The Busiest of Bees

Busiest of bees 2

The Busiest of Bees  (The Queen Part II)

Scouts, Inspectors and the  “Shakers”.  AS IF bees haven’t been observed enough during our time on this planet, there is and seems there always will bee,  more to learn.     Dr. Heather Mattila’s fifteen years of research at Wellesley College in  Massachusetts continues to define different classes of  worker bees and their specialized jobs.

Musing sidebar about research data gathering- the x-y axis of a graph: this high, this big, this far, time elapsed, is the graphic proof of scientific research. The numbers of data simplified to a crooked line (or a wavy one), some coloured apartment towers, dancing dots. In the watching and counting of the bees by a crew of research students, unquantifiable surprises are revealed. Ethology, the study of animal behaviour, is a word Professor (Dr. M) and Hobbyist (RitaK) stumbled over. Entomology being the Study of insects. Latin . . . it happens. If the Queen has been “well mated” with the biggest, strongest and fastest drones,  she will provide offspring who will be the best of the foragers. The success of the hive depends on the efforts of the foragers and those graphs illustrate the benefits of diverse genetics.

In the ‘zoo’ of bees, we learn of three classifications of the foragers resulting from Dr. Mattila’s research: There are the scouts, those bees who zoom away to find the sources of nectar- and don’t necessarily bring back anything, because they are on a quest with their sense of adventure and return long enough to relay the co-ördinates of location vis-á-vis the bee dance. Then we observe the inspectors (yes, we have bureaucrats and critics in the Hive) who ascertain the quality of the nectar payload. How the students observed this behaviour is still sketchy in my memory and notes from the lecture but what caught my imagination were the shakers. Yes, we have sleepy bees and those obnoxious early risers. How do you know a bee is sleeping? their antennae are drooping! and along comes one of those early risers, who climbs on top of sleepybeehead and begins to execute pounce-like movements and the day begins. So the Scouts, the Inspectors and the Shakers, remember that, I will.

The End Part II.


The Queen

Golden crown isolated on white - 3d renderThe Queen – Part I


The Bees in my hives are wrapped around the Queen in tight balls. I can hear the hum. Winter it is a time of study for Beekeepers and I throw my name into this tribe with emotional humility. With thousands of years of observation , there is a lot to learn and much information to share about these creatures, Apis, the Honey bee.

It came to the attention of Thunder Bay’s Beekeepers’ Association that we have an expert in our midst- a Dr. Heather Mattila, from Wellesley College, Department of Biological Sciences in Massachusetts returns home at Christmas to visit her parents and we had our own exclusive ‘Ted Talk”.                                                                                                                              The Topic: “Why do well mated queens produce the busiest bees?”

The language of science from a Phd Biologist keeps a person on point.  I have new information to share from Heather’s work over the last 15 years from her students at Wellesley  (of notable Alumnus: Clinton, Albright, Sawyer) and colleagues from Cornell.

Slide No. 2 of the Power Point show gets right down to the nitty gritty of the subject; an airborne Queen with the ripped off genitalia of a Drone dangling from her bottom. Imagine that visual!  My own musings (of a wannabe biologist) before the lecture were generic answers:

– because there is some selection going on                                                                                        – couplings are planned                                                                                                                         – drones have been selected.

The definition of a ‘busy’ bee, also explained in the Lecture will be explored in another instalment, Part II

Polyamory is a new word in my vocabulary. Today’s women are seeking more than one sexual partner but remaining in their marriage, apparently and Polyandry in Bees ensures genetic diversity, hence stronger . . . busier . . . bees.

The Queen’s flight away from the hive may occur up to three trips (maximum) in search of an aerial drone congregation travelling many dangerous kilometres to follow the scent of those minute pheromones on the wind. Once located, a mating comet of drones begins to swirl around her and the chase is on. The biggest, the strongest, the fastest Drone wins. Nothing new there >wink<.

Back in the hive, the Queen returns and worker bees are reassured by the ultra violet light emanating from the Drone’s still attached genitalia. The workers chew off the package and the colony is restored.

The End Part I



Drone package 2.jpeg


Illustration from C. P. Dadant’s “First Lessons in Beekeeping” 1918

Chemotherapy for Bees




Dread. I am filled with dread. In all the winters I have known thus far, this winter ahead will be daunting. The challenge: To keep my bees alive!                                                         Today, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon (the weather has just been awful for over two weeks now, cold rain everyday!) our Bee Club hosted a workshop demonstrating the Hive wrap-up and treatment of Oxalic Acid, the medication to ‘arrest’ development                                                                        of the dreaded D-E-S-T-R-U-C-T-O-R Varroa Mite.

A ‘drip by syringe’ applied between the frames was voted nay by the also wet and cold membership and we witnessed a demonstration of  ‘the vapours’. A heated wand powered by an automobile battery fried up the crystalline version of oxalic granules.  The toxic gas was inserted into the base of the hive. A few Bees were able to get the hell out of dodge by flying out, skirting the edges of the noxious plume while others trudged out on their death march. The cure for Cancer, chemotherapy, known as worse than the disease, is the analogy that came to mind.


On a happy note, I learned how to make a ‘candy board’. A paste of white granulated sugar, some water and a touch of vinegar is patted into a wood frame with a metal mesh. The hardened sheet of “candy” offers emergency food should the little creatures (those that survived the gas attack) eat themselves out of their honey stores.

The bees are already forming into balls in the hives and I can envision those fat drones providing the BTU’s. Some relief is in sight on Thursday when +10 is forecast. I will continue to provide syrup until the end of the month but I will get busy and prepare the custom fit winter cover of 2″ styrofoam @ a value of R10.                                                            Both hives are presently waterproofed with white tarps over heavy wool blankets.  There is room to innovate in this . . . profession.

fyi: Oxalic acid is like the compound found in Rhubarb leaves. Remember you are not supposed to eat Rhubarb leaves.


Photo Credit: Royal Kenyon Beeworks, Flagstaff Arizona

Himalayan Balsam

SIGH< Summer is really over. Tomorrow night they predict minus 3 . . . that would be celsius nomenclature for fellow BeeKeepers in shining America (26.6F). We had a lot of action at the hives over the summer, even a swarm. The melon shaped form covered with the rogue bees is high up in a spruce tree. ‘Let them go’ says Rudy, it’s in their DNA. You don’t want those kind of bees anyways. I just feel rejected, having made a nice clean wooden home for them. They didn’t even go ‘upstairs’ to store their honey or create brood . . . Rudy also doesn’t use a Queen excluder, neither did I when I got the kit(s). My intuition told me: “No, you don’t really need these” (yet another layer to get all gooped up with propolis and comb) Must be those European Genes 😉

Himalayan Balsam. Rogue plant from, yes, the Himalayas.                                                         My bees have been arriving with white ‘spots’ on their backs and I was freaking, “Oh nooo, now what scourge is this??” Friends of Mr. Google told me not to worry, it is just pollen from the Himalayan Balsam flowers. As the bee enters the pollen stamen(s) scrapes over their backs! Well thank goodness there is still something nutritious out there for the bees, non-native invasive species or not, at least it doesn’t sting a rash onto you like Giant Hogweed and their ilk.

On October 13th, the experienced BeeKeepers of Thunder Bay will be giving a demo on how to wrap up the hives for our gruesome winter. Can I wait that long? I have been feeding them 1:2 sugar syrup and changed up the Mason jars, large bodies with the smaller caps, so there is more of an opening around the handhold lid of the hive cover. My meagre innovations. I also purchased rolls of reflective insulation (the bubble wrap stuff) I was going to make temporary tea cozy-type things until the 13th, I’ll let you know how THAT project materializes. A happy shoutout to Sassafras Farms in the Carolinas , I hope your Farm is OK after the Hurricane, I am almost afraid to ask.

Politics of the Hive


This is a Drone. He has very large eyes that I surmise cover a 270° radius  (just a guess, I’ll look it up) so he can see the Queen for the mating flight. All those drones taking up space in the hive and eating up all the goodies, the bee bread and honey stores. Bee bread is a combo of honey and pollen. Can you taste the polleny-breadiness?                        I have now read the colony allows them to hang out to ‘keep the brood warm’ but the entomologists don’t all agree on this.  They are larger than everyone else, kind of ‘chunky’.

‘First Lessons in Beekeeping’ published in 1918 by  Charles Dadant arrived recently from Amazon’s trove of ‘lost books’. This book is considered one of the ‘bibles’ of beekeeping.  We got it right back then and bees were and still are and always will be it seems, the most studied creature on the planet. The book begins immediately with the reproduction equipment (and that stinger) of this fascinating society of insects. Dadant could draw!(next time I’ll show you the etching-like diagrams)

The soaring heat has displayed some new behaviours at the hives but yesterday things escalated. I had to consult Mr. Google to check if a swarm was brewing. Another cursory inspection informed that WE HAVE HONEY!!!! oozing all over the place as they started building comb on top of the frames. Therefore, when I removed the cover where that ‘magical’ syrup jar sits, the honey combs broke open. I will be ready with clean jars in a few days and scrape off all that errant m-e-s-s. I am relying on intuition and stop the inspection when the volume of the buzzing rises. That can’t be good.

After I shut down the inspection and put the rocks back on the roof covers and slowly vacated the site with my kit and smoker, all hell broke loose. Bees buzzing everywhere. Angry buzzing?  The air space filled with bees at the front of the hive. There was a certain amount of bearding going on too (everyone chilling outside the hive although temps were quite reasonable) Is this a hatch? The first flights of new workers? It is the drones who make all the noise. What is going onnn??

All the ruckus died down just as mysteriously in a matter of minutes but I spotted a lone drone  trudging away from the hive, along the recently cultivated grapevine bed. His large beady eyes obvious in my sightline. Had he been ‘ousted’ by the Workers? They do that from time to time, ruthlessly escort them out. I should have picked him up.           Note to self: always carry a jar when in the Bee Yard.

Honey bee face.jpg

Ms. Worker Bee. She means business.

Heat Wave

Bees fanning hive

With temperatures rising and hovering in the high 20’s, the bees have started to fan the hive. Today things got so extreme many workers came out of the hive and began ‘bearding’.  Some of them formed a beard-like clump to hang under their threshold . . . possibly it is cooler by the concrete block. Tomorrow I will remove their doorway, called a cleat, entirely. Let’s see if that improves their situation.Bearding bees 2.jpgNote the birch branches, also helping to shade their abodes in the Grapeyard.

The Foragers are streaming in loaded with pollen bags, sometimes they seem to be so heavy they cannot adjust their flight speed and crash into the grass, only to rise and make another attempt into the hive ‘door’. A relentless pace for these little creatures but when it gets too hot, the work stops, just like us.

The Dance

Many discoveries and inventions immediately come to mind. Probably in a particular order, in the way I think, Polio Vaccine, Insulin, the telephone, the Saturn V Rocket- but to learn that the Nobel Prize in 1973 was bestowed upon an Austrian who discovered the ‘Bee Dance’  . . . I just throw up my arms.

Karl von Frisch, a pioneer of ethology (the study of animal behaviour) was researching how bees communicate. Into the darkness of the narrow vertical space of the honeycomb, the forager bee, executes particular movements, to inform her colleagues (who gather around, and remember its really crowded, about 500 bees per face of honeycomb frame) where she found the source of the nectar and how far away it is.

Let’s look at the Saturn V rocket for a second while this sinks in. Saturn 5.jpg

This is the rocket that brought everyone to the Moon. Meanwhile, back on Earth . . .

The Bee spits up a sampling of nectar for others to ascertain the quality. Then, the dance begins. The bee moves in a circle if the nectar is closer than 54 yards (49 meters), hence the ’round dance’. IF, the nectar is further than this, the ‘waggle dance’,  a figure eight on-the-flat, describes the x-axis angle of the ‘8’ for the direction in degrees, is performed.

OK Karl, what did you do to figure this out please?                                                                     Trajectory. Rockets. Round things, our Planet.                                                                            It’s a B-e-e.

Bolder waggle dance.png

click this VIDEO:

and this one (longer) VIDEO:


The Guard Bees



If they are looking at you, they are the guards . . . guarding.

I was instructed to do this first inspection after their arrival last Saturday.                    Today is June 25, 2018. I found the 1:1 syrup jars empty on the top hive cover with the central ‘hand hole’ where the mason jar sits. Those were replaced with fresh syrup.

The new frames (6 each hive) are still empty and most of the action is still on the original brood frames of the original nuc. I saw live larva without any ‘cover’ and quickly checked my manuals, seems thats ok. My smoker was not co-operating with the burlap and pinecone tinder which kept going out. I did gently smoke the bees out of the way, whether they were looking at me or not- I didn’t notice (they scurry down into the frames) I was more concerned with getting  a handhold on the packed with bees brood frames but this wasn’t much of an inspection. I should have found both queens. They are marked with  yellow dot.

One alarming detail which may suggest a missing queen are the raised drone cappings on worker cells. In the absence of a Queen, worker bees can lay eggs, but only for drones. The raised dome is to accommodate the larger sized bee. The presence of these cells signals the end of this colony.

The weather today is: nondescript, cloudy, a muggy damp. The bees were moving              in slow-mo, like myself. Rain is imminent.

Bee Friendly

Hello Dear Reader and welcome to this journal about helping the Bees!

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” – Rachel Carson

May 12, 2018

A few weeks from now I will be receiving my bees. I planted fruit trees two years ago and then built a small ‘grapeyard’ (Frontenac vines developed at the University of Minnesota) and because of the world situation, fact or fiction, about the declining numbers of pollinators and flying insects, to better the odds of my hobbyist activities for shiny red apples and huge clusters of purpley grapes, I am thinking I need some bees.

Although I practice one of the most arcane professions out there, architecture, I am still basically a farmer by my DNA. Nothing gives me more solace and happiness than a day just “messing about” on my piece of earth down here by the Kaministiquia River in Thunder Bay.

Bees were a part of childhood dwelling on a farm in southern Ontario summers. The hives were situated in an aging apple orchard, the gnarled trees were scaled for small children as we scampered under the friendly arms untouched. Grownups had to step off the worn dirt path to skirt their branches.

I caught my first cottontail bunny by reaching under a beehive set upon concrete blocks in that orchard. Timing was everything in that steady stream of bees.“Be still! and don’t flail your arms” my mother warned when we were in the presence of the wingéd ones with stingers. We took heed.

I suppose these are my bee credentials to suit up for this endeavour, and yes I already got the hat. The new outfits for beekeeping have gone all astronaut. The helmet-like affair with netting and strips of techno reinforcing strengthens the metaphor for ‘Spaceship Earth’ as all the alarms are going off. What can one believe anymore, what is really going on?

If one is unsure about where they stand about the reasons for climate change our continuing dependence on chemicals to boost up crop yields, disrupt nervous systems of crop-chomping insectivore and slaying forest floor competition has not diminished since Rachel Carson’s warning back in 1962. Her book ‘Silent Spring’ changed the paradigm of Life on the planet. The banned use of DDT was a tipping point for that era.

The life of bees, the pollinators of all that we eat from our cornucopia of plants and all the problems we now understand about their health and  well-being, may well be the next wave of change in our world. The president’s report in the May and June issue of Ontario Bee Journal informs that pollen residue samplings for pesticides shows 92% neonics- our bees are foraging in a toxic environment1.

The courses and workshops are filling up for beekeeping in Ontario. Torontonians are setting up hives in their urban backyards, go-pros beam back to apps on cell phones to keep tabs on their hives while city beekeepers assemble around conference tables.

Could it be, that our own macro civilization, must now kneel down to this alternate civilization, set up on blocks in an apple orchard, in order to mend, perhaps even save humankind from its own extinction?

To produce two pounds of honey, bees travel a distance equal to 4 times around the earth. Our rocky blue planet is 40, 075 kilometers in circumference (24,901 miles).

1 Dr. Amro Zayed, OMAFRA, MOECC.

May 14, 2018

My bees will be late.                                                                                                                                    I got the email a few days ago. The two ‘nucs’ as they are called, the correct nomenclature for a group of workers with their Queen have yet to ‘hatch’.    I believe the reason for this is because of the cold spring and I see by today’s press release, Thunder Bay’s Chronicle Journal quotes the President of Ontario Beekeeper’s Association Jim Coneybeare (really? rather close to Honey Bear) I digress.

Well, that gives me more time to set up the home for the bees I imagine the drawing still in my mind.  The knowledge says place the hives towards the morning sun, >check< some shade in the afternoon, >check< twenty five feet from the neighbours >check< and yes I have insurance through the membership of the OBA. While we are not exactly an urban location, can you imagine a swarm of bees arriving at a children’s birthday party on a sunny summer afternoon??? Back to the checklist of 10 questions . . . after my first attendance of Tech Transfer, the body of Bee researchers at the University of Guelph, I came out of that introductory BLITZ with this statement in my head: “It’s all about the mites” Chatting with attendees, the list included  winter kill. All 3 people I met to chat with had lost their bees this past winter. Reasons given: …. “I did something different “(beekeeper shaking head) …. “They ate themselves out of food.”

Keeping Bees is looking like another not an exact science and I will soon be humbled, even if I have read everything available, listened to everyone and leaned close to my Mentor: ‘Honey Bear’ himself: Mr. Barry Tabor of Shuniah, mistakes will be made.

The checklist of 10 question for your potential site:

  1. Would your beehive get morning sunlight at the entrance? yes
  2. Hot Region: Would it be shaded during the hottest part of the day?hmm, partially
  3. Cool Region: Would it have full sun most of the day? yes
  4. Would it be exposed to winter winds? somewhat
  5. Would it be protected by buildings or forest? somewhat
  6. Is there standing water here during heavy rainstorms? no
  7. Is the area lower than other nearby parts of your property? nope
  8. Are there wetland plants growing in the immediate area? does a river count?
  9. Are you able to install a water feature for the bees? sure
  10. Is there a natural, year-round source of water within 1,000 feet of your colony? river?
  11. Would the entrance at least 25 feet away from your neighbours properties? ok.
  12. Would the entrance at least 25 feet away from your walkways and building? yes

Speaking of Bears. The Kam River is a veritable highway for all sizes of bruins. A few days ago we had Momma Bear and THREE cubs checking out everything here. I cringe to think of their future. Please let them be. If there is something ‘smelly’ on your property, they will be back.

This of course is problematic for the beehives which will have to be situated in a compound that we must electrify, solar powered of course. Bears GO INSANE once they get a taste of that honey. Design-wise on that checklist, I lack a windbreak for my hives and a curving fence is envisioned, that the hives back onto, with enough space for the keeper (moi) to manoeuvre and check the hives. The first question I asked Barry Tabor of ‘Bears, Bees and Honey’ in Shuniah, Ontario, just east of Thunder Bay was: “What makes a good beekeeper?” He hesitated: “You must be conscientious”, meaning keep an eye on what’s going on inside. I will up that word choice to vigilance.

May 21, 2018

The Bee Dance.                                                                                                                                           I am bedazzled in wonderment of all I am discovering about the world of bees. I walk in the footsteps of humanity since what four?, six? thousand years of settlement civilization. Before that, we were like bears raiding their hanging clusters of honey filled combs.

>>>BULLETIN>>>>>My romantic delusions have been tempered by breaking news on all fronts about the disastrous winter for bees. The numbers are still coming in at 70% losses. GMO crops are not helping as they are laced with neonics. The best-selling pesticides, Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, are manufactured by Bayer. What a recurring nightmare! Rachel Carson warned us about chemical companies and the future. In her time it was DDT- our ‘Silent Spring’ this year is silent beehives.

I may not even receive my bees.  If you have dandelions, please do not chop their heads off, it is the first pollen and nectar for the honey bees, what’s left of them. Things sound grim indeed, as we do not have enough warmth of season for them to recover. I will write about the dance soon.


June 17, 2018


Yesterday, June 16th 2018, I picked up my ‘nucs’ (2) in Shuniah from Barry Tabor, Beekeeper (Bears, Bees and Honey) at about 1:00 pm.

Barry, rushing  (he had to go to hospital) to explain setting up/transfer of about 10,000 bees and Queen (tethered in a “candy” sealed capsule):                                                                                                            “No smoke, no gloves.”                                                                                                                                                                    Rita: “SAY WHAT?”

Many hours later, due to unforeseen ‘circumstances’, the bees, their little heads (and yes I have anthropomorphized them) trying to push their way through the grid holes of a 4×4 inch square of netting in their 4-frame box, the sound, emanating from the box says: PLEEEEZ LET US OUT!!!!

The transfer proceeded smoothly without gloves. The bees alighted on my hands and explored about with their particular gait (and yes, that’s funny too, a kind of tu-dunk-ka-dunka-dunka (bee swagger), someone pooped on the tip-top of my veiled Beekeeper’s hat (a message?) and I was speaking to them the entire time, welcoming them to our place, telling them I hope they would like it here and other nonsense I could come up with while lifting loaded brood frames covered with bees and placing them into the new wood hives, while my husband Craig and Kaya-dog watched from a safe distance outside the ‘bee compound’ (also the Vineyard).

I have done this before I think.

Kaya is not Happy web.jpg


June 21, 2018  Happy Summer Solstice all you Pagans!

The Foragers – Day Five

About four in the afternoon now, the entrances to the hives are so crowded with arrivals from the ‘airforce’,  that I was concerned and phoned my Mentor to make sure it wasn’t a ‘robbery’. “Just open up the entrance” he advised. They are heading in a south west direction, to the Poplar forest. I wonder what they have found. Early Tuesday morning,  someone arrived with bright yellow pollen pouches on their legs. WHY am I so emotional about that?

There is much to observe at the comings and goings of the hive. I am due to make my first inspection either tomorrow or the next day, it will be important. I did see some weird cells that looked a little large, perhaps developing Queen cells as the Queen for each hive was packaged in a plastic capsule so she wouldn’t ‘get lost’. It is already a leap of faith that both hives are working forward with a healthy, accepted, laying Queen.

I have been to the hives, without the garbe, without the gloves, to make some minor adjustments (painting that wood I didn’t expect to see from the cover which is holding the upside down Mason Jar  punched with nail holes of 1:1 sugar syrup). A scout (guard?) bee will fly up and hover in front of me and then return to the hive entrance. I laugh and fill in the conversation: “Oh, it’s just her“.

The Bees of June work the hardest and these four o’clock returning Foragers will not see the end of July, their wing muscles worn out. A Honey Bee may fly out for 5 minutes or two and a half hours and visit about 75 – 3,000 flowers. One pound of honey is the result of forager bees collecting nectar from 2 million flowers. The life of one honey bee produces 1/12th of a teaspoon, 5 drops of honey.

Bee arrivesBe safe beautiful little creatures!