Storm destroys the hives

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I just received notification that the hives of our association were completely destroyed by the storm that hit Denmark yesterday.

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Considering the current freezing temperatures, it's very, very unlikely the bees will survive. The take-home message of this sad experience is that if you live in a place prone to heavy wind, a simple brick might not be enough to protect your hives. You should look for more appropriate solutions.



A convenient tool to embed wax foundation in the frames

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This is an interesting and curious self-made tool to embed the wax foundation in the frames. It consist of a power supply (below the angled wood panel) and two contact plates at the bottom. The frame is built so that the wire ends are connected to two small nails, acting as contacts. Simply by setting the frame, the heat generated by electricity is enough to melt the wax and embed the sheet in the wires.


Harvest - Part 2

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After a couple of weeks from the harvesting of the frames, it's now time to extract the honey. Frames are decapped with a metallic spatula, and inserted into a centrifugal radial extractor. This one is for six frames, and it's definitely a big one

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The capping wax is inserted into a special bag, and will also be extracted via centrifugal force

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It takes around 10 minutes of spinning to get the frames clean of honey. The difference in weight between an empty and a full frame is incredible.

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Honey is obtained from the bottom of the extractor and coarse-filtered with a simple sieve

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The resulting filtered honey is then filtered again using a smaller mesh filter bag

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The resulting product is not perfectly transparent. The reason is that small air bubbles are still in the honey and will take a day or two to emerge to the surface. When this happens, the honey can be extracted from the bottom, giving a perfectly clear product that can be bottled and sold as is

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This year's production was definitely abundant. The honey flow was consistent and large, and the colonies grew beyond my initial expectation. It has been a mild year with little rain and wind, and not excessively high temperatures, the perfect conditions for a high production. I am trying to get the final numbers (weight, water content, and pollen analysis), and I will publish them here if I get them. For now, what I can say is that the product definitely tasted like linden honey. This doesn't surprise me, as two huge linden trees were just outside the bee garden. It could be classified as monofloral honey only if the pollen analysis satisfies the national criteria.


Harvest - part 1

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The time of harvest is finally here. Here is a quick movie showing one among the many full honey frames.

The frames are left to mature for 10-15 days, then extracted with a centrifuge. We have a big one indeed

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Live cam in a beehive

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I found this website, where a live cam is streaming from a beehive in Bavaria, Germany. It's rather fascinating to observe, but don't expect to see a lot of progress in a short time.

Note that browsing it with Chrome may give some problems.


Dressing code and behavior for the apiary

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Proper dress code and behavior in the apiary is a critical component of being a beekeeper. Here is a quick list of my experience so far.

General advice and behavior

Hives are generally in places where the grass can be tall, and the dirt everywhere. Be careful about ticks if you live in a tick-infested area. Wear proper shoes that give good grip and offer some protection in the unfortunate case a super falls on your foot. This is not proper shoewear

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Don't shoo the bees with your hands like a crazy ninja. Bees are natively curious. Unless you are actively doing something in the hive, they won't sting you, they are just checking you out.

Don't wear perfumes, bright colors, or make excessive noise. Don't stay in front of the hive exit unless you are properly dressed. When manipulating the supers and the frames, act slowly and with accuracy, trying to kill as few bees as possible.

Lift the weight with your legs, not with your back. Supers can get really heavy, up to 15-20 kg. If someone can help you, share the weight.

To prevent the spreading of diseases, you should never use the same suit and gloves in a different apiary that is not your own. If you visit a friend's apiary, it's better if you borrow a suit from him, rather than using your own.

The beesuit

When it comes to suits, the choice is generally about color and how much of your body you want to cover. For the color, white or grey/brown are more or less the standard, for the obvious reason that any other color would be attractive to bees. With a white suit it is easier to recognize when it needs a wash. When it comes to covering type, you can choose either a full, head-to-toe suit or a jacket. I bought the full suit, which is in my opinion impractical: a good pair of thick jeans offers enough protection, and the jacket is easier to wash, store, wear and remove. The only advantage of the suit, and the reason why I bought it, is that it protects your jeans from dirt, but in the end it's a matter of choice between dirty jeans and dirty suit. A jacket is fine for most purposes.

The head protection is the most critical part of the suit: it should be completely detachable to simplify washing, and it should give you a comfortable and stable field of view. My suit uses a hat-like shape like this one, which I find rather impractical as it tends to move on my head, and leaves me with a field of view looking down. I haven't tried other suit models, but if I had to buy another suit, I would go with the helmet-type as likely to be the most comfortable option. Your mileage may vary, but I reiterate the importance for a removable head protection. Washing the suit is generally best done by hand, with a smell-neutral washing powder. You can technically use a washing machine, but only if the face net can be removed.

If you are one of the lucky people with a mouth-held smoker (rather rare, but extremely convenient), some suits provide a hole for it, but it can also be easily self-made with some leather.

The gloves

As an inexperienced beekeeper I bought leather gloves

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They are certainly good for heavy protection, but I advise against them. Thick plastic gloves are the ones you want, for two reasons: they are easier to wash and sterilize, reducing the chance of transmitting diseases, and they have better grip and flexibility.

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The usefulness of drones for beekeeping

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Today we talk about drones. Drones are male bees, the result of unfertilized eggs. As such, they only have 16 chromosomes, instead of 32, a characteristic called haploidy. They are, on all respects, "flying gametes" and their role in the colony is essentially reproductive. Their size is larger than the worker bee, and their eyes are larger and all around the head. In this picture you can see a drone (left) and a worker bee (right), head to head.

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A newborn queen that has not taken its fecundation flight is a "virgin queen" and can only deposit unfertilized drone eggs. Only during the nuptial flight the queen reaches the "drone congregation areas" and mates with multiple drones, storing sperm in her spermatheca. Interestingly enough, it's still unclear how these congregation areas are chosen. Magnetism might play a role, but it's unclear. Now the queen can lay either fertilized eggs to produce female worker bees or unfertilized ones to produce drones. The size of the cell is what determines if fecundation happens or not, so the workers drive fertilization through appropriate cell engineering.

Another circumstance when drones are produced in a hive is when workers are queenless and can't rear a new queen, either because there's no brood, or because the existing one is too advanced in development. When this happens, the colony is doomed, and the workers start laying drone-producing eggs

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Observe how the eggs are not at the bottom of the cell, but on its side. This is because workers have a shorter abdomen than the queen, and can't reach the bottom easily. When this happens, the general aspect of the frame screams sadness

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This is a frame from a doomed colony. There's very little we could do. Requeening with a new, bought queen was not going to solve: the colony was already too weak to sustain itself.

But let's go back to drones. For the beekeeper, the drone is useful for two tasks: keeping the parasitic mite varroa in check, and as a training ground for marking. While the second is mostly a gimmick, the first is essential for a healthy colony.

Keeping the varroa in check

Varroa is a parasitic mite that depends on the larvae for its life cycle and can completely destroy a hive if left unchecked. It's a fast-moving, reddish, crab-like mite which falls into the uncapped brood cells, and gets nourishment and reproductive ground from the growing larva. Drones are preferred, although as far as I heard it's not clear if due to pure chance (the mite just falls randomly, and drones take longer to develop, thus the cells are open for a longer time) or active seeking for drone cells. This preference is useful to verify the mite presence and to reduce its load by culling the drones.

A useful trick I recently learned is to divide a frame in the bottom (brood) super in three parts

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This way, it will be developed one section after another, so it's much easier to observe and monitor larvae development, and time of varroa introduction. Every week, the section which developed the most will be removed and checked.

I have not seen any varroa mite here in Denmark, not alive at least. In Germany they were more present, but their number was still quite low. It's always worth remembering that the mite population can explode if left unchecked.

Training exercise for marking

New beekeepers need to train how to mark the queen. The drone is perfect for this as it cannot sting

The end result is quite satisfying for a new beekeeper. It's probably the first time one really touches the insect and start manipulating it.

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Why Gaia?

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Choosing the name of my new blog was a problem I worked on for some time. I wanted to stay within my domain, forthescience.org, and I wanted the blog to be mostly about simple living, outdoor activities, beekeeping, and so on, while maintaining a scientific approach to the presentation of these topics. I therefore needed a central theme embracing their broad spectrum.

As humans, we are just the latest gimmick in a big show started billions of years ago. Many species have come and gone during this time, and many more will in the future. We humans have apparently little control on the complexity of our environment, exactly because this complexity emerges from an extremely large set of interactions and feedbacks we have little knowledge or control on. Additionally, these interactions can be extremely non-linear, meaning that they may either resist to changes, or run off wildly for even small perturbations of the dependent factors.

I first heard about the Gaia hypothesis when I was 13, in a PC game called SimEarth. The central idea is that the planet Earth is what can be considered as a self-regulating "superorganism" given by the dependencies among biota (plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, algae) and the inorganic environment in which they live (atmosphere composition, temperature, water level and acidity). This hypothesis, developed mainly by James Lovelock in the 70s, found more and more supporting evidence, and it triggered a better understanding of the complexity of the Earth system. Experiments such as Biosphere 2 made rather clear how a stable, self-sustaining system is hard to establish, and how many subtle interactions are hidden and unexpected. This network of interactions, on a global scale, is what Lovelock calls "Gaia".

I must admit I read very little of Lovelock, and of what I read, I don't fully agree with some of his personal opinions, in particular about the importance of computational modeling and the actions that one can take, yet the point of Gaia as a complex system of interactions is well established, factual and verified by experiments both on the field and in computational models.

That said, I decided to explore a very small subsystem of these interactions at a personal level: bees are important pollinators, producers of useful substances such as honey, wax, and propolis, but also allowing plants to reproduce; propolis and wax are used in woodworking, another dreamy interest of mine (dreamy because I lack the tools and the space); growing an extremely tiny but pleasant part of my diet is a rewarding and relaxing activity, where I learned the importance of soil characteristics, the different chemical and physical requirements for different species of plants, techniques such as hydroponics and aquaponics, mushroom growing, and integrated cultivars to take advantage of dependencies among species and improve production. I took great interest in Jared Diamond's Collapse, and its reporting of Tikopia as a long established self-sustained islet in the pacific.

Keeping bees, growing plants, building gardens, working wood are difficult tasks that require knowledge of biology, mathematics, chemistry and physics, in addition to artistic and practical skills. This blog aims at exploring some of these topics, disentangling a tiny section of the interactions' snarl for fun and cultural profit.


Going up to four supers

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Last week, we added another super to the training hive, bringing the total to four supers. Two are brood, and two are honey, with a queen separator in the middle.

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We found the queen in the second super. Brood was present and well developed, and the family was healthy and extremely large. I've never seen so many bees all at once.

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As usual, we checked for signs of varroa in the drone cells. The larvae seem to be really clean. I am surprised at how low the prevalence of varroa is in these hives. In my previous school hive, varroa mites were present, although in a very limited number. Here, I've seen only one, dead mite on the bottom plate.

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With temperatures relatively high, it was useful to remove the bottom plate from the hive. This improves air circulation. The hive is in a sheltered, well ventilated position, yet it's good care of the bees, and better for honey production: high temperatures in the hive will force the foragers to look for water, instead of nectar.