Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Fanning:" Bee Dance Craze Sweeps NYC

Unless you're a morning person, it's never fun to wake up at 6 am. Looking around at all those silent, sleepy stares on the A train aroused an anxious stirring in the pit of my stomach. Their dazed countenances were too familiar, and evoked uncomfortably visceral memories of myself not so long ago. I wondered how many of them were secretly panicking on the inside, how many were mere automatons going through the monotonous motions of their lives apathetically, and how many were confident that their destinations were so much more awesome than the destinations of the majority of their fellow passengers. For the first time in a long while, I fell into the final category.

Sunrise at the hive. Ah, what could be more grand?

The Bee Team met on the roof at 7:15 to check on Michelle Obama's marshmallow progress and the general well-being of the hive. The little guys were pretty low key. We opened the top of the brood box and...

Wowee Zowee!
A whole lotta bees.

We pulled out the frames to find the queen's lounge.

Notice the colors of Eddie's clothes? Bee camo again!

Jon went in for the queen. The worker bees are so protective of her that they cling to her box in defense. We smoked them to ensure there were no attacks, especially since we were all sans-bee suits. Notice the opening at the bottom; this is the site that once housed the formidable marshmallow plug.

The queen is still inside, but the marshmallow plug has been devoured by one or more of her brave suitors. The box has become somewhat of a love nest, as there is most definitely more than one drone in there with the queen. I didn't include an actual photo of this lewd behavior, in the interest in keeping this site PG-rated.

Just kidding! I couldn't get a good picture of the queen. If I had, it'd already have been all over the pages of Star magazine, Us Weekly and In Touch, and I would've been driving a black-and-yellow-striped Lambourghini by now.

We had no choice but to let Michelle Obama do her thing and emerge whenever she pleased. Hopefully it will be sometime today or tomorrow. We put her back in the brood box and replaced the frames.

Then, it was time to sit back, relax, and watch.

As the sun rose higher and hotter, we began to see a large number of bees returning to the hive and waddling through the front door with powdery yellow pollen stuck to their hind legs. Unfortunately, again, I didn't catch it on film; but I will. I thought it looked like they were wearing yellow Hammer-pants. Eddie thought they looked like they had yellow turkey legs.

We astutely noticed that the bees were seemingly sticking their butts in the air and flapping their wings. So strange!

After some serious research (google search: "bees butts air") I learned that this is called "fanning," a move that I will surely introduce to my dance repertoire. Interestingly, worker bees (all female) follow an evolution of worker-bee-tasks in a very particular order. "Fanning" is one such task, performed during the later phases of a bee's life span, but before foraging. The oldest worker bees forage; they save the best for last, in my opinion.

The fanning worker bees assume this provocative position as if to say, in pheromone-talk to their comrades near and far, "The queen is out of her box! Come home!"

If the bees are fanning, and it sure looks like they are, then Michelle Obama has left her queen's lounge. This, in turn, means that she will begin laying eggs, and that in 21-ish days, a new generation of bees will be born, and they will continue to help make the flowers grow!


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of BEEing

Our bees won't make it up to Ft. Tryon; too far. (We've talked about tagging their tiny legs to track them, but it seemed too time consuming. Thoughts from anyone who has tagged the tiny legs of 5 lbs. of bees??) However, I did see some fantastic specimens of the honeybee sort gathering nectar from the myriad of colorful flora in the lovely Washington Heights. Anyone who says NYC is all concrete has another thing coming when they see these photos:

A Bonny View of the George Washington Bridge

The lush Hudson River Valley

Bumble Bee in Action

Loving Burst of a Cherry Tree

Checkered Tulip!

An unseasonably warm day in the city. I must check on the bees.
(And transplant the delicate plants onto the roof.)

When I arrived around 5:15 pm, the hive was abuzz with honeybees coated in sweet nectar. In the shot below, you can see the yellow pollen on the legs of the airborne bee in the middle. (His name is Mario.)

This is a great sign that the bees are beginning to forage out in big bad Brooklyn, despite the bee tea inside the hive and the delicious-looking clumpy marshmallow pile. (Although I caught two honeybees red-handed going for it in this photo!)

It was at this moment that I realized that I was in bee camo!

So I decided, "Why not just snuggle up for a bit?"
They felt it too.

By 7, bees were flying back to the roof from every direction. I'm sure some even made it to Manhattan and Queens. (Hopefully not Staten Island. They're smart little dudes.)

5 lbs. of Bees in a Box

This what arrived at the Park Slope post office. I wish I could've been a fly on the wall... or better yet one of those cute, fat, fuzzy bumble bees.

Anyway, on Friday night we met on the roof at 7 pm, just in time for the last light of day. These bees were weary, I could just feel it in my bones. The first order of business would be to extract the box containing our queen bee, Michelle Obama.

The queen is separated from the rest of the honey bees because if she were loose, all the drones would start mating with her immediately, and she'd have no place to lay her eggs. The queen comes in a little wooden box. The beekeeper has to remove the queen's lounge from the mailing box and in the brood box (the bottom box of the hive.) Her lounge has an opening big enough for her to squeeze through, but stuffed with a dried marshmallow. (Kind of a wimpy barrier.) Nothing lies between the queen and her suitors except a measly marshmallow.

Measly to us humans, that is! To the bees, this marshmallow must seem like the Berlin Wall.

The bees are fiercely protective of their queen. If they don't want to kill her, then they'll surely die for her. Here, Brandon is contemplating the tragic ending of "My Girl."

Jon and Brandon suit up. Ain't no bees getting in those spacesuits.

The bees are free! Welcome to New York!

Unfortunately, the queen's lounge falls to the bottom of the box immediately. Onlookers watch in horror.

Not to worry, Beekeeper Brandon comes in with the smoker to pacify the crazed honey bees. The smoke disguises the pheromones that guard bees give off when they sense danger. Beekeeper Jon rescues the queen. Disaster averted.

After moving the queen to the brood box, the next step is to dump the rest of the bees out of the box and into the hive. This is probably the most intense part of the process, but also really beautiful:

One bee smashed into the very tip of my nose. They were insane! And the thing about honey bees being crazed, blood-thirsty, little-girl-killers? That's not true at all. They're very gentle, like little yellow-and-black-striped puppies that fly. They didn't sting anyone. And I didn't even have a supercool bee suit on.

With any luck, the bees will almost immediately start building comb on these panels.

Now is the time for our special bee potion...

We put the top on just so...

...and our work is done for the night! We watch the bees enter the front of the hive. They're so calm and orderly.

They're so amazing. I'm already in love. I didn't see Michelle Obama, but Jon did and I think he's totally crushing.

The next few days will be crucial. We need to make sure the hive is healthy, and that nature is progressing as intended. So far, so good.

Bee Tea

We headed over to Roberta's to make the bee tea. I hadn't been there since the raised beds were built atop the container. I'm consistently impressed by the amount of planning, old-fashioned manual labor, and enthusiastic volunteerism that the Brooklyn Avant Gardeners bring to the table. It is truly rare for a group of young people to say "Let's do this" and then actually do it. AND not just do it half-assed, but do it completely and with passion. The Bee Team is just one part of what can only be described as a movement, or at least an experiment to see just how sustainable we can be in this crazy city. The answer seems to be: very.

Our carbon footprints are becoming smaller and smaller...
(Disclaimer: this is not an actual "carbon footprint." Rather, it is Meatball's paw print on the container stairs after playing in the raised beds.)

This is how to make Bee Tea:

Step 1: Get a big pot of hot water. Think of it as a gigantic teacup.

Step 2: Add 1 part sugar for each part water, stir, and throw in chosen bee potion herbs.
(The green stuff is stinging nettle... growing at Roberta's! The stars are aligned.)

Step 3: Let steep, then separate herbs from water and ladle into mason jars.

Step 4: Add a few drops of thyme oil. Not too much, this stuff is potent.

Step 5: Taste the tea to make sure it is something you would drink. If not, make modifications so that it is pleasing to your taste buds. Close the lids and let them cool overnight so the sugar is completely dissolved.

(Optional Step 6: Marvel over how pretty the mason jars look in the light:)

We will poke tiny holes in the top of the mason jars. This way, when the bees arrive from Georgia, they won't have to immediately go forage for food. It's the same concept as providing exhausted travelers (especially those unlucky victims of cancelled flights) with a Ruby Tuesdays at the airport hotel, except that the bee food is delicious and nutritious.

I've been so focused on bee matters that I've missed some of the most grueling work days on the gardening side of things. It was great to see the fruits of the Avant Gardeners' labor:

Brandywine tomato plant, still a cute little toddler.

Broccoli! (I'd never guess unless someone told me.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Life of an Urban Beekeeper

I have learned that urban beekeepers must be resilient, creative problem solvers with lots of gumption. When we arrived at the Metropolitan building with a family van filled with planters, plants, and tons of soil, we didn't anticipate that the old elevator might be opened on someone's floor, and thus inaccessible until that person closed it. Said person actually witnessed our dilemma, stepping over all of the gigantic, elevator-bound goods on his way out the door. Only upon said person's return did he decide to speak up, (after many trips up the grueling yet extremely photogenic staircase,) pretending to be a "nice guy" and offering to "check" if his floor was the culprit. Of course it was. Instead of manning up and walking back up to his loft to close the elevator, he chose to be a Selfish Sally and run his own errands first. Lesson: D-baggery is an inevitable obstacle in the urban beekeeper's life and should thus be anticipated. Patience and a willingness to do things the old fashioned way are an urban beekeeper's requisite character traits.

Up on the roof, the sky was mercurial.

Once we got the majority of the plants up, it was time to get down to biznass.

The boys moved the beautiful (and very heavy) planter built, painted, and donated by Jon's friend Seth, to it's new home.

Twas windy, and I feared that the culture shock from the warm shelter of the greenhouse would prove too exasperating for the dainty Feverfew and elegant stalks of lavender blossom.

In the end, we planted the rosebush with the sun roses in one half of the planter, and the rosemary and various sages in the other half. Rosemary and sage are complimentary plants, which means they work symbiotically. Each one helps the other become a better version of itself.
Urban beekeepers get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor...

The sun finally emerged and I lost track of time enjoying it, and got a mean parking ticket. Saw it's orange wrath from the roof and trudged down the seven flights. At least I got support from my friends:

The delicate plants will spend a few more days in the sunny stairwell, and the hive will continue to await its inhabitants...

Urban beekeepers never take the simple pleasures for granted.