Monday, May 31, 2010

A Coward's Guide to Beekeeping

A Coward’s Guide to Beekeeping

Some people jump out of planes for excitement, some climb Annapurna. My foray into nerves, high blood pressure and profuse sweating is the gentle art of beekeeping. Usually I dislike the things I fear, but I adore my bees. Nevertheless, it took an enormous surge of willpower to get suited up to visit the bees and make sure last week’s hiving went well.

The idea, as you may recall, is to get the bees out of their package and into the hive, where they fly around getting used to the queen, who dangles in her own cage, nibbling at the candy plug, as the bees outside eat their way in. Presumably, all this eating and smelling her pheromone make for love, and when the plug is consumed, she is welcomed into the hive to lay eggs and found a dynasty.

Things can go wrong, however. If you come back a minute before a week has passed, the hive is likely to blame the disturbance not on you, the nosy giant, but on the new queen, and when she peeks out of her cage, kill her.

Yesterday would have been the day to visit, but I “forgot”, being so taken up with gardening. Today was just as sunny, with less wind, an ideal day to open the hive and see what’s been going on.

With some reluctance, I suited up. Some beekeepers saunter into their bee yards wearing shorts and t shirts. I didn’t have a suit for the first year, and that made me nervous and neglectful. I’d lift the top of the hive, see a writhing mass of bees, say a quick hello, close ‘em up again and sprint home. Needless to say, I didn’t have the faintest idea of what was actually happening in the hive-- was the queen laying properly? Were there queen cells (a sign of an impending swarm)? Were the bees drawing out comb, storing pollen and curing honey? These are all questions a beekeeper should ask and be able to answer.

So I got a suit, and still managed to get stung, through the mesh of the headgear, no less, about 20 times, by bees I had managed to enrage to the point of suicidal vengefulness. When bees sting, their stingers and venom sacs are torn from their bodies. The sacs continue to pump venom into their victim, which is why one should try to pluck them out, if at all possible. That time, I didn’t succeed because my neck and ears were underneath the “protective’ head gear. If I opened it, I would allow the other 200 apoplectic bees access. Puffing smoke around my head to disguise the alarm pheromone emitted by the stinging bees (which signals a Situation to her warlike sisters), would have been a great idea, had my smoker not gone out.

The smoker resembles a coffeepot with a bellows attached, and I have never gotten mine to work reliably. You build the fire in the belly of the pot, the smoke comes out the spout and you aim it at bees you want to calm, or sting sites you want to camouflage. If there is some clever designer out there with a better idea, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

To cut to the chase, the queens are out. I didn’t find them. That’s the next task, a kind of moving Where’s Waldo?, only the queens are inconsiderately not wearing red and white striped t shirts.

What I did find was a lot of burr comb. This is the free-form comb that bees build in the wild (see photo). I had neglected to put back enough frames in the hive to prevent the bees from getting creative. Normally there are ten frames in the hive, leaving just enough bee space for the bees to move between frames but not so much that they can design porches, bridges and other inconvenient architecture.

Last year, I did not immediately clean out the burr comb, out of a combination of ignorance, cowardice and laziness. I thought it was pretty and interesting. Last year’s bees built more of it, hid the queen in it, and I discovered too late she hadn’t been laying eggs at all, she had been so busy decorating. She had to be replaced.

Having learned my lesson, today I cut out the burr comb, replaced all ten of the frames, added a pollen patty (a delicious patty of pollen and honey that stimulates brood production), changed the water in the feeder (bees need fresh water, and had consumed almost a quart over the week), closed up the hive and with a huge sigh of relief, left. A week’s bee effort had been wasted on comb I had to take out. I left it by the hive so they could clean it out. Next week, I’ll bring the cleaned comb home for making lip balm.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The New Bees

The New Bees

Sunday I picked up two packages of bees from Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield, Mass. Each “package” consists of a few thousand bees in a wire cage, with the queen in her own special cage, suspended within it, and a can of sugar syrup, at which they’ve sipped for the past few days on their journey from Georgia to Massachusetts.

Although a few bees clung to the outside of the packages as I put them in the back of the car, they didn’t bother the five human passengers, they were so intent on the bees within the cage, or perhaps the queen.

I had the choice of Italian bees, which I’ve always had, and Russian. I chose one package of each.

This will be interesting. Russians are reputed to swarm more easily, but they survive cold weather better. They even need fewer bees to cluster up and keep the queen warm. They may not be as gentle natured as Italians, either. But after the Amazons, my semi-wild hive, they seem pretty tame.

We drove home, and my son’s girlfriend, the good sport, read me the directions as I quickly hived the bees from their cages.

Lacking a mister to spray them down with pacifying sugar water, I poured sugar water on them through the mesh. Then I pried off the lid, and gently pulled out the queen cage. There she was, pacing within it, attended by her Workers In Waiting. Her cage was covered in bees already getting whiffs of her pheromones. I carefully prized out the cork that covered the wad of candy in her doorway, and lowered the queen cage into the hive, hanging it between two frames. Over the next few days, she will be eating the candy from her side, and her soon-to-be-devoted hive mates will eat the candy from the other side. If everything works out, and the workers accept her as their own, she will eventually be freed to roam around the hive laying eggs. The next step required a deep breath-- I just shook the soccer ball sized mass of bees onto the frames after her. They were so intent on getting near the queen and setting up house, they didn’t even mind, let alone try to sting me.

That will undoubtedly change, when they get to know their territory. Not everyone left the wire box, so I just laid in on the ground next to the hive, put on the inner cover, positioned the sugar water feeder over the hole in its top and went on to the other hive.

I’m supposed to leave the hives alone for a few days so the bees will bond with their respective queens, free them and begin the business of the season: laying eggs, rearing young, gathering nectar to cure into honey, thereby pollinating my garden.

Although this spring I’ve noticed a marked uptick in non-honeybee pollinators--there are, for instance, loads of bumblebees around-- I’ve still missed my girls. The farm seemed sort of empty without them. On Monday morning, when I went out to the back porch to water some hanging plants, I saw a honeybee cruising around looking for nectar sources. I was overjoyed.

Images: The bee package (3 times, I don't know why), the hive with the bees happily scampering about, and an empty queen cage, which is what I hope to see when I next look!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Marshmallow Gene

My mother loved marshmallows. Whether they were Sta-Puffed or those nearly florescent little chickens you find at Easter, she adored them all. She also considered herself a private person, but she loved kid parties. I don’t know why; it was not a trait you’d expect in an exacting editor who relished crosswords and murder mysteries.

But I think her enthusiasm was real. She often encouraged me to have friends over to make things. Out would come cigar boxes, macaroni, flour paste and gold spray paint. Two messy, busy hours later, my friends and I had produced hideously garish jewelry boxes to present to our mothers. Or it would be earrings, dollhouses, or Barbie ensembles.

This was more than just child energy containment policy. The projects often invited chaos. Group baking from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls was in itself a recipe for a mess, even if it resulted in jelly rolls, cookies, half sunken cakes, and more to the point, batter. She was un-phased by any of it, despite the fact she worked at home.

Moreover, I was allowed to have sleepovers with friends quite regularly, and at least twice in junior high, for my birthday, a crowd of girls slept over with me in our barn. At that point in the year, it was usually about half full of baled and loose hay. These sleepovers included an astounding amount of food, 3 AM volleyball games, jumping in hay and hardly any sleep. My parents made it through the night by each taking a sleeping pill. They slept soundly as we laughed, ate, played and of course, screamed. My parents’ sainthood didn’t really shine until the next morning when they drove a carload of overtired, queasy girls full of clam dip, potato chips and donuts down winding country roads to their homes.

On one later occasion, when I was out of high school and was having some friends over, Mother escaped whatever editing work she had to do and enthusiastically went tearing out for supplies. She came back, glowing, having purchased the makings for s’mores: two large bags of marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers that could accommodate 30 half-starved people. I had invited five.

This was her recipe for welcome: you buy the most wonderful food you can think of, and lots of it. Kids were easy. If only adults could be entertained with volleyball, kittens and oreos.

The high school prom was this weekend. It entailed my usual parental nagging duties: Did you remember to get tickets? A corsage? Rent shoes with the tux (sequined covered Converse sneakers are cool, but the regular ones don’t make it with black tie)? Make dinner reservations? Include a photo opp for the parents?

Then the request was slid in there: could he have a few friends over afterwards?

“How many?” I asked, eyes narrowed.

“Oh, maybe seven.”

“Sure,” I said, preferring to have kids under my benevolent but watchful thumb. I knew it would be something of a hard sell for my husband, though. He’s a quiet guy, and predictably, groaned when I ran it by him. When he was in high school, he wasn’t attending proms, he was reading Schopenhauer. Why would anyone want to go to a prom?

These are not questions I can answer. What I can and did do was make a grocery list. I considered and ruled out s’mores, because we now have a wood stove, not an open fireplace. While its front opens, it is messy and dangerous. I pictured sleeping bags glued together with liquid marshmallow and ashes, or worse, igniting. I did buy soda, though without caffeine, tortilla chips and cheddar for nachos, I made molasses coconut cookies from Old Sturbridge Village (all right, because I wanted them), put out pretzels, and got two dozen eggs for breakfast the next morning. My son got some air in the car’s front tire and bought potato chips. I vacuumed and put stuff away.

While I did not put out bowls of candy or s’more makings, I also did not put out carrot and celery sticks. This gathering was supposed to be fun, after all.

His date arrived, looking stunning. Her mother and I took pictures. Two more people called and asked if they could come over after. I said sure. They left. We had a quiet dinner and went upstairs.

I didn’t hear the kids come in, but went downstairs later and found all of them scrunched up on our couch watching My Cousin Vinny, armed with my son’s special Mexican-inspired hot chocolate.

I don’t know how I measure up to my mother’s surprising sense of fun. But in double checking the tricky spelling of s’mores, on the internet, I did come across a recipe for S’more Brownies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mexico photos!

I don't know how to add photos to an existing post, so I thought I'd just post them here.
Beginning from the lower left, the first is that spectacular Olmec head from the Anthropology Museum. Then, also at the Anthropology Museum is the burial finery of Pakal The Great, Maya King buried at Palenque. Next is my favorite structure at Palenque, the Temple of the Foliated Cross. The altar is in a home in Zinacanton, a modern indigenous village outside San Cristobal, where the main industry is raising flowers. Finally, one of the courtyards of the Na Balom guest house in San Cristobal, founded by anthropologist Frans Blom and his photographer wife, Trudy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Geothermal Heating

Over the weekend I went to a workshop on geothermal heating. Walking in, I was probably the most ignorant of the attendees, and so provided the leaders with a service of what it’s like to deal with absolute zero. But an enthusiastic AZ. IN Vermont, the biggest contributors to CO2 are driving cars and home heating with fossil fuel.

There were about 70 people in attendance, from all over southern Vermont; a third were contractors. The rest of us were home owners looking to get educated.

First, there is a distinction to be made from geothermal energy, which taps geothermal reservoirs, harvesting the steam generated therein for heat and electricity. Think of those lucky Icelanders swimming in outdoor thermal pools in mid-February. These reservoirs are generally near tectonic plates. There are some in the west, lots offshore along the east coasts of the Americas and west coasts of Europe and Africa. It’s expensive to tap.

Geothermal heat can be had from the relatively cool (but not frozen) ground as well. Even in New England, the technology has advanced enough to extract heat from either ground water at 50 degrees or from air at 0 degrees F, or with the newest variable speed pumps, even less.

Basically, (and I mean, really basic, here) in water-to-air transfers, you are sucking the heat out of water that is fifty degrees, by running it through a compressor like the one in your fridge (only in reverse, right?). This removes 10 degrees of heat per pound from the water. That heat is then pumped into your house, now toasty. My brain had to stretch around the idea of extracting heat from something that is, frankly, cool. But it can be done.

This on ground source heat pumps from good old Wikipedia:

Like a refrigerator or air conditioner, these systems use a heat pump to force the transfer of heat. Heat pumps can transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, against the natural direction of flow, or they can enhance the natural flow of heat from a warm area to a cool one. The core of the heat pump is a loop of refrigerant pumped through a vapor-compression refrigeration cycle that moves heat. Heat pumps are always more efficient at heating than pure electric heaters, even when extracting heat from cold winter air. But unlike an air-source heat pump, which transfers heat to or from the outside air, a ground source heat pump exchanges heat with the ground. This is much more energy-efficient because underground temperatures are more stable than air temperatures through the year. Seasonal variations drop off with depth and disappear below seven meters due to thermal inertia.[2] Like a cave, the shallow ground temperature is warmer than the air above during the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. A ground source heat pump extracts ground heat in the winter (for heating) and transfers heat back into the ground in the summer (for cooling). Some systems are designed to operate in one mode only, heating or cooling, depending on climate.

The most important thing, Harold Rist, the presenter on water-to-air transfers, said, was to get a system designed for the north. Too many people don’t go deep enough and then resort to using hyper-poisonous dry gas to thaw out the slush running through their systems. That or they have to use bigger compressors that are more expensive to run.

Then there is air-to air transfer, which is particularly well suited to heating a few rooms. You basically have the air source heat pump, working much like that refrigerator, only backwards, to extract heat from cold air and pump it into your house. The unit is the size of a suitcase, can be set up right outside the rooms in question, as long as it’s a bit protected from ice-build-up so the fan can work properly. You have a fan unit on the inside that looks like a two foot baseboard heater, mounted on the wall.

Both of these technologies are highly environmentally friendly. They currently enjoy federal tax rebates, so you can install a system for (in the one instance we were given) around $7000.

The downside, in my view, is the reliance on electricity to run your pumps, an iffy proposition in my neighborhood. The power doesn’t tend to go out when it’s sunny and warm. So maybe a hybrid system, with a wood stove backup, is the answer.

The first thing I have to do is getting something blown into our walls, whose insulation has settled about six inches off the ground. No point in heating the great outdoors.

Now that you have eaten your spinach and you understand geothermal heating (sort of) I’ll try to upload the Frida and Na Balom pictures.