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Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Tisket, A Tasket, a Nest in a Basket: a Lesson in Natural History from the Backyard…

last year's junco chicksFor some reason the backyard birds believe our fuschia baskets are hung  there for their nesting convenience. A few years back a robin nested in one, laid a clutch of eggs, and fledged them out. Last year a pair of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) appropriated a basket and we enjoyed watching the nesting cycle, didn’t mind the least sharing our blooming basket with them. Compared to the conspicuous nesting routines of robins (we usually have a pair nest in our woodshed each year), juncos are subtle nesters; if one weren’t a careful observer of his yard and landscaping, juncos could go through an entire nesting cycle unnoticed. If it weren’t for the fact the baskets hung from the soffits above our deck and needed frequent watering, I doubt we’d have discovered the nest.

The dark-eyed junco, generally referred to as a “snowbird,” is one Little Brown Bird easily identified: the male with his dark chocolate head, that of the missus more milk chocolate. In flight, going away, both flash white tail feathers. During the winter months juncos frequent our backyard feed station in abundance, perhaps the explanation of why so many pairs nest here in the summer. On those rare winters when snow fell on our deck we’d throw out a handful of birdseed for the juncos’ repast—and the cat’s amusement.

The frugal gardener that I am, I cut back the fuschia plants in the hanging baskets and winter them over where they hang during the summer months. During periods of below freezing temps, I move them into the garage or shed until the weather moderates. Usually I can sustain the baskets two or three years, saving the expense of replacing them every spring. When I trimmed the baskets last fall, I was careful to leave the junco nest intact, hoping to have our lodgers return again come summer.

Summer came; the robins nested; white-crowned sparrows; and juncos. But our fuschia nest remained empty. When I saw the first junco fledglings about the place, I thought for sure we were destined to be empty nesters for the summer. I wasn’t aware of a “second settin,’”however; juncos, I learned, have two broods a season, a fact confirmed when the other day I saw flash of brown dart from the maple tree, touch down on the roof, and dive into the fuschia leaves. An inspection of the basket next day told me renovation of last year’s nest was underway. My next inspection two days later showed a complete overhaul of the nest, fresh straw and grass perfectly cupped to junco size.Day one

Tuesday this week I gently removed the basket and discovered the nest held a tidy freckled egg. Even though Ms. junco was nowhere to be seen, I knew she was watching nearby, wondering what business I had fussing with her nest. I learned from last year’s nest cycle that the female leaves the nest unattended during the day, returns at night and sometime before dawn lays another egg. Day 2Sure enough, Wednesday morning a pair of eggs lay in the nest. Thursday, three. Yesterday morning the female didn’t leave the nest. I knew she had laid the fourth egg earlier and had begun to incubate the clutch of four. A gentle shake of the basket dislodged her and off she flew, allowing me to inspect her nest, which, as last year contained the fourth and final egg. Day 3I hated to disturb her, was certain another egg was added to clutch, but having a “loaded” bird nest in a hanging basket that required frequent watering presented a problem. Before mama settled into her two week incubation period, I wanted to give the basket a thorough watering. I rehung the dripping basket and in less than five minutes with a flash of brown, a rustling of leaves, Missus returned.

She stayed there all day. And this morning when I checked the nest through the window, I could see her jaunty little tail among the leaves. For two weeks she’ll set the nest. Except for a watering or two I’ll try not disturb her. Day 4

Two weeks from now when the feeding routine begins, we’ll enjoy watching the male and female “sneak” their way in and out of the nest. It’s local entertainment. And it’s free. These days it doesn’t take much excitement to keep us entertained .

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ding Dong, the Queen is Dead, The Wicked Queen is Dead…

WickedThe honeybee is wicked, boss,

Wicked as a weasel,

And when she sits down on you, boss,

She leaves a little measle.

Don Marquis/Archie and Mehitabel

“Mom can’t pick a flower that grows in this yard without getting a bee sting,” I said. “We can’t play in this yard without our gettin’ five or six stings apiece. We have to go to the woods to play. The bees have not only the yard but part of the upstairs.”

Jesse Stuart “The Battle with the Bees”

We’ve had our own battle with the bees here this summer, and unlike Pa in Jesse Stuart’s folktale  “The Battle with the bees,” our goal was never to have one thousand beehives on the place. As it turns out, however, we did have one hive too many. The colony at issue was one beekeepers call a “hot” hive. Just plain nasty this one was, aggressive and hot-tempered. Working in the garden, the yard…anywhere on the place we were harassed by over protective guard bees. Whenever I inspected the hive, the bees resented my intrusion and for three days afterwards they were quick to seek me out whenever I was outside. Several times they drove my wife to the house. I would look up just in time to see her making a beeline across the yard, her arms flailing away at the air around her head as she swatted her way to safety. Then, finding the object of their disaffection gone, I became her proxy.  Gardening is not an easy task with two or three angry bees constantly circling your head like satellites, a diversion unpleasant, one no gardener needs. Pulling weeds is difficult enough without worrying about a bee flying up your nose each time you stooped. Over the course of a month I think we shared a half dozen stings from “hive nasty.” I’ve been around honeybees nearly all my life and am usually not intimidated by my bees or another beekeeper’s, but this hive was something else. Sometimes I would stop work, take off my ball cap, and say: “Ok, lady, if that’s the way you want it, you and me are going to tangle,” and using my cap as a swatter, I’d try to dash the offender from the air, knock her to the ground and stomp her. Seldom did our battle end in a draw; I’m proud to admit I did quite a bit of stomping. Once, however, one angry little missus executed a perfect aerial feint, slipped under the slap and nailed me inside my left ear. For the next two nights I slept on my right side.

Clearly something had to be done. At least twice after inspecting the hive I cautioned our neighbor about working in her garden, told her perhaps she might want to postpone her weeding until the evening. I was most afraid my three-year old grandson would fall victim to their wrath, and the last thing I wanted was for him to be, as Jesse Stuart would phrase it, “skeered” of bees. I knew the problem lay not with my combatants in the field but their mistress. Our hostile insects simply were following the genetic design laid out for them by Queen Mother’s genome. Yes, it’s the queen bee that sets the temperament of the colony. Somewhere on her chromosomal blueprint was a dominate gene for nastiness, a genetic callout to her minions to go out and spread her evil.

My friend Jim at the Beez Neez Apiary Supply has the twenty foot rule: if guard bees pursue the beekeeper that distance from their hive, it’s time to deal with the queen. When I inspected hive nasty, the vigilantes followed me to another colony over one hundred feet away. It was as if I had a Perseid meteor shower of bees ricocheting off my veil and helmet the entire distance. (One characteristic of Africanized bees is their tenacious pursuit of an intruder for nearly a quarter mile from their nest.) Without question her royal nastiness had to go. Her replacement cost me thirty-thee dollars (long gone the days of a penny slice of bread, thirty-five cent a gallon gas, and five dollar queens). I had found my nemesis queen a few days before, plucked her off the comb and put her beneath a shallow comb super with undrawn comb following the rule of thumb a queen will not cross undrawn foundation to access drawn comb above. Sprained that thumb as I found new eggs laid in the super above the shallow. I thought I had her corralled, easy to find, but when I purchased a new thirty-three dollar Carniolan queen, the reigning monarch was nowhere to be found. I overnighted the queen regent successor on a queen excluder, went into the hive the next day and finally found her royal nastiness hiding out on a pollen frame. I pinched her swiftly, execution style, and installed the new queen only to find her dead in the cage two days later. Back to the Beez Neez  and thirty-three dollars later brought home the second replacement. Two days later her new subjects had yet to release her, so I pulled the candy plug and watched her rush out and scramble into the hive.

Jim said the hive will maintain its nastiness for at least six weeks, the amount of time for the new genetics to kick in and new field workers to take flight . After losing the first queen, I was uncertain if this recalcitrant colony would accept any queen at all. A week passed before I inspected the colony. I found the new queen and she was running the operation, showing a nice egg pattern and cells brimming with new larvae. My sense of relief was somewhat tempered by five stings but that’s nothing compared to the pain of another thirty-three bucks. So “the queen is dead. Long live the queen.” Since the old monarch was deposed, my pugnacious colony seems a kinder and gentler bunch of bees, and although I haven’t bothered them in over two weeks and the summer honey flow is now a diversion for them, I’m cautiously optimistic the new queen has squelched the anger management issues.

Perhaps pinching a queen to death seems a bit harsh to you. I suppose I could have thrown a pail of water on her, but I doubt very much she’d have melted.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


battyis the birders’ generic term for any “little brown bird” that flits through the underbrush, from branch to branch, in and out of foliage so quickly identification is impossible. LBBs make up a large portion of the avian world  (one-third of the color plates in my Birds of Washington field guide are coded with a brown half moon), so whether that flash of brown in the bush is a sparrow, thrush, or wren usually leads to an animated discussion among a flock of birders.

I had an LBB sighting of another sort the other day. My wife and I were sitting in the living room taking a breather from chores, making small talk when a floppy fluttering movement entered my peripheral vision. I looked out the deck door just in time to see a leathery dark form flop against the screen door and cling there. Sure enough we were having an LBB visitation. A little brown bat now clung to our backdoor screen. Bats are creatures of the night, nocturnal death to mosquitoes and other night flying bugs. “So,” I wondered, “why is this LBB flying about at midday and a bright, sunny one at that?” I stepped out on the deck to get a closer look.

Bats are not the stuff beauty pageants are made of; they’re sinister creatures perhaps best described by the adjective “creepy”: translucent, veiny wings that fold up like an oriental fan, hook-like claws, squat, mousy bodies with fur that seems to say “home sweet home to fleas” ears perky like a cat’s and a face only a bat mother could love (“blind as a bat” is surely mama bat’s blessing), a nose like plastic surgery gone wrong, and a miniature set of fangs no finger should tangle with.

Over the years here in the Valley we have had many batty experiences: being buzzed by them summer eves in our alcove; watching their twilight exodus from Bach’s barn, entire squadrons of flying mammals winging their way through the fading colors of a Valley sunset, silhouetted against the glow of evening like Halloween construction paper cutouts; up too close and personal when one squeezed its way between chimney and drywall and began swooping back and forth along the ceiling, sending the wife scurrying on all fours to crouch under the nearest piece of furniture. The intruder darted out to our sunroom where it adhered itself to a skylight well. I scooped it up in my insect net and released it outside. Nothing too unique about these encounters…bats, like moles, just a part of the Valley experience….

Until one winter evening during the Christmas season. Against the winter’s chill, we decided to build a cheery fire in the fireplace. Later that night the comforting warmth of crackling hemlock gave way to a smell so caustic it singed our Christmas spirit. It was then I remembered the living room bat experience: one bat, I reasoned, couldn’t have raised such a stink: it must belong to a colony. I investigated further and discovered bats were hibernating in the dead air space between the chimney and the inner wall, (thus the living room intruder).The stench? Bat urine and guano, the summer’s accumulation, warmed by the evening’s fire, which understandably was our last of the season.

One evening next spring I staked out our chimney and sure enough around dusk a number of bats exited the chimney flashing and took flight. The next day I called the County Extension Office (back in those friendlier pre-budget cut days) and jokingly asked if they had a batman I could talk to. My call was promptly transferred to their batcave. I was connected to the Extension’s bat expert, an enthusiastic fellow brimming with bat facts. We must have talked for half an hour. I shared our bat issues, told batman: nothing personal against bats but I would prefer not sharing the same living space with them. “I’m not surprised, he replied, “Bats seek out warm, sheltered places to winter…like your chimney space,” he chuckled and continued. “ A fellow in Goldbar called me to his home where I discovered a colony of seventy-five bats living in his attic. “Here’s what you do,” he advised me, “Go out this evening, count the bats as they come out, and note their exit point. The next evening count them again and when your recount matches the previous number, climb up and plug the access hole.” At dusk the next evening remove the plug to allow any stragglers to exit and replug the opening.”

The stakeout at dusk. First one bat took flight, then another, followed by a third, a fourth…. They shot out of the flashing like winged fireballs from a roman candle. Thirty-two I counted before the activity ceased.  Thirty-two; now I didn’t quite know what to do. That guy in Goldbar had seventy-five. Should I try for a record? Just a fleeting thought. As per batman’s instructions, the next night I noted the exit of thirty-two leathery creatures, then climbed the ladder and plugged their access. If memory serves, the next day a brace of bats, probably juveniles, puzzled over being displaced, clung on the siding by their old nest. Another wriggled its way under a bamboo shade on one of the sunroom windows. The follow-up unplugging, I recall, yielded no more bats, and except for a re-roofing project which uncovered and scattered two more small colonies living beneath the old shakes, our LBB issues disappeared.

Until the other day when our little visitor came out of nowhere and fastened itself to our screen door which leads back to the question: “What brought this creature of the night to our screen door at midday?” Unless its colony is disturbed, a bat flying in daytime is highly unusual and though no cause for undue alarm, warrants caution. Bats are among the few warm-blooded mammals known to be carriers of rabies, and strange bat behavior may indicate the animal has health issues. The County Extension’s batman told me he could not recall a rabid bat being found in Snohomish County; regardless bats should not be handled barehanded dead or alive (remember the tiny mouth with tiny fangs?). Bearing all this in mind, I brought out the insect net, scooped the LBB gently from the screen, carried it to the back of the property, and carefully shook it out in the tall grass. I was careful not to touch it.little brown bat

Note: if you have bat issues, questions about Pacific Northwest LBBs, or are just plain batty, you’ll find the website batsnorthwest. org helpful.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Worms Crawled in…I Scooped Them Out…

moth larvaeEvery time I get behind the wheel, driving solo, my wife exhorts me to “watch the road…you constantly gawk around while you drive, you know,”she exclaims. She’s right; I confess, especially this time of the year when I gaze off road at the blackberry bushes. They’ll bloom early this season thanks to the mild winter and early spring. Already I can see the flower spikes bursting with white blossoms like popcorn newly popped.

Blackberry is the Valley’s summer honey crop and noting the white frost spreading daily across the roadside blackberries (“gawking,” yes, but necessary gawking), I knew it was prudent for me to “go into” my bees and see what needed to be done for them so they could do what they needed to do for themselves to gather this season’s blackberry honey for me. Of particular concern was my little after swarm I hived in a five frame “nuc” box (“nuc” for “nucleus”) over a month ago. This little swarm had a virgin queen when I hived it, but subsequent inspections were favorable: she was mated and laying, the sign of a “queen-rite” colony. When I checked yesterday, three of the five frames had a nice, solid brood pattern, indicating the new queen was on the job, delivering the goods 110%. My plan for this little nuc was to marry it to another hive, specifically a four pound package I installed in mid-April. For some reason the new queen failed and I grafted two queen cells from a swarm-ready colony into the dwindling colony, which, thanks to my efforts, now has a laying queen. However, it will not build sufficient strength this season to bring in surplus honey, so I planned to combine it with the nuc colony….

Whoops. Gawking again, or as I’d scrawl in the margins of my students’ essays: “Off topic.” Back to the  inspection of the five frame nuc. As I pulled and examined the frames, I noticed some gauzy webbing under one of the end bars of the third frame. Then some movement, a creepy undulation I’ve seen before and recognized immediately: wax moth larvae. And sure enough, there was their signature, the gouged out runnels in the wood, the nasty presence of the Greater Wax moth (Galleria mellonella).moth weevil Why a viable, healthy hive tolerated these repulsive squirmy worms was a mystery to me. Bees are usually quick to dispatch intruders and cart them out of the hive. My guess was that one of the frames of drawn comb on which I hived them must have contained some moth eggs that hatched while the swarm was just getting started. Before the bees had built population strength, the wax moth larvae had cocooned themselves into a thick, cottony webbing, safely swaddled against the rightful proprietors of the hive.

Wax moths pose no threat to the bees themselves; usually they target dead out hive bodies, frames of old comb in boxes temporarily not in use or abandoned. The insects pose more an issue for the beekeeper who stores his combs for future use… in honey supers, for instance.  Two species of wax moth exist: G. mellonella (the Greater) and Achroia grisella (the Lesser). Both, according to my research, have world-wide distribution. I have battled grisella in my stored supers for as long as I can remember, but they’re easily controlled by scattering paradichlorobenzene (PDB) crystals on newspaper squares placed on top of the frames in the honey supers. Once the honey flow begins and the supers are installed, bees quickly clean out any residual webbing, cocoons, and larvae of the Lesser. A commercial beekeeper once told me he kept a “bug zapper” powered up in the shed where he stored his supers: the adult moths got fried…no adults, no burrowing offspring.cocoon corner

Mellonella can wreak havoc with drawn comb in idle boxes like catcher hives, boxes of drawn comb set out in the bee yard to attract passing swarms.These empty boxes are prime targets for adult moths who slither in at the entrance and lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the ravenous larvae quickly build their protective webbing under which they tunnel at will through the combs, devouring meconium (cast off bee larvae and pupal skins), pollen pellets, and any residual honey.larvae frass and webbing The vigilant beekeeper should conduct periodic inspections of his catcher hives and empty hive bodies to check for mellonella’s presence. I learned my lesson after discovering a severe infestation in a two box deadout. Both boxes were webbed together so tightly it was impossible to remove the frames, difficult even to separate the two boxes. The rims of the boxes and tops of the frames were notched and runneled by the burrowing larvae, both boxes and contents totally ruined. Nothing left to do but burn the boxes, which I promptly did. webbed shutIf the moths are caught in time, the beekeeper can place the infested frames in the freezer for twenty-four hours, killing both eggs and larvae. A cautionary note: any comb stored out of doors is especially at risk for mellonella.

I scooped over a dozen of the plump, disgusting weevils from the nuc box and headed--not for the freezer but the chicken coop, tossed in the grubs and watched the four pullets make short work of them.