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16 May 2012
Honey from Huffman trees

Did you know that NYC Open Data includes latitude/longitude for every tree in NYC? A tree census - amazing! Surely there's something fun we can do with that!

Well, bees in NYC do a lot of their nectar foraging from flowering trees. It could be interesting to see which kinds of trees my bees are likely foraging from. Bees can fly startlingly long distances to forage if they have to, but my sense is that a 2 mile radius is a decent rough estimate for how far they're likely to fly in search of nectar barring a barren neighborhood. Sure, there are plenty of other flowering plants in the city (I can certainly taste the clover in my spring honey, for instance), but it's still interesting to see which trees are likely contributing to the honey I harvest locally.

So, I pulled the tree census data into mysql to play with. (Bread crumbs for the inspired: I wanted to deploy on Dreamhost, so I used an old version of mysql and was stuck with mbrcontains narrowed down with the haversine equation (and cosine approximation, of course) to find only those trees actually within an n-mile radius of my starting point. Postgres and stcontains with a polygon approximation of the circle would be better, really.)

I'm displaying results as a Huffman tree - a visual representation of the data structure you create when you use Huffman encoding.

Visualized with D3.js, with leaf sizes proportional to the percentage of trees found of each type, it looks rather like this:

You can put in your own beehive address (or home, or neighborhood you're thinking of moving to, whatever makes you happy) and play with my tree-finder here.

When a thing is as dorky as it can possibly be, I know it is done right.

29 Apr 2012
Spring has sprung with a LOT of bees.

My bees looked a bit sparse and weak going into winter, so when I had the opportunity to order a new package of bees through the Backwards Beekeepers a few months ago, I went for it. I wasn't sure if my hive had survived winter (or would survive spring), especially given how strange the weather has been, but it was then or never on making sure I had bees this summer. I figured it was worth a gamble - either my hive would die, and I'd want a new package to replace it, or my hive would survive, in which case I could try to sell my package to someone else or (gulp!) start a second hive.

I lost track of time this spring, what with focusing on Recurse Center and all. So when I got an email a few days ago saying that I had to come pick up my package on Friday, I was in a bit of a panic. I hadn't checked in on my bees at all since last fall. I had no idea if I had bees! And I sure didn't have any spare hive to put the package into if it turned out my bees had made it through after all, or anyone to buy the package from me last-minute.

After some hurried consultation with my delightful bee purveyor, I stopped by Hayseed and picked up a spare bottom board, inner cover, and outer cover along with my package. Can't hurt to have spares just in case, and if I did need to start a second hive, that was the bare minimum equipment I needed, given that I have some extra medium supers and frames that I tend to use for honey a bit later in the season.

Turns out, I have a LOT of bees.

(Yeah, I need to pick up some more cinderblocks for the new hive to stand on. That milk crate was the best I could find in a pinch!)

You can see that the new hive is just one super at the moment, while the old one is three supers high. (Or was two days ago, anyways.) I use all medium supers for both brood and honey in my hive(s!). And right there in front of the new hive is the box the new bees came in.

A package is a box with about 3 lbs of bees and a little cage with a queen in it. When you want to install a package, you basically just reach in and gently remove the queen cage, then pry the mesh off one side of the package and shakeshakeSHAKE your booty all the bees out into the hive. That's it, really. I scold them lovingly and literally brush them from the tops of the frames down in between the frames, but mostly just because it's fun. And finally, you just leave the box out in front of the hive so the rest of the stragglers can follow the queen's scent and find their way into their new home.

I suspended my queen cage in my hive, then closed it up. The idea there is that the queen is trapped in her cage by a sugar plug. The bees have time to get used to her scent while eating her free, and so are more likely to accept her once she's out among them. I tend to use a business card and a thumbtack to hang the queen cage between frames in the hive. This time I used Kyle's business card (he's a Recurse Center alum who now works with Tumblr), since we've chatted by email already and I know I have his contact info saved elsewhere by now. (Hi, Kyle! I hope you're charmed rather than offended by this. You've become part of a rather delightful process, it turns out!)

I went back this morning to make sure the queen was released properly. Tomorrow would've been better, but bees depend on weather and my work schedule, after all. They'd mostly gotten through the sugar, but not entirely - her handmaidens were free, but the queen herself was still in her cage. Everyone sounded happy, though, so I manually released her and watched for a moment to make sure that the hive continued to sound cheerful and that they didn't start balling her immediately. Everything looked fine, so I closed that hive up with a sugar syrup feeder on top and moved on to my older hive.

The weather was nicer today, so I wanted to get deeper into my big hive to see what was really going on in there. They were chill as can be, friendly and relaxed, so I figure they're probably queenright. I saw some very young larva in there, too, along with some older brood and honey and pollen and assorted bee stuffs. And so many bees! That hive is seriously busy. Not too many queen cells, surprisingly, so they didn't seem in imminent danger of swarming, but they were starting to back-fill the brood nest with nectar. Time to take action!

No prob. I closed up the hive, went downstairs, and got my last remaining super and set of frames. I checkerboarded the top two of the now four supers on that hive, to confuse their swarming instinct and give them more space to lay and to save whatever nectar they may find this early in the year. I'm going to gave to buy some more supers and frames at Hayseed, stat! I don't have any spares left for my expanding new hive or to collect honey in the old hive.

One more thing to take care of before I was done. I had a bit of a varroa mite problem last year (remember my snow bees?), and I want to stay on top of reducing the mite population as much as possible. How lucky, then, to discover a nearly fully capped frame full of drone brood!


See how it bulges out? Drones (males) are bigger than workers (females), so they need more space to grow when developing. Worker brood has flat caps, but, well, you can see why we also refer to drone brood as "bullet brood"!

Varroa mites preferentially lay in drone brood. Drone brood takes longer to mature, and is bigger, so it gives the mite mama more bang for her buck, as it were. (Catch me in person and ask me tell you of my scheme to miniaturize my bees at some point, by all means! I have theories and plans. But it has been a hectic spring, so that will probably wait for next year.)

Point being, in addition to sprinkling powdered sugar everywhere, you can also cut down on your mite population by taking capped drone brood and sticking it in the freezer. The mites die, and then you return the frame to the hive, where the bees will clean it up, lay more drones, and restart the process. Frankly, my ladies don't really need more drones around anyway. They're not terribly useful. So we can do this all summer to try to reduce the number of bugs on my bugs. Fantastic! So basically, what I'm trying to say here is that all is gorgeous and amazing out in the Brooklyn sky, which is where I'll be most Sunday mornings for the next few months. Happy spring!

26 Jun 2011
Bottling the first honey harvest of 2011

I bottled the first honey crop of 2011 into charming glass half-pound jars. If you've contacted me about buying honey, you can expect an email from me with prices and logistics in the next few days.

Liquid sunlight, liquid gold - my father requested a jar to serve to his congregation on Shabbas, and it was a pleasure to give them the freshest, most locavore honey they're ever likely to taste, harvested from the hive on the roof above their heads just a few days earlier.

This is what springtime Brooklyn tastes like.

What an absolute wonderment!

(I keep my bees at my parents' shul, so of course my father stopped by to have me pose for a few photos. Photo credit to him.)

22 Jun 2011
Our first harvest of 2011

The bees have had a busy spring! Despite all my checkerboarding and trying my best to confuse the ladies and give them plenty of space, they seem to have swarmed about a month ago. I ordered a new, theoretically mite-resistant marked queen, and installed her into the hive on the same day my father was re-installed as President of EMJC, the shul atop which the bees live. He was honored to share his installation date with Her Majesty, who was of course promptly named Queen Esther.

Queen Esther seems to be doing just fine, and I saw capped brood and larva and eggs when I looked into the hive a few days ago. Not only that - we found a full medium super of honey ready to harvest, and a second super that I expect will be ready in the next few weeks!

As you can see above, we carefully sliced the caps off the honey before spinning it in our new, two-frame little honey extractor.

A bit of straining later, and we were left with more honey than we got all of last year - and it's still only June! What a wonderful start to a beautiful, sweet summer.

13 Apr 2011
Snow Bees

My bees have varroa mites, so we showered them in powdered sugar on Monday.

Varroa mites are parasitical bugs that prey upon my beloved fuzzy, honey-producing bugs. They can absolutely destroy colonies if not treated, so as soon as I saw evidence of infestation, it was time to act. I don't have any of the pesticides or medications for treatment on hand, and you can't order MiteAway in New York yet, so I followed the advice of one of my mentors and started organic varroa management for now.

My hive has a screened bottom board, and I check for mites by putting a piece of cardboard covered in spray oil under the screen. Supposedly the powdered sugar makes it harder for the mites to hold onto the bees, and inspires the bees to go wild grooming themselves, which helps shake off the mites. Having a screen instead of a bottom board lets the mites fall through instead of landing on a board from whence they could just climb back up.

Also, it was really just fun! We showered every super in powdered sugar, turning it into a winter wonderland of a beehive. What a beautiful fairy tale!

The ladies all burst up out of the hive covered in sugar, like snow bees!

For maximum effectiveness we really ought to sugar the bees weekly for the next few weeks (and set up a frame with drone brood to pull out and freeze, among other varroa management techniques). Anyone calm around stinging insects and good with a camera feel like coming with? I'd love to get better, clearer photos of this process.