Hive data is in

Greetings, fellow bee enthusiasts!

Spring is here, and the bees have awoken from their long winter’s nap. April 1 was the official end for the data recording period for the Cozy Bee Project, and I have pulled all the data sensors and uploaded the tiny bits and bytes that will hopefully tell us something useful about hive roof design and overall bee health.  I have some great news to report, as well: our bees did really well from a survival standpoint! Nationally, beekeepers lose about a third of their bees every winter- a staggering amount of damage, due to a complicated set of physiological and environmental challenges that have become increasingly worse since the 1980s. The Bee Informed Partnership does valuable work in collecting survival data, and you can see a cool graphic about it here.

We, however, only lost two hives out of the 16 we started with! That’s fantastically good, and well within sustainable limits. The survivors look very healthy, and I imagine there will be enough bees to split in only a few weeks, bringing our total colonies back up to 16 and beyond.

There is some bad news as well, though. Of the 18 sensors that were recording data, we had a disappointingly high failure rate. Eight of them (nearly half) reported partial or no data due to technical malfunctions. That is super aggravating for me. Luckily, that was half the reason to test multiple copies of the same hive configuration, so we will still have presentable findings once I’ve crunched the numbers; they just won’t be as statistically solid as I would have preferred. Now all I have to do is make sense of the approximately 180,000 numbers in my database.  😛

Before I leave you, though, I’d like to tell you the stories of the various colonies that participated in the survey. Look for yours below: 

The Bzzzy-Beetles: Gravel Creek apiary. Sadly, they did not survive the winter. They were plagued by high varroa mite levels despite treatment, and autopsy revealed that’s what eventually killed them. Before they did so, however, they produced more honey than anyone else (105 pounds!)

Carla Maria: Gravel Creek apiary. They also produced a lot of honey, at 90 pounds. They overwintered just fine, but their sensor failed, so their participation in the study will be limited to disease and mite levels.

Hoosier Queen: Foley Creek apiary. Much like Carla Maria, their sensor failed but they did just fine over the winter. They got off to a slow start last fall, though, and didn’t produce any honey.

Bruening’s Buzzers: Foley Creek apiary. A solid study colony, they produced an average amount of honey (60 pounds), did fine over winter, and reported average mite levels.

Whimsey: Gravel Creek apiary. Failed sensor. No honey, but hey, they survived, so what more could you ask for? They look healthy now and I am sure they will be a great producer in 2017.

Moore Honey!: Gravel Creek apiary. Despite their ambitious name, they too failed to produce honey. What they DID produce, though, was a lot of nosema disease… ten times anyone else. Despite that, they too survived and look pretty strong now. Their sensor failed, too.

Lincoln City: Gravel Creek apiary. No honey, but some of the lowest varroa mite loads of anyone. Healthy now. Unfortunately, their sensor failed.

Planet of the Apiaries: Gravel Creek apiary. Not just an awesome name; thees guys are one of two colonies that survived the Great Flood of 2015, so they are already heroes in my book. Not only that, but they produced honey (30 pounds), reported super low mite loads (2%), and their data logger actually worked. Yay bees!

el Daddo: Gravel Creek Apiary. A fairly health colony with midrange honey production. Unfortunately, their sensor failed too, so I don’t have any remperature and humidity data for them. I can’t wait to see what they do next year.

Honey’s Home: Foley Creek apiary. The other survivor of the Great Flood of 2015, they had the lowest pre-treatment mite loads of anyone (1%) and gave a full winter’s worth of sensor data too. Too bad they didn’t make any surplus honey, but there’s always next year.

Cousin Ruth: Foley Creek apiary. Healthy colony with low mite numbers. Honey yield was low (15 pounds) but they are a new colony, so that’s to be expected. Failed sensor.

Pattee’s Bees: Gravel Creek apiary. These buzzers did just fine, despite a pretty high mite load. Some guys can just work with what they have, right? They made 30 pound of honey, and provided a full winter of data, so  they get an A in my book.

Octavia Place: Gravel Creek apiary. Big honey producer (60 pounds) despite big mite loads. Full data set, too. Winner!

PapaJoe’zzz Cubbees (#WeAreGood): Foley Creek apiary. A new colony, no honey. But they overwintered fine and gave the full data set. Also if interests is that they had a pretty high mite load (10%) but responded really well to treatment, and went into the winter with no mites reportable. I imagine they will do pretty well in the coming season.

The Bees Knees: Foley Creek apiary: Much like the previous bees, a new colony with no honey production, but healthy and strong through the winter, giving a solid data set for temperature and humidity. Bees like this are carrying the research. Thanks, bees!

I hope that was entertaining. I’m excited to get into the analysis part of the research, so I’ll keep you posted as things develop. May your spring be warm and filled with bees.

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Journeyman Beekeeper

As you probably know if  you’ve been following this for any amount if time, I’m a beekeeper. I got into it right after returning from Peace Corps in 2010, and almost immediately I joined the Oregon Master Beekeeper program. It’s a great program: at the Apprentice level, they hook you up with a mentor to help you through your first year, set up classes you can attend, give you a really great introductory text on beekeeping, and they even have lab days where you can learn cool things like how to identify rare bee diseases and how to perform a bee autopsy with a dissection microscope. But the best part about the program is that it sets up a structured framework for learning, so that you can get a well-rounded bee knowledge and not miss anything important. Once you’ve done all that and filled out some paperwork, you are a certified Apprentice Beekeeper.

Morris Ostrofsky explains the Miller Method of queen rearing

Morris Ostrofsky explains the Miller Method of queen rearing at a OMB event

After that, you can continue your studies as a Journeyman. The program has lots of completion requirements, designed to expose you to a wide range of beekeeping topics… things like how to judge a honey competition, how to breed queens, organizing and managing a beekeeping seminar, running a local bee club, etc. As part of the program, you do guided studies on topics like hive design and configuration, chemical and organic medicines, parasite control, and more. You also have to manage bees for three years and keep fairly detailed observation logs. And, at the end, there is a pretty outrageous test that includes questions like “when honey crystallizes, it is due to an imbalance of which two sugar compounds?” and  “Describe the effect of 9-Oxodec-2-enoic acid on a bee colony, and name at least three other pheromones use in bee communication.”

Really. I didn’t make that last part up. (glucose & fructose; and 9-ODA is “queen mandibular pheromone” and it keeps colonies from swarming, among other things)

The reason I’m telling you all of this is that last Saturday, I took the practical portion of the Journeyman exam at the Oregon State Honeybee Lab. A very experienced beekeeper and a PhD entomologist watched me open up a hive, work the bees, and tell them everything I could about what I was doing. Then, I went into the lab and analyzed some honey with a refractometer and (mis)identified a few bee diseases.

It might sound stressful, but it was actually a LOT OF FUN! I have been one of those nerds who likes test day ever since I was a kid. I enjoy the challenge of being tested, and I also love learning. And I sure did learn a lot on Saturday.

As you may have guessed, I wouldn’t be so excited about all of this if I hadn’t passed. But I did, so now I am a Journeyman beekeeper, patch and all. I’ve already registered for the last stage of the program, Master. The program leaders were excited to get my application, there are only a handful of Master-level students in the state right now. It’s a process that takes several years (I’m not in a hurry), and you are assigned a review committee much like if you were writing a dissertation. In fact, the program is in part patterned after a university masters degree program. Among other things I get to look forward to, I will be doing some peer-reviewed bee research, which should be super fun and is not something I’ve done before. I will also be starting a queen breeding program. More on that in the next few years.

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Logging 101

When we originally started looking for a piece of land to inhabit, we had this idea that 5-10 acres would be a good size. That’s bigger than anywhere I’ve ever lived before, and we’d have plenty of room to run a market garden/ produce business that we as big as we could ever want (2 or 3 acres of fields, managed intensively, can support a full-time income, believe it or not). Things didn’t work out that way, though, and we ended up finding THIS place… 32 acres, most of which is just a big forest on steep, mountainous terrain. It’s like we bought a farm and got a giant nature preserve thrown in for free.

woodcutter1SMThe unexpected side effect of this is that I’ve had lots of opportunities to learn about Forestry, Oregon’s major economic engine. Some of this learning has been legal; for instance, I found out a few months ago that we can cut our property taxes in half simply by registering with the county that we have timberland, and maintaining it as such.

Some things I’ve learned have been ecological. Alder, for instance, is a weedy, fast-growing hardwood that tends to just fall over after about 30 years. So it’s pretty normal to harvest it around then, pre-emptively. Also, it’s a pioneer species, meaning that it overtakes scrubby wasteland, then “desirable” noble giants like hemlock and spruce tend to follow it in turn.

But many of the things I’ve learned have been about the business of Logging. When we had to take down a bunch of alder to clear space for an irrigation pond, I was suddenly left with  a giant pile of trees and no idea what to do with them. They sat for months, until fate placed me next to the manager of the local sawmill while at a charity dinner.

I was talking about the staggering amount of firewood I need to cut up in the coming months, to prevent it from rotting and being wasted. When he heard it was alder, he perked up. Alder is in demand right now, and that is what his sawmill trades in. He advised me that it does indeed rot quickly, but if it spends the rainy months in its side with the root balls intact (like ours) then it is actually still alive, and won’t die and start rotting until the following summer. He kindly offered to send his lumber grader out to visit us and look at the trees.

A few weeks later, Lee showed up on the site and looked at my trees. “Do you have an axe?” he asked.  I did, and I fetched if for him. He took a few deft strokes into one of the fallen trees, and showed me what to look for in the wood to tell if it was still marketable or not. “This is still good,” he said, smiling. “But you shouldn’t wait much longer.” He explained in basic terms what I needed to do, and that started the ball rolling.

The next day I called the State Department of Forestry, to get a logging permit. Yep, I’m a logger now. Luckily for me, the forester remembered me from a visit he made a few years ago, and told me about a fast-track way to do those permits for  landowners who are just taking trees down for “maintenance work”.  The thing is, you need the permit (and associated identification number) for the mill to accept logs and get them into the taxation system.

Jared_loggin_SMNext, I needed to get the logs “bucked” (cut up into lengths the mill will use, like 20′ and 30′ sections), “skidded” (dragged with a chain or cable to a place where they can be picked up), and “decked” (stacked in a giant pile so they can be loaded onto a log truck). This ended up being a monumental task. Luckily, I have made a lot of cool friends in the last few years, so  about a half dozen of us spent two days with tractors and chainsaws bucking, skidding, and decking. I ended up paying all of them except Jared in firewood, which is pretty handy, because after I extracted all the marketable alder from the trees, there was still a MOUNTAIN of other wood left over. Standing deal: one pickup truck load of wood per day of work.  🙂  I still have three years’ worth of firewood siting in my yard, even after paying the troops.

This done, things started slowing down. Summer had begun, and my alder was sitting at the edge of the highway, ready to go, with the sun beating down on it. I was starting to worry; if they sit too long, the wood dries out and gets stained, and then the mill won’t take it. This is when I discovered a problem.

Turns out, even though you see log trucks EVERYWHERE on the roads around here, they aren’t able to help me. Those trucks rely on a large, expensive machine called a “yarder” to load them. It has a big mechaincal arm with a grapple on the end, and big logging operations always have one on hand. Fortunately, there exists a special kind of log truck called a “self-loader”; basically a log truck with a crane attached. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. After weeks of phone calls, talking to loggers, reading the bulletin boards at the chainsaw store, etc. I finally was able to get a guy in Vernonia to agree to take my job. He was hesitant, even when I offered to pay him extra, in cash, for the road time to get here. I’d rather spend an extra $150 on the haul, then lose the whole load to rot.

2016_logging1SMSo, on the appointed morning, the self-loader rattled down the highway and pulled into our field. I chatted with Steve (the operator) for a bit, then he got to work. Hydraulic braces down, then the crane unfolded. He then picked up the trailer off the back of the rig and extends it. After that, he set the brake on the trailer, and pulled the tractor forward until the trailer length was correct for the size logs he would be hauling.

That done, he began loading. It was fun to watch; he’s clearly been doing this for a long time. As he picked up logs, he set certain ones aside for later, and used choice ones to line the bottom of the trailer. He flipped curved ones around to fit better, and jiggled and fitted trunks into the nest he was building. In all, it only took about 40 minutes for him to load 44 logs.

He leaned over from his perch atop the rig, peeked into the back window of the cab, and told me we had about 32,000 pounds of wood. Log trucks have built-in scales, so they can know they aren’t over weight. For Steve, that was a 3/4 load, his rig has an extra axle so it can legally weigh up to 88,000 pounds.  He folded up the crane, retracted the hydraulic braces, and began chaining down the load.

The way this works contractually is interesting, and there are a lot of checks and balances  to keep any parties from “cheating”. The mill, for example, can’t legally accept logs from me until I give them a logging permit number from the state, so that the state can make sure they get their timber tax money (which the mill sends directly to them, I never see it). They also have an independent, third-party timber assessor on site who measures the load by weight and/ or log size when it arrives, to make sure the mill pays for all the wood it receives. To make sure the hauler doesn’t cheat, the logging companies have a registered “brand” they hammer into the logs when they leave the forest. For small guys like me, the hauler uses his own brand, and hammers the logs right in front of me before he drives away. To make sure the hauler gets paid, the logger/owner tells the mill what rate he negotiated with the hauler, and the mill takes that money out of the payout beforehand and sends a check directly to the hauler before they send the main check to the logger (me). When all was said and done, I sold the mill 2,050 board-feet of lumber, or 16.2 tons of wood. Once the hauler and taxes were paid, I made about $670. No one said logging was easy.

After some chatting, I gave Steve his $150 “bonus” for showing up.  “I never really know what I am going to run into when I deal with folks who aren’t loggers,” he said as he counted the money, paused, then counted out $50 of it and handed it back. “When we talked on the phone, I quoted you a little extra, because I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got here, how much extra work I was going to have to do, or what  what kind of person you were.”

Yep, I get it; I’ve done that with clients before too. And now that I know what kind of person he is, I’ll call him again the next time.

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Growing things


Despite the protracted radio silence, things are still growing at the Gravel Creek Homestead. In fact, they are growing better than ever before. Let me take you on a tour of what we have going right now. Where to start?

2016beezSMHow about bees! The beekeeping season is well under way, and the little guys are doing their best to flourish and bring in honey. I’m currently at 13 hives, which is about 5 more than I had after the latest natural disaster. I’ve been able to split the two strong survivors from the winter, I bought some bees, and have been going on swarm calls. But my favorite addition is the giant cloud of bees that descended on the apiary as I was working, and over the course of about half an hour moved into one of the empty hives right before my very eyes. I feel both excited about more bees, as well as strangely honored that they think I would be a good landlord.

2016goatsSMLet’s stick with the topic of animals for a bit longer. We’re not too into animals on our homestead/ farm, maybe because they are pretty attention-intensive. I’m a bit too distracted for that, and Emily is a bit too officebound. We do, however, find ways to include animals in our rotation. Here we see the neighbor’s four new goatlings (new kids on the block?) as I was replacing the clutch on the tractor. They were “helping” by standing on my toolbox, i guess so it wouldn’t float away or something. They are going to live on our place part time this summer, to get them away from the Billy, and to munch down our ever plentiful blackberries. Yes, dad, that’s the same toolbox you bought me when I moved off to college. Still works great… both for storing tools, and for holding up goats.

2016MrDeerSMBesides goats, we also see a lot of deer on our property. They are almost as tame as the goats, too. This buck is new, until lately it’s been mostly does that come around. Apparently a 2-point like this guy is called a “forkedhorn” in local slang (click to enlarge). If he is still around in the fall, I will invite him to dinner. But for now, it’s nice to see him, as he is very peaceful, and I need more of that. So long as he stays out of the garden.

Moving from fauna to flora…

potatoes2016_smLast year, we did a pretty halfass job with the garden. We were both totally exhausted from getting the house occupy-able, and  we basically just tilled a patch and threw some old seeds from the bottom of the pantry onto the ground. The results were pretty lame. This year, however, we have a little more time and a much better emotional outlook. Emily decided to buy a dumptruck load of compost, to really get the soil conditioned, and I forked the beds full depth with the broadfork after hitting them with the rotoplow. End result: total garden awesomeness.

2016peasSMAbove, we see Emily planting the potatoes for the year. We are trialing about 7 different kinds: salad potatoes, bakers, fingerlings, short season, purples… all of them yummy. They seem pretty happy, because they are already waist high. You can see them here, to the left of Emily, and in front of her are the peas. Another secret of excellent garden health is that I take a 15 minute break mid-morning, to rest my eyes and look away from the computer screen, and i fill this time with weeding. The fresh air is good for me, and the weeding is good for the sprouts.

2016cornSMI had to plant some corn again. It never does very well here, but this is a shorter-season variety of popcorn that we had moderate luck with once before. I just can’t help it. I’m encouraged, though, because it’s already knee-high and i still have three weeks to go before the 4th of July. In front of the corn, we have celery (a new one for us) and it seems to be doing really well, and in front of that, rainbow chard.

2016berriesSMI went to a tree grafting seminar a few months ago and learned how to graft fruit trees. While I was there, I perused the nursery and came home with about 75 strawberry plants. You can never have too many of those! Today I saw the first red ones, so I expect we’ll be eating those dandies pretty soon. And the variety we got, Albion, is everbearing.  Two years ago, we were getting Albions all the way through September! Sam across the street has been making goat cheese and sharing it with us, so we’re going to invite him over for strawberry-feta-honey crepes, a house specialty that has heralded summer for us for half a decade now.

2016deckwreckSMI suppose this wouldn’t seem like a real post if I didn’t mention something about the house remodel. We’re still not quite done, but got a lot closer last weekend.  The WorkParty descended upon us once again, and this time demolished and hauled away the rotting deck. It was getting so dangerous that were were too scared to walk on it anymore, but more importantly, it being there was preventing Emily from being able to visualize what the replacement should be. Now that the deck is gone, she says, she realizes how ghetto our house looked while it was there. Hopefully we will have the design for the new one figured out in time to get it built before my parents come again, so they can sit on it and enjoy the garden and forest views.

OK, it’s getting really late, I should post this. I have more to say, though, so stay tuned.

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Blueberry Rescue Vehicle

It’s getting to be the time of the year where things are budding out and spring is showing signs of its imminent return. I’ve pruned all the fruit trees (just in time) and at long last I was able to turn my attention to the blueberries. They have been lurking in the back of my mind for some time, occupying that awkward space between guilt and adoration. Guilt, because I planted them at the farm on Miami-Foley four years ago, and have neglected them absolutely since we moved to this new property two years ago. Adoration, because I love blueberries so much: their taste, their cheery fall foliage, their slow and patient growth.

blueberrie_SMLuckily for me, one of our buddies is a Blueberry Expert who’s worked with them in the horticultural department at Oregon State. She was more than willing to do a work-trade with us, and show me how to move, transplant, and prune them. Here we see EV posing with our berries in the “blueberry rescue vehicle”, AKA my dad’s old blue truck. The truck is significant, too. When I was a kid living in Michigan, dad would take us to pick blueberries in his truck. Now, his truck brings them to us!

When we bought the berries originally, we planted four different types, with the idea that we could see what did well in our area. Also, the four varieties (Earlyblue, Bluecrop, Chandler, and Darrow) have different flowering times, so we though it would be a good way to extend the harvest. We never really had much of a harvest to extend, but the first idea was useful. Turns out, in the years since we planted them, the Bluecrop has grown twice as large as the others. That’s interesting, though EV pointed out it’s not quite enough evidence to plant only Bluecrop, since we haven’t yet seen how it yields. On some varieties, smaller bushes yield better than big ones.

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Disaster strikes- again

Hello all! Sorry it’s been so long since I posted. Something bad happened, and to be honest, I’ve been too bummed out to deal with blogging about it until now.


Depending on which news source you watch, you may have seen that we were hit by a  Biblical Flood in mid December. Thankfully, our house is pretty high up a mountain so we were relatively unaffected, except for being trapped here for three days. In fact, we didn’t even lose electricity, because we run on solar power. Many of our neighbors didn’t fare so well; this guy down the road had some cleaning to do afterward, and the corner store was a huge mess. Most of our farmer friends did what farmers do- get the animals safe, and groan as fences get torn down and tractors float away.

road_out_smAt Nehalem River Ranch, the Nehalem River swallowed the Ranch. Farmer Jared sent me a text towards the end of the flood that said something cryptic like “sorry about your bees”. This is a text that make a beekeeper want to vomit. A few days later, when the roads were again passable, I drove down to the apiary located on his farm to check out the damage.

jared_smHere we see Jared, and the pile of hives he and Hilary were able to collect from their final resting places in the various hedges and logjams around their property. They said it wasn’t even the river that got them; a nearby creek exploded unexpectedly with a sudden gush of water and carried the whole apiary away.  That creek is also very close to their house, so I’m glad it didn’t wreck that too. Their neighbor across the street was less fortunate; he lost an entire pole barn and all the equipment in it. It just “went away”. Jared was apologetic, and helped me load the hives into the truck to I could spend the weekend hosing mud and dead bees out of them, and store them for next season.

flooded apiary_smFrankly, I’m devastated. Those hives were my oldest, best ones. Each was just brimming with bees, and years worth of comb and honey stores. I estimate about a quarter of a million lives were lost in the event, too. Tiny lives, but lives that are important to me. One bright spot in all of this is that a single hive somehow survived. The flood waters picked it up, moved it around, and set back down on a different hive stand. Not believing, I opened it up and was greeted by a bunch of REALLY MAD bees. I slammed the lid closed in the half second of confusion before they realized they should be stinging my face, and literally jumped for joy. A survivor!

flood_bees_smThis all begs the question “what now?” I’ve been pondering it for a few weeks. Obviously, the Nehalem River apiary will not be giving me any useful data for the Cozy Bee Project. To make things worse, there have been hiccups with the data collection computer at the other site, so I still don’t have any usable data from the Foley Creek apiary either. ARGH!!!! I need to face the reality that the entire project is going to be set back a year. I’m sorry, everyone.

As far as my bees in general, I was planning on setting up my third apiary this year. Now it looks like I will be back to setting up my second apiary, all over again. Though, obviously, in a different place. I thought I’d escaped my brush with fate in November, but apparently it was not to be. The good news: I recovered most of the flooded hives. The bad news: I have to buy about $800 worth of package bees to replace those killed, do days of work setting up a new apiary, and lose a year or two of work on the part of the bees making comb and stores.

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A close call

Almost a year ago today, I had the biggest bee disaster of my life: a bear attacked my apiary, killing 7 colonies. It was a sad a dramatic day I will never forget. This November, though, my luck seems to have changed. During a freak lighting storm a few days ago, a bolt struck a giant spruce tree mid-height, exploding the wood and sending the top half of a big tree tumbling down towards my Foley Creek apiary. My friend Ryan showed it to me yesterday, when I was making the rounds.

treefall1You always have to get nervous when someone stars the conversation with “I have something to show you, but the bees are OK…” Turns out that by some miracle, the tree fell between my apiary and the orchard, narrowly missing both. It completely destroyed the deer fence around the orchard and also squashed the electric bear fence around the hives. Honestly, that’s not a bid deal. In fact, the bear fence was a portable type, and I may  not even have to replace any parts… it’s hard to tell right now, because it’s under a giant tree. But I couldn’t be more relieved. If the tree had fallen about 15 more degrees to the west, it would have bullseyed all 8 hives, putting “tree” even higher on the list of bee-killers than “bear”.

treefall2As it is, I still have some work to do. Farmer Ned offered to put a chain on the tree and drag it away with his tractor, but that’s not a good plan, as the limbs are all entangled with the hive stands, and it would probably knock half the hives over. So I’m going to go back out once the weather clears up a little, with bee suit and chainsaw, and cut that thing up so I can get the fence fixed and even get to the hives (the tree is also across the access road).

treefall3I’ll gadly take two hours of chainsaw work in a bee suit over picking up destroyed hives any day.

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Salmon return

2015salmonSMNovember is always a special time around here, because the salmon return to our creek. We were a little concerned this year, because we’ve received so little rain. Our annual average is normally in the 90-100 inches range, and we’re on track for about a third of that this year, putting us in the same class a Sacramento, CA. In fact, in August the creek actually dried up to gravel for about 30 yards in one stretch. Maybe that is why it’s named Gravel Creek? But this last week we got a lot of rain, something like 6 inches in less than a week, so the creek is back and with it come the lovely fall salmon. Splishing, fighting, darting around, lurking like sharks unde the bridge. Many of them are longer than two feet. Welcome back fishes!

2015_fall gardenSMWe got the fall garlic in just in time, too. Planting in the rain was a pretty miserable experience last year, and this year we dodged that handily. Here we see Emily putting some finishing touches on the garlic patch. She says that she likes the garden when it has all these colors on it, because it looks like a quilt.

Our rain around here is normally slow, but steady and persistent. We actually got thunder and lighting a few days ago, though, which is really. And that lead to something interesting I’ll talk about in the next post…


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Varroa sampling accuracy

First, a little backstory. There has been a problem in beekeeping since the 1980s, causing massive bee die-offs and (back then) prompting fears that bees would go extinct. It’s a parasite by the biological name Varroa destructor, or simply “varroa”.  If the name wasn’t a clue as to what is does, it’s a parasite that lives on bees and sucks their blood. They multiply rapidly, our honeybees (Apis mellifera) have no defense against it, and if left unchecked it will destroy a colony in a year or two. It’s thought that it got into our hemisphere a few dacades ago from asia via a bee shipment, and in the years since, has killed 98% of wild honeybee colonies in north america.

Varroa destructorThe good news is that if beekeepers are really vigilant, manage their colonies carefully, and treat with miticidal agents, we’ve taken the loss levels down to about 30%-32% annually. That still sounds pretty dire, but by splitting hives in the spring to recoup the losses, it is sustainable for now. The big research effort in beekeeping today is to breed bees that are capable of battling this pest on their own. Some asian species of bees do fine against it, but they don’t produce any honey for humans!

As part of handling Varroa, beekeepers are encouraged to sample their colonies for infestation levels. The current thinking is that if there are more than 3 mites per 100 bees, you should treat your bees (I am GREATLY simplifying a much debated subject, for sake of brevity). Being a responsible guy, I have always done so a few times a year; you can read about the process here. With the Cozy Bee Project, however, there is greater cause to do it more frequently and with greater care.

So, a few weeks ago I sent bee samples to the honeybee lab at Oregon State University for testing. Dr. Ramesh Sagili and his technicians have volunteered their resources to help my research. They test for levels of nosema, a nasty bacteria that also harms bees, but while they were at it they said they would also count varroa too. I almost said “don’t bother, I already do it” and boy am I glad I didn’t. When I got the lab results back on Friday, I was shocked.

20151023_varroa_graphCheck out this graph of the difference. I think I’m pretty careful about things technical, but WOW, look at the discrepancy in results! And I know that the OSU numbers are good, not just because they are professionals, but because they counted every single bee in the sample.  I am not kidding. Down to the last bee, with a microscope, and I sent them thousands. Thousands.

If my data are so inaccurate, how the heck are we supposed to expect that backyard beekeepers can hope to have a reasonable handle on  varroa levels in a home environment? It’s something to ponder. That aside, I’m kindof excited that the Cozy Bee Project has already produced this useful insight into the beekeeping world, even though it’s not directly related to the main research. I guess that’s the fun part in science, when you accidentally discover something that wasn’t what you were looking for.

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Cozy Bee Gifts are on the move

Good news! For all of you who supported the Cozy Bee Project, the thank-you gifts are on the move. We’ll be sending out stickers, lip balm, and two different flavors of honey to folks all over the country, and candles will be following in a month or two. It’s the best way that the bees and I can thank you for supporting the Cozy Bee research with your hard-earned dollars. Here we see the bees hard at work, exercising to get ready for the long flight to carry all these gifts from my house to yours.

bee_exercise_SMI also have some good news to share: the honey harvest went so well, I’ve decided to upgrade the honey gifts of those who donated at the $100 level and above. Instead of one jar, you will get TWO. Both flavors, the golden honey and the knotweed. For those of you who went big and were on the list for two jars already, I will be sending you full pint jars of each flavor instead of the half pints. It’s a honey fiesta!

Numbers and statistics have interesting stories to tell. That’s part of why I like doing this project. I’m also interested in the visual representation of data. Here’s a map I made of the various locations of supporters of the Project. The darker the blue, the more supporters reside in that state. Oregon is orange because there were a LOT of donors from Oregon, where I am located.

US_CBPmap1024As happens, I learned some interesting things by presenting the data this way. Many of my supporters are clustered in the midwest. Some of them are known to me, many are not. Could it be that there are more bee-interested people in the midwest? More Kickstarter users? Or simply that my midwest friends were good about spreading the word to those around them?

Massachusetts was a big surprise. I’ve lived in all corners of the country, but have no connection to Massachusetts that I can recall. Yet it was (by far) the largest concentration of donors outside of the Pacific Northwest. What could that mean? Regardles: thanks Massachusetts!

My data is flawed, too, I only have donor location information from those who are receiving a physical prize.  That leaves out a great many of you who donated smaller sums, are receiving .pdf reports, or donated a lot but requested no gifts.

Hopefully, once I start looking at the hive telemetry data, similar graphical presentation will help me find interesting and unexpected trends in bee health.

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