Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Hive Society

Life is sometimes about waiting. Usually we spend our days making something happen, working hard at our jobs, balancing family and career while keeping up with all the daily tasks. It is in these daily tasks that the nobility of life can be experienced, but it is a challenge to embrace the dirt, crying children and work stress. I’m interested in bees because of what they represent and do. They are individuals who form a collective and have subsumed their ability to reproduce for the sake of a better chance of something greater then themselves surviving…their genes. Looking at the hive is looking at ourselves. Both Homo Sapiens and Apis Mellifera are social animals unable to survive without the collective and during each part of our lives different things are expected of us. Bees build the hive, feed and protect the brood, and gather nectar. Humans basically perform the same function building a family, protecting and feeding the kids and bringing home the paycheck. Both engage in a symbolic exchange that is predicated upon finding a resource and converting it into nourishment.

Does the bee understand that it is part of a collective? At what level does it understand that it is part of a hive? How self aware is the bee? How intelligent is the hive mind? It is quite amazing to think about the complex behaviors that this collective engages in? The hive collects resources and stores for use in later. Individual bees communicate the location and quality of nectar resources and when in the form of a swarm practice a kind of collective decision making process to determine the location of a new home. The hive also redeploys workers to various jobs like repair and brood rearing when it becomes necessary. They also perform self sacrifice in order to save the collective. In many ways they are a human society in miniature, for a hive of bees is the size of a small city or large town. Some people have argued that the hive should be considered as an individual animal. If that is correct them we could look at our town, city or polis as a type of consciousness also. Both are, according to Bruno Latour and other actor/network theorists, actants…forces that interacts with the world forming strategies to survive and reproduce. When I look into a hive, I’m looking the same type of organization as the society that I live in with the same kinds of division of labor, the same issues of survival that the humanity struggles with everyday. A bee does not struggle to see the consciousness of the collective, but I struggle to see the consciousness of this thing called humanity. When I look into a hive, I can catch a glimpse of the shared consciousness of both.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mite Wars II

There is really nothing like natural selection when it comes to solving problems. I just read a post from Bush Farms about using smaller sized comb to combat the varroa destructor and tracheal mites. His solution is to use smaller cell frames. This is an easily tested hypothesis that I’m going to pay close attention to. The idea is that smaller cells prevent the mites from getting out of hand in the hive. Sounds logical but we are going to have to use Karl Popper to prove if this is the case. Bush also has a great site with lots of other information about beekeeping. I would love to see a paper proving the hypothesis. If it is the case that smaller cells are the answer then we can abandon the whole chemical arms race. That would be good for the environment and good for us.

Bush also offers some excellent advice to beginning beekeepers. Obviously he is a master beekeeper. I know that he posts a lot on and he can be contacted at

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mite Wars

One of the most interesting threats to bees and beekeeping in general is the dreaded Varroa destructor. The origin of this species is under dispute. Wikipedia has an interesting article that highlights the difficulty of finding out how this parasite got so well established.

Varroa destructor was until recently thought to be a closely related mite species called Varroa jacobsoni. Both species parasitize the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. The mite species originally described as V. jacobsoni by Oudemans in 1904 is part of the same species complex, but not the same species that made the jump to Apis mellifera. That jump probably first took place in the Philippines in the early 1960’s. Only after Apis mellifera were imported to the Philippines, it came into close contact with Apis cerana. Varroa as a parasite of Apis cerana, also became a parasite of Apis mellifera. Up until 2000, scientists did not positively identify Varroa destructor as a separate species. In 2005, we know that the only varroa mites that can reproduce in colonies of Apis mellifera (Western honeybee) are the Korea and Japan/Thailand genotypes of Varroa destructor. Varroa jacobsoni is a fairly benign parasite of Apis cerana. This late identification in 2000 by Anderson and Trueman led to some confusion and mislabeling in the scientific literature.

The mite is with us. However, like all paracites it does not want to kill its host, but rather use it as an energy source for its own reproductive cycle. The best parasites exist in a balance with the host and sometimes even make it stronger. Varroa destructor is clearly decimating beekeeping, but some beekeepers are using specialized breeding programs to create bees that can co-exist with the mite or at least keep it undercontrol. One of the nucs that Michael and I are buying comes from Kirk Webster at Champlain Valley Bees & Queens. Mr. Webster is so popular that he does not even need a website and his queens and breeding program are very popular. Mike and I just got notification that we will be picking up an eight frame nuc for $150. He told me on the phone that his hives have been chemical free for several years and is selecting for hardiness and hygiene. Helping along natural selection with special breeding programs is our only hope of avoiding a chemical treatments that will eventually be toxic to bees and humans.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

More news!

Hello everyone, it's another snowy day here in Vermont, and I'm writing to all of you from the snug confines of my lab at school. The rats are about to go into the operant chambers, but for now are comfortably stashed in their home cages, awaiting my reappearance.

You may have noticed a few new things on the site! At the very bottom of the page I've put in a hit counter and a link to the beemaster's webring, of which we are now a part. Unfortunately, when I put in the counter it had to start over from zero, so it has only counted the hits from a few days ago to present. There is also a site meter at the bottom of the page, which Rob put in. Pretty cool. I think we're starting to get the hang of this stuff.

I've also learned to wrap text around our pictures, with the help of our friend Toni, of CityBees. The HTML is a new thing for me, so if for some reason the formatting is a little off in any of my posts, bear with me, and rest assured I'm fixing it. There is a lot of stuff we will be adding soon - hopefully more links to great sites, friends of ours, and our favorite resources that will hopefully interest a great deal of yall. In addition, we promise pictures so that you won't get bored. Pictures, everyone!

So, on to the breaking news.

A while back we got the nuc receipts in the mail from the gentleman selling us the 2 colonies of Carnolians. The instructions on getting to his house, what to do with pickup, etc. were very clear, but the date for the bees arrival was not specified. Well as it turns out, when I called the apiary a few days ago, they aren't expecting to get them back (they were overwintering in South Carolina, my old stomping grounds!) for another few weeks, and THEN they are guessing on when the Vermont inspector is going to come by to check everything out before we get them. As it stands, they are predicting the first 2 weeks of May. MAY?!?!?! Foiled again!

Better news is here though. Rob got a call from another local who had wait-listed us for a nuc of Russians. I am very excited to try these bees, as I have heard many good things about them, and I am only really used to the Italians. Rob put us in an order for the Russkies in addition to the Carni's. So, at the moment we are currently looking at three hives - 2 Carnolians (one will be placed on his parents' property), and one Russian. In the backyard will be a Carnolian and the Russian. Now we don't have to requeen to get Russian stock! It will be interesting to compare the two subspecies this summer, and getting nucs rather than packages means the girls are already jumpstarted for production. Now, if we can just get them on the property (and get rid of this blasted snow).

hives The hives are fully assembled and sitting in Rob's basement, awaiting the arrival of our bees. Rob's mom has offered to pay for the third hive's equipment, since we will be putting one of the Carni nucs on his parents' property. Seeing as how we will now apparently be getting the bees a little later than expected, we'll have a little bit of time to order and put together the parts to the third hive as well. Unfortunately this means we'll have to drive over to their place to check on our bees, but luckily they live pretty close and everyone is enthusiastic about having them over there. We'd just rather not overload the backyard (or ourselves!) with bees until we see how this first season goes. Three hives is plenty for the first year. But the Russians were a necessity!

windowThe low hive table has been built and is situated here beneath the bay window of the guest house. It's a good location - dappled light, facing the morning sun, near good water sources, faced away from the neighbors, and in a relatively discreet location. The grounded area you see in front of the wooden table is going to be seeded with nice looking herbs and ground cover, and flowering plants. We're still currently planning what plants to place here, so any advice would certainly be welcome in the meantime! We're also going to extend the gutter so that rain/snow doesn't constantly splash onto the hives, and we're debating commissioning a friend to build some removable sloped snow roofs for the hives' outer covers before winter rolls around again.

The house is also situated .25 a mile from the University of Vermont organic orchards (apples!), and right next to the Vermont Commons school, just a brief skip down the street from the backyard. Prime real estate for foraging!

We're hoping our bees will get here before the apple flow stops, though we certainly aren't worried that they'll encounter any foraging problems. But would sure help get them started!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Meet Your Beeks

Although it is true that many of you visiting this site are close family and personal friends of ours, we realize that the greatest amount of traffic that has been pulsing through here is actually comprised of people that have no clue who we actually are apart from the disjointed scrawlings that we have been haphazardly flinging onto the site in these recent weeks. While it is true that Rob and myself cannot divulge too much information about our convoluted and mysterious alter egos without jeopardizing the safety of all of you, we have decided nonetheless to afford the curious a small peek into our respective lives. We hope you enjoy.

Image hosting by PhotobucketRob was born in Burlington, Vermont and spent his childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. He graduated from Holderness School in Plymouth, NH where he played varsity football and prep lacrosse, but was very interested in drama and had a leading role in many of the school plays. He attended Middlebury College and pledged DKE and was a member of the Dissipated 8, an a cappella singing group.

After graduating from Middlebury, Rob traveled to Thailand where he studied at Wat Pra Nanchut in Ubon Rathathani. While there Rob traveled into the Mekong River Basin visiting several Cave Monasteries. Following his journeys in Thailand, he traveled to Bali, Indonesia where he studied the Hindu/Buddhist cultures that formed the basis of his undergraduate thesis on religion and its impact on trade and economics. After touring Europe, Rob returned home and enrolled at the Yale Divinity School. After a semester there, he realized that the priesthood was not for him, and secured a position in Quito, Ecuador at Colegio Americano as teacher in their International Baccalaureate Program. After two years there, he returned home, studied at the University of Chicago before teaching at Champlain College.

During his time in Ecuador, Rob met Leah Mital and they were later married in New Mexico. Together they approached Bob [Skiff, his father] with the idea of starting a private school. Following several years of considerable planning, the school opened in the fall of 1996 with 35 students. At school he can be found reading some obscure book on philosophy, trading computer gaming tips with students, working on developing his understanding of System
Dynamics or taking care of his sons Austin and Anjay.

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The Skiffs relaxing at home.

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Michael is a dirty graduate student studying animal learning at the University of Vermont. On more days than not, he can be found slaving away in the dank, desolate recesses of upper John Dewey Hall - training rats to press bars in the wee hours of the morning so that he can ultimately use the animals to take over the world when his time comes.

In spring of 2005, Michael graduated from
Furman University with a bachelor's degree in Psychology. In the summer of 2004, Michael conducted a number of experiments in which he looked at how honeybees learn olfactory associations, and how the bees employ instrumental behavior in the presence of particular odor cues. It was at this time that the beekeeping professor that he was working with indoctrinated Michael into the world of beekeeping, and set him up with his first couple of hives. He was immediately hooked.

Image hosting by PhotobucketMichael's interests include animal behavior, mandolin, bluegrass music, snowboarding, beer, and of course, beekeeping. He lives with his golden retriever, Adeline, in an undisclosed bunker nestled deep beneath the frigid foothills of the Green Mountains.

We hope all of you will continue to check in us - we're the coolest guys on the net. Besides, what else are you going to look at, anyway?

Rob & Mike.

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