Sad Tenth Doctor in the rainAs described in a previous post we were part of a crew led by Dr. Milbrath that removed two colonies from a soon-to-be-demolished house so they could become a pair of teaching hives at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

We anticipated a presentation about the cut-out at the next meeting of Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers, when we could learn the details of the aftermath and report here, but the presentation had to be postponed. And again the next month. And the next. So, still waiting, we are months late in finally posting a follow-up but the sad news is that the triumph of the day did not last.

  • One colony soon became the target of robbing and simply left, returning to their old house.

  • The other became queenless (Injured or killed during cutout?) with laying workers. A paper combine with another smaller hive was attempted.

  • The paper combine did not work and the rescued bees killed the queen. This time the bees were all just dumped on the ground in front of the eight hives there and left to find themselves a home.

Some bees just refuse to be helped. The cut-out itself was still a wonderful experience.

Honeybee gathering poison ivy nectar

Honeybee gathering poison ivy nectar (from Wikipedia)

When considering the many varieties of honey it is natural to wonder if any of them might be toxic. Possibly those made from toxic plants? The short answer is, yes, if the nectar contains toxins then they will be concentrated in the honey. A longer answer may be found in a post on Miss Apis Mellifera that elaborates on the topic, explains why it is usually not a problem, and mentions some known sources of toxic honey.

One plant not mentioned but one about which we in Michigan (as well as other states) might wonder is poison ivy. While individual sensitivity varies, this wretched vine is notorious for causing a painful rash when touched, due to the allergen urushiol in its sap. Even after a plant has been long dead it is not safe to touch for the urushiol remains. And should one carelessly toss a log with an unnoticed vine still clinging then the urushiol can ride the smoke and cause a rash in the lungs interfering with breathing, possibly fatally so. Imagine our joy to learn that climate change is making it grow faster and more potent. As a final insult, humans are among the very few animals troubled by urushiol, the rest being some other primates and guinea pigs.

Now that our readers are sufficiently horrified, especially those only now learning that the wretched vine even has flowers, we can comfort and reassure by revealing that, for all its evil, poison ivy does not belong on the toxic honey list. Mercifully the urushiol does not appear in its nectar so poison ivy honey is safe to consume. How very fortunate since there is probably some poison ivy contribution to local multifloral honeys. The wretched vine certainly grows on our own property although we do our best to eradicate it.

Hives with ekes behind windbreak of bales of marsh grassThe picture shows our hives as ready for winter as we can make them behind a southern wall of marsh grass bales (fewer weed seeds than straw bales) and sporting their long-promised ekes. To the west they are shielded by the barn and on the remaining sides by a thicket of sumac. The rest is up to the bees themselves. They have been raised from colonies that survived last year’s fimbulwinter so there is perhaps a glimmer of hope for overwintering.

We had erected the bale wall in timely fashion when the weather began to cool. Eventually the growth of the bush cherries and other to-be-determined plantings ought remove the need for these annual fortifications. We had also covered the shiny rooves with black landscape fabric and corked most of the entrance holes. The construction of the new-and-improved ekes on the other hand we continually postponed for other tasks until two Saturdays ago when we were threatened by predictions of a fierce drop in temperature that night.

Our original eke design for Annabelle and Beatrix consisted of a wooden frame of 1"x3" with a windowscreen bottom and filled with wool batting to absorb humidity and insulate. Unfortunately the open top allowed mice seeking refuge from the bitter winter cold to move in. The new design therefore is screened top and bottom. It is also thicker, made of 1"x6" to allow more layers of wool batting and a top layer of foam insulation board to be enclosed.

The ekes for Clarissa and Dorcas posed a special problem. Beatrix has rabbetted sides like a Langstroth hive body so her eke could have screen stapled flat against its bottom as well as the top. Having found the rabbet a hindrance to easy lifting of top bars we did not include one when designing the twins. Their ekes therefore had to have the bottom screening stapled a little bit within the frame so that the edge of the eke would rest flat against the walls of the hive. Even more of a pain in the sit-upon than it sounds.

By the time we finished construction it was dark outside and, fortunately ignored by the bees, we installed the ekes by lantern light. Frustratingly none of the ekes sat quite level, not even Beatrix’s, but in the insufficient lantern light we could not tell why.

The next day, luckily a warm one, we discovered that proper seating of the ekes was being thwarted by the thin wooden strips we had been using to cover the top openings in the frames. With a well-fitting eke they would no longer be needed so with each hive we removed roof and eke, cracked the strips of wood free of their propolyzed bonds and removed them, applied heavy smoke to repel the bees, who very much noticed this operation and came flooding out the openings, and finally replaced eke and roof to see a much better fit.

For now, all is well. Where eke and hive body still do not mate perfectly there is the merest sliver of a gap. The various walls against winds should blunt a piercing blast sufficiently to prevent fierce entry. And perhaps later, when we are done with agitating the bees for the season, we can run a layer of residue-free duct tape around the seam. And next year perhaps apply some spongy weatherstripping to the bottom of the eke frame to seal in spite of small irregularities.

And so we move from the time of worrying about what we need do for the bees to the time of worrying because there is nothing we can do but hope to see them come springtime.


Short prairieIn other news we have cleared and seeded some land to start a prairie. The clearing consisted of weekly tilling to taunt weed seeds into sprouting only to be chopped and buried to decompose. The first tilling was the hardest as that one had to chop the existing lawn. After that the main problem was the occasional large stone jamming the tines. After six weeks we were able to scatter a low-growing prairie mix to which we added some other bee plant seeds we had acquired and cover it with marshgrass mulch. With luck it ought resemble the picture at right by next year or the year after that.

And lastly we planted a dwarf Shinseiki Asian pear to be a pollinator for our Hosui.

ladderInBarnBehold the wonder of the ages in the picture at left! Don’t be shy! Click for larger image! Half-ladder! Half-staircase! All mobile!

Okay, that quite exhausts our quota of exclamation points. As mentioned in an earlier post our new barn has lofts on either side. We had been gaining access to them by means of an extension ladder, shown lying on its side in the left of the picture. It is rather heavy to easily move from reaching one loft to reaching the other. It is also more difficult than one would expect to put in position securely with neither tipping nor slipping, particularly during the precarious dismount at the top, stepping to the left or right off the ladder. Remounting to descend is even more scary. Worst of all there is not much one can safely carry while climbing it.

Out interim procedure has been to have one of us climb the ladder to the loft as the other kept the floor end stable. Items were then tossed or passed between us or raised/lowered on a sheet of plywood attached to a drywall lift, barely seen behind our construction. We made it work but the inconvenience moved us to consider better solutions.

After rejecting many permanently attached solutions we settled on building the beast in the picture. The platform is a simple two foot by six foot rectangle of two-by-fours, made rigid by a quarter sheet of plywood at the one end, with five-inch, locking swivel castersladderCasters at each corner and directly below the upright supports. The stringers are two-by-eights sloped for roughly eight and half feet of rise per five feet of run. The treads, attached by a trio of three-inch deck screws on each side, are two-by-sixes with the top one even with the loft floor. The uprights supporting the stringers are made of paired glued-and-screwed two-by-sixes, effectively four-by-sixes. And the cross-bracing is made of two-by-fours.

With casters unlocked it easily glides about the floor. Butted against either loft with casters locked there is a very, little rocking as the climber approaches the top but it does not at all feel unsafe. Best of all with the stringers extending past the top tread one can simply walk straight onto the loft. OSHA would surely grumble but we are dead chuffed.

Having caught up on our hives, we should now catch up on the trees we have provided specifically for for the bees, an update for last May’s planting and a belated report of new planting this May. While their days of abundant nectar are still years away last year’s plantings all survived fimbulwinter. The locust and bee bee tree were but tiny sticks and died back nearly to the ground but they have rallied with new foliage. Meanwhile the European linden, which had caused us the most worry after planting, looks incredibly hale.

We had planted it in a low area where the water table can get quite high because something we read suggested that it should tolerate that. But soon after planting came frequent heavy rains and the tree showed unhappy signs of overwatering. At four feet high it was already suffering from the shock of being dug up, shipped across the country, and replanted much more than its foot-high fellows. And now before it could develop a proper root system it was drowning. We had decided that in the unlikely case it survived until spring we would move it to a drier area and plant something more suitable in its old place. To our surprise it survived and thrived with water on the surface only yards away.

Meanwhile its intended replacement had arrived, a black gum or tupelo. Probably not the same species made famous by the movie Ulee’s Gold and comfortable in swamps, it is close enough that our occasionally wet site should be no problem. We planted it about twenty five feet from the linden. It has a short bloom season from late April to May in Florida. We shall see what it does in Michigan.

Clethra alnifolia, also called summersweet or sweet pepperbush, has a fragrance that can reach far out to sea from coastal plantings, giving it the additional name of sailor’s delight. We have wanted one to perfume our garden even before we had plans to keep bees. Indeed it is reported to be merely a minor source of nectar but it blooms during July and August when any nectar may be welcome while awaiting the goldenrod.

When bunches of pussy willow branches again became available at the local farmers market we once more bought some and hoped they would develop roots. Willows of all kinds are so fond of developing roots that willow water, that is, water in which willow has been soaked is a home made substitute for the rooting hormone one buys at garden centers. A few did and were to be planted out in the wet area with the one survivor of the four from a previous year. Life, as usual, intruded and we did not plant them in time. Next year, perhaps, we should just stick them straight in the ground. The ones that do not root may at least provide decoys for the deer.

That leaves our little orchard of dwarf fruit trees begun two years ago, still alive but yet to bloom. This year we have added a Hosui Asian pear, for which we ought to be getting a pollinator in the fall.
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