April 2012


The baseboards are scrubbed, the California champagne is nestled in layers of my yoga pants, the trailer is hitched to my rig.

We are ready to leave California behind, ready to drive through her snow capped peaks, high above the almond orchards of the upper Sacramento valley, en route to our Rocky mountain backyard.

I have been homesick lately, and I’m counting down the days until I’m reunited with my bed, my favorite coffee cup, and that scruffy gray fleece I deemed too pathetic to pack for our journey to civilization, and have missed most every day.

But I will miss walking the river trail, listening to Maggie’s even breathing as she sleeps in her stroller while I drink in the views of Lassen National Park. I will miss that gorgeous produce department, 10 short miles from a house I fell in love with the moment I fit the key to the lock. And I will especially miss the orange blossoms, their bridal scent tiptoeing across my pillow, waiting quietly to greet me at dawn.

Thanks for the memories, California.

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We’ve talked about how we take our very best stock and raise our own lovely black queens, and when we last left off, the new Queen was emerging from her cell into her new hive. But obviously the story doesn’t stop there. For all this time and energy expended to be worthwhile, said Queen must mate with drones, or male bees, and then return to her hive and lay healthy eggs to create a strong hive, one that can handle the extreme temperatures of life on the Canadian/Glacier Park border and the monsoons of northern California.

So, we’re going to have a literal talk about the birds and the bees. Minus the birds.

On a day of about 70 degrees or warmer, the virgin Queen will take to the sky for her Mating Flight. The Queen does not fly well and does not fly often — she may never leave the hive again after mating. While she is high in the air, she will engage in beautiful flight dances with various drones that indicate a mutual willingness to mate. Ideally, the Queen will mate with at least 10 drones. In her abdomen, the Queen has a special organ called the spermatheca, which holds the sperm from each drone. She will use this sperm over the course of her lifetime as she lays eggs, so it is important that she is “well mated,” or mated with many drones. If she is not well mated, or mated at all, then she will be unable to produce healthy brood, and is worthless to the hive and to the beekeeper.

How do we know if she is well mated? After a week or so, it is time to check through all 1,000 hives again and visually inspect the frames for eggs/brood with our own beady little eyes! I told y’all that this requeening process, while vital, is highly time consuming.

Very occasionally, if a beekeeper gets really lucky, s/he will actually see what is called “mating sign” or “the ribbon.” This looks like a white strip emerging from the Queen’s abdomen. You see, after mating with The Queen, the drone bee leaves his penis inside her. And if you happen to see the Queen just after she returns from mating, you can see it. Perhaps this is all a bit scientific and technical, etc, but to see this sight, especially if you are not a commercial queen breeder — and we are not — is pretty exciting.

We took lots of pictures when it happened to us earlier this month:

Do you see the white ribbon emerging from the rear end of the Queen?

Here’s another shot. Bees are so hard to photograph, always buzzing about!

Pretty funny, what gets a beekeeper … excited. Hardy har har.

And now, kiddos, after all these years of talking about the birds and the bees, you are actually in the know. About the bees, anyway. You’re welcome. Public education and entertainment, always our mission at Glacier County Honey Co.

2012. Glacier County Honey Co. All Rights Reserved.

About a year ago today, I moved across the Continental Divide to wait out the last weeks of my pregnancy less than 150 miles from my OB. Maggie Rose ended up taking her sweet time arriving in the world, and so I lived in Whitefish for far longer than I had anticipated. Desperately bored and missing Honeydew, especially after I postholed through several feet of snow all the way to Avalanche Lake on my due date and received only aching hip flexors and no baby for my efforts, I purchased a baby book and began to fill it out.

I’ve never picked it up since Maggie Rose was born, as there hasn’t been a moment for boredom, and so I occasionally use this blog as a baby book stand in. So, if you’ll forgive me, a few moments worth noting for Maggie, who is now 11 months old.

Maggie Rose, on the day you attained 11 months, you took your first unassisted steps. Just two, but your daddy and I acted like you had completed the Peachtree Road Race, or hiked over Gunsight Pass all the way to Lake McDonald with the Hot Buns for the first time. Well done, baby!

The week before the 11th marker, you made your Pa Pa and the Bulldawg Nation mighty proud with your first utterance: dog. You sure do love your doggies, baby.

The month leading up to all these 1sts was filled with motion, as you mastered your “special” crawling, crawling with you right foot and walking with your left. Yes, you’re very special, baby. You also figured out your musical walker, high 5s, and waving, and you’ve waved at everyone on the Sacramento River Trail on our walks. They are usually charmed.

You love Biscoff cookies, cheese puffs, and quinoa more than anything. Daddy and I love you more than anything, and can’t wait to show you the wonders of your backyard next month.

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On Easter Sunday, the rains finally lifted and Maggie Rose and I were able to accompany Honeydew and Keith on a queen cell mission.  I’ve written before that our 4 month adventure in California is two fold: first, we pollinate almonds with our bees.  After the bees are done pollinating, we remove them to our holding yards near Red Bluff and begin to requeen each hive.

Without interference, a hive of bees will raise a new queen every few years.  We think it’s best to give the bees a new queen every spring, and that’s what we’ve been up to for the last month or so.  Requeening takes time.

As I wrote in my last post on this topic, when requeening most beekeepers purchase queens from queen breeders.  With a little help from our friends in California, we’re able to raise our own queens from our best stock, and we’re grateful for the kind assistance!

In a nutshell, requeening goes a little like this: Honeydew takes a frame of freshly hatched larvae. Using a dental implement looking tool, he gently scoops the larvae out of the cell and transplants it into a queen cup.  This is called grafting.

This new cell is placed on a row with 20 other grafted queen cups and given to a hive of bees to tend.  These bees feed the larvae the royal jelly that will turn a regular ole bee into The Queen.   All of this process is very regimented and on a specific day, at a specific time, Honeydew will take remove the queen cups from the hive and place them into a incubator.

The incubator in this picture was once used for chickens, but you know how we folks in agriculture can repurpose anything.  Ta da!  A Queen Incubator is born.

Another certain amount of time passes, and then Honeydew returns to the incubator to withdraw the queen cups, now filled with queens on the cusp of  hatching.

This particular incubator is filled with many, many of these rows of 20 grafted queen cups.  Honeydew withdraws the ones that are his and holds each row to a bright light, visually inspecting each to determine if there is a viable queen within it.  This process is called candling, as it used to be done by candlelight, and not by halogen bulb.

Honeydew then takes a hot knife and cuts the viable cups off of the wooden slat, placing them gently into an insulated queen basket – very apropros on Easter morning.

Honeydew then selects the number of cells he needs – about 250 on this particular day – tucks the basket gently between Maggie’s car seat and the truck bench, and heads for the holding yards!

There, queenless hives wait patiently for their new queen, and he gently parts the frames with his hive tool to insert the queen cell, which should hatch that same day, or the next.

Assuming the bees accept their new ruler, and do not kill her (as sometimes happens), the new Queen will wait patiently for a day of nice weather – about 70 degrees or higher will generally do the trick – and then leave the hive for her mating flight.

I’ll get to those details next time.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

When I first began this blog, I wrote a lot about my brother Howard, who died a few weeks shy of 20, in a 2004 fraternity house fire.  Upon learning that he was missing, I began the four hour drive from my law school to my childhood home, and there are moments of that tortured, bargaining-with-God journey that I expect I will be able to recall with crystal clarity on my deathbed.

For whatever reason, I began to fixate on images of Howard as I drove down I-77.  Screenshots of our yearly Christmas cards flashed through my mind like a slide show, and seemingly every picture I’d ever seen of Howard, too.  This was in the days just before “everyone” had a digital camera, and I realized there were not thousands upon thousands of pictures of Howard on Facebook, because he wasn’t a member.  I knew that our collection was complete, and woefully so.

I saw Howard captured tightly in Pa Pa’s bear hug on Christmas morning, Howard clinging to my mom’s leg at the beach, Howard and I jumping in the freshly raked leaves of fall, tuxedo-ed Howard en route to prom, Glacier National Park devotee Howard with his arms thrust outwards after ascending to Napi Point.

In recent years, I will flip through my mental album of Howard shots while I am hiking, or maybe driving that lonely stretch of interstate between Wells, Nevada and Susanville, California.

And I am always sad that the album is complete.

But every now and again, a friend will uncover a picture of Howard, and take the time to scan it into their computer and e-mail it to me.  And no matter how mundane the photograph seemingly is, it is also, as my dad recently said, like finding gold.

Here’s a shot of Howard, far right, that our dear friend Maie recently uncovered and sent to me.  That’s me in my full on ’80’s regalia, center.

Better than gold, and without adequate words of appreciation, except, of course, for thank you.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

We rose before the sun this Easter Sunday and passed many a sunrise service being set up. We’ve got queen cells to put out, Easter Sunday or not, so we didn’t delay but headed straight for the yards, hoping to work fast enough to make an Easter brunch later on.

No time for the Bunny this morning – he’ll visit us this afternoon, when we’re done with the queens – but I did bring a few treats from Maggie Rose’s many admirers to the yards:

Happy Easter, everyone!
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While responding to a question on the Glacier County Honey Facebook page the other day, I realized I’ve done a pretty poor job of explaining what the bees are up to lately.  My apologies.  In short: the almonds reached the peak of their bloom, the bees did their darndest, and then we moved all of the hives back up to our holding yards near Red Bluff.  There are more nectar sources up in the hills, and the bees are happier there, and have time to build up their strength before we ship them back to Montana.

While the bees are sittin’ pretty in the sunshine, Honeydew and Keith get down to the next order of California business: requeening all of our colonies.  A queen will generally live for several years, and without interference, the bees would simply raise a new queen when the time came.  But in order to ensure  the queen’s viability, we give the bees a new queen each spring.  That way, we can be sure that the queen is young and vigorous and ready to lay eggs all summer.  So, this time of year, Honeydew grafts, or raises, a “cell” containing a new queen — pictures to come soon — and gives one to each colony.  Catching the old queen, installing the new queen, and ensuring that the new queen mates and is laying eggs, are all tasks that must be done before we can leave California and return to Montana.  Which we both miss like crazy, by the way.

All of these tasks are tedious, time consuming, and they must be performed, over and over again, 6-7 days per week.  There is no rest for the weary beekeeper this time of year, not even for Easter Sunday, but it will all be worth it when we return to Montana and all of these vigorous hives make the best honey you’ve never tasted!

Most beekeepers, hobbyist and commercial alike, do not graft their own queens, but purchase them this time of year from queen breeders like Steve Park and Jackie Park-Burris, our friends and business partners.  Y’all met Jackie on the blog last summer:

Many beekeepers also purchase “packages” of bees, sometimes to replace dead hives with and sometimes to build up the strength of existing hives, among other reasons.  A commercial beekeeper purchasing large numbers of package bees will have his/her own boxes for transporting these bees, and they will need to be delivered to the bee breeder for filling.  Yesterday, we delivered a load of these boxes to Strachan Apiaries for Smoot Honey Co., good friends of ours near Great Falls, Montana.

Don’t we look like the Beverly Hillbillies?

On Easter Sunday, the next round of our queen cells will be ready for installation, and I’m bringing my camera – for the last three Sundays, it’s been pouring rain and cold, cold, cold, so the conditions for picture taking, to say nothing of opening hives of bees, have been less than ideal, but that looks to change this week.

Ah, spring.  Thank you for returning.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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