Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Swarm

I mentioned before that the hive we call Big Brown started out as a captured swarm. In this post, I'll share how we caught that swarm.

A very nice lady who lives about 10 miles away called our beekeeping association on April 29, 2012. She had a swarm that about 20-30 feet up in the air and hoped someone could remove it. Her neighbor used to keep bees, but had lost his hive. He had left the equipment in his yard, and Nancy had noticed that a new hive had taken up residence that spring. Then she saw the hive swarm in the morning of April 29, and the cloud of bees perched in her tree. She knew that local beekeepers caught swarms, so she called our club.

The club put out a text message to the swarm call list, and I responded. Eric and I drove to her house in the late afternoon with our bee gear, a cat litter bucket to shake the bees into, and closed box to transport the swarm back home.

Once we got there, we realized the swarm was too far up for us to just shake into a bucket. It took a little time to come up with a plan. After a trip to Home Depot to buy another bucket, a paint roller (which gave us a large hook), and a telescoping handle to put the roller onto. It was quite the McGivver operation, but it worked!

Nancy took pictures of the effort. It was quite a challenge to get the swarm, but we managed to capture most of it and put it into the box. We left the box there overnight to let the rest of the swarm find their way inside, and the next day, we taped up the whole works, drove it home, and installed the hive into the brown boxes where they have lived ever since.

Eric is setting up the ladder as I get the bucket and pole together.
This gives some perspective on how high the swarm WAS.

Eric is standing near the top of that large ladder, and using a tree saw to cut the branch beneath the swarm.
I'm on the ground, moving the bucket underneath to catch the swarm as it falls.

The majority of the swarm landed right in the bucket! You can see it as a dark shadow.
We lowered the bucket and temporarily put a lid over it.
Then we used the cat litter bucket to get the rest of the swarm as bees returned to the cut branch. 

After we caught the swarm, we put shook the buckets into this swarm trap and shut it the top. The boxes had frames with drawn combs and some with foundation.
We hoped this would convince the swarm to stay put until we could move them. 

We weren't able to shake all of the bees into the box,
so we put the buckets near it, pointing toward the opening at the bottom.

We noticed the box had a little extra room that the bees were using as a second entrance.
But the bees there were also fanning, which is the bee signal for "come here!"
Bees who had been out scouting for new hive space were coming back and were joining the others.


We left all of the equipment overnight at Nancy's. When we came back the next evening, it was clear the bees had stayed put.  We taped up the box, covering the entrance and the "secondary" entrance at the top, loaded the whole works into the car, and drove it home.
These bees have really thrived. They are hardy and have now survived two winters with us. Additionally, they boom in population and really pull in quite a bit of nectar. Last spring, they were so prolific, we had to split the hive once to keep it from swarming, which resulted in Little Brown. I suspect that we will have to split it again this year.

The moral of this post is: If you ever see a ball of bees hanging out in a tree or a bush, especially in the spring to early summer, don't try to kill it! It's probably a swarm looking for a new home, and it will be gone within 24 hours. If you want to help it along, call your local beekeepers and someone (like us) will come out to get it and take it to a lovely new hive box.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Q is for Queen Bee

Two queen cells on the face of a comb.
Cord Campbell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Last weekend, Eric and I spent about 2 hours inspecting our hives on the first warm day where we had the time to do so. We knew three hives had survived the winter, but we wanted to make sure that each had enough room and that the queens were alive and laying eggs.

When we tore down the dead green hive, it was quite clear that the hive had lost its queen--the bees had made many queen cells, which are distinctive. I didn't get any pictures of the cells we found, but this photo from Gord Campbell shows how the cells hang from the comb to accommodate the queen as she develops--she's much larger than worker or drone bees.  The green hive had dozens of these cells.

Big Brown as a swarm, in a photo
sent to us by Nancy.
It was in her backyard.
In a working hive, sometimes it's hard to spot the queen. She's one bee out of thousands, and most queens don't like to be disturbed. It's usually enough proof for us to find eggs because eggs hatch in 3 days or less. But, we really wanted to find each queen and see with our own eyes that she was alive and well.

We started with the "big brown" hive, which is farthest from the house. The brown hive actually started out as a feral swarm we caught in 2012 (that's going to be my S post in a couple of days!), and it has been a prolific hive. It tends to boom early in the spring and wants to reproduce. In fact, we saw that happening last spring, and took out the queen cells, which resulted in Little Brown, our 2nd hive.

When we opened up Big Brown, we saw they had already started to fill the top box with nectar, proving again that they are quite the active starters. We had to go down to the 2nd box from the bottom before we found the queen. Unlike most queens, she didn't try to run and hide. She just
kept laying eggs and working on the frame, completely unperturbed that she was being held 4 feet off the ground so the paparazzi could take her picture. Once we found her, we closed up the hive, and moved to Little Brown, next door

The queen is actually the bee with the dark thorax, which looks like a big black dot in the lower third of the picture. She's much larger than the other bees, but you wouldn't know that from this picture because she has her abdomen in a cell, and is laying an egg. If you look in the right, center, you'll see a bee that looks like it is ALL eyes. That's a drone, the only male in the hive. He's larger than the workers, but he doesn't sting. 
Before we got into Little Brown, I went in to try to find a fresh camera battery. Of course, I have no idea where the charger is, so I decided to limp the camera along (I succeeded). When I came out, Eric was talking to a guy who had stopped when he saw Eric in his bee jacket. Rolando wants to keep bees and had lots of questions. Since we have a couple of extra jackets, we invited him to put one on and watch the rest of the inspections. I might be the professional teacher in the family, but Eric certainly loves to teach people about bees!

Little Brown wasn't as quick to start storing nectar as her mother hive, but she was working. We ended up finding the queen in about the same location as we had in Big Brown. Little Brown's queen wasn't as unflappable; she stopped laying, but didn't immediately head for cover. She let me take some pictures of her, and then we closed up that hive, too.
Little Brown's queen walked around and let me capture her next to her daughters. There's most of a drone in the lower right, which gives a pretty good idea of the relative sizes of queen, worker, and drone.
The white hive, which started as a nucleus hive we purchased from Pat Haskell of the Bee Keepers of Northern Virginia club, has been with us since 2012, too. She and her husband Jim raise bees out in Luray, at their mountain house, and teach beekeeping classes. The green hive, which didn't make it through the winter, was also a nuc hive we bought at the same time. If you had asked me which I thought wouldn't make it, I would have said the white hive. But they are still plugging along.

The hive hadn't really filled much of the 4th box we had added a week earlier, but they were clearly about to have a population boom. We found lots of capped brood inside in the 3rd box. The queen was located down in box two, and ran around a bit. These have always been a "runny" hive--they don't like to sit still when we inspect them. I still managed to catch her for a couple of quick pictures before we closed up the last hive.
The White Hive queen has different coloration than the others. I love how varied these bees are.

We're going to watch Big Brown pretty closely, and will probably add another box to give them room to store more nectar. Now that the weather has warmed up, all three hives are making the most of the emerging flowers. I caught them working the purple deadnettle and dandelions this week. I hope this bodes well for the honey harvest this year.



Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for mornings...and more

This is my spring break week. But, as I'm a graduate student in addition to a teacher, I have been working. So, I've kept to some of my routines. One of those is early mornings. Sure, I take naps (N is tomorrow, and I could wax on and on about naps), but I'm trying to keep to roughly the same morning schedule.  As I'm married to someone who isn't a teacher, I have extra incentive.

My plan was to get a shower after Eric left for work around 6 a.m., and go to the local Starbucks for coffee and writing time. I have a draft of a paper due tomorrow, and I've spent the last two days reading, thinking, and researching. Once Eric left around 6, I figured I could get myself together and be productive by 6:30 or 6:45.

My morning plan did not
include a yogurt container
in the cup holder...
That's not quite what happened. Instead of sitting at the local Starbucks, I found myself driving this yogurt container to a Civil War battlefield near my house at around 6:45.

This morning, Eric got up around 5, and I stayed in bed with the cats while he showered. Abi likes to spend a little time letting me know he's happy to be alive by yelling and purring at me, and I like to indulge us both before I get up to feed him. Once he was fed, I got some things together for Eric's lunch, and saw him off. So far, all was going according to plan, and I went upstairs to get a shower.

When I went into the bathroom, I noticed Penny lurking near the door of the office and extra bedroom. Our split-level house is pretty compact upstairs; almost everything is line-of-sight up there. Abi hadn't finished his food, which we keep in the office behind a baby gate that Penny doesn't seem to know how to jump. She will sometimes sit in front of it, so I didn't think much of it, until she started flipping out and diving around. To my surprise, when she calmed down and turned around, I realize what she was playing with had been the live mouse she had in her mouth.

Standing naked in my bathroom and watching my 13 year old cat walk by carrying the live mouse she just caught was not in plans. Suddenly, I went from calm, competent teacher/graduate student/adult to squealing child. I honestly didn't know what to do. All I knew was that if Penny dropped that mouse in the kitchen, it would go under the stove and we'd lose it.

That's happened before--before Penny came to live with us, Abi once caught a mousy "toy" and brought it upstairs to play. We had to set a live trap to capture that very clever mouse, and I learned then that dumping a mouse within running distance of the house would result in a replay of the action a couple of days later.

Penny, who like Abi has never known hunger or life as a stray, clearly has the hunting instinct, but not the killing instinct. She wasn't interested in this mouse as a meal. This mouse was just the coolest, most interactive toy she ever discovered. She strolled right past me, took her new toy downstairs to an open space in the living room, and put it down. The mouse, sensing its chance, took off, and the chase was on.

While I tried to figure out what to do, she caught it and let it go a couple of times. It wasn't until it ran behind a nightstand near the door that I thought to call Eric and tell him what was going on. Penny had the mouse cornered there, and I had a moment to think. Eric suggested that if I wanted to get the mouse out of the house, I'd have to catch it and release it somewhere.

So, I helped Penny by moving the nightstand, and she handily caught the mouse, brought it back to the open space in the living room, and dropped it again. This time, it went under a bookshelf, which I had to move, and Penny retrieved her mouse as the other cats watched the show.

The teeny mouse waits,
safe in its container,
just before I let it out in a
National Park Service field.
When she brought the mouse into the kitchen, I got a yogurt container and lid. She dropped the mouse on the kitchen floor between her and Abi, who sniffed at it. Penny reacquired it to move it back to the center of the floor, and I leaned over it and encouraged the terrified rodent into the container and snapped it shut. Using a kitchen knife, I cut a couple of holes into the lid while Penny scoured the kitchen floor, looking for her lost mouse. She's a terrific mouser, but not a very deep thinker--the container-mouse connection eluded her.

I did get that shower, and the mouse container stayed safe from the cats in the bathroom sink and on top of the dresser as I got ready to leave.

The mouse cautiously investigates.
I drove the mouse to the nearby battlefield, got out of the car, and took a couple of photos as I sent it on its way. It was understandably a little hesitant to come out of the container at first, but quickly bounded through the rain, into the tall grass, and to its fate.

As I turned to get back into the car, I saw an NPS truck had pulled into the lot and was watching me. I waved, got into my car, and drove off to get breakfast at Cracker Barrel before going back home.

I never did get to Starbucks until the time I was supposed to meet up with a friend to peer review. Some mornings require new plans.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

F is for flowers (a day late)

Since Eric and I started keeping bees three years ago, I've become much more observant about the signs of spring.

Bees don't really start flying until temperatures get into the upper 50s. Our hives are in a nice sunny location, so I've seen them get warm enough to do cleansing flights near the hives in slightly cooler temperatures. But the hustle and bustle of the spring hive rebuilding doesn't really happen until it gets warmer.

Even before the trees have visible leaves, the bees find pollen. This year, we started seeing activity around the hives and the first pollen collected (that I noticed) on February 21. Though the hives weren't super busy, workers like this one were pulling in pollen regularly enough that it didn't take me long to get a picture of one wearing her "pollen pants" as she returned to the hive with full pollen baskets. In the wider shot, the snow is still on the ground!

Based on a chart from Wikipedia, I think this particular bee was carrying red maple pollen.
We discovered a couple of weeks after these pictures were taken that the second hive in the photo, the "green hive," had actually not survived the winter. The activity we saw around the hive was probably bees from the other hives robbing the honey from the dead hive. 

Pollen may be the first sign of spring, but it's not the most important. See, the bees are still living on whatever they stored from last year (we've supplemented that, but that's another post). So, what we need to make sure the remaining three survive are flowers. Flowers signal the start of the nectar flow, and nectar means the increasing population can find its own food. 

Today, I saw the first concrete sign that the nectar flow will start soon. Most people probably don't even notice this harbinger of honey in my area. It's a little weed called purple deadnettle. Deadnettle and its close cousin, henbit, are some of the earliest nectar sources for bees. They are growing now in our lawn.
Of course, the bees are still working the trees in early April, and they are collecting pollen like crazy.
But it's the flowers that have me looking forward to another honey harvest and another year of watching the bees.

Friday, April 4, 2014

D is for Dust

It took me a long time to settle on a topic today. All of the "d" words I could think of were, well, depressing. It's the end of marking period; I have deadlines looming; my senses feel dulled by lack of rest and lingering illness.

The best I could come up with was "day" or "daylight." But even then, I couldn't quite make "day" coherent beyond something cliche like "I like that it's lighter now. I miss the daylight when winter takes hold."

Then I remembered this:


Shake the dust from Anis Mojgani on Vimeo.

Before last weekend, I had never heard that poem before. But Penny Kittle introduced it to me and to all of the educators who gathered at The Northern Virginia Writing Project's Language and Learning Conference. Penny used it to inspire us to write, inviting us to grab a line, an image, an idea, a cadence from Mojagni's poem and play. She told us to write fast, faster than the censor inside of us who would silence us.

So, I did.

For 3 minutes, I wrote.

Then, she invited us later to go back to that writing, to play with it, to craft it, to see what happened.

So, I did.

And in the spirit of "Don't get it right, just get it written" the moral of James Thurber' s "The Sheep in Wolf's Clothing," I decided to share that draft here.


Shake the dust. 
It’s for me to outrun the censor who would silence my voice. Shake the dust from my feet and fly on the wings of the words on the page--wings from something grounded. Ground up trees, the ground up graphite from a pencil, make marks on the page that let me know the ground beneath my feet and yet leave me with the wings to fly and shake of the dust I must shake off and leave behind. 
 Shake the dust. 
It’s for the student who fears being heard, who so quietly exists on the margin of discovery, but fears to be seen. To cause a scene would be unseemly. She covers her mouth when she smiles and looks away from my eyes. Her I’s are not strong enough to withstand the looks of her peers who look more like me than like her. Shake the dust and meet us halfway. We won’t give that half away to anyone who will cause it harm. Spread your arms and shake the dust.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

C is for Cats

We had a dog, Greta, when I was a kid, and I loved her. But she died when I was 11, and we did not get another. My dad is allergic to cats, so they were never an option. Of course, I always wanted what I could have...

This is Abi from a few years ago. He was born August 30, 1996.
With the exception of when I went to college in Chicago, the two years I moved across the country to go to graduate school, and the year I lived in New Jersey, I have shared my home with cats. In fact, my husband's cat, Abi, has lived with me for longer than my husband! When we married, I lived in New Jersey and Eric was stationed at Langley Air Force Base. Not long after we married, Eric went to Saudi Arabia for 3 months, I looked for a job closer to him, and as soon as I found a new job and a new place, Abi moved in with me.

Amidala was probably born in 1997.
About a year after Abi moved in, and 3 months after Eric joined us, Eric and I bought our first house. We wanted to get a companion for Abi. So, we adopted Amidala from a local rescue agency. The shelter estimated that she was 10 months old. Amidala had been a stray, and we quickly discovered had a gorging problem--if we left the food out and available as we did for Abi, she would literally eat until she made herself sick. One time, she ate so much that it looked like she'd swallowed a cannon ball. That's why we have an automatic feeder to this day.

In addition to being the "lovebug" and always wanting to hang out on my lap, Amidala seems to love sitting on any piece of paper or book she runs across. If there's a single piece of paper on the floor or a chair, she will go out of her way to sit on it.








Eric made a picture of Amidala sitting on his Biology textbook into a meme to amuse a friend. That meme still gets used from time to time.
A couple of years after we moved into the house, I received a message over a listserv I subscribed to from a guy advertising kittens for adoption. He had found a stray who then had kittens. That's how Penny came to live with us. Her copper-colored eyes are obviously the source of her name.

In April 2001, Penny came to live with us as a kitten
Penny has always been an active and curious cat, and likes to be near us.
Here, Eric is showing Penny's paw. She decided walk across a dropcloth where we had been using wood stain.
Her paw was a lovely reddish brown, which you can see near her claw.


Our cats drive me bonkers when they crowd me in bed--they don't seem to sleep on Eric as often as they do on me. My lap becomes a territorial dispute from time to time, too.
Penny lays claim to the lap as I catch up on my DVRed shows.

Abi and Amidala jockey for lap space.
But I love how they meet me at the door, and how they always seem to know when I need a cat nearby. When I broke my ankle in 2004, Penny would curl up next to my cast and purr. I had pictures of that, once upon a time, but they have vanished.

All three cats are all getting to be "of a certain age," and I expect they will be gone soon.

Right now, we're not planning on bringing in more cats or pets for a while. I wonder what life will be like without cat hair on my black clothes or dust bunnies chasing one another under the bookshelves.Though I won't miss cleaning up after them, I will miss them

I admit it. It makes me laugh when cats forget their tongues are sticking out. I tried to pictures of it for years before I caught these two in the act. I've never caught Penny with her tongue out on camera, though.










I'm easily amused.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B is for busy

Not long ago, a variety of people in my social media circles shared Tim Kreider's June 30, 2102 New York Times Opinionator blog post, "The Busy Trap." What struck me in Kreider's argument was this:
It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
 I have found myself too often relying on "busy" as the stock response to the stock "How's it going?" My "busy" status really is "a boast disguised as a complaint" in both in face-to-face and social media exchanges. I'm boasting without boasting about taking classes, engaging in professional development, hanging out with friends, or any number of other activities that gain me status with a particular audience. Sure, I've taken on a lot, but I am the one who chose to do so.

I certainly see that addiction to "busy-ness" reflected in my students' lives. Like Kreider, I can remember large chunks of unstructured time in my childhood, even into my teens. But my students feel the pressure to be constantly engaged. Their hyper-connected worlds never allow for disconnection. They tell me that friends expect nearly instant responses to texts and social media mentions. Even their parents text them during school hours.

I can point to one former student's Twitter time as an example of hyperconnection. This young woman started her Twitter account in early 2011. Since then, she has sent over 51,000 tweets, which twopcharts.com estimates is equivalent to spending 429 hours, writing 140 characters at a time. While I'll grant that this is an extreme example, some celebrities who are considered prolific Twitter users haven't spent near that amount of time. Author John Green (@realjohngreen) has logged over 21,000 tweets in the 5 years and 4 months he has had his account, spending 169 hours on this platform. Actor and blogger Wil Wheaton (@wilw) has spent 363 hours writing over 43,000 tweets in the 7 years since he started using Twitter. This former student has both beat, hands down; she had her account when I taught her and often used it to complain that she didn't have time for other activities. Her "busy-ness" was central in her online and offline identity. Busy is who she was and still is.

In my own life, I've tried to keep myself from using "busy" as a status or a status symbol. I do post busy status updates online, but many of them are the grousing among peer groups that helps us vent a little of the self-imposed pressures. I've also, believe it or not, started saying "no" more often. I'm not managing spring sports events at school, and I don't get to as many events there, either. I'm more consciously trying to "hold a space" as Jim Burke advocated in a blog post that I have taped next to my computer. My scheduled downtime has become more sacred. And perhaps that will help me break free of the cult of busy.

It's a work in progress.