Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Asian Giant Hornets...in America?

So my wife and I were sitting in the living room watching TV when we noticed a loud buzzing coming from another room. The kind of sound you hear when a bee is an inch from your ear. It was earth-shatteringly loud compared to the buzz of a honeybee. I curiously approached the room, thinking a cicada must have found his way in. As I got within eyeshot, I could see very clearly that this was no cicada. I've had my fair share of bee, wasp and even hornet stings, and don't have a particular fear of (nor desire for) being stung. But in seeing this thing on the ceiling, the heebie-jeebies started to set in. Luckily I have a veil which is incredibly efficient at keeping flying insects from dive-bombing my face. Unluckily it was literally directly below this questionable creature. I put on a hoodie (the thickest one I own) and mustered up enough courage to grab the veil...and then ran back out of the room, making sure to shut the door securely behind me. All of my other beekeeping supplies remained in the room with The Beast, so I had to find something which would reasonably convince me that the creature had been contained once I got it in there. The best I was able to find was a large glass candle holder and a piece of cardboard. With my protective clothing and my containment vessel in hand, the time had come.

I felt incredibly brave with my gear on, and it only took me about 20 seconds to capture it. Initially, I thought it must be a cicada killer wasp. Further inspection and comparison to some Google image search results debunked that theory, so we continued looking around. Eventually, we found some photos that exactly mirrored the captive. They were purportedly of the Vespa mandarinia (aka Asian Giant Hornet or Japanese Bee-killing Hornet). I thought there was no way I was holding a Japanese hornet, so I continued to search and came up with nothing but more reason to believe that I had indeed caught one of these creatures. What was it doing in America...or more importantly, what was it doing in my house? Turns out they eat honeybees! Well, to be fair, the adults actually don't eat the bees. They chomp their heads off and take the thorax back to their nest to feed to their larvae, then the adult consumes a liquid produced by the larvae (vespa amino acid mixture). Really quite interesting.

Apparently a handful of these hornets can take out an entire colony of European honeybees in just a few hours. The Japanese honeybee has adapted to the threat and came up with an efficient way of killing them off before they can do any significant damage. When the Vespa mandarinia finds a honeybee colony, it starts putting off pheromone markers which can attract others from up to 10 miles away (a distance which they can actually fly in just a few minutes!). Once the Japanese honeybees detect the pheromone, around 500 bees will fly out angrily and form a ball around the hornet. Then the honeybees cook the hornet to death...literally. They all "vibrate their flying muscles" in tandem to generate heat very quickly. Honeybees are able to withstand temperatures up to about 10 degrees higher than the hornet can, so the hornet dies before the honeybees. Unfortunately European honeybees haven't developed this defense yet, so their colonies are summarily destroyed.

I don't know how it got here, but I couldn't let it leave. I had to kill the creature to ensure it wouldn't go tell all its friends about my honeybee colony (or my people colony, for that matter). After reading more about Vespa mandarinia, I learned that they excrete phospholipase enzymes, which means their venom is literally capable of dissolving flesh. Their stingers are nearly 1/4 inch long, and the feeling of being stung has been described as "feeling like a hot nail being driven into my leg."

I'll keep my fingers crossed that this was a freak incident and somehow this was the only one around. If not...well...we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, won't we?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Looking good, ladies!

I went out today to visit my girls and see how the comb construction has been progressing. I've stolen a few sneak peeks over the past week, but today marks the first true examination of the hive. I'm simply amazed at how much has been accomplished in such a short time period. They've completely built out two frames and are pretty far along on 4 others. The four frame farthest from the center had a few stragglers doing some minor wax-work, but for the most part were untouched. I anticipated the initial build-out would take at least a month, and a little less than a week in they've definitely surpassed my expectations.

It's truly mind boggling how fast they work. So fast, in fact, that they've begun building a second layer of comb between two of the frames. Seeing two frames mended together is...well...interesting. They came apart very easily, but I don't think they were especially appreciative of the fact that I'd done it. While separating the bound frames, a small (approximately 1.5" x 2") piece of comb broke off and fell to the bottom of the hive. I managed to get my hand down there and grab it so they wouldn't fill it needlessly with any precious resources. To my amazement, it actually already had several cells of uncapped honey. And let me say that fresh, uncapped honey is the "bee's knees". I marveled over the comb on my desk and found myself in awe...what a remarkable genetic trait, the ability to build such a geometrically perfect structure. Humans take years of practice (and often a ruler) to draw straight lines, yet bees have perfected sacred geometry within weeks of their birth.

I'll go back and visit more often from here on out. Hopefully I can figure out a way to stop them from needlessly building comb where it doesn't belong. Or maybe I'll just appreciate it as a source of awesome chewing gum. Who knows?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Talk about a clown car...

If anyone had asked me six months ago if I'd ever find myself in a car with several thousand bees, there was very little chance I wouldn't have laughed them right out of the room. Yet today, I drove with ten thousand (give or take) bees for more than an hour in a compact sedan--in the front seat, no less. I picked them up from a place about 70 miles away. I arrived not entirely sure what to expect, half way thinking I might chicken out at the last minute and take off running. There they were, placidly hanging out in a box, waiting for me to take them home. I couldn't let down 10,000 beautiful ladies, so I set aside any lingering fears I had that they'd somehow escape their confinement and teach me how to practice the "stop, drop and roll" technique. They were very courteous passengers, I don't think they asked me to slow down once! You'd be amazed how powerful the incessant buzzing of these ladies on the seat next to you feels. It truly gives a new meaning to feeling "buzzed". (I couldn't resist throwing out at least one pun...)

When I finally arrived home, I had a very brave volunteer come and take pictures of the goings on. Tons of photos were taken, but my gorgeous wife and I selected what we thought were the best ones. I put the assembled frames into the hive body, suited up with my veil and gloves, and gathered up all of the things I thought I'd need to bring to the party. I carried everything down to the hive's new home. The photographer hesitantly came along, even though he had no protection from the wrath of the colony. I had previously watched a few videos showing how to "install" bees (like this one), so I had a general outline of how the whole thing would go.

Everything went according to the plan (roughly). The ladies only got slightly riled up, so it was a pretty cool experience moving (dumping, really) thousands of live bees from a small box into a place they've never seen. Eventually, a few of them discovered that my pants weren't sealed at the bottom, or my hoodie not quite tight enough around the waist, or the place where my hair wasn't completely under the veil (and left a pretty wide open door to my face). I sustained a few stings, but nothing too significant.

There she was, well protected as promised. I brushed off every one of these ladies twice before the left photo, but her guards were adamant about not leaving her side and returned almost immediately. I left her in her chamber after removing the cork blocking her exit. Her servants will do the rest (I hope). I bid them farewell, put the top cover on and went about my day. I'll come back to visit in a couple of days.

Phew, I think I'm over the hump. I think the realization that getting stung only hurts for a second (and supposedly gets less painful over time) really relieved some tension. I can't wait to come see how the decoration is going! Normally I wouldn't be able to resist going tomorrow, but I've got herb class all weekend, so I literally have no time check for a few days. I think that's probably best... I don't want to disturb them too much.

We'll visit the hive in a few days to see how it's going. Come on back now, y'hear?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ready to Go!

Over the past two weeks, I've spent time assembling, painting and weather proofing my hive. Tomorrow I am picking up my bees and will have lots of photos documenting their introduction to their new home. Until then, here are a few things that I've found helpful thus far:

  1. Assembling the Frames

    I managed to find a series of videos on YouTube which helped me come to my own way of putting everything together. I'm a big fan of doing what makes most sense to me (and not necessarily anyone else), so I watched many videos and read numerous blog posts about this topic. In the end, I used a beeswax foundation secured by monofilament fishing line as suggested in this video by FatBeeMan. While I thought his idea of using bobby pins as the side braces was inventive and probably fine, I didn't like the idea of using painted metal with plastic tips, so I used some heavier stainless steel brads instead. I feel like they came out really well.
  2. Painting and Weather-proofing

    Ross Conrad mentioned in Natural Beekeeping that bees can be sensitive to chemicals in paint and that oil-based paints will not only cause immune issues in the colony, but also crack and eventually allow water to settle between the paint and wood causing it to rot. His suggestion was to use a light colored outdoor latex-based paint. I managed to find an "eco" brand of latex paint and slapped on one nice, thick, uniform layer.

    I didn't feel that the paint would be sufficient weather protection (and might still bother the bees), so I did some more research and found that some people have had success in coating the exterior of their hive in an oil-beeswax mixture after painting. I had some pure beeswax pellets on hand and some grapeseed oil which hadn't been touched in a while and decided to give it a shot. I mixed 1:3 beeswax to oil, heated it in a double boiler, then started painting it on. I quickly noticed that the paint brush was giving me more hassle than help, so I tossed it aside, dipped my hand in the waxy mixture and started finger painting. That was definitely the way to go...who would have thought that this would be such a fun process?
We're almost there, and tomorrow, the bees come home! Stay tuned...

Monday, April 2, 2012

They're Early!

Saturday, I started putting all the pieces together to transform the pile of various wood pieces into a functional hive. I had my beeswax foundation sheets laid out next to me and had just began dry-fitting the pieces when a honeybee came to visit. She flew away and came back a few minutes later with 3 friends. Then they left and came back with even more... I was convinced that they'd take over the hive before I'd finished the first frame!

There was a bit of a hiccup on the bee acquisition front. I'd scheduled to pick up a nucleus colony (nuc) from a local beekeeper, then reconsidered after realizing that the bees in his care had probably been treated with Apivar or another of the many common mite or fungus prevention chemicals on the market. It's important that, staying in line with my views on doing this as naturally and organically as possible, my bees don't come from a factory farm-ish operation and have not been treated with chemicals of any sort. Unfortunately it seems that the vast majority of bees people are selling, whether as nucs or packages, fail to meet these criteria. I've got an alternate source lined up with some untreated (but also non-native) bees and some feelers out as well, but I'm truly hoping to entice a local swarm to move in on its own. I'm currently researching the best way to do so, and would welcome suggestions from anyone who has experience in this arena.

Next up: Construction continues. Stay tuned for more!

Friday, March 30, 2012

...and so it begins.

I decided a few weeks ago that beekeeping would be a great (and fun!) thing to do, both for the Earth and for myself, and decided to go all out.  Welcome to the chronicles of my journey.

I take great care to limit the amount of chemicals I take in to my body and feel that bees deserve nothing less.  I bought Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, if only because there are an incredibly small number of helpful resources in that category on the web.  The book was great, and I truly appreciate that someone took the time to write (quite passionately) about taking a holistic and organic approach in a time when even backyard operations tend to be chemical-heavy.

Though the book was incredibly informative and beautifully written, there was still quite a bit of ambiguity in the air.  My nature, however, is to jump feet first into something that catches my excitement. So I roped my wife in to going with me to the local beekeeping supply store today.

When we arrived we were met by the owners, an older couple who've been keeping bees for a whole lot longer than I've walked the Earth.  While I had a theoretical understanding of the things I needed to get started, they offered a great deal of time-tested wisdom on what would be more practical.  Happy to accept the gift of their knowledge, I ended up spending around $200 for a "hive kit". Here's what was in it:

(1) Hat and Veil
(1) Pair of Gloves
(1) Smoker
(1) Hive Tool
(1) Hive Body (partially assembled)
(1) Screened Bottom Board
(1) Inner Cover
(1) Top Cover
(10) Brood Frames (unassembled)
(10) Sheets of Beeswax Foundation

So, at the end of the first day of the rest of my beekeeping career, I've got a partially assembled hive body, unassembled frames and foundation, an awesome new hat, and no bees.  So far, so good.