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Pollen Sacs.

The pride of any apiarist–bees returning to the hive laden with pollen from the local flora. It is this transfer of pollen that allows bees to pollinate our gardens, crops and wild flora. It is also a key source of protein for the bees and their young.

Look closely and you’ll see that each bee brings with it clues about where it’s been-what flowers it has visited. Each flower has its own unique pollen color, and pairing that with the time of year we can better understand where our bees have been. Light yellow pollen in March or April is likely from maple, while a light olive green that same month is from the crab apples. In June we’ll be looking for the light gray pollen of blackberries.

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Sex in the Hive.

And gender. Most people are aware that the queen is the mother of all the bees in the hive, but there are other interesting details about gender and sex within the colony.

The vast majority of bees within the hive are female-the workers. These are the bees we see coming and going form the hive laden with pollen and nectar. These are the bees who do all of the building and brood rearing-they forage for food and maintain the health of the entire colony.

Drones are the male bees within the colony, whose primary role is to be ready to fertilize a queen bee on her mating flight. Some speculate that their pheromones within the hive help maintain a balance and a healthy social dynamic, but they do no real work beyond their fertilization duties.

The larger bee in this image is this hive’s queen (she escaped while installing the bees). The workers are gathered around to tend to her needs.

 

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The Mother of Them All.

While she isn’t related to any of the bees in the initial package we install, in a few short months this queen will have laid the egg for each and every bee in the hive. She is an Apis mellifera ligustica-gentle, industrious and fertile.

By the end of summer she’ll be surrounded by 50,000-60,000 of her children.

 

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Festooning.

A beautiful mystery within the hive. There are various theories about the specifics of festoons and festooning-bees joined leg-to-leg in an open airy pattern within the frames.

 

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Keep your tools and your tools will keep you.

They last thing you want in the middle of a hive inspection is for your smoke to go out. Take time to be sure its well lit and well stocked. When you need a puff of smoke is no time to be reaching for your lighter.

I really like the current model of domed smokers as they have a removable, perforated liner. These are much more forgiving for the beginning beekeeper as they ensure better airflow around the fuel than the cone-topped smokers with only a permanent perforated bottom. I use big wood shavings or clean paper to get the smoker lit and then top with loose raw cotton to give me good thick smoke. If you have access to fresh clean grass, a little wad placed on top of the dry fuel will ensure that the bees only get cool, calming smoke.

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Visual Communication

I have heard that Italian bees are more prone to “drift” than others and can benefit from additional visual cues for their individual hives. To help them in their first few weeks in the apiary, I drew unique shapes near the entrance on each reducer, in essence giving each hive a unique address. Ideally this will help the bees recognize which of three hives they should return to.

Like humans, bees are trichromatic-their eyes have three different color receptors for viewing a wide range of colors. But we see things quite differently.

It is highly unlikely that our bees see much different between the Red and black shapes, as their visual perception does not extend much beyond green. It does, however, cover the ultraviolet range. The bees are much more likely to rely on the shape coding of each hive.

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A Little Smoke Goes a Long Way.

Just a light puff of smoke or three through the opening in the inner cover helps calm the bees and keep them in the hive. There are two main ideas about how and why smoke works to keep the colony calm during an inspection. First is that bees communicate through scent-the queen emits pheromones that unite the colony, the workers judge the health of each other and the hive by smell, and they alert each other to danger via scent. A few puffs of smoke can help mask any alarm signal the workers may be sending, helping keep the rest of the bees relaxed.

The other idea is that the smell of smoke triggers an instinctual evacuation process for the bees-but before the fire gets to the hive, they want to load up on all the honey and nectar they can. Many of the bees will head into the hive, gorging on honey, and stay there in a blissful state of satiation while we inspect the hive. A false alarm that pays dividends.

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Gloves Off.

The gloves are off, but close by. I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking beekeeping philosophy with Corky of the Ballard Bee Company prior to starting up our apiary. We share a common interest in the care and consideration with which we approach beekeeping, and we both enjoy a little thrill. At his encouragement, I’m working to practice bare-handed beekeeping. This helps keep you more in tune with the bees-their temperament and mood. You become more keenly aware of your impact on the colony. Slow, deliberate movements help avoid crushed or angered bees-and if the bees are happy, the keeper is happy.

Of course the little adrenaline rush of reaching bare-handed into a hive might have a little something to do with it.

(You may note that I wear gloves at key times-on the very rare occasion that I work the hive in less than ideal weather, its a good idea, as the bees are less than excited to be out in it.)

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