Three, Then Two

I last posted about my honeybee hives in April, describing with awe the drama of a  swarm out of, and then back in to, Buzz.  That event morphed into several months of beekeepers’ head-scratching and eventual realization that something wonky happened in Buzz and that our remedies to fix the wonk proved futile.  Rest assured that Scar, one of our original (Warre) hives, and Woody, our newer (Langstroth) hive,  have enjoyed success this 2017:  queens producing plenty of brood and workers creating generous amounts of comb and honey.

But it’s been a mixed-bag 2017 for our backyard honeybees.

Pollen covered honeybee on Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala).

At the beginning of spring, Buzz was queen right  (meaning that she had a healthy queen), but by April, we saw no brood, which means the queen isn’t laying eggs, which means that the hive is no longer queen right. We requeened Buzz–twice, in fact–but the hive continued broodless, and without brood, there is no new generation of honeybees to carry on the tasks of the hive.  One long-time beekeeper suggested that perhaps Buzz had developed laying workers, which happens when a hive is queenless for a period of time.  Worker bees can lay eggs, but the eggs aren’t fertilized, so no larvae develop, and when there are no new larvae, there are no new adult bees.

Honeybees need their queens.

Laying workers are a particularly difficult problem in a hive and what I learned indicated that once that situation is in play, there’s little a beekeeper can do–the bees will continue killing any introduced “real” queen, and laying workers don’t produce fertilized brood, so the stage is set for a dying hive.

By late June, we accepted that Buzz was done; the gals would live out their lives and the hive would die.  It was a sad conclusion, but we did what we could for Buzz in re-queening and were out of options.  We went about our summer life and should have checked the hive in late July or early August for any problems, but didn’t:  some travel, some stormy weekends, and some laziness all conspired to delay our beekeepers’ responsiblity of checking the hive during that period.  In late August, we finally checked Buzz and horror met us:  Buzz was crawling with the foul and disgusting adults and larvae of the Wax Moth, Achroia grisella.  The comb was riddled with creepy-crawlies, nasty frass, and blackened, mutilated comb.   There were only about a dozen bees remaining in Buzz; the lassies had no comb, pollen, or honey stores left undamaged by the moths and their offspring. We were so appalled at the sight that we immediately and completely dismantled the hive, packaging the frames in plastic trash bags for disposal and undertaking a (somewhat) cathartic wax moth/wax moth larvae killing spree.

Wax Moths are an invasive insect which do great damage to a hive, but are usually only a problem if the hive is weak.

Yup, that pretty much describes Buzz.

Poor, poor Buzz.  I guess we should have attempted to dump some of Buzz’s honeybees into Woody earlier in the summer, but we didn’t.  Up until that last few weeks, we were checking Buzz regularly and while it was clear that there were fewer and fewer bees at each check, Buzz was buzzing.  Apparently, the moths moved in during the August checking dearth, and in short order, totally devastated Buzz.

We worked intensely to rid the hideous invaders from the hive and there was no time for photos of the mess that became Buzz’s innards. The larvae, moths and resulting hive damage was gross–really gross–so we worked quickly to get the job done.  If you want a peek-n-read about this nasty-to-honeybees critter, check out this article from Texas Apiary Inspection Service.

Buzz now sits, forlorn and alone.

I moved the empty Buzz away from Scar and Woody. I didn’t want Buzz’s cooties near the other two hives. There’s nothing scientific about this, just my weirdness.

What’s left is a bit of Wax Moth webbing decorated by larval frass (poop, for the uninitiated).

The inside of the hive is downright pristine, compared to what it was when we discovered the wax moths, larvae and resulting damage.

I need to clean Buzz (vigorous scrubbing with chlorine, water, and a brush should do the trick), and once that’s done, she’ll be ready to host and house another package of honeybees with a young and healthy queen; that’s on tap for mid-April.

As for the other two hives, the news is much better.  Scar–who we thought was a queenless hive at the beginning of 2017–not only had a queen but a wildly, massively egg-laying queen!  Every time we’ve check Scar, fresh brood and loads honey met with our inspections.  During summer, we took 8 full top-bars of honey, yielding a gallon and a half of honey.

Yum!  After crushing the comb and dripping the honey into jars, I always set out the crushed comb for the bees’ slurping pleasure.  There’s plenty of  honey that I can’t get to and I don’t want it wasted.  The honeybees should have it as because they’re the heroines of honey.

Anything with the goo of honey is fair game to lay out for the bees!

The honeybee version of Black Friday!

It doesn’t take long for honeybees to strip the comb of any available, edible honey, leaving dry comb which I dump into the compost bin.

By late afternoon, the comb is dry, the honey is gone.

 

This year we’ve kept our promise to be vigilant varroa mite inspectors and undertook four varroa checks in all three hives.

After shaking a half-cup of guinea-pig honeybees with powdered sugar, we pour them back into their hive, where, due to their sugary coating,  they become everyone’s BFFs.

Scar won the prize for most varroa mites.

Varroa mites are tiny, oval, and red-brown in color. The powdered sugar on the bees, combined with the shaking of  the bottle, sloughs off any varroa attached to bees. We shake the sugar onto a white plate, spritz with water, and count varroa mites.

Even so, there were not enough varroa in any hive check (there must be over 3% varroa found per total population of bees–yes, some math is involved here…),  to require treatment, which is definitely a win for the honeybees and their keepers.

The honeys (and occasional buddies) enjoyed leftover powdered sugar!

A paper wasp joins with the honeybees in nibbling spilled powdered sugar.

 

The honeybees have had a busy year.  What have they done in their spare moments when not tending brood and  producing comb and honey?  Performance art, of course!

Silly honeybees!

So closes our fourth full year of keeping–and learning about–honeybees.  We remain entranced with them, marveling at their work ethic and swooning at their honey. We confess an affection for them (even when we get stung!) and an appreciation for their life cycle and place in our eco-system.

 

Honeybee on a Plateau goldeneye (Viguiera dentata).

I’m grateful for their year-round work and partnership with me in the garden.

Honeybee on Gulf penstemon (Penstemon tenuis).

 

Winter-ish

For my northern North American brethren and European gardening allies, prepare to snicker, guffaw, and roll your eyes as I gush about SNOW!!

 

Yes, we had snow last night–the first snowfall here in Austin in 13 years and just over an inch fell.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica) with actual frost…

and a closer look.

 

I hadn’t  tuned to the weather and didn’t realize that the we may get a few snow flurries forecast was something to actually pay attention to–until those flurries started just after sundown.

Tropical, but Austin hardy, Firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) in winter garb.

Century plant (Agave americana) and Drummond’s ruellia (Ruellia drummondiana).

Ruellia ‘Chi Chi’ and Giant liriope glow in white

More ‘Chi Chi’

Looking like an icy Cousin It, is this Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima).

 

But here it is!

The back corner with plenty of snowy highlights.

 

We used to get snow, roughly every other year, but in recent decades, when winter precipitation occurs, it comes in the form of ice storms, which are no fun for anyone.

Chili pequin (Capsicum annuum)–fruits and all are covered.

 

But snow?  Well, that’s fun for us!

Potted Ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguanyense)…

and a closer look.

 

It’ll be interesting to observe whether the bloomers still blooming will slough off this brush of snow and light freeze.

Forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis) is a Mexican mountain plant, but rarely sees snow.  It’ll return from its roots, but the blooms might be done for the year.

 

Our temperatures hovered at freezing, so this was not a hard freeze, but just enough to keep the snow for some morning photos.  The nighttime snow show was quite lovely, the morning snow a bit more lame.

Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) will also be fine with the cold and often  flowers in winter.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with a dusting of the white stuff.  Some branches and blooms of Firecracker plant photobomb the Coneflowers.

The peppers of Chili pequin pop  from the snow and compete for this December beauty contest.

Morning Mexican feathergrass

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a beautiful and evergreen groundcover, rendered more attractive with snowy decorations.

Purple heart (Setcreasea pallida) might be done for the year as it doesn’t care for cold. It will return in full force with warmer temperatures.

Snowy seed pod of the Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)

Still, the light blanket of snow is pretty.

Snow lingers, but the Texas sun will take care of that as the day moves forward.

It’s a Wrap: December Wildlife Wednesday

As we enter the last month of the year and I prepare for a Texas winter (such that it is), I welcome you to December Wildlife Wednesday, the final installment for 2017 of watching wonderful–sometime wacky–wildlife!  Wild critters in my garden are busy with their lives and are also providing entertainment and learning experiences for me.  I trust your garden has been graced with some wild happenings as well.

Winter Texans of the avian sort are settled in, having migrated from their breeding grounds in northern North America.  These various songbirds will spend the next 4-6 months of relatively mild weather eating their fill of available berries, seeds, insects, and suet in preparation for the arduous migration back to the places where they raise families.  These–and all birds–will be easier to spot once my deciduous plants shrug-off their foliage garb (leaving said foliage unceremoniously on the ground for me to pick up) and while that process has begun, it’s at least a month away before bare-n-naked trees will allow for better bird viewing.

This Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula, is one of a pair visiting my back garden daily.

The ruby  streak on top of the head isn’t visible; this one could be a female.

I’ve only spotted the female at the suet feeder, but I’m sure the male pops on for a nosh, too–but, so far, not when I’m looking.  I eagerly await a glimpse of ruby-red in the garden which flashes when defending territory or charming Ruby-crowned Kinglet gals.

 

An Orange-crown warblerOreothlypis celata, frequently partakes of suet.

Easier to spot on the feeder, I prefer to watch them work through the garden, rapidly moving from limb to limb, and shrub to shrub, snipping insects as they go–but it’s challenging keep up with their speed-feeding movements.  Less colorful than some of the other songbirds, these little ones are elegant and with charm to spare.  I think there are two Orange-crowns in the garden, but haven’t definitively confirmed that.

For weeks, I observed one or two Eastern Phoebe flycatchersSayornis phoebe, but was either too slow with the camera, or didn’t have it at hand.  One morning on my way out, I saw this beauty through my bedroom window.

Catch me if you can!

I sprinted to where my camera awaited assignment, grabbed and prepared it for the shots as I hurried back to the window.  Success!

I’m waiting patiently for you to get your shots, lady! (claws tapping)

I didn’t dare step outside, as these birds have my blundering number and always take flight as soon as I make an appearance.  Interestingly, I haven’t seen the phoebes since these photos, so I hope my paparazzi-like behavior didn’t scare them off.   According to All About Birds, these flycatchers are year-round residents in some parts of Central Texas, though they are new to me.  Their wintering grounds span West, East and South Texas and southward through Mexico.

 

The local bird characters provide a show as they go about their daily business.  A bathing Blue JayCyanocitta cristata, always elicits a grin.

 

It’s a toss-up whether this Carolina ChickadeePoecile carolinensis,

 

…or this Carolina WrenThryothorus ludovicianus, wins the cute bird-of-the-month prize.

Shall we have a vote?

This wren is certainly laser-focused on something  worth investigating.

 

A male Red-bellied WoodpeckerMelanerpes carolinus, loves the suet I provide once the temperatures are reliably cool.

A female Red-belly also visits; I assume they’re mates, but don’t know where their nest is located.

 

Not in my back garden, but I spotted this gorgeous Great Blue HeronArdea herodias, resting in my neighbor’s tree late one afternoon.

I see Great Blues fly over my neighborhood throughout the year, as they keep a keen eye on the urban creeks which spiderweb through Austin.  In my own garden, they pop in mid-to-late spring after I’ve pruned the pond lilies, which frees-up access to available fish.   For a month or so, the poor little fish are vulnerable because they have fewer foliaged places to hide and the herons know that when lily pads are limited, they’re ‘shooting’ fish in a barrel!   I was pleased to see this handsome heron, though it loped off as I gawked in admiration.

 

The state bird of Texas is the Northern MockingbirdMimus polyglottos.  I’ve seen this one, perched silently and un-singing, on the back fence.

A contemplative bird.

 

On Thanksgiving morning I was sipping coffee and perusing the local newspaper at my kitchen table.  From where I sat, there is a clear view to the back garden and  I looked up just as a large, fast bird streaked across my line of vision.  Recognizing a hawk in hot pursuit, I snatched my camera and caught this just-landed Red-tailed HawkButeo jamaincensis, in a neighbor’s tree.

Wow!  This bird was huge, so I’m guessing she’s a female and probably disgruntled at the lack of her own Thanksgiving feast.  Dove with cranberry sauce, anyone??  As I snapped a few shots, a Blue Jay was harassing her, so she took wing, landing on another tree further away.

Ms. Red-tailed refused to turn around and acknowledge my presence.

She perched there for a long time, probably re-thinking her strategy for snagging a meal.  There are a variety of smaller raptors in my neighborhood:  this autumn I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk and a Sharp-shinned hawk–but I think this is the first time that a Red-tailed has wooshed through the back garden.

 

The birds are active, but they’re not the only winged-things around.  There have been plenty of butterflies, moths, and honeybees, though the native bees have gone to sleep for the season.  The cheery, yellow Southern DogfaceZerene cesonia, is a common autumn butterfly here, but always so flighty that I rarely catch a good photo–until recently!

Woot!  Nectaring on the autumn crop of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea,  this one shares the bounty with an equally busy Southern Broken-DashWallengrenia otho.

The orange-brown on the wings is plenty attractive, but the Southern Broken-Dash also shows a beautiful, iridescent blue-green on the upper side of its thorax.

Nectaring at a Purple coneflower.

Sunning on the foliage of the Shrubby Blue sage.

 

That same afternoon, this Clouded SkipperLerema accius, also vied for attention.

I’ve been amazed and quite pleased at the numbers of small skippers and even larger butterflies in my garden this past month, though I’ve mostly appreciated their beauty  and not rushed to get photos.  Keep up the good work, pollinators!

 

It’s not all about desirables in the garden though.  I thought I’d attempt attracting Eastern Blue Birds–or something equally fascinating–by leaving dried mealworms (yuk to me, but some birds totally dig them), but all I’ve managed to attract is this critter.

A drooling Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Grrrr.  As well, I suspect her in the crime of squatting in the Eastern Screech Owl house.  Everytime we open up the house to make it available for house-hunting owls, the camera shows a snoozing, or sometimes bathing, opossum.

We wait until nightfall, let her vacate her comfy digs (opossums are mostly active after dark) then trundle up the ladder to (again!) close the door on the hole of the house for another week or so in hopes of discouraging her.  Once we reopen the door for owls looking for a home, invariably, within a day or so, Ms. Opossum snuggles back in.

It’s a drag being outsmarted by an opossum!

She enjoyed the mealworms, but I’ve removed them from the bird buffet menu.  She’ll just have to get her worms like the other opossums–by digging in my garden!

I don’t mind opossums (I keep telling myself), but this one is persistent and just won’t vacate the premises.

Check out her climbing claws. She may not be fast, but she’s adept.

Soon, the neighborhood owls will be courting-n-sparking and they’ll want that cozy box for their babies–you know, the one that we built for THEM!

Celebrating lots of life in the garden for Wildlife Wednesday, I hope your garden is full of wildlife happenings and reaping autumn bounty. Please share your wildlife stories for this past month and remember to leave your link when you comment.

Good wildlife gardening to you!