Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Brooklyn Grange Beekeeping Apprenticeship: Week 3

“Tell me what you see.”

The answer is bees.  Always with the bees.  (And butts.)
c2012, Shelly Fank

This week there was a lot I could respond with.

On Friday, a few apprentices returned to the Brooklyn Navy yards to check on our packages. The good news: two packages are going strong. They’re drawing comb, laying brood, and bringing home pollen. It seems they are enjoying the beautiful spring weather just as much as we are. The bad news: three packages aren’t doing so well. In the first hive we opened, the queen was dead, quickly validated by Tim recovering her body (Super bee observation skills at work!). The bees had tentatively drawn out a few frames of comb that glistened with nectar, but there was not an egg to be found. The other two hives had queens, but the brood was spottily laid, with some cells empty and others containing more than one egg. These three hives are going to need new queens, either through their own raising or through our help.

Never hold frames horizontally.  If it's hot, the wax can buckle and break.

Keep them vertically oriented, as they are in the hive, to maintain structural integrity.

Lovely new package brood.

Even dead and desiccated, queens are significantly larger than workers.

On Saturday, we learned just the skills to do that. Back at the Brooklyn Grange’s farm in Long Island City, we returned to the two overwintered hives to prepare a walk-away split. As I mentioned last week, the overwintered hives have been growing so rapidly that they are exhibiting signs of swarm preparation: the comb we’d scrapped off last week was built right back and there were several queen cups, sometimes more than one per frame, now full of royal jelly and supporting a queen larva.

To make the split, we prepped a super with some frames of honey, taken from the dead hive we cleaned last week. We then inspected the functioning hives frame by frame. Tim patiently answered all our questions (topics ranged from the genetics of drones from overwintered hives to the taste of royal jelly) and we spent a lot of time passing around frames, learning to spot queens and read the comb.

One instructor, 9 apprentices, and a camera strap.

After finding four or five frames full of capped brood and queen cups, taken from both of the overwintered hives, we had a full super. Before covering it, we shook a few more frames of bees into the box. These bees, regardless of their former task in their old hives, would now be responsible for managing of the tasks for the new one. Most will be nursing the new queens and brood into adulthood, the most crucial task for the survival of the split. The others will take care of the other chores, like foraging and cleaning. It’s amazing to think that in the course of a half an hour we radically changed their lives, forcing them to adapt quickly to a new reality.

Shaking bees like a Polaroid picture.  Or just once.  Yeah, just do it once.

Kamikaze bee is after the camera.

But that’s exactly what we did. The super was closed up and carried in a long procession of apprentices to the other side of the roof, where it will stay closed for a few weeks as the bees raise their new queen.

Next week: Back to the Navy Yards? A return to the Brooklyn Grange? The answer is a mystery to me as well. But one thing is sure, there’s going to be bees. A lot of bees.

Friday, April 20, 2012

4/20 Smoke Bees Erryday

4/20, a day when we can all get together and smoke some bees.

Or catch them.

Today, while inspecting hives in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a small group of apprentices, I received a text from Meg Paska, The Brooklyn Homesteader.

"A friends bees swarmed in Carroll Gardens. Want free bees?"

The answer is yes.

Yes, I would like free bees.

Thank you kindly.

Catching a swarm is one of the coolest things you can do as a beekeeper. The bees themselves tend to be healthy, as swarms cast from hives that were strong and resilient enough to survive the winter.  They're docile as well; without a hive or brood to defend, they have no reason to sting unless seriously mishandled. That said, it's usually a good idea to wear basic protective gear like a veil. When knocking bees out of a tree, it is surprisingly easy to drop them in your face, and having a bee crawl up your nose is an experience I urge you not to try.

There are other risks as well. Swarms often enjoy alighting in hard to reach places. Up trees, on top of lamp posts, in chimneys, etc. Always remember to be safe and respect the limits of your abilities and equipment. Free bees are great, but they aren't worth hurting yourself. There are many people and beekeeping clubs (including me and the Backwards Beekeepers of NYC) who are happy to help catch swarms and give them a good home. Ask for help if you need it.

Back to the story.

I had an appointment in Red Hook to inspect the hives at the Added Value Community Farm and knew that there was a lot of extra equipment to hive a fresh swarm in, but by the time I was finished with my inspections, it was almost 3 and I figured that someone else would have collected the swarm.

I mean, free bees, right? Irresistible.

Still, I figured I was due for some good luck. Accompanied by one of the Brooklyn Grange Beekeeping Apprentices who was free for the afternoon, I threw some boxes (tupperware!?) into my car and booked it to Carroll Gardens.

I dropped Allison, the apprentice, off at the corner with instructions to find the house with the swarm while I went around the block trying to find a place to park. If someone had already laid claim to the swarm, I could just swing back around and she could jump right back in. No fuss, no muss. When I found parking, which happened to be extremely easy, I found Allison standing out in front of a bright pink flowering ornamental cherry tree. Up at the top was a remarkably large swarm, hanging from a thick branch and buzzing contentedly.

Hello, ladies.

After I finagled a ladder from a friendly neighbor, I set it up under the swarm, being very careful not to stomp on the flowers underneath. I sprayed the bees with sugar syrup to get them full, heavy, and calm while I maneuvered the large plastic tub I had brought into place under the swarm.

Would you care for a snack?


I quickly jerked the large branch the cluster was hanging on, the entire mass of bees fell into the box with a thud, and I slipped on the lid.

Swarm captured.

Bam them bees into the bucket.  Don't smash them!  A quick, firm tap will do.

Closed up and super excited.

The action sent a cloud of confused worker bees flying, so I waited several minutes for them to land on the branch again and shook them into a small cardboard box, which I quickly emptied into the main tub of bees. I did that a couple times and ended up only leaving a handful of bees behind hanging out on the branch. They should find their way back to their original hive over the next day or two with no problem, as long as I got the queen.

Catching the stragglers and showing off my worn out bee pants.

Get in my swarm box, or I will point at you with strong intent.

With the bees in tow, I gingerly placed them in the back of my car, returned the borrowed ladder and headed back to Red Hook where I had set up a deep hive body full of drawn frames to accept the new bees.

Looks like plenty of room.  For a package, this would be huge.

Once I arrived, I opened up the hive and started pouring. So many bees.

Slightly bigger than a three pound package.

Quite a bit bigger, in fact.

After they were all out of the tub, I did my best to close the hive without squashing too many and started transferring any large masses of bees hanging on the outside of the hive to the entrance at the front.

A small gob of bees.  Warm and fuzzy.

I'm covered in bees.

When I left them, they were marching in and spraying Nasonov with their butts up on the air. Good signs.

Allison, looking triumphant with a buttload of bees.  That's a technical term.

Welcome home!

This is probably the biggest swarm I have ever caught and it barely fit into a 10 frame deep. I'm going to have to go back soon and give them extra room to expand into. If their queen is good and starts laying, they're going to grow, and they're going to do it fast.


Brooklyn Grange Beekeeping Apprenticeship: Week 2

Saturdays have become my favorite day of the week and not just because of the weather. While others are lazily lounging in the park working on their tans, I can instead be found covered up in white with the apprenticeship program. Certainly, there could be few better places to spend these wonderful weekend afternoons than on the Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop farm in Long Island City. Just above a bustling street, it’s quite a treat to hear long grasses rustle in the wind and the bees buzz.

Brooklyn Grange (in Queens) and a line of beekeeping apprentices.

This week the Brooklyn Grange Bees apprentices learned hive inspection skills at the Long Island City farm. We started off taking apart an abandoned hive whose colony didn’t survive the winter. Prying the supers apart and cleaning off propolis proved a good way to break in our brand-new hive tools and practice proper handling technique. It was also an exciting opportunity to learn about the behavior of bees during the winter. Opening the hive frame by frame felt almost like a criminal investigation—was there evidence of any foul play, perhaps by varroa mites? What about adequate food supplies? Examining the comb closely, we could see dead bees that had crawled into the comb to help with heating. It seems the colony was too small to create enough heat to survive the winter.

On a lighter note, we found several frames of untouched honey, which were quickly turned into a snack for the volunteers at the Grange. Spring and fall varieties were stored right next to each other, allowing us to perform a taste test and basically gorge ourselves on the sweetness of the fresh honey. After breaking for water and to clean our very sticky hands, we headed to the other side of the roof for the first hive inspections!

Brood frame on left, honeycomb on right.

Working on overwintered hives was a drastic change from working with the packages a week before. These were bees with an established home that they were willing and able to protect. Keeping the smoker burning and distracting the bees was essential. The bees were right to be wary of us coming in as opening the first hive caused the comb the bees had built between the super and the inner cover to rip off and tear apart rows of drone brood. While sad, it was an incredible opportunity to take a look at the different phases of larval development. Thankfully there was also plenty more brood inside the supers. Passing around the frames, we could see the larvae chewing their way out of the comb, emerging, and descending right back in to clean our their cells. It might sound bizarre, but it was actually a beautiful sight. I’m continually amazed by the efficiency of the bees, of their ability to function from the moment of their birth to their last flight out of the hive as a cohesive and prosperous unit.

Cleaned out drone brood.  Purple-eyed pupae on top, late stage and cocooning larvae on the bottom.

Prosperous might be a bit of an overstatement actually. These bees are booming. Opening the second hive we found several supersedure cells. As we located the queen in another frame, very much alive and laying eggs, this could only mean the hive had outgrown its frames and is getting ready to swarm. Thankfully we had available frames from the abandoned hive (expertly cleaned by our very hands earlier that day) that were swapped in. Hopefully, we were in time to avoid the swarm, but only future checks will tell.

Capped brood in the middle, larvae and eggs around it, surrounded by pollen and corners of honey.
Practically perfect in every way.

I’m not sure whether we’ll be back to see these hives as next week we return to the Brooklyn Navy Yards to continue building the apiary, which I’m happy to report is now completely funded! (Many thanks to everyone who contributed!) But the visit was impactful for more than the hours logged. It’s easy to forget the life cycle of the bee when the population turns over so quickly and a frame of brood is replaced with another and then another and then another. The chance to see the various hives, both dead and alive, was a wonderful gift and reminder of the mortality of the bee.

Brooklyn Grange Beekeeping Apprenticeship: Week 1

This past Saturday, my mild (well, more like obsessive) interest in bees changed course as I transitioned from armchair bee enthusiast to full-fledged rooftop beekeeper.

I read about the apprenticeship program of the Brooklyn Grange Apiary Project, Brooklyn Grange's creation of the largest commercial apiary in the city, through this very blog. I had been interested in beekeeping for several years, but without property of my own I did not think I would actual become a beekeeper, at least not while I was living in New York. So when I heard about the project I was overjoyed. As an apprentice, I would learn the ins and outs of beekeeping—everything from preventing swarms to harvesting honey to queen breeding—while helping manage the apiary's 20+ hives. I would also get the chance to share my new skills, teaching others and helping build the beekeeping community. The chance to spend my weekends with a bunch of people as excited about bees as me? Please. It would be a dream come true.

The dream team.
c2012, Alex Brown

It all happened quite suddenly. One week after I applied, I received a phone call telling me the great news that I had been accepted to the apprenticeship program, and the next, I was being texted a location in the Brooklyn Navy Yards to come out and assemble the first hives. At Ted & Honey’s CafĂ©, located in the Navy Yards, I met Tim and the eleven other apprentices. I also got my first look at the empty roof that would soon be buzzing with activity.

Surprisingly, it all went smoothly. Sitting in the back of Tim’s car were five packages of bees, loudly humming and ready to be freed. After a brief discussion of the task before us, we picked up the packages, our gear, and the equipment necessary to assemble the hives, and headed up the four flights of stairs to the roof. As it was a Saturday, the offices we passed were empty, but I couldn’t help thinking how those who work inside would react if they saw us crating thousands of bees past their doors. You have to admit, there’s something slightly comical about it.

Fifteen pounds of fun.

On the roof, we assembled four supers worth of frames, brushing up on our craft skills as we inserted foundation and nailed it in place. In assembly line fashion, we made a good team, finishing quickly so the fun could begin: installing the packages. I had read Tim’s blog post on package installation before arriving that morning, but as I donned my enormous hat and veil, I definitely felt my heart catch in my throat. This was it. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I was no longer going to merely observe bees, but work with them, look after their needs and help them thrive.

More hands, more better.

We watched Tim masterfully install the first package. Then in teams of four, we worked our way through the process. It certainly was not as easy as it looked. There were some shaky fingers, which made for trouble prying open the package and pulling out the feeding can so we could shake the bees free. Emptying a three-pound box of bees with your bare hands sounds like a daunting task. But actually doing it, feeling the bees woosh past my hands, brushing and sometimes lightly bouncing off my fingertips, was not overwhelming at all. It felt exhilarating and bizarre, but oddly right. I doubt you could see my face beneath the enormous veil, but I’m sure I was positively beaming.

Pouring bees like water.
c2012, Alex Brown

Letting the apprentices take a turn.
c2012, Alex Brown

By the end of the afternoon, our brand new suits were speckled with bee poop, evidence of our encounters, and the once barren rooftop now held the four fledgling hives. While certainly not as excited as they had been thirty minutes before, the bees were still circling around their new homes, acclimating themselves to their surroundings and asserting their presence. As we learned, the bees in each package were randomly selected from a variety of hives. Now, exploring the perimeters of their new home, they are about to make themselves into a functioning unit, a coordinated and responsive team. I look forward to spending the summer with my fellow apprentices, as we, like the bees, learn from each other and develop into a thriving team.

Hooray for bees!
c2012, Alex Brown

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Constantine Pereyma was born July 14, 1919 in his parents’ home in the small village of Ropicia Ruska (now Ropicia Polska) in the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland. He was an ethnic Ukrainian from the Lemko region. As a young teenager he was sent away to school in the city and eventually entered the University of Cracow in the School of Physical Education. He was there when the Second World War began. He moved west to Munich in Bavaria, Germany, and entered Dental School. His name was found on a list in the pocket of a man arrested by the Gestapo and he in turn was arrested and imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp. He was moved to the prison in the courtyard of Gestapo Headquarters in Munich to cut and replace glass shattered by Allied air raids. By the end of the war he was forced to defuse unexploded Allied bombs. After the war he completed his dental training and then enrolled in medical school in Erlangen, Germany where he met his wife Armenia (Aka). After medical school they emigrated to the United States. He paid for their passage by working as a dentist aboard ship. He worked briefly in Buffalo, New York, and then entered medical residency at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. There he worked with Dr. Clarence Dennis on improvements to the heart/lung machine. After he completed a double residency he worked briefly for the Veterans Administration and then moved to Troy with his wife and three children to join the practice of Dr. Kenneth Lowry. They arrived here in 1959 with a station wagon and little else.

When he started practice in Troy, General Surgery encompassed almost everything except the heart and brain. He performed many orthopedic surgeries, using some of the first orthopedic rods and nails. He performed many cancer operations. He took particular pride in doing what had not been done here before and in doing what others said could not be done. A barber once came to him with a problem that other doctors said was terminal. Dr. Pereyma told him otherwise, and the barber cut his hair once a week over the next twenty years.

Dr. Pereyma encouraged and supported his wife in her art. With his son, Marco, he was one of the founding shareholders of Troy Cable Television. He continued performing surgery until his retirement from practice in 1992.

Dr. Pereyma and his wife of over sixty years, Aka, raised three children in Troy. Their son Marco lives with his wife Agnes in Binic, France. They have five children: Pauline, with her daughter Eleanore; Marieanne, with her husband Louis de Lespinay and their children Alexander and Irene; Sophie with her son Vincent; and Constantine and Maximilien. Their daughter Barbara Farrara and her husband Scott of North Haledon, New Jersey have two daughters, Sophia and Jacqueline. Their daughter Christina O’Neal and her husband Robert of Troy, Ohio have three children, Maire, Timothy and Helen. He was preceded in death by his father, Timothy and mother, Sophia, his brothers Stanislaw and Eugene and his sister Irene.

University of Cracow, prior to WWII.

Testing the heart bypass machine in Brooklyn, NY.
Center, with Dr. Clarence Dennis on right. 

At my mother's wedding.

Makin' bubbles.

Reading the paper with me.