Sunday, December 6, 2009

If You Want to Help the Honeybees.... Plant a Tree

There are so many articles and comments on the internet about beekeeping and efforts to "save the honeybees". Some of these involve buying a product with the assurance that a portion of the proceeds will go to honeybee research. That's a good enough thing but I tend to see it as more of a marketing tool for the businesses that do it rather than as a serious source of much needed funds.

Another kind of article encourages well meaning homeowners and gardeners to plant "bee friendly" plants in their backyards. While this is an admirable and kind thing to do, it goes much further toward providing habitat and forage for native pollinators; a just as important and not much recognized area of concern.

Planting "bee friendly" plants in the backyard won't do that much to directly help the honeybees. It's because of the way they search out nectar sources, report back to the other bees in the hive and focus on the most abundant source that is blooming at any given time.

Because of their numbers, forty to eighty thousand bees in the Spring and Summer, they need to produce a lot of food. That's why a backyard garden is nothing for a honeybee to write home about. Honeybees have evolved into very efficient foragers over the eons they have been on the Earth. Flying from flower to flower, backyard to backyard is energy inefficient. It requires too much flying for the nectar collected.

This is where trees come in. Nearly all kinds of trees produce flowers. Most of us don't see them, either because the flowers are not very prominent or because we just don't raise our heads up from the sidewalk or take a serious look out of the car window. Flowering trees are one of the most concentrated nectar sources available to honeybees. There are thousands of blooms on a mature tree. When the bees find a blooming tree they will work that tree until every flower has been visited several times. The distance from flower to flower is minimal, providing maximum foraging efficiency.

So, if you want to help the honeybees, you know what to do.

Here is a Wikipedia list of trees important for honeybees in the North of the U.S.

The above list left out one of the best tree types for nectar (and honey by the way) Linden trees also known as Basswood.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yes Virginia, Beekeeping is Real Agriculture

We don't just turn on a faucet to fill our honey jars. There is a lot more to it than that. Not just the back breaking, sweaty physical work of maintaining beehives or the struggle to keep them healthy. Just like any farmer, beekeepers must always be aware of the weather. The unpredictable, uncontrollable weather.

The activity of a hive is guided by the weather. Bees go foraging for nectar and pollen on the warm sunny days of spring and summer. Beekeepers know that more of those foragers will stay in the hive on days that threaten rain. That's why we stay out of the hives then. More bees at home with nothing to do but defend the hive equals more potential for stings.

The weather can also throw off our best laid plans. Farmers can lose a crop to drought and so can beekeepers. The same conditions limit or eliminate available nectar and pollen sources so reduced nectar means less honey.

Cooler weather also has it's effect. No one from Chicago reading this has failed to notice the lateness of the tomato crop. A rainy and cooler June followed by the coolest July ever has also caused a dearth of honey. Here is the reason why.

Honeybees are extremely good at regulating the interior temperature of the hive. A constant 93 degrees is the optimum temperature for egg laying by the Queen and brood rearing by the workers. In the average Summer when the nights are very warm many bees will move outside to open up space for ventilating the hive and keep it from getting too hot. If you visit an apiary on a hot evening you will see “beards” of bees hanging out on the outside of the hive. During the even hotter days every bee that is of foraging age goes out to collect nectar. They aren't needed inside because the external and internal temperatures are very similar.

The opposite has happened this year. Cool mornings and evenings meant that more bees were needed inside to keep the temperature up during those times. Fewer foragers = less nectar = less honey. And our visions of buckets and buckets of extra honey faded.

I'll admit because we've never seen weather like this, it took us awhile to figure out exactly what the problem was. Now that we've figured it out, just like any other farmer, we have to hope the weather changes in our favor.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sweet Summer Solstice Follow-up

Last week I had been checking the weather forecast for Friday the 19th every day. By Wednesday it started looking like we might be OK but when Friday rolled around, it looked like we would get rain. Since we didn't have a rain date, I was pretty sure the turnout would be low.

More people signed up in advance this year than ever before and although I don't have the actual attendance number, more people came out for the Solstice at the apiary than we have ever seen. We were very happy to see so many people take a chance on the weather to come out and support us.

And of course, it rained. And the wind blew. We had several canopies set up, weighted and strapped to each other and when they started to lift off the ground we all scrambled to clear off the tables and take them down. With 2 protected canopies left, and some space inside our storage container, a sizable crowd remained. Still eating and drinking and having a great time while they held on to the canopy struts, just in case. Did I mention everyone was soaked?

Before we knew it, the storm and rain cleared off. We could see the sun setting over the trees to the west. The wind was replaced with a cool slight breeze.

The potluck dishes were wonderful as was the Salmon from Plitt Seafood. The extra tables we set up were nearly full. The wine and Goose Island beer certainly helped keep everybody calm.

The only thing that didn't work out so well was the raffle. Plenty of people bought tickets but with all the excitement over the weather, we never got around to picking the winning numbers.
We'll do that this week and call the winners. I'll post the results when we do.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sweet Summer Solstice - June 19, 2009

For the past two years Slow Food Chicago has sponsored a Summer Solstice potluck fundraiser for us at the apiary. It will be happening this year on June 19th and should be the best one yet. Only $15 per person ($10 for Co-op and Slow Food members). Bring a dish to share and a chair to sit on. We'll also be holding a raffle with great prizes including a private tour of the City Hall rooftop garden and beehives, a dinner for 2 at Brasserie Jo, a Joe Breezer Itzy folding bicycle, organic/biodynamic wine from Candid wines and more. Reservations are required. Find out more here - Slow Food Chicago

The Sweet Summer Solstice event is part of our effort to raise $10,000.00 to begin raising our own honey bee queens.
Every beekeeper loses a portion of their hives each year and must replace those bees with ones purchased from Southern or Western beekeepers who have a longer beekeeping season. We don't believe it is a sustainable way to continue in beekeeping.

We want to reduce our dependence on this supply by raising our own queens. Doing this will allow us to reduce the yearly expense of buying package bees and allow us to derive extra income from sale of queens and nucleus hives to other local beekeepers. The start-up costs and labor for this are considerable so we are trying to raise the $10,000.00 to get the program up and running.

If everyone who sees this donated just $5.00, we would be well on our way to our goal.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yippie! The Bees are Here!

This is the time of year every beekeeper looks forward to. The weather is getting warm enough for the bees to fly out collecting early pollen and new packages of bees are ready to be delivered to anxious midwestern beekeepers.

We ordered 80 3 pound packages of bees this year. For the first time, they are being sent directly to our apiary in a cargo van from Navasota, Texas. Last week we did some last minute preparation needed in order to be ready to install the packages when the bees arrive.

Since we had so many fewer hives last season we had to count and arrange screened bottom boards, hive boxes and top and inner covers. Then haul around several heavy concrete blocks that we use as hive stands to parts of the apiary where there were only empty spaces last year.

We got notice that the driver would arrive around late morning on Thursday and had the beekeepers, Michael, Rhonda and Rob and several volunteers ready to go. The most interesting thing to me was the method of installing the packages of bees. Most beekeeping books will tell you to shake the bees into the top of the hive. This is the method we used to use. We found that we ended up with a large number of confused bees flying in the air not knowing which hive they were supposed to go to. This leads to all kinds of confusion with some hives gaining massive amounts of bees and others almost empty. The result is a crazy apiary and several days of equalizing hives

This time, on the advice of our bee supplier, B. Weaver, we simply took out 5 frames from the top box, installed the queen in between two of them and laid the open package down inside the hive. A much more gentle method of introducing a package. The bees simply walk out into the hive and start their work.

The next day we started to take the empty boxes out of the hives. I got to help complete the job on Saturday. Open the hive, take out the empty package and replace the 5 missing frames. I used this as an opportunity to kind of spot check the population to see whether the bees had stayed put. Most hives had about 3 frames of bees which is just about right. We won't be checking for released queens for about 5 more days.

Just a quick note. We encountered an old metal shipping scale in the street late last summer and will be using it to keep track of the weight of one of our hives.

If you would like to see more Package installation pictures, click on "Here we are in pictures" in the right side column .

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why is our Honey so Damned Good?

Any real understanding of honey has to start with an understanding of the foraging habits of honey bees. Foragers leave the hive and go search for nectar. When they come upon a good nectar source that has a lot of flowers in bloom they will take up all the nectar they can and go back to the hive and let all the other bees that they meet there know where to go to get the nectar. It's a little like the commercial - one bee tells two friends and they tell two friends etc. Very soon every foraging bee in the hive will be working that nectar source.

Orange blossom, tupelo, and buckwheat are examples of honeys from a single source. A beekeeper can get a single source honey by placing hives near a very large bloom of any flower from which honey bees are known to take nectar. True single source honey comes from rural areas where many acres of one plant are available to the bees.

City bees don't have the opportunity to get honey from just one source. Like any good beekeeper, we keep track of what nectar sources are in bloom at any given time and can get a good idea of the major sources our bees are visiting. But there is always a portion of nectar collected about which we can only speculate.

Generally speaking we can say our honey is primarily from two major sources. Most people don't realize that trees can be a source of nectar for honey bees. There are thousands of linden trees growing in the parkways here and our bees start working them as soon as they start blooming. One of the most highly prized honeys is clover honey. Not dutch clover but white sweet clover. It was planted on the prairies as forage for cattle and still thrives in vacant lots and railroad rights of way. It also blooms in abundance. So it is these two nectars that form the foundation flavors for our honey. It is the rest of what the bees forage on that gives our honey depth and complexity of flavor.

The French have the term "terroir" which refers to flavor imparted to wine grapes by the soils in which the vines are grown. Something like that occurs with honey but it relates more to the locality of nectar sources and weather conditions that affect when and how long a source blooms. In fact honey from hives in other locations in Chicago tastes different from the honey from our apiary. It's all about where the bees go.

We know our bees visit two large nearby public parks which have many ornamental plantings that vary from year to year. We also can be sure that the bees are working the perennial plants that are planted in the street medians. In the last few years we have noticed large amounts of Nepeta racemosa (catmint) planted in medians which can add a slight flavor of mint to our honey.

What I'm leading to here is that our honey is a truly seasonal product which varies somewhat in flavor from year to year and even from week to week. It's flavor is unique to our location in the city and is very special because of that.

There is a lot more to tell about honey. Pease feel free to ask questions in the comment section.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where do Bees Come From?

Having checked on the hives a beekeeper in the Midwest has an idea of how many have survived the Winter. With some cold weather still to come it isn't certain that the hives that were healthy in February will still be viable by the time of the first nectar flow. So a beekeeper has to make an estimate of how many hives will need to be replaced.

How does a beekeeper get new bees? Most beekeepers will get bees one of two ways. They can buy what are called package bees. These are bees that are collected from other hives and put into a screened box. Once about 2 or 3 pounds of bees are in the box, a small wooden cage is included inside. It holds a queen bee which was raised in a separate hive.

She is put in a cage for her own protection. Having just come from the hive they were raised in and being familiar with the queen from that hive, these bees need time to get used to the new queen. Until then, they are as likely to kill her as to take care of her.

Once the queen cage is inside, a can of sugar syrup is inserted into the top. It has tiny holes in the bottom which will let the bees feed during their trip to a new hive. Packages of bees like the ones in the picture are shipped from southern states and California to beekeepers all over the country. A hobby beekeeper with one or two hives can get packages sent through the mail.

The second way to get bees is by buying what is called a nucleus hive or"nuc". I pronounce it "nuke" some people pronounce it "nook". It is a half size version of a regular hive with a queen that has been accepted by the bees and has started laying eggs. Nucs are typically available closer to home for a beekeeper. A lot of hobby or small business beekeepers will raise nucs to sell to other local beekeepers.

Which brings me to a third way a beekeeper can get bees. That is to raise queens and start their own nucleus hives. That is what we at Chicago Honey Co-op are going to begin to do this year. We don't think that ordering packages of bees every year is very sustainable. We want to invest in raising our own bees so that we can not only avoid the cost of having bees shipped across country to us but develop bees that are hardy in winter and good honey producers. Bees that we can use ourselves and make available to local beekeepers here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winter Beekeeping

February in the Midwest is the time for beekeepers to try to find a day with warm enough weather to check up on the hives. It is a critical time of year. The bees are running low on the honey they stored (or that the beekeeper left for them) and a hive that runs out of honey in the late winter will not survive. The bees also need protein at this time. A queen bee begins laying eggs again in January and the larvae need protein. That protein comes from the pollen the bees collected over the summer. If there isn't enough of that left, the larvae, or brood as beekeepers call it, will not develop into strong healthy bees. Yesterday was one of those days here in Chicago. Sixty three degrees, sunny and perfect for checking hives.

At the end of our beekeeping season last Fall there were fifty hives in the apiary. Of those fifty, fourteen were still alive yesterday. While that is a heavy loss, it is actually a hopeful sign. There have been years when we lost all our bees.

Just a word here for those who are thinking Colony Collapse Disorder, No, that is not what caused the losses. Honey bees are subject to bacterial infections, fungal infections, parasitic mites and other pests all of which can, at the very least, undermine the health of a beehive. We can't look inside a hive and tell what caused it to fail but there is no shortage of possibilities.

So what went on at the apiary yesterday?

On a warm day in winter honeybees will come outside and fly so it's pretty easy to tell which hives are still OK. Each of the living hives gets opened up and a brief inspection is made to see if the bees have enough honey. If not, one of the dead hives is opened up and frames of honey are taken from there and put into the good hive in a place easy for the bees to reach when they are clustered together on cold days.

So, checked and supplied the hive gets closed up and the bees are ready to get through the next bout of cold weather. With luck we might get all 14 hives to make it until the first spring nectar flow.

Next time - Where do bees come from?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

It's Winter here in Chicago and this is the time of year when beekeepers catch up with everything they didn't have time to do from April until October. Hence my ability to sit down and write this first post. Not that I get to do much beekeeping myself. Besides my own job I am the member of our Co-op that takes care of our day to day business.

I should tell you about our little Honey Co-op. We started out in 2004 as an idea in the minds of three of my (now) friends. That first year we partnered with a local nonprofit to offer job training in beekeeping, selling at farmers markets and the various skills that go along with that. The trainees were people who had spent time in jail and had no prospects for employment ahead of them. It was an eventful year and we did very well for a brand new business but I'm sorry to say that after a couple of years things didn't work out with the nonprofit.

We decided to go ahead on our own in 2006 with 2 of the original trainees who became our regular beekeeping staff. We registered as an agricultural co-op and sold memberships to raise capital to purchase some more hives. Since we don't have the staff or funds to pay trainees ourselves we partnered with another nonprofit to teach beekeeping to their urban farming trainees.

I should mention how lucky we are to have found a large vacant space on the West side of Chicago to have our apiary. It is a city block long and backs up to an abandoned rail line. In addition to beehives we have made a large community garden there for our neighbors and friends to grow food. Through the kindness of the owner, we rent this land for $1.00 per month until it gets sold.

In the coming weeks, I'll tell you more about our co-op, our products and I'm looking forward to writing at length about beeswax and honey.

Until next time.