Oh, woe. This year’s follies have, alas, been effectively cancelled. Alackaday. You may also imagine us muttering other phrases, favorites featuring fricatives, in irritated disappointment.

For new readers, this is the annual post where we look for entertainment at the search terms that bring people to our blog, a blog that focuses almost entirely on beekeeping with very few off-topic posts. Likewise, the overwhelming number of queries are plainly looking for information about bees and beekeeping. But some very few are clearly looking for information on completely unrelated topics indeed and have been comically misled by their search engine. Other very few search terms readily lend themselves to deliberate misinterpretation in a mildly humorous way. If not comedy gold then, at least, a little holiday tinsel and glitter.

But a few years ago, Google began, in the name of privacy, to hide such terms from the target website with the result that almost all searches to our site would be logged as “Unknown Search Terms”. For our little, low-traffic blog that leaves this year a mere one hundred and fifty-six searches to mine for the rare ore from which we can smelt a few shiny flecks of amusement. This year we found not even pyrite.

Ah, well. Let us at least take a look for trends among the search terms which we can see, remaining cognizant of the problems with small sample sizes. In other words, conclusions drawn from these results are worthless but here we go anyway.

Mites with legs bitten off.

In first place (5.8%) were searches for the “ankle biter” bees developed by Greg Hunt of Purdue. None of our searchers seemed aware that the official name has been changed to the humorless “mite biter”.

Second place (5.1%) went to searches for plans for a long Langstroth hive. But for the use of top bars rather than frames our Tanzanian hives are dimensioned to qualify. And we once again feel that twinge of guilt over never having posted any hive-construction articles.

Third place (3.8%) went to a favorite of every autumn, searches about yellowjackets and the eradication thereof.

Bee foraging poison ivy

Fourth place (2.6%) was taken by searches for bees and poison ivy. Our post on this topic remains a popular one although it is second in Google results to the more widely-read Honeybee Suite. Still we are pleased at the number of people we have reassured that they need not fear poison ivy honey since the toxic urushiol is not present in the nectar.

Finally, in fifth place(1.9%) were searches for Dr. Meghan Milbrath of The Sandhill. Her business will not be providing nucs this year but will focus on raising queens as the most efficient way of supplying beekeepers with good quality, locally adapted genes for their colonies. Her bees are Michigan survivor stock with contributions from the afore-mentioned Indiana ankle-biters.

In addition, the education part of the business will continue with classes on various aspects of beekeeping, both basic and advanced. She is an engaging and informative speaker, well worth hearing whenever one can.

The remainder of the searches were one-offs of no particular interest. Sigh. If we want humor, we may have to resort to knock-knock jokes.

Knock, Knock.
Who’s there?
Wherefore means.
Wherefore means who?

No, “wherefore” means “why!” How many times do we have to go over this?

Our first intended follow-up post to our brief report in March on the MBA conference was published months afterward. Now even more months have passed and with the year almost done we hurry to finally finish the second, about Steve Tilmann’s presentation on the Cape Bee, apis capensis1.

Floral Kingdoms of the WorldThe map at left shows six floral kingdoms of the world, areas with broadly uniform composition of plant species. Five of the six are large continent-sweeping regions, as one might expect. The sixth is just the tip of Africa, isolated from the rest by mountains and subject to high winds from the three oceans.

The winds result in a high rate of virgin queens failing to return from the mating flight, having been blown to Madagascar. In response the Cape bees2 have developed a capacity for thelytoky, a kind of parthenogenesis. A female worker with the right genes can lay eggs which will develop, not into the expected drones, but into clones of herself. A colony without a queen will thus not decay into a frat house and die but carry on producing workers as well.

While it keeps the colony alive, this is a not a perfectly happy situation. Just as in a usual laying worker situation, there is not only one worker who tries to seize the throne but many, each cloning away. Also as usual, workers will give preferential treatment to brood that is more closely related to them, i.e. whose genes more resemble theirs. Such resemblance gets no closer than identical and preferential treatment here turns into actively destroying brood from other laying workers. As a result the colony will likely be split into several cohabiting and competing subcolonies. Such a colony at war with itself is not at all as productive as a queenright colony.

Unfortunately the Cape bees have somehow crossed the mountains and parasitized the hives of European bees. Compared to a cancer, the parasites rapidly outbreed the non-Cape bees, as offspring of laying workers become laying workers themselves, but are useless foragers away from their natural region. The colony eventually dwindles, leaving some surviving Cape bees to move on to infect another hive.

Regarded as a bigger problem than varroa, may they never reach our shores.

1 There is one caveat if you get a chance to see his talk. It was a hunting safari that brought him to South Africa and there are pictures of kills with some gore among the slides.
2They look like Carniolans.

As usual, our beekeeping activities have been at the mercy of weather and life’s other demands so the exact dates of the various events we now report are a bit vague. We should have taken better notes but see “life’s other demands”, mentioned just now. Anyway, after our last sugar roll we had applied Mite Away Quick Strips to the hives. When we finally returned to remove the strips, we decided to check the efficacy with another sugar roll. We began with Dorcas and to our horror discovered a count of 9 mites per hundred bees! We did not proceed to the other hives but hastened to consult Dr. Meghan Milbrath, who must be rather accustomed to our panics by now.

After determining that we had seen no signs of deformed wings or other symptoms of varroa-carried viruses or any indications of ill health but that we had observed there was very little brood, she opined that the mite count may have jumped because mites that had been hiding from treatment within the brood were now phoretic. She also said that she had seen nearly treble our mite counts in untreated hives this time of year and suggested we could treat with oxalic acid using Randy Oliver’s specifications for a medium strength syrup as she does at the Sand Hill.

Syringe 60mlSomewhat reassured we mixed a batch of such syrup for three hives and went to apply with our trusty syringe, once more beginning with Dorcas. We had planned to start from the follower and spread all the bars apart, then squirt the recommended five milliliters(5 ml) along each seam, deliberately wetting the bees. Unfortunately, we found that Dorcas had at some time suffered a comb collapse and we did not wish to deal with trying to fix things, spilling honey, and asking to be stung. We expected to already make ourselves unwelcome with the treatment.

We merely pried bars apart a wee bit, cutting and undoing much propolyzing, without shaking the hive or breaking free any possible attachments. Then we wielded the syringe along each crack and pushed the bars back together. To our surprise the bees did not seem to mind being dribbled with the syrup at all. At least they expended their energies in cleaning each other rather than stinging us.

Repeat for Clarissa and Beatrix, both of whom were also mellow and unbothered by our ministrations, without any more sad discoveries of fallen comb. And so we can do no more except wrap the hives for winter once this latest warm spell ends and worry and hope. We are so weary of deadouts come springtime.

Quince tree with fruitOur dwarf fruit trees have been rather disappointing. We knew it would take a few seasons before they began to bear but in the four years since planting they have been reluctant to so much as flower, except for the quince. That tree has consistently delighted us with a multitude of pink blooms that then crushingly disappointed us as they fruitlessly dropped away. The local pollinators, including the very local honeybees, seemingly had better places to work and could not be bothered with our favorite fruit.

Raw, even when fully ripe, it is hard and has a somewhat astringent taste, not entirely unpleasant but definitely one that needs acquiring. But after being cut, cored, and slowly oven-poached in simple syrup for hours upon hours the hard white flesh turns soft and rosy and acquires an aroma hinting at all manner of added spices. But it is just fruit and sugar and low heat working the miracle. Caterpillar becoming butterfly is a less impressive transformation.

quinceThis year some garage archaeology had uncovered a thirty-year old bottle of some kind of commercial bee attractant left over from gardening at a previous residence. It had not been opened for decades but surely the seal could not be that tight? We found that it still smelled vaguely lemony so when the quince blossoms opened this spring, we mixed a diluted solution and sprayed them. And, lo, when the blossoms dropped away a handful left behind some little swellings that grew into fruits like the one at left. We had successfully cozened our reluctant pollinators.

Plum curculioUnfortunately the other side of that lovely fruit looks rather like this other, higher in the tree. quincewithholesIndeed all of our half a dozen fruits show this kind of insect damage, the dastardly work of the plum curculio. There is nothing to do this year except hope that some fruits will have enough unruined parts to be worth processing. Next year we should spray against this fiend once the blossoms fall but we are not entirely comfortable doing so, especially with the hives so near. We have the winter to fret over a solution.

NightInTheLonesomeOctoberHow to describe without excessive spoilers this odd little gem, a favorite of ours and a favorite of its own author?

The tale is narrated by Snuff, a dog of unnatural intelligence, helping his master, Jack, to make arcane preparations for some imminent great event. Soon we meet other animal companions to odd and oddly familiar people likewise making preparations. We have met them or their like before, including the Good Doctor animating his Experiment Man with lightning, the no longer entirely human Count, the mad Russian Monk, and more. And Jack is preternaturally good with a knife. But what they are about is a mystery, which they do not need to explain to each other and do not deign to explain to the reader. As a further complication all the murder and mayhem attracts the attentions of the Great Detective from London.

If you wish to fully enjoy the unfolding of the central puzzle then skip the next paragraph.

As the animals talk among themselves, hinting, probing, trading secrets and favors, we slowly learn that on the coming Halloween night the fate of the world, indeed its very nature, will be be decided, as on certain previous Halloweens, by a rule-bound magical conflict, part ceremony and part duel, between two teams of players. All the collecting of artifacts, grisly meddling with corpses, occult calculating, and casting of spells throughout the month is each player arming for the event, trying to gain most advantage for his or her side while keeping team allegiance secret for as long as possible.

That is an accurate description of the plot but it makes the book sound far too serious. While there are seriously dramatic and even frightening parts, the overall tone is light with ample Zelaznyesque humour. Even though the fate of the world is ultimately at stake and their own lives at risk in the interim, the players generally go about their eldritch business with the stolid air of the competent tradesman putting in another dull day of work and demonstrating by their interactions with each other that opposition need not mean enmity any more than alliance must mean friendship. And puns when least expected, even puns to save the day.

Being a kind of diary for Snuff, this delightful book has chapters of greatly varying length, one for each day of October until the grand conclusion at Halloween. This has inspired some fen (plural of “fan”) to celebrate the month by ceremonially reading a single chapter each night of the month. We joined their ranks last year as Mr. read to Mrs. at bedtime, in a variety of voices with much more than his normal inflection. Even so, his vocal range is not great and he grew dismayed at the increasing number of falsettos required. And each one slightly different. Be warned. The Mrs. mercifully suggested he might try a variety of accents instead but he soldiered on as he had begun and will likely do so again this year. It seems more natural and easily remembered to make the squeaky squirrel talk faster than the squeaky bat rather than arbitrarily make one of them Italian or Swedish. Perhaps some vocal exercises while yet September may be wise.

Do give this book a try, even if you decide to read it entirely in one sitting. But if you can stand the suspense then pace yourself with the ritual chapter per night.

Happy Halloween to come!

Spoiler for Oct 23rd should any reader or young listener require comfort in getting through this tense chapter.

Snuff is rescued in time.