Operation Bee Rescue — Phase III

This continues (finishes?) Operation Bee Rescue.

This morning I went in for the final comb->frame transfer and queen search.

About half an hour before I started, I moved what bees I could to other boxes and closed them up. I was trying to minimize the number of bees who would be getting excited. I stacked the temporary boxes on the adjoining hives’ lids for easy access.

I started at about 9 a.m., with a temperature of about 45 degrees. That’s cool enough that the bees weren’t active, but warm enough not to endanger them (especially with a nice day forecast).

I ran into minor issues almost immediately: the three frames closest to the edge were absolutely buried in bees, and were sort of stuck to the frame. In the process of loosening things up, I got my one and only sting of the adventure.

Fortunately I had a plastic card ready in my pocket, so I was able to scrape the stinger out immediately. At that point I caved in and put on nitrile gloves. I like bare-handed where possible, but pulling out wild comb covered in bees is about as invasive as it gets.

Gloved, I was able to coax the first chunk of comb free and lay it onto the framework I had prepped.

And lo! I got the biggest piece of luck in the whole operation, for there was the queen!Fortunately she was marked with an orange dot.

I coaxed her into the little queen cage that a  previous year’s queen shipped in, and plugged it with wax. I was anxious to keep her ladyship safe while I finished restructuring the hive.

With her out of the way, I was able to take a butter knife and trim the comb to fit the frame. I had to be careful of the girls, but sliding the knife through the middle of the comb worked pretty well.

I slid a second batch of skewers into the holes I had prepped, and tied the bottoms to the back-side skewers (which were stapled to the frame).

I was pretty pleased with the result. Far superior to the thread method!(Now I have to decide whether to go back and redo the thread frame).

I filled a second frame with scraps. Those weren’t mobbed with bees, so it was a lot easier.

With all the critical pieces of wild comb framed up, I was able to reassemble the hive properly. Then I was ready to release the queen.

She took her own sweet time leaving the cage. I could tell when she was about to emerge because workers started to mob the entrance.

And there she goes! Out of the cage and down into the frames.

I breathed a big sigh of relief, closed up the hive, and got back to my normal work schedule. I was happy to see a normal level of activity from the rescued hive this afternoon. 

All of this would still have an unhappy ending if we didn’t have some spare frames of honey from our other bees: the tree colony had very little honey stored up. Fortunately the hive that resulted from the natural split has been doing well, so their honey will now go back to the parent colony.

Thank you for following along for Operation Bee Rescue!

Operation Bee Rescue — Phase II

This is a continuation of the bee rescue adventure.

Phase I ended with  wild comb leaned semi-upright in three layers of boxes, with frames interspersed to help keep them semi-vertical (although not oriented correctly). This arrangement allowed us to close up the hive, but was not a good long-term configuration.

The box had all sorts of awkward airspace, and there was no way of removing the upper boxes without wreaking havoc. The whole point of a normal modern beehive configuration is that  all of the frames are hanging, so you can freely pull the upper boxes to reach the lower boxes.

One thing I couldn’t find any good information on was whether honeycomb orientation was critical for brood. Normally honeycomb has a slight downward slant (which makes sense for curing honey). I could imagine it being important for eggs and larva to stay put.

Crazy comb and problematic hive management aside, it seemed very risky to go into winter with comb leaned sideways and upside-down.

The only way to fix the situation was to take the wild/natural comb and insert it into frames. This would allow it to hang in the box with good comb spacing, permitting free bee movement and rendering the hive manageable.

The catch is that frames aren’t really designed to have comb inserted. For it to work, you basically need to cage the comb into the frames. Somehow.

My first “insert comb in frames” attempt used thread.

I was able to extract the honey chunks from three combs and insert them. I was working on this Sunday morning, so the bees had mostly clumped up in one corner, giving me easy access to the last three combs (the biggest combs in the colony, which turned out to just have honey… mostly uncapped).

It was a good start, but the remaining chunks are thick with bees (I’m sure they are surrounding the brood comb and — hopefully — the queen), and I need something a bit stouter and easier for the bees to escape.

I set up a framework using BBQ skewers, and I think it has a good chance at working…

But by the time I finished, the bees had gotten pretty frisky. It’s partly that it had warmed up, partly that I had been manipulating them, and partly that the yellow jackets had been mooching around the edges.

I’ll try the final critical comb mounting tomorrow morning, when everyone is chilly/slow. It’s a calculated risk, because they will also be all clustered together, but it’s pretty distracting getting dive-bombed — even in a bee suit! That’s how you know I’m not a pro!

I’m very much hoping that when I do the mounting of the brood section, I will see the queen. At this point her status is unknown. Although the bee casualties have been fairly minimal, it is always possible that she got squashed when one of the combs fell. Fingers crossed!

Operation Bee Rescue

The Situation

A couple weeks ago we discovered that one of our two hives had split itself (probably in June), and the old queen/half the colony had settled on a Douglas Fir branch about 40 feet up.

 

When bees swarm, the beekeeper has a limited window to tempt the bees back into an empty box. Otherwise, the bees will find whatever digs are available: hollow trees and house walls are favorites.

 

Every once in a while, the bees don’t find any good sites, and they stay put in the open. Apparently that’s what happened here.

 

 

How could we have missed this? Well, although the colony was clearly visible from one vantage, it was masked by the end of the branch from the house. And apparently we don’t inspect our tree line very often. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing. But would you spot it in this picture? See red circle.

 

 

At the time I thought it was neat but sad: neat, because it is amazing to see how the bees build their colony when left to their own devices; sad, because there is no way an exposed colony can survive the winter in our climate (cold + rain + wind = dead bees)… but it was too high to rescue. Or that was the initial conclusion.

 

Of course, having given them up for lost, our brains immediately started working on how they could be saved. Ladders? No… none of ours were remotely long enough. Climb the tree? Doug Fir branches are made for breaking. Cherry picker? Cherry picker!

 

We got some tips from friends and called around. A very nice electrician was inclined to help us… but once we got more accurate distance details, they realized their cherry picker wouldn’t reach. They told us that some tree services have big bucket trucks, and gave us a name to start.

 

That tree service was favorably disposed (the owner has a wild colony in a cedar stump, and they actually tipped it upright when it fell over in a storm… hooray for heavy equipment)… but they couldn’t come until late October.

 

So we got in touch with an arborist who had worked with us on another project. Conor thought he could do it, and was able to come Saturday morning.

 

Here was the plan: go up, cut the end of the limb with the colony, bring it down, hang it on an A-frame ladder for better access, and try to rig the whole colony so that it could be settled in a bee box for the winter.

 

Before we get into what happened, here are a couple pics of the colony that I got with my telephoto. The picture where all the comb is showing was taken first thing in the morning, so they’re huddled in for warmth. The picture where there is a big ball of bees on the bottom was taken in the middle of the day, so they’re working and protecting the nest.

 

Phase I

Conor showed up with his bucket truck (I missed the technical name, but it has a 2 part hydraulic pivot that can lift a small basket up to 50 feet). We spent a few minutes sorting out the plan, and by 9 a.m. he was suited up and ready to go!
   

 

Since he had to go up solo, the plan was for him to cut the branch, holding it as best he could, and then bring it down to me. Two people would have been ideal, since with one person there was no way to hold the branch stable.

 

Here is his final approach up to the colony and the cutting of the branch (click links for video).

 

 
The branch twisted down pretty sharply, which did not help comb integrity, but it all held together!… at least temporarily….

 

He brought it down and handed it down to me. Probably about 40 pounds, but most of that was branch. I was able to get it on the ladder, although a bit crooked initially.

 

 

The comb survived the whiplash of being cut, but was a little the worse for wear.

 

Note the bend in the comb, and the dangling comb on the left side. It was hanging on by a tiny little twig. It couldn’t last.

 

While I was bustling around getting a box and seeing Conor off, the dangler fell off. In this shot I have scooped it up and leaned it in the box.

 

 

Another comb was coming loose!

 

 

I carefully snipped this comb off before it could collapse (the only controlled comb removal in the whole thing, unfortunately). Here is the comb, all ready to go in the box (both sides).

 

 

Here it is in the box. Not a good long-term solution, but ok for starters….

 

And then another comb fell off! Note comb now leaned on exterior of the box. So much for lovingly boxing up the whole comb unmolested. I hadn’t realized how fragile wild comb would be, especially in cool weather.

 

Fortunately the bees were confused but not aggressive. I couldn’t wear gloves, because I needed to be able to gently lift the comb.

 

Here are the combs that fell off, all tucked in snugly.

Still, a few combs left! I got the colony level — more or less – and stuck with the plan of taking them intact.
Narrator: she should have abandoned the plan.

     

In order to get the rest of the honeycomb free, I either had to cut the branch or break the comb. In retrospect, I should have broken the comb… but instead I decided to cut the branch.

Rob was working, but Mom and Dad were visiting for the day, so Mom held the branch stable while I made the cut.

Shortly before the cut, the other two big combs sloughed off, and I added them to my growing box of traumatized bees.

Phase I closed out with the pieces of comb tucked into three layers of hive, with commercial frames as spacers.

The good news was that the colony could then be closed up, safe from yellow jackets and weather. The bad news was that there was way too much air space, the hive would be completely unmanageable with the chunks of wild comb propped up here and there, and most of the comb was either upside-down or sideways.

Since the original plan of keeping the colony intact didn’t work out, we needed to wait until things quieted down, and then try to insert the comb into frames. See Phase II!

 
 
 
 

Happy Equinox!

It felt like mid-spring today, and has been feeling like spring for about a week now.

It was a long time coming, though! After a very mild December and January, February came down like Thor’s hammer.

We got almost three feet of snow over about four days.

The kitties were not amused.

Nor were the goats.

Nor were the wild birds. I had to spread seed on the porch, because the snow was so deep and soft. We even got a family of quail coming by!

Nor was the Rob. He was quite worried about the roofs, and whether our smaller structures would be able to hold the weight.

Even once the snow was off the roofs, the snow barely melted until last week — it just compressed, and compressed, and compressed, but with a freeze every night it was excruciatingly slow.

About a week ago the temperatures bobbed above freezing and stayed there.

And finally, finally, the snow receded.

There is still snow, especially in the shade, but the crocuses are in full bloom, and the bees are out enjoying them!

Happy spring!

Writing Goals for 2019

I have three goals for 2019:

  • Query my mage thief novel. I think it just needs one more revision. And, apparently, a name.
  • Write twelve short stories. This hasn’t historically been my forte, but I have had a nest of flash fiction ideas in the last few days, so I think one a month should be doable.
  • Write a new book! This will probably be my Dream Guild book, but it might wind up being my Mountain Life book instead. Time will tell!

I expect the non-writing front to be much like last year, although I’m hoping to get a better handle on the garden.

Wish me luck!

Recovering from the Holidays

I very much enjoy the holidays, but the time between Thanksgiving and New Years is always breathless, with too much to do and to much to-ing and fro-ing.

I made a bunch of toffee and chocolate clusters for friends and family. I went to Tacoma and Seattle three times in a week. I was supposed to catch up on work while all of my clients were out of the office. I made headway, but catch up? Not so much.

So now we have made it through the holidays, and I am happy to have things getting back to normal.

We’ll have the Christmas tree up for another couple weeks — which means, as far as I’m concerned, we still have the light and beauty of the holidays without the stress.

Living Dangerously

Last night Rob and I went to Free Solo, a documentary about a climber who climbed El Cap without a rope.

It is fascinating, because it shows a very different perspective on risk and fear and death. It’s the sort of perspective that it’s interesting to collect.

I was a gym rat climber for several years, enough that I know climbing technique and can appreciate the skill — and difficulty — involved in something like this. But as a gym rat climber, I dismissed free solo climbers as being nuts. It seemed so needless.

Having gotten a glimpse into this guy’s world, I will revise my opinion: they may not be nuts, but they have a very different way of assessing risk and whether it’s worth it.

It isn’t that this guy doesn’t see the risk. He does. But for him it is a small risk (ha!) with a very high consequence. And to be fair, he does work to make that risk as small as he can, but that doesn’t take the high consequence away.

One of his friends likened it to someone going for Olympic gold, where you would either get gold or you would die. That seemed apt.

Most people would not take that challenge, but it is fascinating to see someone who will accept the challenge, and recognize that he has a lot in common with adventurers and explorers through the ages.

The part that was hard for me wasn’t actually that he was risking his life, but that he was risking the life that others hold dear. I felt bad for his girlfriend (yes, she knew he was into this, but still!), and even the film crew — who were also his friends, and were all too conscious of the possible outcomes.

Watching their fear made it seem real in a way that his own outlook did not.

So, an interesting study on risk, mastery, and how to reflect difficulty in a specialized domain.

 

Fimbulwinter

A fourth hard freeze in a row, without an intervening thaw, has our landscape covered by delicate ice crystals. Each day they get a little bigger.

Today, for the first time, I felt that a sense of scale was needed.

This is not false scale. The ice crystals really are that big — although admittedly these were some of the largest in the landscape.

They grow very differently on different surfaces, which makes for some neat contrasts.

It is also fun to observe day-to-day changes.

Here is the day three comfrey frost versus the day four comfrey frost.

Comfrey frost, day 3

Comfrey frost, day 4

In principle they are the same, but all the ice crystals are just a little bigger, a little more compounded.

I am enjoying the frost, but I’m also looking forward to the thaw we’re expecting tomorrow afternoon. The layer of ice and the cold are hard on the wildlife.

I put the hummingbird feeder back out on day 2, and two hummingbirds are still around. I had to thaw the feeder out mid-morning today, which gives some sense of just how frigid it is, given that hummer water is usually good down to 27-28F.

Soon it will be back to rain.

 

 

Compounding Frost

We have had three days of heavy frost, without an intervening full thaw.

The frost-on-frost makes the lawn look like we’ve had a light snow.

However, instead of snow, the white is caused by millions of tiny ice crystals grown directly on the plant material. Crystals 1/4 inch long are common. Certain grasses seem to be especially good seed material for the ice crystals.

Plants that are aren’t quite as good a foundation material make for more interesting structures, since the frost can grow well on part but not all.

I especially like how the frost looks on the sword ferns.

The patterning is also more visible in slightly more sheltered areas. This dead comfrey leaf shows the wonderful variability of frost growth.

We’re expecting one more frosty morning tomorrow. With each subsequent night the frost gets bigger, but some of the definition is lost. Pretty soon we’ll be lost under a forest of ice crystals!

Heavy Frost

We had a very mild autumn, but last time we got our first truly hard frost. It went down to 27F last night, and the humidity was high enough for some fairly spectacular frost this morning.

Frosty lupin
Frosty lupin

Frosty chard
Frosty chard

Frosty stone, with the angles of the stone defined by needle-like ice crystals.
Frosty stone: I think that because it was a smaller stone, slightly elevated from the wall, it became a good cold surface for growing frost.

In addition to the lovely gallery of Jack Frost’s work in the garden, there was a special treat close to the road: a frost flower. These are formed of fine tendrils of ice extruded from dead/rotten sticks when conditions are just right. It requires the perfect combination of temperature, moisture content, and pores in the wood.

This isn’t an especially spectacular example in terms of form, but the hair-like crystals were close to an inch long.

Frost flower
Frost flower

Frost flowers can be very beautiful. This is one we saw near the Elwha River almost four years ago. It was one of more than a dozen frost flowers we saw at that location, and the most picturesque. It was the first time we had ever seen them, and the conditions at the old campsite must have been perfect to have so many in one spot.

Symmetrical frost flower (actually looks flower-like)
Frost flower taken 1/3/2015 near the Elwha River