Friday, July 26, 2013

The Bee Tree

The Bee Tree, told to me by former next door neighbor Jim 

My former next door neighbor Jim has been gone now for about three years; but shortly before he died (at age 85), he told me a story of collecting honey from a bee tree when he was a boy of 8 years of age.  This story was brought to mind recently when I heard of a local bee tree. (More on this later.) Anyway, this story is therefore about 80 years old.

Jim grew up in  far Western Maryland near Cumberland, close to the West Virginia state line.  This remains a very rural area to this day, but was very wooded and rural at the time of this story.  Thick forests abounded. His family was not rich, few families in this area were,even today; most families fish and hunt and garden and enjoy the things in life like this that bring small pleasures, but keep food on the table, too.

But, he told me the whole family enjoyed a sweet tooth and enjoyed eating honey on flapjacks and grits and other favorite foods. One day, Jim's father told him they were going to gather honey from a bee tree.  A bee tree? Yes, a bee tree.  Jim was intrigued.

Jim's father told Jim a bee tree had been identified deep in the woods and that they would leave with a party of men at nightfall. Jim was eager with anticipation all day long. The day was spent gathering items needed to gather honey from a bee tree.  Buckets, axes, shovels, wood, rags, matches and the neighboring cousins.

Night approached and a party of 12 men and boys and several dogs went into the woods, using burning torches as guide to their way.  The tree was a tall old sycamore deep in the woods that had been identified previously by a ribbon strung around it.

(At some point, lightning had struck the tree and it had burned, but not completely; this had created a large hollow cavity within the trunk.  During deer hunting season, several of the men had seen bees making their way to and from this tree and into a small opening at the base of the cavity.  They remembered this for the following summer when they hoped to gather the honey from this tree.  The summer had arrived and now was the time.  It was after the locust tree flower bloom and the tree should be full of wonderful honey at this point, but also full of bees! Thus, their decision to approach at night when the bees would be settled within the tree.)

Several of the men built and lit a small  fire near the tree and got the flames rolling well, before throwing wet leave on the fire to create plumes of smoke.  This burned Jim's eyes, but would keep the bees from the working party of men.  Two of the men then started chopping with axes at the base of the tree to fell it.  The old sycamore soon fell with a deafening crack and crash to the forest floor below.  Bees and buzzing were everywhere as total confusion reigned within the now broken open hive.    But, it was dark and the smoke kept the bees from stinging, as most of them had swallowed honey in anticipation of a fire.  (Their abdomens were now full and they could therefore not bend their abdomens to sting).

Men brought the buckets near the tree and hacked open the trunk with axes.  Honey and comb was fully encased inside and the honey was freed now to flow.  Men began scooping up the honey and comb with their rag covered hands and with their shovels. They ate some of it themselves, and put the rest in their buckets.  They gathered  28 gallon buckets full of honey.

The boys who were along were then given the buckets to transport the honey back home while the men doused the flames and cut the wood for home fireplaces.  Jim said his two buckets were very heavy and bees were following him where there was light that they could do see to do so.  He had to be careful not to stumble over tree roots and lose this precious liquid gold that they had just gathered. Another younger boy held a torch to guide him back home all the way.  Evenso, bees found him and he got stung twice on his nose.  He told me his nose swelled twice it's normal size, but this may have been hyperbole, as he was given to such.

When back at home, they stored the honey in a cool basement area of the house, and exhausted and hurting, went to bed, anticipating honey on flapjacks for breakfast!

I was reminded of Jim's story recently when our local beekeeping association sent out a message requesting whether anyone wanted to rescue a feral hive (and associated honey) in a bee tree at a local farm.  It is rare to see feral bees anymore because of all of the mites and other parasites and predators that take out bees. Most feral bees in trees now have come from someone's hive that swarmed and escaped. The email's sender thought it would be educational for members to see it. Here is the text of the email message:

Do you know of anyone who might want the adventure of moving a feral honey bee hive from a tree?  One of the farmers/owners is allergic to honey bees so they really feel they need to get rid of the colony.  I’d love to play with this but it’s just more work than I want to get into right now, as hot as it is.  The tree is big, the colony is active and seems pretty strong based on the traffic.  I plan on taking a fiber optic scope over to see if I can tell how big the cavity is either tonight or tomorrow.  Here are some photos (see below).  It’s the big tree in the picture.  The other shows how small the opening is.  The tree looks ideal for them, if it weren't located by the farmer's gate between the pastures.
The farmer says he can wait a couple of days before he kills them if someone is interested.

I am hopeful that a beekeeper was available to step up to do this.  I will investigate to find out the rest of the story for readers.

In Jim's story above, the tree and the hive were unfortunately destroyed in the process of retrieving the honey.  This has traditionally been the case for centuries as various cultures sought honey from hives.  It's only really since the 1800's that the keeping of bees in Langstroth type hives in the US has allowed honey retrieval with sustainability of the hive.  That's best for all parties involved.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Trifecta of stings

This week there is a full moon which could explain why unusual occurrences are happening, such as royal baby births and the like (which, by the way, occur in beehives daily, with no fanfare whatsoever, boy or girl!)

Anyway, last Monday evening, I was stung by a bumble bee on my ear while feeding my cats near the cone flowers planted by my porch.  I was slightly offended, as I like bumble bees and promote their well-being. To be fair, it wasn't entirely her fault.  I swatted at what I thought was a fly. And, she retaliated.

Saturday afternoon, while mowing the lawn, I ran over a nest of German yellow jackets and was stung on the ankle by a very upset guard that was upset at the smoke, noise and vibrations; that nest no longer exists. I feel no love for yellow jackets, even as an entomologist, even though they are good predators.  People get killed every year at this time by simply mowing their lawns and having these nasty beasts attack. How I got by with only one sting I do not know!

Then, yesterday, while going through my hives, it was very hot and humid and my bee veil clung to my neck where I was sweating; darned if one of my girls didn't sting me there!  Maybe it's time for a new stiffer veil! Geeze.

In each case, I took two benadryl pills (maybe I should buy stock in benadryl?!) and held ice to the wound after removing the stinger with the edge of a credit card, so as not to pump more venom from the venom sack into the wound.  I also told someone (Walt) to watch me for any breathing irregularities and call 911, if need be.  I wasn't sure how I'd react to bumble bee or yellow jacket venom, since I've not been stung by these in a long time. I am stung by honey bees all the time.

I was fine, with little swelling, and great drowsiness, in each case. But, I figure I've been really challenging my immune system and adrenal cortex quite a lot of late! Which got me to thinking about the fact that beekeepers tend not to get cancer.  I found this little tidbit, a little bit dated now, but I thought I'd share. Enjoy. But, stay healthy and safe out there, and remember, just because you don't react this time to a sting does NOT mean you won't next time.

From Apitherapy News

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Beekeepers Have Low Incidence of Cancer

Honeybees Health Benefits and Cancer
Inform Africa, December 25, 2011

…Beekeepers have the lowest incidence of cancer of all the occupations worldwide. This fact was acknowledged in the annual report of the New York Cancer Research Institute in 1965. Almost half a century ago, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 9(2), Oct., 1948, published a report by William Robinson, M.D., et al., in which it was claimed that bee pollen added to food (in the ratio of 1 part to 10,000) prevented or delayed the appearance of malignant mammary tumour.

L.J. Hayes, M.D had the courage to announce, “Bees sterilise pollen by means of a glandular secretion antagonistic to tumours.” Other doctors, including Sigmund Schmidt, M.D., and Ernesto Contreras, M.D., seem to agree that something in pollen works against cancer.

Dr W. Schweisheimer also said that scientists at the Berlin Cancer Institute in Germany had never encountered a beekeeper with cancer. A French study concerning the cause of death of 1,000 beekeepers included only case of a beekeeper that died of cancer. The incidence of cancer-caused deaths in a group of French farmers was 100 times higher than the group of beekeepers.

Till date, no study has faulted the fact that beekeepers have very low, almost negligible incidence of cancer worldwide. Due to the weight of this fact and coupled with his experience, John Anderson, Professor of beekeeping, University of Aberdeen, unequivocally declared: “Keep bees and eat honey if you want to live long. Beekeepers live longer than anyone else”.

But why and how do bee stings prevent or heal cancer? First, the major component of bee sting venom is mellitin, which has powerful bacterial and cytotoxic properties. The mellitin in bee venom activates two main glands – adrenal cortex and the hypophysis, which in turn begin to secrete hormones that have strong anti-inflammatory effect. Cancer and many other degenerative diseases are often preceded by inflammation. Bee venom also stimulates the immune system and cancer is less likely to gain a foothold in those with strong immune system.

Nothing promotes blood circulation better than the bee venom, which dissolves plaque in blood vessels and flush it out to ensure free flow of blood. Bee venom contains proteins and amino acids (18 of the 20 obligatory amino acids). When small doses of bee venom gets into the blood they compensate for the deficit of amino acids, make active hormones and vitamins, lower the level of cholesterol and have a positive effect on fat metabolism.

The article goes on from here, but I would have had to subscribe to the journal to get more....

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Protecting Bees: Federal Bill Suspending Neonicotinoid Use Forthcoming

Federal Bill Suspending Neonicotinoid Use Forthcoming (reprinted from ePestWorld 7/16/13 newsletter of NPMA, the National Pest Management Association, and my former employer).

An Oregon Congressman last week announced plans to introduce federal legislation suspending certain uses of neonicotinoid pesticides until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reviews these chemicals and makes a new determination about their proper application and safe use. The measure specifically suspends the use of neonicotinoids for foliar treatments on bee attractive plants, soil applications and seed treatments within 180 days.
Congressman Earl Blumenaer's Save America's Pollinators Act was precipitated by a massive bee kill last month in suburban Portland that state investigators determined was caused by an application of a neonicotinoid pesticide application. Refer to:  
to read the Oregonian's story about the legislation and refer to:
to read Congressman Blumenaer's press release announcing the Congressman's intention to drop the bill.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Black clouds do not always bring rain! The swarm that wasn't!

Black clouds do not always bring rain!  The swarm that wasn't!

I've been reflecting on a small bee swarm event that occurred in my backyard two weeks ago...the bees always keep me guessing and I guess that's why I find them so interesting to keep.

Bee Journal entry: Thurs. June 27, 2013  7:30 pm

I was just in the second hive.  My co-beekeeper has been busy with a move and work and a family wedding and has not been able to get out to check on that hive.  It is day 13 since it was last checked, and it takes 14 days for a queen to form per the textbooks, so I'm a bit nervous that they could swarm and impact my neighbors if I don't get in to do something. I've got his permission.  In fact, he has agreed that maybe with his busy summer schedule, it's best if I just buy those bees back from him and care for them from here on out.  So, I'm in the hive after work in my backyard on a Thursday night;... kind of late to be doing this, but it's supposed to storm tomorrow and I need to see what's going on in there.

I find immediately that I'm glad I came!  I see there are 21  swarm cells; 5 of them are fully formed! (Swarm cells are the newly forming queens made by a hive that has outgrown it's space or that detects the queen is not up to par.  These cells hang down like peanuts from the bottom of a frame in a super.)  They are on the frames in the middle 2 supers of this 4 super hive. 

I see that in one of the swarm cells, the presumptive queen has already started to nibble her way out, so she would likely have precipitated a swarm tonight or tomorrow as she emerged and kicked out the current queen and half of the hive. 

I knock down all of the swarm cells including hers.  ( I know this will make some beekeepers cringe. You didn't save that queen?)  I also see 2 small hive beetles (a pest) in the top super. There are very few drones as compared with my other hive. There is however lots of nice brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) in the bottom 2 supers and some in the 3rd. Only some honey is capped throughout, and mostly in the 3rd super. The top (4th) super seems really slow to develop-maybe two weeks behind my other hive, so I debate taking it off, especially since the nectar flow is slowing down. 

I see her royal majesty in the bottom (1st) super. She surprises me and actually walks up on my glove and poses; I've never had a queen do this before. She looks pretty healthy. She flies off of my gloved hand and ...into the hive?  (or so I think!, ...little do I know!)

But, there are so many bees in the mix, I assume she flew down into the hive super.  But, in retrospect, I think she must have flown up into the maple trees above.  And, because I’d been knocking down so many queen swarm cells, most of which were ready or almost ready to emerge, I think I must have released a swarm pheromone in so doing.  She flew up, and older worker bees must have gone with her.  (But, I still didn't know this; I'm just happy to be done and out of the beesuit in this hot 95F plus degree and 100% RH weather.  It's like a sauna!)  

I close up the hive still unawares.  And, I pour myself an adult beverage and sit down under the apple tree in a lounge chair with my pup Clifford at my feet. Boyfriend Walt is at a church council meeting.  The sun has already set, but there is still lots of light yet in the sky.  There is also  the slightest hint of a late thunderstorm approaching.  I am relaxed.

Then I suddenly heard a loud humming or buzzing noise. It sounds natural, not synthetic or mechanical.  It seems to be approaching and growing louder.  Not obnoxiously loud, but an ever steady humming.

I looked up toward the sound, and there above my neighbor's roof is a slow moving black cloud-of bees! Oh my!  They are moving slowly up high and headed into my yard.  (The black humming moving cloud reminds me of a childhood cartoon with Bugs bunny.)  

The black  buzzing cloud makes its way to hover right over the 2nd hive that I had just closed up.  As they get closer, the humming noise grows slightly louder.   It is now about 7:50 pm and getting a bit darker in the sky.  

The black cloud hovers over the hive for a few seconds and then moves way up high into the tops of the maple trees which are very tall above the hives.  Now realizing these are most likely my girls with my queen up there,  I beg them, Please please do not leave my yard! I hastily look around to see if any neighbors are watching.  Nope, thank goodness! It's too late in the evening.  All is quiet. Good.  I have great neighbors and I cultivate these relationships with jars of fresh honey and other hive products and education.  But, you just don't want to push it, you know what I mean?

So there they are, up high; all swirling and flying and buzzing around, a small group of about 500 workers.  I could not see where the queen had or was landing.  I saw no cluster of bees forming and hanging down anywhere.  I kept scanning the tops of the maple crowns and thinking, man I don't have a ladder that tall if they do cluster up there!  How will I collect them?  Then, I briefly wondered if maybe she would fly back down into the hive? Around 8:10 pm the black cloud seemed to be slowly settling back down-less flying around the tops of the maples.  Were they going back into the hive or clustering somewhere up high? 

Then, I looked down and saw an amazing sight!  The bees still in the hive were lined up at the front porch entry door of the second hive fanning with all their might!  (Fanning is flapping of wings rapidly to release a pheromone from the abdomen in a plume directing wayward bees that can no longer use sunlight to navigate to get back to the hive.) They were trying to call the queen and 500 workers back into the original hive.  Come back, come back, dear queen!  

It was getting darker still.  Storm was now approaching.  Had someones of them figured out there was no new queen in the hive remaining, and that they would all die if she didn't come back? Maybe they detected the low pressure approaching. Any clustered swarm hanging exposed from a tree limb at night would be killed in a downpour of rain. 

Interestingly, by 8:30 pm there was suddenly no more activity at all- flying, buzzing or fanning.  And, it was dark.  Everyone who had been on the front porch entry was now inside.  I wondered, is she back in there?

Bee Journal entry: Fri., June 28, 2013 7:00am

11 hours later, next morning, I went out to scan the tops of the maples and surrounding structures  and neighbor’s homes, etc.  No clusters of hanging bees.  So,…I think and hope and pray, she is inside the hive where she belongs!  Otherwise, I have no idea where she is.  But, i dare not open the hive as they need no disturbance for a bit.

Bee Journal entry: Mon., July 1st, 2013 6:00pm

I just opened the 2nd hive; it's been three nights since the "swarm." I went through all of the supers. I see no queen, but I see brood and I think I see newly laid eggs.  I think??? Is she in here? I really don't know for sure I sure hope so.  I checker board the hive to prevent further notions of swarming.  Then, i knock down any newly forming swarm cells. 

Bee Journal entry: Mon., July 4th, 2013 2:00pm

I just opened the 2nd hive;  I went through all of the supers. In the bottom super I see her.  The queen is here!  She looks healthy as she walks around dipping her abdomen into each cell and laying a new egg.  I tell her, "Your royal highness, you gave me a scare and it's good to have you back!"  I see brood and newly laid eggs and very few swarm cells. The true swarm seems to have been successfully averted.  And, from an entomology standpoint, it was a little exciting to boot!