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Archive for November, 2009

Mary Beth: Winter is coming, I think, and even though the weather continues to be unusually warm for this time of year, I’ve been getting the bees ready.

So, what about the bees? Every time I tell someone that Ray and I are moving back to Colorado (Ch, Ch, Changes), I hear this question. I’ll say, “We’re leaving.” and then, wait for it, wait for it…a look of dismay and “What about the bees?!” Of course it’s logical, but I’ve been a little surprised and amused that the fate of my bees worries them. On the other hand it’s nice that my friends and readers have become so engrossed in this story that one of their first thoughts is for the bees.

So here is the answer.

Out of the three hives that I ended up with after the swarm season, the Top Bar Hive is the only one that survived.

The Hippie Shack

For some reason the other two lost their queens after they swarmed (read about it here and here) and I ended up shaking out the remaining bees in front of the TBH in hopes that they would be accepted into the hive. Losing the Blue and Green hives made me very sad — I was surprised by how much I’ve come to love my bees.

As for the Hippie Shack (named in honor of the laid-back nature of these bees), I checked it recently and it didn’t have as much honey as I thought it should. I think the hive was being robbed. I put an entrance reducer in to make the the hole smaller to give the guard bees less area to defend. Now, even with the warm weather prolonging the season, I’m worried that they won’t have time to store enough food to make it through the winter.

Since Ray and I decided to leave after the holidays, I’ve been trying to figure out how to leave the bees with enough food. I researched fondant ‘bee candy’ and it seemed like a good solution, so I made a frame to hold it and placed that in the hive.

This small frame holds 5 pounds of sugar fondant!

Another good thing about the bee candy is it won’t cause the moisture problems inside the hive that the sugar syrup did in the early spring. I placed the fondant between the false back and the last comb hoping it wouldn’t attract any more robber bees.

I hope the warm weather will last long enough to let them build up their supplies. Every day they’ve been coming in with a lot of pollen, which is a very good thing.

I think she's posing!

Dandelions and the last of the aster are blooming, so I think this is where they are getting the bright orange pollen.

Another sign that the bees are preparing for winter is each day a few more drones have been getting kicked out of the hive. I watched this play out one day — those girls are ruthless!

Poor drone!

One poor male was pulled by his leg and tossed out like yesterday’s paper. It’s a cruel, cruel world my friends, but there is not enough to go around in winter for lazy freeloaders.

I moved the hive from it’s original spot so it will get maximum sun exposure all winter. This should allow the bees to break cluster on sunny winter days.

I also wrapped the hive to give it a little more insulation and to keep the wind out. Now it’s up to the bees. Other than a few more feedings before we leave for Colorado, my girls are on their own until March.

You may wonder why I haven’t given the hive away. I did consider moving the hive to my friend’s property, but I was afraid if I moved it up the steep, bumpy road to my friend’s house, a comb or two might break off ruining any chance of the bees’ survival. So I decided to leave them where they are on my family’s property. I’ll fly back east in the spring for a visit and check on the bees and I’ve arranged for my beekeeper friends to check on them now and then. Fortunately the TBH needs little maintenance and the bees will take care of themselves.

Becoming a beekeeper has been a wonderful journey. Learning about honeybees opened up new worlds for me, not just the world of honeybees in my garden, but the important roles of all pollinators and how critical every last one of them is. It’s led me to examine the negative impact we’ve all had on our environment. I’ve been reading about the decline of the honeybee from Colony Collapse Disorder — just one of many examples of our carelessness towards our environment. But the good thing is it’s made me more aware of what I’ve been doing.

So, with that new-found awareness, I try to do my part to help by adding native plants to the existing flower gardens. And I’ve decided that I will delay mowing the outer fields until after the first frost to allow time for the last of the butterflies to emerge from their cocoons and to let the wildflowers reseed themselves for next year.

Of course, at the center of it all is the honeybee, the incredible little powerhouse.  If you have not yet read any books on honeybees, you should. Some of the things you learn will astound you.

It’s been a great year even with the loss of two hives and no honey to harvest. And next spring I will have a hive in Colorado with even more challenges — bears, skunks and who knows what else, but I have a plan!

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Mary Beth: Is there anything more amazing than a butterfly, especially a monarch? From its very beginning as a tiny larva, to the chrysalis, to the magnificent winged creature migrating thousands of miles to begin the cycle anew, there isn’t a moment of its life cycle that isn’t breathtakingly beautiful.

Swamp Milkweed grows wild on the back slope of my garden and for the past three years I’ve been encouraging it to expand. It provides food for my honeybees and for the monarch butterflies that call Block Island home. Both of them love it and, although it threatens to take over the back half of my garden, I’ll keep letting it seed itself because it is a valuable food source for these pollinators (monarchs are second only to bees in that category) and a critical link in the life cycle of the monarch.

Milkweed

Milkweed blossoms in early July

So I provide food and water for the butterflies, and they give back endless hours of fascination and joy — there’s nothing that lifts my heart more than company of the monarchs as I work in my garden.

In a good butterfly year, the elm trees that separate the garden from the rest of the property will be draped in monarchs, though we haven’t seen this phenomenon for some years now. Wondering why they always come back to that spot, I did a little research and found out that some scientists have speculated that the monarchs might leave a scent on the trees that attracts the next generation.

All summer I watched for signs of the monarchs. First there were the little larvae.

Tiny monarch larva

Then they fattened up and became plump caterpillars hungrily munching great chunks of milkweed. (Honestly, between watching the bees and the butterflies, it’s amazing I got any work done.)

LargeLarvae

Hungry caterpillars

Soon milkweed city grew quiet and I started to search for the chrysalis. And I searched and searched. I’d almost given up on that mid-September day when I was sitting in the garden eating grapes. Suddenly a small green capsule caught my eye.

Chrysalis

The chrysalis was hard to spot

I kept a close watch on the chrysalis for the next couple of weeks.

Chrysalis2

Almost ready to hatch

Gradually it turned dark and I could more clearly see the butterfly folded up inside. I knew it would hatch very soon, so I made sure I always had my camera with me at all times so I wouldn’t miss the big event.

The next day the sky opened up. As it had all summer, it rained buckets.  Suddenly, in between downpours, the sun burst through the clouds. I grabbed my camera and ran for the garden. Surely the butterfly wouldn’t hatch in this foul weather.

Chrysalis3

Minus its inhabitant, but still beautiful

BUtterfly1

The female monarch — newly hatched and drying her wings

Butterfly2

A magnificent creature — her wing webbing is thicker and she lacks the black spot on each of her hind wings that mark the male butterfly

I missed the hatching, but got beautiful pictures of the minutes-old butterfly. This gorgeous creature, the fourth and longest-lived generation of this season’s monarchs, is on her way to Mexico now. She’ll spend the winter there, reproduce, and finally die.

Butterfly3

Soon she'll be off on her long journey

Vaya con Dios little butterfly. Send your babies back to my garden!

P.S. See our Resources page for links to lots of monarch butterfly information, including how you can make your garden more monarch-friendly.

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Barbara: I got a call this morning from Mary Beth directing me to Garden Rant blog. Today’s guest rant, “Who cares about honeybees, anyway?” by Xris, the Flatbush Gardener had gotten her all worked up, and rightly so. As I read it, I could feel my blood pressure rising. This rant, by someone who is mostly on the right side of issues we care about, had such a flip, dismissive attitude towards honeybees and CCD that we could barely contain ourselves.

So what’s a blogger to do when she’s spittin’ mad? Well, blog, of course. So here’s our rant — minus the typos in our original comment on the GR site — about today’s Garden Rant rant. (That’s a lotta rantin’!)

“While we agree with the idea of supporting native pollinators, we strongly disagree with Xris’ shortsighted dismissal of the importance of the honeybee which seems to be based on the notion that it is not part of the ecosystem and therefore expendable. Really?! Though not a native species, honeybees have been a part of the ecosystem (which is the relationship of living organisms and the environment), like it or not, since the colonists arrived.

CCD is important not only because it’s killing an irreplaceable agricultural asset, but because it’s a symptom of a greater problem. Honeybees are essentially the “canary in the coal mine”. They are in trouble because they are treated and managed as livestock — fed cheap, non-nutritious HFCs, trucked across the country, worked under extremely stressful conditions, and then dosed with chemical cocktails to eliminate parasites that have taken advantage of their weakened state. This mentality has gotten us into serious trouble with more than honeybees, as a tour of any feedlot will show.

Because of the CCD “alarmists”, scientists have discovered that our unsustainable practices, such as chemical pesticide usage and mono-cropping, have led to the die-off of native species as well — a fact that might have gone unnoticed until it was too late as it did in an area of China that was so overdosed with pesticides that the local population must HAND POLLINATE crops or starve.

Our use of honeybees as pollinators is not the problem. The problem is how we treat them and the rest of the ecosystem as if it were there only for our benefit. Until we realize that we are a small part of the bigger picture and treat the earth and all its creatures as if they matter and with respect for their needs, we are in danger of killing the very things that keep us alive.”

At this point, having gotten it off our chests, we might feel better, except that we don’t. It all matters, every last little bit and time is running short, people. Every one of us needs to give a crap and DO SOMETHING! So, yes, create hedgerows and other habitats for pollinators, keep some hives, plant native species and use organics for pest control. But, please don’t downplay the issue of honeybee disapperance and Colony Collapse Disorder as old news or as not important. The stakes are too high.

Mary Beth and Barbara

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