I was thinking, Man... I'd really love to meet this girl...

Pulled the next frame. Lo and behold:
"If you got the money, honey, I got the time!"
This hive was definitely a splitter.
Making a strong split involves three or four frames of brood, some pollen, some honey... and it's sure nice to know where the queen is.
Sometimes you find her, sometimes you don't.
The new queen obviously goes where the old one isn't.

It's important to record what you've done:

What the devil?!??

What is this strange cryptic beekeeper code?

About three hours later-- all done.
Hive count is on the increase and another bee yard is out of swarm danger.
For now.

Next we'll look at the easy way of making increase.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Angels and Prostitutes

-Posted by Isaac

Last year I had the pleasure of sitting in the audience while a beekeeper named John Miller gave a talk about his operation. Here he's promoting a wonderful read by Hannah Nordhaus:

Yes, Miller is somewhat famous. In the small world of beekeeping, that is.
He's also funny and very insightful. He got talking about pollination and the great service that honeybees do for humanity.
"Bees are known as the 'angels of agriculture.' That may very well be... but it doesn't fit us... their keepers. If bees are the angels, I'd have to say beekeepers are a closer fit with prostitutes. The dirty whores of agriculture."
Miller walked back and forth across the conference room, clicking powerpoint slides in quick succession. He was talking about pollination season in the California almonds.
"See if you follow me: -We're dirty. Most of us, I mean. Showers and suits are not on top of the priority list, you know?  -We frequent cheap motels. -We come and go at any ungodly hour of the night. -We work by night, we're gone by morning. -We take their money for services preformed. -And we like quick cash..."
He had the audience laughing. He had me thinking back about my own California almond experience. Yep... the prostitutes of agriculture.

I for one, enjoy the work. I really do. It's kinda hard when you're not set up with hives on pallets like we were in California. These days every hive is lifted by hand, put up on the truck.

And it really is an all night job, as Miller alluded.

But it's important. I love the feeling that what I'm doing matters. Without bees in the orchards, the vegetables, the nuts, the berries... there's a lot less of the good stuff in the diet. Pollination is a valuable service. And it's not like there's a beekeeper around every corner with a couple hundred hives. So it's nice to feel needed.
This year we took 120 strong hives into the apples:

At the Lynd Fruit Farm the trees were a few days away from bloom.

Most of the hives were scattered throughout the orchard on hay wagons. Here, and at the Bachman Fruit Farm.

The bees worked diligently.
Between sun,
and moon.

A little apple pollination perk, courtesy of Lester Lynd:
Thanks, Lester!

The bees returned home after a couple of weeks. Just in the nick of time for our flowering crabapple.

Another sweet perk of apple pollination:

Strong hives! Many were heavy with honey.

Some of the hives were taken directly to the out-yards where we hope they'll make a good crop of spring honey. Others were promptly loaded back up about a week later and taken south.

The Bainbridge area has a large Amish and Mennonite settlement. And these folks grow a lot of produce.
Ah, those Happy Industrious Mennonites.

Much of which needs bees.
I spent an enjoyable morning driving around with Mr. Zimmerman, placing bees on vine crops.
Beautiful area.
Most growers knew exactly where they wanted the bees.
One guy was ready with a hive stand:

And these guys left little doubt:
Hope they work hard!
The bees, I mean.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hating on Bayer

-Posted by Isaac

So here's the stuff that seemed to work:
This was put into the planter boxes in order to better "stick" the pesticide onto the corn seed when planting. Put out by Bayer, it is an honest effort to decrease the "already low chance" of a bee kill. And, of course, it's another product to sell.
Let's applaud them for that.

Now some problems.
After my little bee kill I started really looking into the seed treatment issue. I studied the history. I learned about the specific chemicals. I made calls to beekeepers. I talked to the experts at Crop Production Services. I learned a lot of disturbing things... more than I really want to summarize in a blog post. I found that the Bayer Corporation is the biggest player in this arena. The Neonicotinoid arena. They actually invented the stuff.
During all this investigation the latest issue of Bee Culture Magazine came out. I start flipping through, lo and behold, guess who's promoting the virtues of the honeybee:
Although I was skeptical, it was good to see Bayer joining another big player, Monsanto, with some involvement in the bee industry. (Involvement that didn't entail the wonderful production of coumaphos and fluvalinate, two of the most bee harmful mite treatments.  -"Committed to Bee Health for 25 Years!")
I read the article.
I thought, wait a minute!... read it again.    
In this article Kim Flottum outlined the many projects Bayer was undertaking to promote bee health.
Why is Bayer doing this?  Hmmm. Because they care? It is an expense after all. $2.4 million for the building alone. I started to really wonder... read the article again!
Not a mention of even one project involving neonics!
This is absurd! Why is the (informed) public mad? - Neonics! What are beekeepers screaming about? - Neonics! What has been banned in Europe due to pollinator kills? - Neonics!
What's going on Bayer?

It fact, you go to the Bayer website, it's hard to find much at all on the subject. A few denials. A few goose chases. Many redirections to, according to them, the real cause of bee troubles-- varroa and nosema. What a laugh!
Bayer has a hugh PR campaign with beekeeping. But it's LIP SERVICE! (As you might have guessed from the #1 maker and seller of neonic insecticides.)
How much did that Bayer Bee Care Center cost again?  $2.4 million
How much did Bayer make last year in neonic pesticide sales? $3.5 billion

Reading the PR and looking into a few of the Bayer products, I did come across several mentions of the  neonicotinoid ability to target "non agricultural" insects. As in... this systemic insecticide kills nematodes but not honeybees.
Now that's some extraordinary science.
If you're simply befuddled about how this is accomplished, let me, a former science teacher, try and clear things up:
See, a honeybee comes flying along and...
HONEYBEE: "la la la la... Hi ho, hi ho... la la la la... Oh yummy! Soybean nectar! This will certainly make some mild, bland summer honey for Master Isaac.....   la la la la... Ew, yuk! Corn pollen. Gross! Well... maybe just a little...
NEONIC: "Stop right there, little bug! Agriculture or non agriculture? Papers?
HONEYBEE: "Um... what?"
NEONIC: "You heard me. I'm gonna need to see some ID. Pronto"
HONEYBEE: "Um, ok, let me see here... um... I must've left it back at the hive. Sorry. I'm just so busy, you know... ha ha... busy as a bee.. get it?"
NEONIC: "Must kill."
HONEYBEE: "Hey! Whoa! Lay off, man! We're cool..."
NEONIC: "Must kill babies."

You get the picture.
It's a systemic insecticide! It kills insects! No questions asked.

Here's a five minute review on neonics.

Where is corn planted? Everywhere mid-west. Soybeans? Everywhere mid-west. When did neonic chemicals become used widespread? About 2005. When did colony collapse happen widespread? About 2006. This is not a coincidence! Commercial beekeepers have been pointing at and screaming about neonics for years.
In Europe they did something about it. Here, we're still trying to "pin point" the reasons for pollinator decline.
I mentioned Jim Doan in a previous blog. If you have the time (45 minutes), listen to this very disturbing interview.

On second thought... don't... it will ruin your day.

I got so steamed up I actually called the man himself. (He's not so famous that little ol' me can't talk to him...) We had a good conversation. One thing that stuck: He repeatedly said,  "You have to get your bees out! Leave!" (Montana, here we come!)
"Listen, you cannot survive as a beekeeper when the entire landscape is poison. Simple as that. Corn pollen is poison."
He mentioned encapsulated pollen:

 "Are you seeing more of that these days? What do you think is underneath of that wax? Corn pollen. Poison."

Side note for our customers:  (We collect our pollen that we sell for consumption in the fall, not mid-summer when corn is in pollen)

I didn't feel great about our talk. I felt sunk.
"Commercial guys are actually pulling frames of pollen out."
This is just wrong. Pollen... the very thing bees desperately need to make more bees and survive the winter.

Here's something from the Bayer "fact sheet". You'll be reassured to know that: NEONICOTINOIDS NOT LINKED TO BEE HEALTH ISSUES

If fact, Bayer points to the continued bee problems in Europe as proof that restriction on the neonics was the wrong thing to do.
Ok, clothianidin on corn seed has a half life of around 1100 days! It was used in Europe before being outlawed. I can't imagine why bees (or beekeepers) would still be having problems. 

Another skit:
BEEKEEPER: "Got brain damage."
BAYER CROPSCIENCE: "Sir, your claims and wild allegations of this "head trauma" are completely unfounded. The alleged 'beat down' you speak of happened a full three years ago. And besides, I only took two or three swings."
BEEKEEPER: "Still got brain damage."
BAYER CROPSCIENCE: "You look fine to me.  The doctors on our payroll say you're just fine, and even those other doctors, those independent ones, say you've still got full function of at least 30% of your brain."
BAYER CROPSCIENCE: "Everyone knows that baseball bats are for baseballs. See, it says right here on the label, 'Hard on Balls, Easy on Skulls' We all know THE LABEL IS THE LAW."
BAYER CROPSCIENCE: "In your interest, and because We Care, we have generously donated toward your unfounded claims. Haven't you heard about the new Beekeeper Mental Health and Insane Asylums we've been building? Sure! It comes from .001% of the revenue from our sale of Beat Down Bats... I mean (cough cough) Baseball Bats.
BEEKEEPER: "Um... ok"

Alright, I'm tired of this. All this hating. It's June. It's lovely out. I've learned too much. The rant has run its course and I'm done.
Next I'll fill you in on what we've been doing in the meantime.

C'on, Dad,
Dont Hate,