Winter means making difficult bee decisions

two-beesEach winter is different, but many times winter means making difficult bee decisions. In a normal year the first frost would have laid its silver tips on the fields six weeks ago, but this fall has been wetter and warmer than any other. My bees are awake, drippy wet flowers lounge in the fields, and curtains of drizzle keep the bees on their front porch. Some have ventured out in the brief spots of sunbeams but not all have found their way back. One fat splotch of rain on that little furry body is enough to ground a flying maiden, and if the sun’s warmth doesn’t quickly dry her out, she perishes in the field.

My measuring of honey stores is based on normal fall and winter weather and in late September everyone looked to be in excellent shape. By now frost should have shut down the flowers in the Pacific Northwest, the weather should have gotten colder, and the bees should have been starting to huddle together in cluster for warmth and dreamtime. That would be normal for late November.

But the weather’s wacky. In October the pear tree in the north yard filled a broad branch with delicate white flowers. The yellow peace roses and dandelions are blooming again, and yesterday our chest-high rosemary bushes shot forth hundreds of blue flowers. The nearest tree hive a scant twenty feet away had dozens of bees at the entrance sniffing the waft of rosemary blooms, so near and yet so far. I watched from the kitchen window but didn’t see a single bee visit all drizzly afternoon.

hollow-tree difficult bee decisions

What a conundrum. If it stopped raining, the bees could harvest the still-blooming calendulas, cosmos and borage. Or if frost arrived as scheduled, the cold would have knocked down the flowers and set the hive to sleepiness. But instead they’re wide awake, stuck inside and eating honey that was meant for springtime. Difficult bee decisions, indeed!

This was the year I determined I was no longer going to feed my bees. I provide a farm’s worth of nutritious forage from late winter through mid-fall and as a treatment-free keeper of bees, I’d decided that strong hives shouldn’t need feeding and that I was propping up weaker hives by doing that.

In prior years I’d winter-fed the smaller hives with 50-50 results. Some lived, some died, but at least those who perished didn’t die from lack of food. As years pass, I find my commitment to raising healthy bees puts me in places where ethics and compassion tangle. The long view is that I want to provide the living situation whereby local bees can successfully weed out weakness and grow stronger each year. The short view is that it’s hard to watch a perfectly healthy hive go hungry.

wildflower-field difficult bee decisions

This year — my thirteenth bee year — I came to the realization that humans should not be taking on the tasks of a healthy hive. The difficult bee decisions are not ours to make. Over-management is erroneous human thinking that causes us to believe we understand bees, that we know them so well we can think like a bee. And not just any bee, we act like we are the OverLord bee who knows what’s best for the colony and thus we introduce all kinds of situations that throw perfectly good hives into disarray.

Strong hives, on their own, bring in appropriate amounts of pollen and nectar at the right time for build-up and slow-down. They make and clean the structure; create medicines that maintain health; communicate with a radius of thriving plant and ethereal life; share space with “not-bee” critters who live in the fall-away; and they do it all on their own timing. For those who pay attention, bees also teach deep bee wisdom.

As winter came on, I felt really good about my decision to step back and allow the bees to determine the rules that govern their lives. Absolutely no more fussing on my part. Bees rule. I am not a bee.


And then we had this wonky fall where the bees, of necessity, plunged into their winter honey stores to feed themselves. At the end of November, when I hefted the back of the hive to feel how heavy it was, oh dear me they were mighty light.

Most were fine, but my smallest hive was way light. Which brought me face-to-face with the rule I’d just given myself, don’t interfere. The intent had been to let them sort out the stronger hives from the weak — a good goal and in keeping with my philosophy — but dang, now I have to figure out is this year just a fluke and would it be dumb of me to let a hive die because of weather? Those old difficult bee decisions came back to haunt me.

Isn’t it curious how whenever we finally think we know something, Life plunks us down in a situation that tests our resolve?

It’s the weather, not the bees, I argued with myself. How do I withhold honey that’s sitting in my kitchen, from hungry bees growing through a climate-challenged winter? Or is this the point — that we all have to survive these changes and some will not make it due to circumstances they cannot control. Only bees who put extra aside will make it and those who run a little shy in fall will be drastically lacking in February.

v 1206210_G2N- 1107180I want to have the courage of my convictions, to always know what proper action is, and to boldly step into doing the right thing. I spend countless hours ruminating on right action, yet even with considerable bee communication skills, I don’t always know the perfect answer. Treatment-free beekeeping is hard because all our actions are geared toward providing conditions that support the sustainability of the colonies in their own individual situations. That’s a good definition of compassionate tough love and I’m not always up for the tough part.

I am not pleased to tell you I caved. I removed four empty combs, combs that had been chock full two months ago, and I fed the small hive. I don’t know if they’ll make it or if that was the right thing to do. As I refilled the dish with crumbly wax and honey, my mind was in the uncomfortable human moment where I question everything I do, wishing for divine guidance yet knowing the true test is — win or lose — that I do the best I can.

JQ smiley beesTami Simon, founder and publisher of Sounds True, interviewed Jacqueline on her weekly author podcast. Click the link below to hear the interview:

Jacqueline Freeman speaks about her bee journey  (40 min.)

“Our mission is to find teachers and artists who serve as a gateway to spiritual awakening and to produce, publish, and distribute their work with beauty, intelligence, and integrity. Sounds True authors include Eckhard Tolle, Pema Chodron, Caroline Myss, Seth Godin, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

If you’re looking for holiday gifts that inspire, they’ve got plenty. Jacqueline’s book is on sale for $11.36.

Click here for pre-holiday book sale!

Posted in Bee-centered beekeeping, Buzzing bees, Food for bees, Helping bees survive winter, Natural Bee Care, Natural Bee Care Book, Natural Beekeeping, Organic Beekeeping, Song of Increase, Treatment-Free Beekeeping, Winter Bee Care | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SpiritBee: Our farm in the fall

Today it drizzled off and on all day. I put on my raincoat and trundled up into the bee yard. Inside the open-walled bee gazebo, I busied myself putting boxes away, sweeping dead bees out the door and listening to the tappety sound of drops falling on the greenhouse roof. I found a few spider webs under the warre hive so I got out the yellow brush to sweep them away. Years ago the bees told me they hate “that nasty yellow brush” so I re-assigned it for spider work. I busied myself making the room neat.

No bees were going in and out so I thought to get the stethoscope out and listen to them. I pulled the drawer open and was surprised to find a sleepy cluster of paper wasps. They rolled their drowsy heads to see who just pulled back the blanket. I barely woke them and managed to get the scope out without a fuss. I knew they’d go right back to sleep as soon as I closed the drawer. Trust me, paper wasps are good natured, dear little beings, and I’ve grown quite fond of them.

Though it was rainy, I spent a good hour watching the entrance boards of a few hives. I always see something worth watching and yes indeed, I saw another interesting thing today.


We planted an acre of mixed sunflowers for bees, and then later for birds

There was no action at the front door. I watch anyway because, well, that’s what I do. I like to watch bees. A second-year hive had again built a propolis scrim in their entrance, dividing the opening into five different doorways, all eminently defensible. After 20 more minutes of me tinkering around, the rain stopped. And then, big surprise, a FLURRY of bees suddenly whizzed in from Lord-knows-where, landed in clumps on the entrance and dashed inside.

Hee-haw! When it started raining a half hour earlier, those foragers were too far out in the field to make it back. A single drop of rain on a bee’s back is enough to splooch her down in the wet grass, unable to fly again until dry. No bee wants to meet her end that way. Each found a dry-ish place to hunker under till the rain stopped.

But once the rain stopped, each little forager made a mad dash flight for home, full speed ahead. They dropped out of the sky in rapid clusters onto the entrance, rushing in before the next dark cloud found them far a-field. They landed 5-6 a second for a few minutes, scooting in with golden pollen on their thighs. How tuned in to the weather they are, waiting and watching, knowing it will turn soon and then blasting home the moment the weather broke.

They were foraging on autumn flowers. Each of the photos below is a bee flower that’s in bloom on our farm at the end of September. A few sunny days ago I counted 26 kinds blooming and took these pix. It’s a dreamy time when bees are foraging on autumn flowers. That’s all their interested in. No need to feed sugar, and they have no desire to rob each other. Ours are also getting nectar from ripe green grapes on our arbor and from the mushy pears under the pear trees. Until I kept bees, I didn’t know they ate fruit, but they do.


sunflowers have new pollen every day for weeks

Every year I plant more sunflowers. This year we put in an acre of them. While some flowers bloom for a few days, sunflowers bloom for weeks. Look closely at the center and you’ll see that it is made of hundreds of single florets. Sunflower florets open from the outside to the center, a few new florets blossoming each day, adding a few inches to the curve. Bees on sunflowers walk a labyrinthian spiral as they gather the nectar and pollen. 

Living in the pacific northwest, our mild winters and rainy weather reward us with a flourish of early spring flowers, bazillions of them that bloom through to early summer. July is when our drought season begins and, though most folks think it rains all the time here, we can go a hundred days without rain in July through October. 


buckwheat blooms 4-5 weeks after planting

That kind of weather puts the kibosh on the abundant bloom and we’re pretty spare from midsummer on. So I direct all my flower planting efforts to what will flower from late summer through fall, when bloom is sparse.


purple asters expand their area every year

In late summer bees struggle. It’s hot and dry, and once the flow has played itself out, we go into dearth. Dearth is stressful. The weather is warm enough to forage, but there’s not enough out there for everyone. Some colonies take it upon themselves to start casing other hives, testing front doors to see if the guard bees are weak and the front door is penetrable. If it is, they’ll let their home hive know and come out in force to break through the weak hive’s entrance and the pillaging begins.


veronica (speedwell)

While nobody enjoys seeing a honeybee hive decimated by other honeybees, this is Nature’s way. A strong hive will repel invaders, but a weak hive can’t hold down the fort. It succumbs and loses all the honey they collected through spring and summer. While it sounds ruthless, robbing adds to the larder of a stronger colony, improving the more robust hive’s chance of surviving winter. At the same time, it clears the gene pool of the small and ineffective lightweight colony. The strong survive.

I don’t like to see any hive go down the tubes, but the longer I keep bees, the more I’ve learned to defer to what Nature has in mind. In the past I fed small hives all winter. I don’t do that anymore. In my bee yard, bees survive on what they gather and I rarely feed. I make exceptions for bee trees who’ve fallen to the lumberjack’s chain saw and I will feed in an emergency like that, but for the average hive, no.


oregano blooms all summer

This has been a slow lesson. In the beginning I didn’t want to see any hive lose out. I’m treatment-free (I don’t apply chemicals or even organic medicines), and I’ve always been clear about that, but I never looked at feeding as an issue. If a hive was light, I pitched in and fed back honeycomb (never sugar in any form).


These lavenders are on their THIRD bloom this year!

I did that for a decade. Some years I fed back all the honey I’d collected. Because I fed the small hives, most of my hives made it. Never felt bad about it for a minute either.


calendula blooms from June until frost

Then I had an insight about my role. I realized I wasn’t meant to be a colony’s forager who delivered food (honey) to them. Bees need FLOWERS. If I am keeping bees, my responsibility is to work with the plants to provide more flowers for bees to forage on. Aha! I’m not supposed to be a bee feeder, I’m meant to be a gardener!

red clover

red clover

Sugar was never meant to be food for bees. The pH is wrong for their digestive systems. Sugar doesn’t supply significant nutritional value, and it lacks the bacteria that enable the bee’s gut to process properly. Studies show that bees fed sugar tend to be weaker and have a propensity for nosema. Of course they’ll eat it — as would you if you were starving and someone offered you a candy bar. 


evening primrose, also a favorite of moths because it blooms at dusk

Don’t imagine for a second that the bees are somehow making and storing real honey from the sugar you’re feeding them. They are processing and storing sugar into the cells, but the sweet treat is not true bee food. Bees that go through winter and early spring living on sugar aren’t as healthy as bees who’ve been eating what Nature feeds them. If you put out a dish of sugar water when abundant nectar-y flowers are in bloom, they will go to the flowers every time. Sugar gets eaten when forage slows down and there’s little left to eat. Studies show that bees who eat from a wide variety of flower sources are indeed healthier than bees who have limited choices. If we truly want them to be their healthiest, we’ll put more effort into providing the flower buffets they most need.

So, fellow gardeners, that’s our task. Plant for the bloom in times of dearth. Keep sugar off their menu. And plant as wide a variety of flowers as you can, so the bees have lots of choices.


a favorite bee flowers, autumn joy sedums









Speaking With Bees

If you’ve been following for a while, you know I speak with bees. Yep, I do. And I listen because they’re mighty good teachers.

Now you can listen to the book, “Song of Increase.” Robin Wise and I recorded the audiobook this spring and Sounds True just published it. This means you can listen to the entire book on any audio-digital media, like your iPhone or Android or through Whoopee!

Robin is my dear friend. Her bees have the most beautiful watering stations, filled with crystals and moss and flowers. Bees thrive in her care. Robin is an audio engineer and has done many documentaries for NPR. She won the Robert Woods Johnson award, the Robert F Kennedy Journalism award, the Peabody award (3 times), and a bunch of others. She’s a consummate professional and I am thrilled she helped bring this audiobook into the world. 

Most of the chapters have three parts:  a story about my bees doing something interesting; factual or scientific information that further explains what they were doing; and then what the bees have to say on the topic. In the audiobook, I read the first two and Robin, in her mellifluous bee-enlightened voice, reads the parts from the bees.

To hear samples of the “Song of Increase” audio book, just hit this link below.

Here are some audio samples.

The opening of the book, “When the bees speak, I listen.”

“The hive is a holy place.” We’ve stepped so far away from seeing them this way. Let’s return ourselves to being respectful again.”

“The Song of Unity: How bees see themselves, their colony, and the world.” In the bees’ words, how they see themselves.

“The Bees: Living in Unity.” We bear increase into the world as we sing the world into aliveness. We meet each task with a steadiness of spirit.

Posted in Autumn bee care, Bee-centered beekeeping, Buzzing bees, Natural Bee Care, Natural Bee Care Book, Natural Beekeeping, Organic Beekeeping, Song of Increase, Treatment-Free Beekeeping, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Buzzing bees visit studio for taste of honey

buzzing bees 1Buzzing bees are one of my favorite sounds in the world.

Last week Joseph and I were driving back to the farm from Portland. A gorgeous day. All I wanted to do when we got home was get out in the garden. But to earn a living, we need to spend at least a little time in the office. Joseph teaches Structural Integration for horses at our farm school and I teach and write about bees and farm life. We don’t have jobs outside of the farm. Our income depends on communicating with the world so people know about our mission. And that requires time in the office.

The conversation was mostly me musing aloud how to convince myself to spend a few hours in the office every summer day, to have the willpower to plunk my butt down in my office chair and get stuff done. Even as I said it, I recognized the conundrum. I need to work, yet I prefer to be outside playing with bees.

Most of the year I truly enjoy writing and speaking about bees and caring for the farm, but when it’s fabulously perfect weather and the sunflowers are covered with bees, it’s difficult to convince myself that sitting in front of this computer is more exciting than watching bees. If you are reading this, I’m sure you know what I mean. Bees are amazing and there’s no place I’d rather be than in their presence.

We pulled into the driveway and as I gathered up our packages, Joseph walked through the garage to the front door. He abruptly came back and said, “There’s something going on with your bees.”

Sure enough, the air around the patio and second story deck were full of bees. Almost like a swarm, but there was no central focus point, just thousands of bees in the air. For the moment I chalked that up to bees doing curious and inexplicable things, as bees are wont to do. I went inside, put my packages on the table, then went upstairs to my office. As I walked down the hallway, I heard the buzzing of bees.


I stepped through the office door into a room filled with 10,000 bees. 10,000 buzzing bees were flying about my office, half in the air, half crawling on windows, walls, the desk. The sound (the sound!) of 10,000 bees humming filled every inch of air.

Still not understanding why they were there, I stood in the middle of the room for a full ten seconds delightedly wondering how? Why? What would make all these bees want to visit me? In my hive?

Curious event #1:  Normally in summer I leave the windows open, but the house was being painted this week, so we’d removed all the screens.

Curious event #2:  Last week I harvested a few honey combs that I’d placed on a table, waiting for me to take photos before I processed them.

Curious event #3:  Explorer bees smelled the honey and flew in through the open windows to scour the comb,

That’s the logical explanation — bees smelled un-guarded honey and came through the window to harvest it. But a truer explanation is this:  I said out loud I needed to find a way that would make me WANT to go into the office and stay there all day. Oh golly, the bees answered that in the best way ever!

I sat at my desk working, enveloped by the song of 10,000 bees. 10,001 of us got a lot done that afternoon.

How the buzzing bees got home

Most of the bees filled their bellies on honey and nectar and flew right back out one of the open windows and door, but I noticed many honey-filled bees crawling up and down the windows, frustrated by the glass. I caught one or two at a time with a cup and a post card and let them out the open door, but with hundreds left on the window, and more joining them every minute, I could see that wasn’t the best system. So I came up with a solution clever enough that I want to share it with you.

In case you don’t know this, bees orient to “home” with a tiny chip of magnetite in their little bodies. A bee flying home in the direction of a window can easily get stuck there. They absolutely KNOW that home is in that direction, so they try to fly through the window again and again. No go.

[From my book, Song of Increase:]

 “Why do they get stuck? Because a honeybee cannot override her sense of direction. To guide her home, each bee has a tiny speck of magnetic oxide nanoparticles concentrated in her antennae and abdomen. When a bee flies up against that west-facing window, she knows absolutely that home is in that direction, if only she could get past the window. She will continue buzzing against the window until she exhausts herself and dies. You would imagine these bees would eventually figure out that they cannot get through the closed window, and then they’d go back out through the open door, but they don’t work that way. Curiously, other bugs nearly always find their way out quickly. Only the honeybees get caught there and die.”

I realized that there are actually two components to a bee getting stuck in a window:  (1) The window is in the direction of the way home, and (2) that the path through the window looks transparent. All I needed to do was alter one of those situations.

buzzing bees 2I had a roll of black paper in the studio, so I laid it across the window and taped it in place. In the time it took me to change the transparent window to opacity, 95% of the bees found their way out the door. If you ever find yourself trying to get a bunch of bees out of a room, block the windows and leave the door open. They’ll find their way.

I took the remaining honey comb and placed that out on the deck. Within ten minutes nearly every bee had re-oriented and found the honey source outside the window. My deck had 9,900 buzzing bees on it while a hundred bees stayed behind to help me finish writing, and then they were on their way, too.

Since then, every day I walk into my office, a bee or two finds her way in. I sit and write while she checks out the area to see if any honey comb remains, or (as I like to think) if I need another moment of inspiration.

Click here to watch the video.

Posted in Bee Swarms, Bee-centered beekeeping, Buzzing bees, Natural Bee Care, Natural Bee Care Book, Natural Beekeeping, Organic Beekeeping, Relocating Bees, Song of Increase, Swarming Bees | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bee-centered beekeeping: When a hive grows slowly

Bee-centered beekeeping 1Bee-centered beekeeping takes a different approach than conventional beekeeping. The aim is to do things the way the bees themselves would do them.

One of my top bar hives was going strong all spring and then a few weeks ago, their population started sliding. I generally don’t open my hives much, preferring to see what’s happening by watching behavior at the entrance and through the observation windows. But after a few weeks of slow decline, I wondered if they’d lost their queen, so today I opened the hive up.

Starting at the back, I slowly went one bar to the next, looking at honey production (moderate but steady), the cleanliness of the hive (one wax moth larvae fell out of a comb joint when I moved it and was immediately pounced upon by a maiden bee), and to see if there was any new activity in the brood chamber.

I rarely go in the brood chamber and when I did today, the maidens clustered over the brood cells to keep the larvae warm. I found plenty of brood of different ages including tiny floating cells with squirmy white larvae, which meant there is a Queen and she is laying.

On the next brood comb I saw the Queen busy laying eggs. She was downy with a fuzzy abdomen which told me she’s a young queen but I didn’t know how young. And then on the next frame I saw a single queen cell built right in the middle of the comb, the cell she was born in! This is a clear sign of the hive’s intelligence, they knew to replace an older weak queen with a strong new queen and they called her into being all on their own, without a human “replacing a queen.” (supercedure) This is bee-centered beekeeping in action!

To show the difference, here is what are commonly called “swarm cells,” a multitude of queen cells usually gathered along the bottom or sides of the combs.

Bee-centered beekeeping 2

Bee-centered beekeeping: Bees create a supercedure cell

The bees created a supercedure cell, not a batch of swarm cells. Supercedure cells are usually singular, often in the center of a comb. The supercedure queen is created to replace a weak queen who is not laying with her same virility. She’s generally at the end of her time and even her royal queen scent — a powerfully important aspect of her presence in the hive — has begun to fade.
Bee-centric beekeeping 3 Supercedure

In swarming, part of the hive would leave with the old queen who is strong and ready to turn this swarm into a new settled colony. The colony in my hive, however, did not swarm; once the new “replacement” queen hatched, the colony stayed together and continued on with their new young queen. Unlike swarming, this situation is barely a blip in their behavior. The daughter-queen steps in as the mother-queen recedes.

In my experience, I have a few times found the old queen in the hive after being replaced, still being loosely cared for, but no longer celebrated as the queen. Supercedures are planned retirements.

Swarm cells are multiple queen eggs, created most often along the bottom and the edges. The two kinds of cells have a different purpose. Swarm cells are a response to the colony’s abundance. Supercedure cells are made to fix a problem, and to do that without drama.

This is why I don’t “buy queens.” A good hive knows when and how to replace a queen when they need to. This queen had hatched, mated, and was now doing her job. The slow-down I saw was the time it took for the new queen to birth, grow into sexual maturity, and take over the mother task. This is bee-centered beekeeping in action. Within the coming week I expect to see a quick upsurge in this hive’s population, and all will be well again.

This hive also had a brood gap which is a great way to get rid of mites. Let’s say the retired queen stopped laying (through death or being gently removed from her duties). There’s a good chance there next came a period of time when the new queen wasn’t prepared to lay yet. If that brood gap lasted a few short weeks until the last of the old queen’s brood hatched, that may have meant any pregnant mites in the colony couldn’t find bee larvae upon which to lay their eggs. This may even be one of the reasons the hive intelligence decided to replace their queen in the first place, as a method of mite reduction.

Had the beekeeper replaced that queen, the whole healing they designed would have been thwarted.

Lesson for Bee-Centered Beekeepers

A failing queen will be replaced by the colony if you let them do their job. When the average beekeeper sees a reduction in activity, the first thought in their head is to “replace the queen,” but replacing a queen means that colony will completely die out once the old queen’s children have died, and with them, all their knowledge of the local area.

Squishing an old queen and replacing her with a new queen should be an extreme rarity (I’ve never done it, nor have many of my learned bee friends). With so many people taking up queen-rearing these days, I suspect many of the times a queen is replaced is because they are so easily available. “I got stung — replace the queen!” “My bees aren’t building up fast enough — replace the queen!” “There’s not enough nectar coming in — replace the queen!” “It’s spring — time to replace the queen!”

I don’t believe this action is well thought out. We need to stop changing queens like we change our clothes. If there’s a slowdown in activity, there’s a good chance it’s perfectly natural and well-timed. This is at the heart of bee-centered beekeeping.

Replacing queens? I don’t follow that path. I prefer to let the bees do this themselves, which they will. To be a true adherent to bee-centric beekeeping, all the beekeeper has to do is wait and let the hive handle it by creating a new queen all on their own. A queen the colony cared for and nurtured and, from the moment she was born, who they love deeply. Long live the Queen!

Posted in Bee Swarms, Natural Bee Care, Natural Beekeeping, Organic Beekeeping, Summer Bee Care, Swarming Bees, Treatment-Free Beekeeping, Why bees swarm | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment