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Bee-autiful: A Summer As A Beekeeping Intern

This summer I and other university students took a beekeeping internship class with an entomologist and master beekeeper, who has been caring for student farm beehives for the past several years as a demo item. The class was intended for training student farmers in the maintenance and caring of the Student Farm Apiary, and gave us intense hands on training during the busiest season for our buzzing buddies!

Every class day, except field trip days or when the weather was bad, we would put on veils or bee suits and crack open the hives. Through the instruction of our professor we received an excellent hands on experience (plus one mandatory sting), and learned how to check for diseases and parasites, understand comb development and hive structure, interpret bee signaling, and manage an apiary successfully. Part of our grade was our field journal, which was a constant diary of our interactions with the hives; what happened, when, and what we planned to do next. Bees are so dependent upon the seasons for when they forage, swarm, or store excess honey, a journal is a vital track record to remind you what did and didn’t work and when to do it again in following years. The ability to predict conditions based on the most current data is incredibly useful not only for tailoring your hive management to your local microclimate, but as we watch global warming warp our seasons we are unable to use the established seasonal guidelines beekeepers have used for centuries.

The other half of our grade was dependent upon our the work we accomplished in specialized teams. We had a hive construction team that put together and painted new hive boxes and stands that now actually belong to the farm.  A mite monitoring team checked the hive bi-weekly using sugar shakes, sticky boards, and drone pulls to estimate the population of varroa mites in the hives. Another team mapped the colony development weekly to see where the observation hive was putting brood, pollen, and honey stores as the seasons wore on. Finally, a behavior team spent many hours watching the hive entrance to monitor hive activity and learning the “bee dance” to interpret the communicative dances the bees use to signal food sources. So cool!

During the first 4 weeks of class we had a swarm catcher (also known as a nuc box) on top of our nearby bee shed and breathlessly hoped to find ourselves with another colony. One day I came to class and there are my classmates all crowded around standing on tiptoe and pointing excitedly-we had caught a swarm! We happily donned our veils and went to check our established hives. One hive had an abnormal amount of queen cells, which isn’t entirely unusual during swarm season, and we pulled them off. As we did this however, we realized that despite the warm forage-encouraging weather, there simply weren’t enough bees. More so, there simply wasn’t a queen. Terrified of having a colony collapse due to being queen-less we incubated one of the cells we had removed. I carried the tiny queen brood cell in my shirt breast pocket carefully as some classmates climbed on top of the bee shed and found we hadn’t caught a wild swarm, but had caught our own hive’s swarm. The marked queen buzzed cheekily at us as we laughed over our inability to keep bees from doing what they do. The queen I carried was replaced in the now queen-less hive and we arranged for the swarm to have their own hive box.

It brought up an interesting question though. We, as beekeepers, often if not always suppress swarming in the hives we manage to keep them large and productive. There has also been talk of how “swarm happy” bought bred queens have become as late- probably a result of breeding for one characteristic and inadvertently ending up with another as well. However, if a bee hive feels like it wants to effectively split in two, should we let it? Will they be healthier if allowed to swarm or are they just perpetuating a self-weakening behavior? There are so many things we do in beekeeping that are tough choices and it’s hard to make clear whether it is better for our goals as a beekeeper or our bee’s goals as a bee. Unfortunately as as we watch our ecosystem become poisoned and our bees die out in horrifyingly large numbers, plus the effects of invasive diseases and parasites nearly wiping out feral colonies altogether, the need to encourage the integrity of our bee populations has never been more important, nor more difficult.

It was an amazing summer and aside from delicious honey, new friends, and a few funny stories I feel like I’ve gained what will be a life long passion. The Student Farm Apiary is my second home and each hive like a good friend- each with their own moods and personalities and flaws. Despite having a suit, I don’t have gloves. It gives me a better feel for the hive and I love feeling the bees on my fingers, despite them often being upset. A few swollen digits is a small price to pay for the appreciation I’ve gained for these wonderfully evolved insects and the insane work they do!

Cheers,

Muddled Lumberjack

BIG FAT SWEATY SUMMER UPDATE – PT 2 – Experiments and Adventures

Regardless of how busy I am summers in Seattle always turn into great experiment and adventure times. When the sun goes up at 5am and doesn’t go down until 11pm you simply can’t help but cram your day full of excellence. Last year I did pickles and churned butter and taught myself all about gardening and bummed around drinking booze with friends. This summer has had a few more intriguing variances.

Bees (!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Most importantly, I’ve become a bit of a beekeeper this summer! I’ve had a lot of fun working with bees and learning all about their fascinating social structure. After awhile I had to avoid them a bit because stings on my hands caused them to puff up so much I couldn’t write. Which isn’t so much “awh, I can’t draw” as “I”M A FULL TIME STUDENT BIO MIDTERM TOMORROW FUUUU!!!”. Eventually I’ll let myself be stung enough so the venom has little affect on me and I won’t get skittish when I hear that tell tale angry buzzing.

IMG_0430

A quick note on stings: I’ve heard a lot of people complain they are allergic to bees because the sting site itches and swells when they are stung. Guess what? You’re not allergic. Bee venom contains chemicals and complex proteins that cause your cells to swell, hence the pain and itching that lasts for several days to a week, and often only stops affecting you because your body gets excellent at producing the enzymes to break these compounds down before they affect your skin cells. This also means that the severity of the reaction you have also depends on how long you left the stinger in or if you removed it improperly. After a stinger detaches from a bee, there is a tiny muscle that, in some macabre rigor mortis, keeps pumping venom into you for a full minute or so. An allergic reaction (of the mild sort) is when you get the redness, itching, and swelling on other parts of your body- “hives”. Consult a doctor if you’re having these symptoms. You ABSOLUTELY need to call 911 IMMEDIATELY if you fell tightness in your chest or other similar symptoms. If you are unsure about whether you are allergic, have someone with an epi-pen and a car with you the first time you interact with bees.

Anyhoo.

Considering the issues that are happening because of CCD, and how dependent the US economy is on argicultural exports, beekeeping has become an highly valued but arcane science. You can do everything right and still find a dead hive at the end of winter. My money is on chemical compounds in the environment getting into their honey and wax is screwing up bees’ hormonal signaling, but I’m inexperienced and not exceedingly well read. However, as a result of the rarity of healthy bee hives if you do keep bees you can rent out your hives to a local farm and get 3 times as much as you used to per field for hiring out your pollinators ($150-200/per hive/per month?). So if you’re thinking of keeping bees part time, and if you do it efficiently, you can easily pay yourself back for your equipment, if not your time. Something to consider especially if you’re in Washington and want to live in an exurban area as there are plenty of fruit tree farms who will happily hire out your bees. Even more so if you organic beekeep for organic farms.

A hybrid bee frame designed by my professor! See the bees drawing out the comb by making chains at the bottom?
A hybrid bee frame designed by my professor! See the bees drawing out the comb by making chains at the bottom?

Chemicals: It’s really important to encourage natural beekeeping in my opinion. Not only because of the aesthetics of organic practices, but because any chemicals bees interact with will not only end up in their digestive system, but end up in every last byproduct. For example, if a chemical miticide is used on the bees to keep down the parasitic varroa mite population, the bees’ fur will probably be covered in it. The bees lick themselves clean constantly, and scrape pollen off their bodies to pack into the comb, which they feed on. So either way it’s going to end up in their stomachs. Honey is produces by bees drinking nectar and regurgitating it into combs (which is awesome since it then has lots of enzymes the bee stomach produces and becomes ten times more nutritious), and now it has chemical miticide in it. Wax is produced from “wax plates” on the underside of bees’ abdomens and is a glandular secretion. Here’s the really scary part. You CANNOT get chemical miticide out of beeswax. It is impossible. This also means that the entire beeswax market is filled with contaminated wax. Yes, your fancy beeswax candle? That beeswax soap bar you really like? Has a distinct, though admittedly small, dosage of chemical miticide in it. Unless you’re buying from a very very closed organic source you need to come to terms with the fact your beeswax will be a bit contaminated, and there is no law saying the companies have to tell you that.

If you’d like to see pictures from me and other beekeeping interns from this summer with descriptions go here: www.flikr.com/photos/beeinterns. Books I use as my beekeeping bibles are: The Beekeeper’s Handbook and The Biology of the Honey Bee. Both I would consider absolutely necessary to anyone considering beekeeping, even as a side hobby. I’d love to do tons of comics on bees but the topic is so vast and complicated sometimes I think it would be impossible to do in comic form, without it just degenerating into me quoting my text books with funny pictures of bees next to it.

Dumpster Diving

Personally I’d assume that digging through dumpsters is much more appealing in the winter when tons of biodegradables aren’t roasting in a big steel bin in some supermarket’s parking lot. However, there are a couple cool places to hit in Seattle and I finally went on my first escapade. My friend and I dug through a produce stand’s compost bin and found about 6 pounds of apples just sitting on top of the heap, all in good condition minus the bruising that got them tossed in the first place. We also got some tomatoes but I couldn’t be bothered to deal with cooking them into pasta sauce right now and don’t really favor eating them raw (I’m not that intense). So I just went ahead and froze them. When I get enough tomatoes I’ll defrost them and make a massive batch of marinara or something. I do the same with peppers and onions and such. Since they’re usually so close to expiring I just clean them, cut off bad bits, dice them up, and freeze them for stir frys later on.

Apple butter from dumpster apples WIP. That is a 1 cup measure next to my stock pot, for scale.

With the apples though I made a fucking massive batch of apple butter. Seriously, we had over half a god damn gallon of the stuff after it was done reducing. We split it into two quart jars and I’ve not even tapped mine yet. I’m considering using half of it for fruit leather and the other half giving it away to people who have given me food this past week (not to perpetuate the horrible dumpster eater stereotype but.. yeah I’ve been living off beans and charity). If you want to make apple butter, just take your favorite applesauce recipe and add apple cider vinegar, ginger, a dash of paprika, then cut the sugar in half and let simmer on the stove for 3 hours at 220 degrees(also kills dumpster bacteria).

I hit a few non-food dumpsters too! A used bookstore now has left me with stacks of Heinlein, Robbins, and McCarthy plus some National Geographics, and a museum tossed out a perfectly working, though ancient and heavy, jigsaw! Fuuuuuuuck Yes. I’m considering painting big coral reef scenes on plywood, cutting them out with the jigsaw, and affixing them to the hallways walls in the apartment. I’ve heard rumors of camping equipment dumpsters with slashed, but fixable, tents and sleeping bags. Hmmm.

Lactobacillus

You probably know this already but lactobacillus is a gut (and vagina) dwelling bacterium that helps us break down dairy products and other things to reap the awesome awesome benefits. It’s one of those probiotic critters that are easily made and found in food and can help you keep out of gut rot (and yeast infections BTW). Thanks to a horrendous bout of bronchitis I’ve had all damn summer, I’m on antibiotics the size of horse tranquilizers.

~~They’re in you and they’re in meeee!~~

Honestly, I was kind of hoping my body would fight off the infection but after almost 2 months I caved in and went to the doctor. To be fair, my body probably would have won the fight had I not gotten wasted and smoked a big old cigar with a buddy a month back.

Antibiotics are indescriminate when it comes to killing bacterium, so it’s a good idea to add lots of probiotic foods to your diet when you do have to go on them. Things like yogurts with live cultures (especially greek!), raw cheeses, and unpasteurized lacto-fermented veggies! I get to have an excuse to stuff my face full of kimchi and sauerkraut and pickled radish! Woot!

I tried making sauerkraut and I do recommend using recipes in Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation (but don’t suggest his beer recipe, btw). Unfortunately I messed with it and set it up wrong and let it sit out for too long and spilled brine everywhere. Did I mention I’m a klutz? Also a sussacotti? This is some North Dakota Norwegian slang for someone who cannot leave something alone, who fusses and frets and fiddles with a thing, who will probably eventually destroy something because they can’t stop trying to perfect it. *points at self enthusiastically, shaking head pathetically* Anyways, I may try and make some kimchi later this week, but I leave in 10 days for a month so it may be impractical to do so.

Drawing

Oh yeah, hey that thing I initially devoted this site too! Mainly this section is devoted to St. Vulcan. I won’t go on about it, go here if you want the details, but I did learn quite a bit from this project so I think it is appropriate to put it as part of the summer update.

This summer I have..

1. Learned shit-ton about how important the right ink and pen and paper can be. St. Vulcan caused me so much grief since I initially used a brush tip pen that inked wonderfully but didn’t stand up to erasing and bled. The latter being an issue since I ended up scanning everything and the lack of good thick inky lines made it impossible to use fill tools without it being horrifically noticable. The pen I used second was so much thicker that all the art looks insanely different and on a different scale as a result, though was much much easier to color. Since then I’ve invested in an array of pens and have been conducting tests on their relative success.

2. Got over my fears of a) thinking I couldn’t create something that had any real value and b) taking myself seriously. I may not be creating the art I want to be, and I may not even have time to devote to improve myself, but I did make one awesome project to the very best of my ability and it was something I’m legitimately proud of! That is more than worth the value of art itself, and more worth it to me. It made me feel less like I could dismiss myself and more like I had something to offer, however small. Now I can only get better!

3. Two projects on the drawing board. A a) porn comic that breaks the horrific stereotypes that proliferate the comic industry and b) a steampunk theme time traveler comic. I’m excited to try and work not only on drawing lots of body types and positions, but to really experiment with paneling and styles. The woman I’ve conceived for the porn comic has so possessed me with her character that I have 3 pages of her sketched out and I can tell she won’t be done with me until I find her a mate. For now she is nameless and uniquely beautiful.

Now I’ll start making my lists for the fall and for next summer to see what else I want to try and add to my skill set! I’m thinking… learn to play a banjo and/or washboard, whittle, and.. well, you tell me!

Cheers,

M.L.