How to Sneak up on Bees

During the winter (beekeeper’s vacation time: I think if you keep bees long enough, you are forced into enjoying winter sports), I was reading Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses and Language by Karl Von Frisch.  Von Frisch was the scientist who discovered how bees communicate through dancing. He also did work with bees and color, and contributed to what is known about what colours bees can perceive.  It’s interesting to think about what colours bees can see, and how that relates to their favorite flowers; Von Frisch says that bees can see yellow, blue-green, blue, and ultraviolet.  But, there are many great nectar sources that have white flowers (blackberry, horse chesnut, apple etc.).  Previously (until five minutes ago, when I cracked the book again), I thought this meant that bees can see white excellently, too. But actually, as Von Frisch points out, “white” coloured light contains all the colours in the spectrum visible to us, because you can split it through a prism into ROY G. BIV.  For bees, “white”, then, would be composed of all the colours they can see,  (YGBU!).  If one component, ultraviolet (which humans cannot see) is taken away, what is leftover would no longer appear white to a bee,  and would be a complementary colour to ultraviolet, maybe blue-green, Von Frisch suggest.  And it turns out, most white flowers in fact absorb ultraviolet light.

So! All along, I’ve been painting some of my bee boxes white because I think they will be able to see it well, and it turns out that maybe yes, that particular white paint may absorb ultraviolet rays, leaving behind the complementary colour to ultraviolet, which bees can see great.  But also, maybe the white paint I select may instead reflect ultraviolet, making it a true “white” to the bee, and therefore uninteresting and not memorable (as discovered by Dr. Mathilde Hertz).

Unfortunately, I can’t see ultraviolet, so there is sadly no way for me to tell the difference when I’m buying my paint from the hardware store!

All this is to say, before I got sidetracked, is that bees cannot see red.  They only perceive it as black.  So today, when I wanted to open my queen box to check on the queens, and I knew there would be stray loose bees inside, I took it into the bathroom, turned off the lights, and used Liam’s headlamp on the red-light setting (because it is frowned on in our household to release bees inside. It is also apparently not done to set down nucs right next to the front door, no matter how short a time one plans to leave there).

  
So cool! Bees don’t fly if it’s dark, and it’s the neatest thing to be looking at bees in the red light, and them not being able to see, so they don’t fly up at you.

Here’s a pic of horse chestnut, a fantastic bee tree:

   
 

It produces spiky balls for kids to throw at each other, and has an amazing scarlet coloured pollen.  Some varieties have pinkish red flowers, but most trees have these massive cones of white flowers:

  

Hawthorne: New Friend

I took a mushroom course once, and the instructor told us that he likes to think of mushrooms as friends: Every year you acquire a few more, and you always recognize your old friends. You don’t have to know every mushroom to safely eat them, but you can always add new friends.  

I think of plants like that, too. Here’s my new friend, the Hawthorne tree:

  
The blossoms really look like apple blossoms, but the leaves were different. This tree is at the Copley Community Orchard (shameless plug: you should join! They need new members. And it’s an awesome way to get out and be active in your community if you live in East Van. I’m not a member, because bees rule my life, but Liam is, and he loves it. And you get fruit. It’s great. Plug complete.)

 

Very beautiful, and loaded with blossoms. My (or someone else’s ) bees were foraging on it , but I couldn’t get a close enough look to see if they were getting pollen or nectar specifically.

Also, here’s an old friend, Maple blossoms: 

 
 

Many people are surprised to hear that Maple is a major nectar source, because the flowers are kind of pale green so they aren’t that noticeable, but maple trees get huge, and have tons of blossoms per tree.

  

Bee condos!

Liam spent time yesterday checking through all our city hives, looking for signs of swarm preparation. Last year, I won’t tell you how many swarms we had, but it got to the point in mid-May where we started to dread phone calls coming in from our host yard-owners, because we knew the conversation would begin: “Um…so there’s A LOT of bees in the air right now…”

The novelty of successfully plunking your giant clump of bees into a bucket wears off exceptionally fast, especially when ladders are involved!

Anyway, we’ve been trying to keep ahead of the swarming impulses this year by systematically removing excess brood frames with bees on them, and making them into nucs, mini colonies. Our first round of queens is not quite ready yet, but we make these nucs up queenless, and then take them out to our mating yard in Surrey. The bees make their own queen, and she is able to successfully mate in an area with sufficient drones, in a way that doesn’t really happen in Vancouver proper.

So…bee condos get to stay the weekend in our backyard until Liam moves them out to Surrey on Monday:

 
That’s our regular size backyard hive on the left, with 4 nucs stacked apartment style on the right.

  
And this is where Liam will take them:

  

First Round of Queens

Ten days ago, we did our first graft of the season (to make new queens). It’s the earliest in the year that we’ve done one. It can be chancy, because you need around 18 degree weather (Celsius) for queens to mate properly. If it’s rainy, or too cold, the queens and drones won’t fly.  But, we’re feeling hopeful that the weather a week or so from now will turn out somewhat decent. Fingers crossed!

Queen cells, ready to move into mating hives

We spent the weekend making up little nucs (nucleus colonies) to put our queen cells in.  We took a lot of excess bees and brood from our city bee yards, and brought them out to our mating yard in surrey, where we can count on a reasonable concentration of bees for good mating flights.  Once in a while, we end up leaving a city hive with a queen that those bees have raised themselves, and that’s fine for a while — it’s a good stopgap measure. But, the concentration of bees in the city is pretty low and haphazard, and we almost always end up replacing that queen later when she turns out to be poorly mated. 

Dandelions and Maple Blossoms

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Here in Metro Vancouver, the early warmth has meant an early bee season; by all accounts, blooms are around 3 weeks ahead of schedule.  The first swarms are taking flight, as bee populations suddenly start to expand! Our bees are collecting nectar from the major dandelion and maple nectar flows happening now, along with other floral sources like apple, blueberry, and cherry.  Soon, trees like horse chestnut and black locust will be in full flower–great bee trees! Gardens in the city are blooming, and our bees are loving it!