Wednesday, March 30, 2011


While I'm on the subject of updates, I may as well give you a hint of what I've been up to.

Check it.

Real estate.  It's what all the cool kids are doin'.

Cardboard boxes.  Even cooler.

Weekly 101 (3/30/11)

Another slow week! All the beekeepers in the city are scrambling to get set up for the arrival of packages in April, so we don't have too much time to give talks and futz about on the internet.

HOWEVER, as I mentioned last week, the NYC Beekeeping Group is hosting a guest lecture by Prof. Dewey Caron!
This is the second in our Guest Lecture Series. Dr. Caron is a much appreciated speaker and the author of a major textbook on bees. This is an excellent entry point for new members, and promises to be enriching for those who have been attending class.


The key to successful bee stewardship is a working understanding of two important cycles the life cycle of the workers and the seasonal cycle of the bee colony. Looking into a colony we review the life cycle and check that it is progressing normally for workers if drones and queens are being reared that provides us some additional clues as to what is happening.

Concentrating on the key features of the annual seasonal cycle, anticipating versus simply reacting to developments in the colony, can significantly improve annual harvest and/or enjoyment of your bees. I will discuss both life and seasonal cycles and provide an update on the bee loss epidemic.


Prof Caron was a PhD student of Dr. Roger Morse at Cornell. Dewey filled in for Roger as a teacher of his popular introductory beekeeping course and helped insure completion of the Dyce Honey Bee Lab when Roger went on sabbatical. Following Cornell, Dewey was apiculturist at the University of Maryland, and then became Dept Chair at University of Delaware.

He served as Professor and Extension Entomologist, teaching introductory courses in entomology, and wildlife biology and beekeeping, and did research or pollination, bee mites, bee pests and queen replacement /swarming. He helped initiate the EAS Master Beekeeper program in 1981. He retired from U DE, but you wouldn't think he was retired from his schedule.

The talk is happening TONIGHT Wednesday, March 30th at 6:30 PM and has a suggested donation of $9.99. As usual, the talk is being held at the Central Park Armory.

RSVP by emailing Liane at or going to their website at

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Report from the [Ohio] Colonies

[An update on the hives in Ohio from my Dad.]

Temperatures were in the 50s, clear with little wind.

I checked the hives at Dido's [my grandfather] house first and I tried baling twine as smoke for the first time. It worked well.

The two swarms from last year had good population in both hive bodies and enough weight to indicate plenty of food.

Hive 1, Italian swarm.

Hive 1.  Check out the Beetle Blaster and the grease patty for tracheal mites.
I see bees on 7 frames.  IN MARCH.  This is going to be a big colony.

Hive 3.  Feral Carnolian/Italian mix.  Don't know where they came from.
Cranky, but productive.

Hive 3.  Fewer bees than the straight Italians, but they'll explode once pollen starts coming in.

There was less population in the hive with the bought bees from last year, but enough, with plenty of honey.

Hive 2. Overwintered Italian package.  Not as robust as Hives 1 and 3, but hey, they survived!

I did not check for egg laying so as not to disturb them too much.

At our house I needed to move the hive to a new base because it was quite crooked. They did not appreciate my efforts. There was good population and food supply.

Hive 4.  The home hive, overwintered.  Requeened last year with Minnesota Hygienic stock.
<3 Marla Spivak.  Needs a bath.

None of the hives had paid much attention to the food patties I put in weeks ago.

Forage!  Or soon to be.

Home is where the cornfield is.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Weekly 101 (3/23/11)

Slow week, for once. The New York City Beekeepers Group has no classes this week or next!

However, next week they are hosting a guest lecture by Prof. Dewey Caron!
This is the second in our Guest Lecture Series. Dr. Caron is a much appreciated speaker and the author of a major textbook on bees. This is an excellent entry point for new members, and promises to be enriching for those who have been attending class.


The key to successful bee stewardship is a working understanding of two important cycles the life cycle of the workers and the seasonal cycle of the bee colony. Looking into a colony we review the life cycle and check that it is progressing normally for workers if drones and queens are being reared that provides us some additional clues as to what is happening.

Concentrating on the key features of the annual seasonal cycle, anticipating versus simply reacting to developments in the colony, can significantly improve annual harvest and/or enjoyment of your bees. I will discuss both life and seasonal cycles and provide an update on the bee loss epidemic.


Prof Caron was a PhD student of Dr. Roger Morse at Cornell. Dewey filled in for Roger as a teacher of his popular introductory beekeeping course and helped insure completion of the Dyce Honey Bee Lab when Roger went on sabbatical. Following Cornell, Dewey was apiculturist at the University of Maryland, and then became Dept Chair at University of Delaware.

He served as Professor and Extension Entomologist, teaching introductory courses in entomology, and wildlife biology and beekeeping, and did research or pollination, bee mites, bee pests and queen replacement /swarming. He helped initiate the EAS Master Beekeeper program in 1981. He retired from U DE, but you wouldn't think he was retired from his schedule.

The talk is happening on Wednesday, March 30th at 6:30 PM and has a suggested donation of $9.99. As usual, the talk is being held at the Central Park Armory.

RSVP by emailing Liane at or going to their website at

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Secret Admirer!?

My car is grubby and full of bee stuff.

When I went to drive up to Fort Greene to pick up the keys to my fancy new rooftop apiary I found this on my hood:

Hello there!



We can be bee friends!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Weekly 101 (3/16/11)

Well, my beekeeping class for the spring is over and I had a lot of fun with it. As usual, I forgot to take a picture until the very end after people had already started to leave, but here are the fine ladies and gentlemen that I managed to corral after the final honey tasting.

People!  Learning about bees!  Awesome!

Hooray, Beekeeping 101!

Keep on the lookout for more short bee lectures, viewings, and one-offs at the Brooklyn Brainery!

As usual, the NYC Beekeeping Group is hosting one of their FREE Winter course lectures tonight, March 16 at 6.30PM! It promises to be another interesting one:
We will start with a summary of how we get our honey "From Rooftop to Tabletop." We will then get back to the comb analysis work we started last week, with more of the high-resolution photos showing unique conditions worth noticing.
As always, the classes are held at the Central Park Armory and you need to RSVP with the group on their website.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Re: honeybees and some questions (Begin forwarded message, Part 2)

From: Michele Liu
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 8.20PM
To: Tim
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hey Tim... Thanks for the quick response!

Haha... I'm laughing at myself for naively thinking that the almond orchards would have any other plant life around them when I should know very well that 1) the "Big Ag" boys wouldn't be smart enough or considerate enough to balance the area out with other sources of life and 2) I grew up in California and have made numerous trips through the state so I should know that you see nothing but monocultures and CAFOs. Yuck. : P

I decided to focus on bees because I feel that there are enough people in the design field who are already working in the area of urban gardening, composting, etc... What I'm interested in is researching and designing around the root of our food issues. For example, I designed a book last year about the history of maize where the reader could trace how the cereal made its way across the world from its origins, Central America. The book consisted of a map with particular areas of the world pinpointed to tell the history, story of how and why it was brought to a certain part of the world and how that part of the world uses the cereal. My point was to show people that our food plants don't just exist everywhere and anytime naturally. It's because of humans endeavors that has allowed a plant like maize to become such an abundantly used and important crop. I also wanted people to understand the importance of always understanding for yourself the facts and reasons behind things so that you may decide independently if something is true and/or safe for you. Like Francis Bacon said, "read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find fault and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

So from a similar perspective, I would like to design something through the subject of bees and food to convey to people that the necessity of understanding and respecting the natural balance of life cycles is critical towards keeping us, and generations to come, alive on this planet. This time I am interested in designing something which will confront the user of my design to be reminded of these cycles and to reconnect with them so that there is a clear understanding that fresh, healthy food requires, time, attention and knowledge. I believe that on top of sustainable actions and thinking, it is important to create emotional bonds as well. It is in this way that I wish to encourage people to move towards living "without strawberries in January". : )

Why I decided to come out to the Netherlands for my Masters degree in design is because the Dutch view design very differently then we do in the U.S. Here, design thinking is used to solve more then the commercial needs of the industrial product world. Here, design thinking is viewed as a way to solve many issues... social, environmental, psychological, medical, etc. So I wanted to come here and utilize my design skills in a different manner because it's possible and because I got tired of making things for people to buy, buy, buy. Prior to this, I worked in the footwear industry for 8 years, even passing through the corporate world at Nike. It was a place in which I knew wasn't going to suit me, but I took the job out of curiosity to see first hand if my suspicions of the corporate world was what I thought it was. Well... it was and worse!

Anyway, right now what I am training myself to do is practice conceptual design thinking that then gets translated into practical solutions in the end. I hope this clarifies a bit more of what my goals are and why I have chosen to focus on the wonderful world of honeybees.

Thank you answering so many of my questions. I was wondering if you received the second email I sent, a few hours after the first, with more questions? If not, here they are again...

I'm wondering what are the possibilities of merging packaging and honey together here...
1) Is it possible for me to control the form of the honeycomb? Can I create a form which encourages the bees to build their wax in a certain way?
2) Is there a way to crystallize an outer layer of honey to create a shell so it protects the inside?

I understand that the color of honey changes depending on the bee's floral source.
3) Does the color of the honeycomb, wax, propolis and royal jelly change as well?

4) Can you explain the process of how honey is made? I understand that it is a combination of nectar and enzymes that come from the bees, but I don't know what happens beyond that.

And yes, I would love for you to share our conversation on your blog. I'm glad to hear you think my questions are good and interesting enough that others will benefit from it!

In regards to visiting your apiary, sounds like I would see nothing if I go within the next few weeks (what would I see?). I think I may be able to fly over in April when you are installing the new bees and hives. I'd prefer to visit you sooner then later since I'd prefer to gather information now, but I guess there's no point if there isn't any activity. Where are you located... Brooklyn? I'm interested in visiting urban hives gardens in the U.S. because I know that I will be moving home, back into a large city, when I graduate this year so I'd prefer to gain knowledge on how things are done there (i.e. legals issues, structures of American cities, etc). From the Netherlands to NY is about the same distance as LA to NY so it's not too big of a trek. Besides, it'll give me a really good reason to get out of the tiny town I'm living in. Haha!

Thanks again for your help. I really do appreciate it. I'm happy to see that we have similar beliefs about the current food system. It really helps to work with people who are like-minded. Keep fighting the fight!

Good night from this side of the world...

PS... I found this. Have you ever heard of this method of beekeeping? Any thoughts on it?

From: Michele Liu
Date: Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 11:36AM
To: Tim
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
sorry... a couple more popped into mind.

do bees forage at night?
what's the smoke used for?
how do commercial beekeepers manage to control the millions of bees they let out to the orchards?


... Michele

From: Tim
Date: Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 5.36PM
To: Michele Liu
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hi Michele,

Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you. It was a busy weekend in which I managed to get absolutely nothing done.

I'll get this out of the way now. I don't blame the 'Big Ag' boys for the problems in our food supply or the problems with our bees. You shouldn't either. It is easy to do so, but it isn't right to. The system that supports them didn't suddenly spring into being, a fully formed monster of monocultures and CAFOs. Like any other organism, it evolved, following the pressures of natural selection. Consumers demand consistent, fresh, and cheap produce, and as the population has grown and become accustomed to the instant gratification of their dietary desires, the farmers have had to match that demand in any way possible. It is as much our fault, as consumers, as it is the farmers'. Big Ag has been growing cyclically, fueled by our wants, and breaking that cycle will require a major shift in the mindset and beliefs of the average shopper.

As you mentioned, it is important that people come to realize that they need to make conscious, independent, and well-informed decisions when choosing their food. So many people still place convenience above health or sustainability, and it will take the combined efforts of all to change that for the better. Unfortunately, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is another problem. Healthy and sustainable foods are often more expensive, sometimes to the point that they are unaffordable for a wide subset of people, resulting in a bit of a Catch-22. Prices can't come down until there are enough consumers willing to buy the products to justify their increased production, but consumers as a whole are so far unwilling or unable to buy the products until they come down in price. There is a lot of inertia to keep things the way they are. Solving this dilemma is going to take some creative thinking, a fundamental change in the way people think about their food and a LOT of effort.

For the record, I love eating strawberries in January. Baby steps.

Back to honeybees?

You MAY be able to influence the form of the comb, but only in a very limited fashion. Left to their own devices, the bees will naturally build lovely straight comb, curved and graceful. You may be able to encourage them to hang and shape those straight combs with an artificial object, like what we beekeepers do with frames in a standard hive, but the bees WANT to build a regular and uniform structure and will reject following a guide that is too far out of the realm of their normal instinct. When thinking about how you can integrate the work of bees into your design, you'll want to keep the concept of bee space in mind. Bees space the combs in their hive in a very specific way, a uniform 5/16s of an inch apart. Any gap smaller than 1/4" they will seal with propolis (bee glue), any gap larger than 3/8" they will bridge with brace comb.

Bees actually preserve their own honey by capping it with fresh, white wax. Capped as it is in the hive, honey lasts indefinitely and does not need to be treated in any other fashion to preserve it. Even extracted honey will last for years if sealed and kept away from moisture. Pure honey with a properly low water content (<18%) is naturally antimicrobial and inhibits the growth of the natural yeasts and bacteria it contains. Extracted honey will almost always crystallize naturally, but can be reliquefied with gentle heating.

Like honey, most of the other products of the hive change in colour, but not always due to the source and makeup of the nectar it was made from. Rather, the wax itself and the comb made from it change and darken with age and use. As comb is used to raise brood, it slowly turns a deep chocolate brown, stained with the cocoons and waste of the young. The bees do a good job of cleaning the cells, but some of the byproducts inevitably leach into the cell walls, staining them. Eventually, the comb will darken to black, at which point most beekeepers will replace it with fresh foundation, in order to limit the spread of disease. Propolis, like nectar, is collected from natural plant sources and so there is some variability in colour but it is almost always a dark brown, with a range from deep red to almost black. As far as I know, royal jelly is relatively uniform. It isn't collected from outside the hive, but is excreted by the hyphopharyngeal glands in the head of adult worker nurse bees, so it isn't directly influenced by the original food source.

Honeymaking is both interesting and gross! When a bee collects nectar from a flower, she will store it in her honey stomach, or crop. On the flight back to the hive, it gets mixed with the enzymes produced by the bee and the natural bacteria and yeasts living in her digestive tract. Once she returns to the hive, she will regurgitate the nectar and pass it off to a “house bee,” whose job it is to turn it into honey. The house bee ingests the nectar and mixes it a second time with the enzymes and microorganisms living in her crop, which start to break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple ones. As the sugars are broken down, she spits out a small drop onto her tongue and then stretches it out in order to increase the surface area and encourage evaporation. While other bees fan their wings to maintain a steady flow of air, she will continue to ball up and stretch out the partially digested nectar, until the water content has been reduced to under 18%. At that point, it is considered “ripe” honey and the bees will store it under wax cappings until they need it. It's a remarkable process. Some people classify honey as a fermented food.

Bees tend not to fly at night. They use the sun for orientation, so without it they would get lost very easily. While they may not be flying, they will continue to work, ripening honey, feeding the brood, tending to the queen, etc., etc., etc.

Beekeepers smoke their hives for two major reasons. I was always told that smoking the bees incites an instinctual response in the bees to gorge themselves with honey and prepare to leave the hive. A hive's natural home is a hollow tree, so bees had to develop a response to deal with forest fires—pick up and leave. A fully engorged bee is fat and heavy and will avoid flying unless necessary. More important than that, smoke serves to mask the alarm pheromones released when the bees detect unpleasant vibrations resulting from clumsy manipulation of the hive by beekeepers, or by stings. Without smoke to cover up that alarm scent, it would dissipate through the hive and cause them to become much more aggressive.

As for the final question, the beekeepers themselves DON'T control the bees they let out into the orchards. The bees themselves have excellent senses of orientation and will almost always return to their own individual hives, guided by location and scent. Some bees will end up in the wrong hives, but it's not a big deal. When the beekeepers are ready to move on, they wait until after dark when the bees are no longer flying, seal the hives up, and cart them away.

You really wouldn't see much of anything if you came right now! All of the hives that didn't survive the winter are just boxes full of comb and cold air. I should be getting all my new bees the weekend of the 9th, so that would be an exciting time to come. However, if you want to see the hive in full swing with all stages of brood and a growing population and lovely new comb, you'll want to come in late April or early May. I'm located in Brooklyn, but there are beekeepers in all five boroughs, many of whom would probably love to show off their hives. If you want to talk to someone with access to a lot of hives, and with a lot of experience in urban beekeeping, you might want to email Jim Fischer, the instructor for the NYC Beekeeping Group. He's had hives in the city for years and is well versed in the legal issues faced by urban beekeepers.

Tim ONeal

P.S. I am very unfamiliar with the BioBees method. Different beekeeper keep their bees differently, depending on their personal philosophies and desires, and I don't think that there is a universal right or wrong way to keep bees.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Cooks Tale

Illustration of the Cook from the Ellesmere Manuscripts, c. 1410.

A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee,
There lived a 'prentice, once, in our city,

And of a craft of vitailliers was hee.
And of the craft of victuallers was he;

Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe,
Happy he was as goldfinch in the glade,

Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,
Brown as a berry, short, and thickly made,

With lokkes blake, ykembd ful fetisly.
With black hair that he combed right prettily.

Dauncen he koude so wel and jolily
He could dance well, and that so jollily,

That he was cleped Perkyn Revelour.
That he was nicknamed Perkin Reveller.

He was as ful of love and paramour,
He was as full of love, I may aver,

As is the hyve ful of hony sweete:
As is a beehive full of honey sweet;

Wel was the wenche with hym myghte meete.
Well for the wench that with him chanced to meet.

Excerpt from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Weekly 101 (3/8/11)

Okay, so I'm pretty excited about tonights FREE Winter Beekeeping Course lecture, hosted by the NYC Beekeeping group tonight:
"There's No Place Like Comb"
Instructor: Jim Fischer

When a beekeeper looks at a hive, the beekeeper looks at combs. Combs and their condition are the best way to gauge a hive's health, robustness, past problems, and future fate.

We will take the accumulated knowledge we have gained of bee behavior and the factors that contribute to and hamper their ability to thrive, and look at high-resolution photos showing good examples of what the beekeeper should look for when looking at a hive.

To show you all these different conditions "in the field" in one season would require us to carefully inspect hundreds of hives and have unprecedented luck. These photos are the accumulated "best examples" found by the instructor in over 25 years of beekeeping.

There is true beauty in the work of bees, so while we all play armchair detective, we will also take a moment now and again to admit just how humbling beekeeping should be.

Class starts tonight, Tuesday March 8th at 6:30PM.

As always, classes are held at the Central Park Armory and RSVPs are a must. To get on the list, email Liane at! I'll see you there!

Begin forwarded message:

From: Michele Liu
Date: February 14, 2011 5:05:23 PM EST
To: Cerise Mayo
Subject: honeybees and some questions
Dear Ms. Mayo...

My name is Michele Liu. I read about you in an article in the New York Times ( and a few other ones I have found on the internet. I was wondering if you could help me answer a few questions regarding beekeeping, honeys and what it is like to be an urban beekeeper.

I am currently pursuing my Masters degree in the Netherlands at the Design Academy Eindhoven, in a program called 'Social Design'.
( Prior to graduating, I am expected to complete a research project of my choice.

I am currently focusing my project on honeybees, why people should be more aware of their sudden disappearance and what it will mean if they are no longer a part of the natural life cycle. I want the end result of my project to be a communication tool which educates people about the processes that occur prior to food arriving at the supermarket and, even the farmer's market. I am also aiming to design something that engages the user/audience into the process of making edible goods.

Up until now, I have only been able to do my research through books, journals, documentaries and the internet. I would really like it if I could also consult an expert on this subject matter. I feel that you would be someone who can offer me some advice and details on honeybees. Would it be possible to ask you some questions? Please let me know if this is OK. If not, I completely understand.

Thank you for reading and I look forward to your reply.

Kind regards...

From: Tim
Date: Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 2:55PM
To: Michele Liu
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hello Michele,

Cerise forwarded me your e-mail, and I would certainly be happy to help and try to answer any questions you may have. I have been a beekeeper for over 13 years, have had hives in both urban and rural apiaries, maintain an urban beekeeping blog, and teach a beekeeping course in Brooklyn.

What would you like to know about?

Tim ONeal

From: Michele Liu
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 8:21AM
To: Tim
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hello Tim...

Thank you so much for your email!

There are so many things I need to know about bees. Where should I begin? Perhaps by talking a bit about my point of view and what I would like to accomplish in my graduation project.

Because most people in modern society are not farmers or living close to the land anymore, our understanding of what our role is within the larger cycle of life and how that cycle operates has been lost. I feel that because we are quite disengaged from this knowledge, people make decisions and go about their everyday lives only thinking of consequences which affect their immediate environment. This is especially noticeable in how the Western industrial agriculture sector operates. "Big Ag" prioritizes functional efficiency, monocultures, pesticides and cost saving techniques over the value and respect necessary to keep nature balanced and running as it should.

A particular practice which I do not understand is the use of commercial bees for pollination of crops such as almonds in California. Why can't bees be raised in the same region as our food crops and if they can, why aren't they? Why is it necessary to truck bees around the country to pollinate these plants, forcing them to only feed off one chemically laden source?

Another recent incident that made me question the world of bees is the Red Hook bees/maraschino cherries factory situation. As wonderful and positive urban agriculture is (and I'm definitely a big supporter of it), I wondered why we haven't focused our attention on how the human world may actually be a bad influence on the little bees. What can we do to support a more harmonious relationship between the human and bee world? There seems to be something in this story that can be addressed through design. I'm not sure how yet, but I've been thinking about it quite a lot. Your thoughts?

The aim of my project is to design a system and an object which allows someone to take part in the food production process which occurs prior to edible goods arriving the supermarkets. My hope is that if someone can see and partake in the complexity of the cycles behind food production and the craft of its makers (in this instance the honeybees and the apiarists), our relationship and appreciation for food takes on another meaning. Will we become more aware of the need to balance things? Will we understand the importance of things such as soil quality, the caring of the animals and permaculture? Perhaps we will become less wasteful with our food? Basically, what I want is to design an object which ultimately designs our behaviors and our relationships with food. The reason why I want to work with honeybees is because they are an important part of our survival and seem to the the perfect host to address many of our modern day food issues... both in dire need of attention at this moment.

Here are some other questions I have... these questions came about while thinking of initial design solutions for this issue.
1) How did honeybees live before humans became apiarists? Can I design something which promotes the health of wild and domesticated (is that how you classify bees that are cared for by beekeepers?) honeybees?
2) What happens to the bees and their honey, wax, propolis and hives if it's not attended by humans? Do they continue to stay in the same hive? Does the honey just crystallize and create some sort of outer coating to preserve itself? Does the wax ever disintegrate?
3) As a material, what are the properties of propolis? Can I use it as a building material?
4) Do bees need to live in complete darkness or can the hive have clear side panels allowing us to view the work they do inside?

I apologize if my questions are naive and possibly silly! I really need to understand a lot of little things about bees and apiary so that my designs are well informed.

One last question... do you think that it would be possible for me to visit you and your hives? If not, I understand.

Thanks so much for reading! Have a nice day and I look forward to your response. Your help is greatly appreciated! : )


From: Tim
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 3:36PM
To: Michele Liu
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hi Michele,

You really answered that first question yourself. The operations of “Big Ag” and the livelihoods of commercial beekeepers are inexorably linked by the consumer's desire for a full selection of produce year round, regardless of sustainability. With the agriculture section's prioritization of efficiency and monoculture comes the requirement for a mobile army of pollinators. These vast tracts of land devoted to a single species simply cannot maintain the honeybee population required to pollinate the entire crop in the short window that it is actively blooming. You mentioned the almond growers in California, and I'm going to use them as an example.

Vast tracts of land (over 600,000 acres [approximately 2500 square kilometres]) are given over entirely to almond trees. In these areas, nothing else of practical value is grown in any significant quantities. In the approximately 22 days of February that these almond trees are in blossom, over a million hives are imported into the state solely to pollinate them. After that short window is closed and the flowers fall, there are simply not enough local, sustainable and natural food sources to sustain those billions of bees. The beekeepers are forced to move them to another area that can sustain a large number of hives—often another monoculture.

The impetus for changing this practice is not going to come from the commercial beekeepers or "Big Ag". They have a system that works for them NOW, and, in the short term, they can cover the costs, both environmental and monetary. In the long term, the push for change will have to come from the individual consumer understanding and accepting that current farming practices are ultimately unhealthy, and that they can live without strawberries in January. It'll take a major paradigm shift, but I believe that the general population will come to it eventually.

Many backyard and rooftop urban beekeepers are very aware of the influence our environment has on our hives. The incident with the maraschino cherry factory is only the brightest example of beekeepers interacting with their community, taking its imperfections in stride, and trying to improve it. Hopefully the issue with the factory will be eliminated or at least reduced in the coming year, but there are always more issues to contend with. Bees and their keepers still face a lot of fear and misinformation in the public theater, and we spend a lot of time (willingly) sharing our passion and educating our friends, neighbors, and acquaintances about the importance of bees to our immediate community and the wider ecosphere.

The thing is, beekeeping is only one aspect of a greater need to be aware of where our food comes from. It is obviously one of the more visually and viscerally striking elements, but it is still just a single facet of the whole. Good beekeepers are aware of the work of other beekeepers as well as those in their community striving for sustainability; composters, community garden volunteers, rooftop gardeners, and all the kinds of people who are willing to place a premium on foods grown locally and sustainably by supporting farmer's markets, CSAs, and food co-ops. Beekeepers need their community, not just to buy their honey, but to share the space needed for an apiary, make conscious decisions regarding their food choices, and provide some portion of the food sources needed by hives. Likewise, communities need beekeepers to provide a healthy and diverse population of bees able to provide the pollination required by local farmers and gardeners. Balance and awareness are key to a sustainable local food system and I believe that with the efforts of beekeepers and their supporters, both will grow with time.

Bees have been around for millions of years, and prior to domestication, they lived in any sort of hollow, dry, and sheltered spot they could find. Hollow trees were probably the most common and inspired the design of the modern hive. Wild or feral bees can be transplanted into the same sort of modern, modular, movable frame hives that we use with our domesticated bees. Most 'feral' bees these days are swarms from hives of beekeepers who either didn't catch them in time or didn't care to. In the wild, hives have a much more shorter lifespan than those kept by a beekeeper. A beekeeper may maintain an individual hive for years with good management and regular rotation and replacement of old, damaged, or diseased comb. In the wild, the bees themselves do not replace comb, but instead use it until it is so old and diseased that the colony will move on or die out. The empty comb and any stores in it will be consumed by wax moths and other insects or animals until it is all consumed and the space is ready to host a new colony.

In a healthy hive, the honey itself has a practically indefinite shelf life. It is mildly antimicrobial and the bees seal it into the comb using a thin layer of fresh wax, in effect 'canning' it. In the comb, honey can last for years.

Think of propolis more as the mortar in a brick wall than the bricks themselves. The bees use it to reinforce and seal their hives, but generally not as a primary building material. It is made from natural plant resins, and like those original resins it is hard and brittle when cold, remarkably gooey and sticky when hot.

Finally, while bees do prefer to live in the dark, they are adaptable and can be put in a glass-walled observation hive so that their activity can be observed without too much disturbance, but there are downsides. Observation hives are relatively high maintenance and require a lot of time and attention to keep healthy. The most sustainable observation hives have two or three layers of comb sandwiched between the sides and stacked several layers high, but this creates its own issues. The queen prefers to work in the dark and if she has a middle layer to hide in, she will. Single-layer observation hives are great for viewing since the queen has nowhere to hide but are somewhat more stressful, and because a single layer provides less storage, they require constant and regular artificial feeding.

Don't worry about asking too many questions. It's a complicated topic. There is a huge amount of factual information and an even larger supply of opinion.

You are more than welcome to come visit my hives. Just keep in mind that they won't be really active until April and May. I'll be installing new bees into new hives the weekend of April 9th. That'll be an exciting time, but you wouldn't be able to see the bees really working until I start checking in on them, 2-3 weeks later.

Bit of a trek from the Netherlands, isn't it?


P.S. Do you mind if I share this correspondence on my blog? You're asking interesting questions, and I think my readers would be interested in the answers.

Part Two

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Weekly 101 Update (3/1/11)

Oy. . . .

Things have been busy! Spring is a beekeeper's busiest time, when a young (wo)man's fancy turns into a box of stinging insects and delicious, delicious honey. On top of (not) writing articles for my blog, I'm in the midst of teaching my Beekeeping 101 course at the Brooklyn Brainery, assembling equipment, and prepping my apiaries for the new bees that are coming April 9th.

For those of you who have just GOTTA GET YOUR BEEKEEPING FIX RIGHT NOW, today is your lucky day.

There are TWO schweet lectures happening tonight! It's disappointing that you'll have to choose between the two because they both sound very interesting, but such is life. You can't go wrong with either of them.

As usual, the NYC Beekeeping Group is hosting a session of it's FREE Winter Beekeeping Course, tonight at 6:30. Tonights lecture topic is:

Last time, "making a split", was mentioned as one way to deal with a hive showing clear signs of swarm preperation. Beekeepers makes splits, nucs, and even shake bees into packages to make two colonies from one.

We will walk through the process of making various types of splits, and discuss which are most appropriate for an urban beekeeper.

Since splits and nucs are small colonies, and need extra care and attention, what we learn here will also be applicable to captured swarms, colonies that have not expaned as much as the beekeeper might like due to poor weather, and colonies weakend by Nosema or other illness.

The "stupid beekeeper tricks" will be a quick review of the myths and myth-conceptions that might mislead you into making a split that is doomed. As usual, many preconceived notions and pronoucements found in books and on the internet will be trashed and thrashed without mercy. Our focus is the welfare of the bees.
This is the talk that I'm going to. Knowing when to make splits and how to prevent swarming is absolutely key to keeping bees in an urban environment, and I feel like I'm a little rusty.

The NYC Beekeeping Association is ALSO hosting a lecture tonight:
Mike Palmers: Colony Management for Honey Production: A beekeeping management plan for a year in the apiary with focus on honey production and successful wintering.

Mike Palmer began keeping bees in 1974 with two packages of Italians from Georgia. In 1982, with 250 colonies of his own, he took a job managing the 500 colonies of bees belonging to Chazy Orchards in New York State. In 1986, he bought their apiary and added apple pollination to my business plan. For 15 years Mike managed 800-900 colonies in the Champlain valley of Vermont and New York for pollination and honey production. In 1998, he began raising his own bees and queens. Eventually, no longer having to buy replacement stock, he was able to give up apple pollination and concentrate on honey and queen production. He now winters 750 production colonies, 400 nucleus colonies, produces some 1200 queens and averages about 40 tons of honey per year.

Mike lives with his wife and Blue Tick hounds in the northern Champlain valley of Vermont. They have two grown daughters, one working at The Juilliard School in NYC, and the other pursuing her Masters degree at C.W. Post on Long Island.
This sounds like a really interesting lecture, especially if you are interested in maximizing your honey crop! The NYC Beekeeping Association hosts a lecture like this on the first Tuesday of every month, and they are ALWAYS interesting. The talk is happening tonight from 7:00 - 9:00PM at the Seafarers & International House, 123 East 15th Street.

As always, remember to check the Calendar page for any and all upcoming beekeeping events in NYC!