In the Garden:
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Where's the Queen? Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild members brought a hive for public viewing at the Wyck's Beyond the Buzz: Why Bees Matter festival in Philadelphia.

A Yummy, Flighty Partnership

This summer I've been gardening with a group of Italians. Two swarms, actually. Maybe 10,000 buzzing in and out of two hives behind the native bee balm, asters, and perennial sunflowers.

To my surprise and delight, we've been compatible partners. Ben, who owns and tends the hives, assured me that Italian bees are friendly, not aggressive. He's right. They are gentle and preoccupied. They go their own way, making a beeline back and forth from neighborhood flowering trees and shrubs to their hives. The worker bee's job is bringing nectar and pollen to the queen bee and the hive. Meanwhile, I go my way outside their flight paths, weeding and picking veggies and zinnias.

Thrice we've been up close and personal. Twice a honeybee's gotten tangled in my curls while I've picked cucumbers. Each time the bee buzzed louder and louder as I fluffed my hair and held my head down in hopes it would fall out. Both times the bee flew free before either of us was injured. A worker honeybee dies after it stings, so it's not seeking to make that contact. But, yes, after each brush up, I think, "Where IS my gardening hat?"

Last week, though, one stung me while I was pulling out asters blocking their landing pads. My fault. I was in the bee's beeline into the hive. Anything directly between a bee and its queen is fair game, I learned. Unfortunately that dead worker bee won't see the inside of its hive again. Its barbed stinger (ovipositor) is attached to its abdomen, which gets ripped away during a sting. I rushed off, shaking my stung hand while the honeybee bit the dust.

On a recent Saturday, the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild had a display hive on public view at the Wyck Historic House, Garden, and Farm in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. The festival, Beyond the Buzz: Why Bees Matter, had honey, of course, and other bee-related products, such as soaps, honeycomb, balms and salves, even beer, to sample and buy.

At the display hive, beekeepers Laura Chandler and Jeff Eckel chatted about the honeybees, a mix of Italian bees -- blonde with brown bands -- and darker Carnolian bees. They were busy coating the hive with propolis. That's plant resin honeybees collect to seal cracks in the hive.

This is a recovered swarm Eckel's keeps at Wyck. He'd removed it from private property near a city park. The homeowner noticed the noisy swarm of bees in her tree. She contacted Eckel, who's among several members listed on the beekeepers guild website who remove swarms from rafters, trees, and various structures where they gather and could be a nuisance. Bees swarm, that is they leave the hive en masse, when their queen dies, he explained.

This afternoon though, Chandler and Eckel encouraged visitors to look for the queen. She's bigger, with a larger abdomen than that of the drones and worker bees. Literally in this case, the queen is distinguished by a yellow spot Eckel applied. How? Best to ask him. The process of capturing and marking her sounded complicated and very delicate.

The queen bee is usually quite shy and likes to be in the dark, Chandler said. Here though, she was easy and fun to watch, climbing high and low around the honeycomb and other bees.

Hmm. Makes me wonder about the queens in my garden. I hope Ben shares the honey he's harvested soon.

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