Live from the Hive: June 2016

Swarm in a tree

Honey bee swarm, May 20, 2016

“The Magic of the Swarm” by Annie Watson

It’s bee swarm season. Our photo this month is of a swarm which has left its hive and is temporarily clustered on our birch tree – site of many swarms over the years.

Swarming is the bees’ natural way to reproduce the colony. In the spring when the honey flow is on, in a healthy hive the queen is laying up to 2,000 eggs a day. The numbers of bees increase very quickly – 21 days after an egg is laid it is an adult bee. Although there are many reasons a colony may swarm, usually it is because they have run out of room. There are no more empty cells for the queen to lay eggs in, because all the cells are full of either nectar or eggs. The queen takes off with about half the colony to find a new home, leaving the remaining bees to raise a new queen. Beekeepers try to artificially divide the colony before it swarms, so that they won’t lose the bees — but many times, this happens regardless of their best efforts.

There’s something magical about a swarm of honey bees. If you have the good fortune to witness the moment when the swarm leaves the hive, you are truly blessed. It starts with many bees clustered on the outside of the hive. All of a sudden the entire cluster is airborne. The air is filled with thousands of bees flying around and around in circles, the atmosphere alive with the humming of their wings. I have lain down on my back in the grass to watch this incredible phenomenon.

Bees are not aggressive when they are swarming. They have filled up on honey to sustain them until they are in a new home, and also they do not have a hive to defend.

Once the bees have left the hive, usually they find a spot to cluster while scouts go out to locate a new home. There’s a birch tree in my yard which has been the temporary resting place for many a swarm over the years. Once the swarm’s in the tree, out go the scout bees to locate a suitable new home. Until the colony decides where to go, the bees literally hang out in the tree. At the center of the cluster is the queen. They stay a few minutes or a few hours, less often overnight. Then suddenly they take to the air again and as a group, fly off – unless the beekeeper has shaken them into an empty beehive in the hopes that they will take to it.

If you see a swarm on a building, a car, or in a tree, don’t panic! Call your local beekeeping group to find a beekeeper who’s willing to come get it. Enjoy the magnificence of this phenomenon.


Live from the Hive May 2016

Apple blossom

Apple blossom

“Bees and Blossoms” by Annie Watson

May is the month when many fruit shrubs and trees bloom, including the apple. Heavenly apple blossoms! Their beauty and delicate fragrance are a lovely treat for our senses at the end of winter.

For an apple blossom to set fruit, the pollen from the flowers on an apple tree must be transferred to the flowers on a different tree. Pollen grains are transferred from the anthers (the large pale yellow part of the flower’s center) to the stigma, which is sticky and catches the grains of pollen. Honey bees are great pollinators of apple trees When a bee collects pollen to take back to the hive, some of the pollen grains stick to her fuzzy abdomen. This is then transferred to the next flower the bee visits, or to another bee in the hive, who might visit a different tree and thus transfer the pollen.

The Champlain Valley in Vermont used to be a place where there were acres and acres of apple trees, and honey bees to pollinate them. Then huge apple farms in the midwest as well as imported apples threatened the survival of orchards in the Valley. Thankfully, with the dedication of orchardists and the interest in local food supplies, as well as a growing interest in backyard beekeeping, we now have plenty of new and historic apple orchards in the state, many of them organic — and, we hope, bees to pollinate them and produce honey.

For more about apple blossoms and bees go to the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association at and the Vermont Beekeepers Association’s “Vermont Honey Story.”

Live From the Hive: April 2016

Bees flying and bringing in pollen

Left: Bees enjoying the warm spring air. Right: Worker bees bring pollen back to the hive. You can see the yellow pollen balls on the 2 bees at left. The wire is a mouse guard, about to be removed.

“First Pollen on a Warm Day” by Annie Watson

We are excited to see that our beehive made it through the winter and looks strong. It’s 66 degrees here in the Champlain Valley on this early April morning, and the bees are bringing huge loads of pale yellow pollen into the hive. I’m not sure from what flowers the pollen’s coming — willow, probably.

With such an early spring this could be a great year for the bees and for honey. However we have to wait and see how things such as the amount of rainfall affect the colonies. If there’s abundant rain, more flowers bloom and give more nectar. Too much rain, and the bees can’t fly out to that nectar. With not enough rain there is a dearth of food. Then there are the temperatures. So, we shall see … We hope for lots of flowers and warm weather for the bees to make honey.

Warm days are a great time for beekeepers to check their hives and see if the bees need some extra honey. Typically April can have some cold snowy weather and we need to make sure the hives have enough food before the dandelion bloom.

Live from the hive: March 2016

A frame of finished honey with additional comb built by the bees

A frame of finished honey with additional comb built by the bees

“Magical healing with honey” by Ann D. Watson

Did you know that raw honey can be used to treat burns? In fact, studies have shown that it works better than silver sulfadiazene(SSD), the common medical treatment for severe burns.1 A much higher percentage of the wounds in patients treated with honey were sterile within 7 days, than those treated with SSD. The burns treated with honey also healed much faster and pain was less in those patients.

Honey has been used to treat burns and other injuries for a long time. Researchers in New Zealand are now studying the medicinal properties of honey. Apparently manuka honey has especially high antibacterial activity. For more on this see Dermnet NZ‘s article about honey.

1 Gupta, Shilpi Singh, et al., “Honey Dressing Versus Silver Sulfadiazene Dressing for Wound Healing in Burn Patients: A Retrospective Study,” Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery 4 (September–December 2011); image copy, NCBI ( : accessed 1 March 2016). Also, M. Subrahmanyam, “Topical Application of honey in treatment of burns (abstract),” British Journal of Surgery 78 (April 1991); abstract, ( : accessed 1 March 2016).

Live from the Hive: February 2016

beehive near a fence

A beehive is illuminated by the setting sun at the end of a winter day.

“Helping and Learning about the Bees” by Annie Watson

It’s a strange winter. As I write, it’s fifty degrees out. Most of the snow has melted, revealing still-green grass underneath. Rain forecasted for two days from now. A few bees are venturing outside the hive. On these warm days the bees can loosen their cluster and fly outside. They don’t put their waste inside the hive, so warmer days when they can make a short flight are welcome.

I want to tell you about some of the amazing natural beekeeping work people are doing around the country, and list a few ways to help and educate yourself.

Spikenard Farm is the Virginia sanctuary and education centercreated by biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk. If you are interested in beekeeping which respects the need for health and vitality of the bee, you can take a class there.

The New York Bee Sanctuary, a new organization, is building a wildlife sanctuary for honey bees and pollinators in New York State. Their web site has fantastic photographs.

Rodale Wellness has an article on “The 8 Best Plants for Bees,” if you would like to support pollinators in your garden. You don’t have to keep bees to do this. Now’s the time to plan for spring gardening!

Right here in Vermont, Ross Conrad will be teaching two Organic beekeeping classes this winter and spring . Find out more at the Addison County Beekeepers Association.

There will be a symposium on Vermont’s pollinators on March 17, 2016 at the ECHO center in Burlington, sponsored by a large group of organizations. Find out more here.

These listings are only a tiny sampling of what’s available if you want to learn more about bees and pollinators. Without them, we would have neither honey for our Caledonia Spirits, nor much of our food!

Enjoy February and give honey-sweetened chocolates for Valentine’s Day!

Live From the Hive: January 2016

“Snow” by Annie Watson

Beehive with snow

A beehive covered in snow, New Haven, Vermont.

Winter has set in; we’ve finally had a snow storm. Snow helps insulate the hive. After a heavy snowfall I go out and clear away the snow from the bottom board landing platform so the bees can get in and out. In many hives honeybees use the top entrance in winter, but one colony in my yard is using the bottom one. There’s no worry about air getting into the hive through the snow: it’s porous and easily allows air to get in. The heat emanating from the hive will melt the snow immediately close to the hive, creating a bit of an air space; snow buildup outside this immediate circle acts as a windbreak. On warm sunny days, honeybees take a “cleansing” flight outside and back near the hive.

Coming off of the celebrations of the winter holidays, we’re reminded of contribution of the bees: the tasty honey used in our Caledonia Spirits, as well as the pollination of our food.

Live from the hive: December 2015


“Winter Arrives” by Ann D. Watson

Honey bee on beehive

A worker bee rests on the side of her hive.

It finally got cold. 18 degrees here in the Champlain Valley this first morning in December. Winter is setting in, and now the bees face the challenge to endure through four long cold months here in Vermont. The queen stopped laying in October or November and the workers drove out the drones, who would only consume honey and not contribute anything. The colony has formed a tight cluster, inside of which the bees generate enough heat to keep the brood warm — at an amazing 93º F. During warmer spells, the cluster moves to new areas of honey-filled comb.

Honey is a wonderful Christmas gift that can go nicely with a bottle of Caledonia Spirits. You can purchase cases of raw honey right on our web site, or jars at one of our participating stores. May you enjoy a sweet and joyful holiday season!

Live from the Hive: November 2015

bees eating honey

Like guests around a table, bees feast on honey from some broken comb.

“Thanksgiving, Bees, and Pioneer Beekeepers” by Annie Watson

This month, our thoughts turn to the upcoming feast of Thanksgiving and our gratitude for delicious raw honey both for our table and to create our wonderful products.

In addition to providing raw honey for Caledonia Spirits, honey bees are critical to human existence because they pollinate 80% of our food. The health of the bees is a bellwether for the health of our human species. We’ve all heard and seen that they’re in trouble, and the scientific evidence is mounting that chemicals are threatening them on a large scale.

More and more beekeepers are choosing to stop using chemicals and raise bees treatment-free who are stronger than those raised in the conventional industrial manner. Two pioneers are Kirk Webster and Sam Comfort. Kirk works here in Vermont and gives workshops in the summer. Sam works in the Hudson Valley of New York. I encourage you to visit their web sites for some fascinating information. There is another way, and it’s heartening to see it demonstrated.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving we give thanks to the bees for all that they give us.

Live from the Hive: October 2015

Maple tree and top bar hive

A top bar beehive, sheltered by a Sugar Maple tree.

“October Observations” by Annie Watson

October marks the end of the nectar and pollen season. At September’s end, bees were still bringing in pollen from asters and lingering goldenrod, as well as some garden flowers — but soon those will be gone. The beekeeper has taken off the last of the honey and in October will make the rounds to insulate and wrap hives for winter. On a warm day last week I observed a number of dead yellow jacket wasps (not honey bees) outside of the beehive. They no doubt had tried to get in, perhaps to feast on brood or rob honey. Guard bees stung the intruders to dispatch them.

It’s getting colder at night, and we finally got some much-needed rain. A local beekeeper reported to me that the bees did pretty well despite the dry conditions. They made a lot of honey in July. I will soon pick up a bucket of untreated honey from him for my own winter stores.

We are so grateful for the bees. Without them we would not have enough food ourselves, for they are our major pollinators. May they have enough honey and dry hives to survive the coming winter.

Live From the Hive: September 2015

bees on Japanese Knotweed

Honey bees work Japanese Knotweed on a September afternoon.

“Japanese Knotweed” by Annie Watson

We tend to impart some kind of moral value to plants, based on our own perspective: when we like them we say they are “good”, and when we don’t, we say they are “bad”. Invasive plants are considered “bad” because they can have harmful effects on native plant habitat. In fact, many invasive plants have beneficial qualities, many of which are medicinal. They are just plants, carried to a new place by humans.

Japanese Knotweed (fallopia Japonica) is an invasive which greatly benefits the honey bees. In our area it blooms in late summer, when goldenrod is the only other abundant plant giving nectar and pollen for the bees. On a recent walk along the New Haven River in Addison County, I saw blooming knotweed covered with honey bees. At this time of year, when the bees are as busy as — well, bees — making honey for winter, this plant can make a big difference to a colony. The dark honey made from these flowers is said to taste somewhat like buckwheat honey. (In fact, it is in the same family —  Polygonaceae — as buckwheat.) Knotweed root is also used by herbalists to treat Lyme disease.
For more on medicinal properties of Knotweed, watch this video: