Brian’s Bees

Is there anything more special than friends who share a passionate interest? George’s friend Brian is a twofer – they first met and bonded over their common love of orchids, spiced with a shared cynical smart sense of humor. More lately, Brian discovered that he wanted to keep bees. He had a beautiful hive all ready and waiting for some honeybees to move in, so when George and our friend Alan rescued a swarm, there was no question that they were meant to be Brian’s bees. The swarm settled on a tree limb just above a garden shed.

Honeybee swarm in a tree

George and Alan clambered onto the shed. I held the ladder and worried that they’d fall through the roof (they didn’t). When bees are swarming they’re very calm, so George easily brushed most of them into a box. The critical thing is to try to get the queen. If you do, the rest will follow her, because their main imperative is to protect her.

Catching the swarm

As you’d expect from an orchid and nature lover, Brian has an amazing garden. Here’s George delivering the bees to their new home.

Bee hive

The bees quickly realized they had arrived at nectar heaven. The workers happily began to forage, build comb and make honey, and the queen zealously performed her queenly duties and began laying brood. We went back to do a hive inspection, and this is what we found:

Worker and queen honeybees

That’s her majesty, surrounded and protected by workers. She’s much larger than the other bees, and is a gorgeous deep golden color. Here’s more of a closeup photograph.

Queen bee

Much of the white you can see filling the comb is larvae or brood. As George finished the inspection, I walked around the garden to see what the workers were up to. They favored a magnificent Spanish Lavender plant.

Honeybee on Spanish Lavender

The intoxicatingly fragrant orange tree was another favorite.

Honeybee on orange flower

We even got a bit of honey from some extra comb the bees had built on the lid of the hive, so Brian could taste his bees’ honey. Your own bees’ honey is always the sweetest. And here’s to honey and friendship, ever sweetly intertwined.

Advertisements

You call this February?

Is the wonderful weather we’re having in the Bay Area right now supposed to be consolation for our miserable, cold summer? What were we calling July 2011 — Jul-uary, or something clever like that. Well I guess this is Febru-ly? Febru-gust? Okay, so I’m not so great with the slogans. But anyway, it’s February 2nd, and this is the ornamental plum tree in our front garden.

Ornamental plum tree in bloom

As you approach, it sounds like the whole tree is buzzing. It’s covered with bees.

Honeybee on an ornamental plum tree flower

These trees bloom gloriously for a brief time, usually later in the season, but the first rain strips the pink ruffles away and they’re bare for most of the year. If a strong wind hits, the blooms swirl off the tree and it looks like a fantastical pink rainstorm. But oh my, other than the beauty and the buzz, look what will come from the marriage of the blooms and the bees:

Honeycomb

The Great Bee Count of 2011

Honeybee on lavender flower

Honeybee on lavender flower

The day has arrived – so go out to your yards and gardens and begin …. counting bees!  The Great Sunflower Project  was launched in 2008 to get information about urban, suburban and rural bee populations.  The Project also wanted to educate people about what was happening with the bees in their back yards, and to remind us of how important bees are — their motto is: “Bees: Responsible for Every Third Bite of Food.”   So they got people all over the world to observe their bees on Lemon Queen sunflowers, because sunflowers are relatively easy to grow and a great resource for bees. They expanded the list of plants, including bee balm, cosmos, rosemary, tickseed, goldenrod and purple coneflower.  But even if you don’t have any of those plants in your garden (yet — lots of time to prepare for next year!) you can still count.  The bees that come to our garden love the lavender, and I had a blast earlier this week taking photos of them.

Bumble bee on soap plant flower

Bumble bee on soap plant flower

The bumble bees also love the soap plant flowers (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), tiny, spiky flowers that bloom only in the evening. The flowers are only about an inch around, so watching the relatively large bumble bees (compared to honeybees) grab onto the delicate flowers, making them bounce and wave, is very entertaining.


The steps to participate in the Project are listed on their site, with links.  All you have to do:  sign up and plant your sunflower (or other plant); describe your garden; watch the plant for 15 minutes and enter the data online. With colony collapse disorder, pesticides, and other threats to the hardest-working pollinators, every little bit helps —

Even if you don’t have any of the listed plants yet, why not go outside and do the count anyway? It would be a good baseline to compare with the number you get next year, when you’ve filled your garden with plants to help the bees.  And let me know what you find!

Vanilla orchids by George

Did you know that vanilla (the real kind, not imitation) comes from an orchid flower?

Vanilla orchid flower

Vanilla orchid flower

My amazing husband George grows vanilla orchids, cultivates vanilla beans from the flowers, and makes extract from the beans! I’m going to track the steps, beginning with the orchid flowering, through pollination and cultivation of the beans.  I’ll add photos along the way, since the entire process takes more than a year (and you wondered why real vanilla costs so much) …

The vanilla orchid grows on a vine.  It helps to have a lot of space, but George set up a trellis, so the vine winds up and down and around.  Here’s a photo of George’s helper, Lars, watching the vanilla grow..

The first step of the process: the flower.

This is one of the flower buds, as yet unopened. You can see a drop of nectar – so sweet! I’m not sure what the purpose of the nectar is, some think it may be there to attract ants, which would protect the flower.

This is one of the flower spikes on the vanilla plant. There are five separate flower buds, unopened, on this one spike. There are at least four other flower spikes on the plant.  Finally, one of the flowers opened!

Unlike many other orchids which have flowers that can last for a month or more, each vanilla flower only blooms for one day.  If you want to cultivate the vanilla, you have to pollinate the flower before it fades.  The natural pollinator isn’t present in most places, so it’s usually necessary to hand-pollinate vanilla.  It’s not easy to do, but George has a really good success rate.  He takes a wooden stick and transfers pollen from one part of the flower to another (the anther to the stigma).

Hand pollinating the vanilla flower

Hand pollinating the vanilla flower

This is the flower, immediately after pollination.  You can see the other unopened flower buds on the spike.

After a short time, the flower collapses.

Stay tuned for more … next, the flowers that were successfully pollinated will develop into beans ..  If you want to learn more, there’s a great wikipedia entry on vanilla.

Blooms and bees

My husband and I have a running joke – when the weather’s bad, we’ll look at each other and say plaintively: “When will it be April?”  Well, guess what George – we survived the rain, hail and cold … it’s April!  And here are some of the treats that April has brought…

Wisteria flowers blooming

Wisteria flowers blooming

Ahhhh … the wisteria tree is blooming in the back garden … one of my all-time favorite flowers.  Too bad you can’t smell it – it has a delicious light scent to go along with that incredible color.

Pterostylis orchid

Pterostylis orchid

You know George is an orchid wizard.  This is one of many orchids he has blooming right now, a Pterostylis.  The flower is small, a bit more than a half inch.

Laelia anceps orchid

Laelia anceps orchid

Another orchid — this one’s a Laelia Anceps, much larger than the Pterostylis, it has multiple flowers on long stalks.

Honeybee

Honeybee

April is good to the hardworking pollinators.   They’re usually so busy flying around that it’s hard to get a good closeup photograph of them, but I managed to get one shot of her when she landed for a moment on my leg.

Honeybee with pollen

Honeybee with pollen

Here’s one laden with pollen!  Got to get out to the garden now to see what else is blooming.  What’s happening in your garden? Let us know in the comments!