The bee story, a sequel

Our beekeepers had been anxious about the queen-less hive. Another inspection revealed no sign of a fertile queen. Even the previous queen cells were gone. Without eggs or young larvae, the workers could not raise a new queen either. This was not good. Without a queen, the colony cannot exist.

Bee keepers have some tricks in their hat to revive a hive and help the unemployed bees, too. One of them goes like this: take eggs from a thriving hive and put them into the queen-less hive. The bees will then build a new queen cell, carefully move an egg into this cell and feed the larva with royal jelly. Also: move unemployed worker bees to a hive that can use their labor.

Last Sunday, Ray came back to do just that. This time, there were 5 of us helping, as we had to open both hives, check for frames with eggs and keep all bees from getting too upset by keeping the smoker going. Ray first opened the old “white” hive that currently doesn’t have a queen.

Opening the white hive

A frame full of honey

We found that, not surprisingly, these bees had not been lazy. Since there was no brood to take care of, they had made a huge amount of honey. In fact, almost all frames contained only cells that were filled with honey. The box was correspondingly heavy. It needed two people to lift it. A quick search on the internet reveals that bees must visit two million flowers and fly around 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey. This box contained many pounds of honey. Isn’t this totally amazing?

We were glad that our bees were so productive. But we would have been even happier, had we found larvae or eggs instead. These were present in our new “green” hive (along with several frames filled with the sugar water that we had fed them).

Brood cells: In the middle and bottom of the left photo, white larvae are visible inside of open cells. These larvae are still being fed. The other cells contain pupae and have been capped with wax. In the right photo, some larger cells with dome-caps can be seen on the edge of the frame. These have drones inside. Drones are bigger and twice as heavy as worker bees and need more space inside of their cell. A worker bee spends 9 days as larva and another 9 days as pupa. Queens develop a bit faster and drones take a bit longer.

Ray selected a couple of frames with a lot of eggs to move from the green hive to the white hive. We would then move an entire box with honey frames and workers from the white hive to the green hive to give these ladies something else to do.

This swapping of brood and workers has one problem, though: Bees are very loyal to their queen and defend their hive against intruders. To simply mix bees from two hives could result in a massacre, even if the bees come from the same hive initially, like ours. Therefore, we had to make sure to brush off the bees from the frames with eggs before placing them into the white hive. For adding the workers to the green hive, we resorted to a trick. Because hive recognition depends on scent, bees can get used to their new environment as long as this happens slowly. A sheet of newspaper placed between boxes containing two kinds of bees keeps them apart for a while until they are adapted and chew the barrier apart.

Preparing the green hive to receive a box with bees from the white hive. Excess wax has to be scraped off. The Sunday New York Times lies ready to serve as barrier between the boxes.

So this is what Ray did for our bees. He taped a page of the Sunday newspaper over the frames with the green-hive-bees and placed a box with bees and honey from the white hive on top. Then both hives were reassembled. It took the bees a while to calm down and go inside. The new bees on the green hive had an entrance on the top of the hive, as they were, for the time being, kept from using the bottom entrance. After another hour or so, they had reoriented themselves more or less. We now had to hope that the foreign bees were accepted into the green hive. Most of all, we were hoping that the new eggs in the white hive would be raised to become queens.

The first part worked quickly. By the end of the next day, some strange grey-green fuzz covered the ground under the hive. A close inspection revealed that this was the shredded New York Times. Also, all bees seemed to use the bottom entrance to the hive. A couple of days later, we opened the hive again to remove the paper. But the bees had done a very thorough job on their own. Every bit of newspaper in their reach was gone.

Shredded newspaper between leaves and some wax under the hive. The bees did a perfect job removing the foreign barrier.

It will be a while until we know whether the second aim of this operation also worked. It takes about 3 weeks until a new queen hatches and then, again, she needs to go on her mating flight and come back to the hive. Meanwhile, the workers in the white hive are bringing in more nectar every day. By the way: we got a chance to sample the honey. It tastes very floral and mild.

One of our ladies collects rose pollen

Update on our bees

As you know, our bees swarmed a little over a week ago. Thanks to East Village bee keeper Ray Sage, we were lucky to catch the swarm that day. A couple of days later, Ray came back with a proper hive. The weather favored us: it was cold and rainy. Ray and Sara gave the swarm some honey from our old hive and a tub full of sugar water. Now, they had not only a dry and cozy home but also enough food to keep the queen happy and start building cells. Who would want to leave under these conditions?

Sara and Ray with the new hive. The yellow container holds sugar water as food for the bees.

We watched the hives over the week. Our “newbees” finished several portions of the sugar water and also went out to collect nectar and pollen.

Last Sunday, our beekeepers decided to take a look inside the hives. They were curious what progress the swarm bees had made, and they wanted to know whether the old hive had a new queen yet.

Checking the hive

For this planned home-invasion, our bee keepers donned protective gear and started the smoker. It contains wet burlap, paper and dried herbs. This combination produces smoke that does not smell too terrible and calms the bees.

Smoke soothes the bees (photo: Joe O’Connell)

First, the old hive was looked into. It has three levels. The shorter top level holds frames where the bees are supposed to store honey. The two lower taller boxes were full with frames that contained cells with brood: bee larvae at different stages of development and pupae. There were also a number of queen cells. These are larger than regular cells and have the shape a peanut. The larvae inside of these cells are fed a lot of royal jelly every day, a special diet that causes them to develop into queens instead of worker bees.

A frame covered with bees (photo: Joe O’Connell)

Our bee keepers did not find eggs in the cells of the old hive. This is a sign that this hive currently does not have an adult queen. For the colony to survive, the workers need to rear a new queen. This queen has to fly away, mate with drones from a different hive and come back alive. Her early life is pretty dangerous until she is back home. Then however, she’ll be very well sheltered and taken care of around the clock and can live up to 4 years. This mating flight is a mysterious event. Drones congregate in certain places and queens somehow find these congregations. How this happens is still unknown, despite centuries of bee keeping and decades of honey bee research.

The bees are carefully brushed off to reveal the cells and their contents (photos: Joe O’Connell).

A look into the new hive showed encouraging activities: there were newly build cells and some of them contained eggs! Here, the queen was doing her royal duty and her workers were busy. No wonder, that they were drinking so much sugar water every day. They have to make a lot of wax to outfit their hive. When a bee is well fed, it is nice and warm in the hive (91 °F to 97 °F) and she senses the need for it, a worker bee secretes wax scales from glands in her abdomen. This wax is then chewed and mixed with pollen and propolis (a resin) to be ready for building the perfect structure that we know as honey comb.

Honey bee (A. mellifera) with wax scales projecting from the ventral side of her metasoma (posterior body region), against white (left) and in a hive (right). Photographs by Helga Heilmann, photographer with the BEEgroup, University of Würzburg ( 

Wax scales at the abdomen of honey bee workers (photo: Helga Heilmann, BEEgroup, University of Würzburg;

Bees are truly amazing animals. They do so much work, and all of it is well coordinated. Mind you, I am talking about female bees only. The males do nothing. Their only job is to provide the queen bee with millions of sperm for years of laying up to 2000 eggs per day. Knowing that most of them don’t even get to mate, and those that do die in the process, I feel a bit sorry for them.

However, our virgin queens desperately need to mate with drones, otherwise there will be no more worker bees and thus no honey for any of us. Therefore: best of luck to the queens and her mates for a successful wedding flight!

Our fifth Annual Rose Walk begins this weekend

Pink Simplicity looks lovely in the rain

It is mid May and time for our Annual Rose Walk. Hard to believe that we are doing this already for the 5th time! It is definitely a tradition now. The labels are in place, the rose buds are getting big and some are already open. Only the weather does not want to cooperate. It has been raining on and off for several days and the forecast for the weekend is not great either. At least, we don’t have to worry about watering the garden, and this warm rain makes many plants grow happily and quickly. The garden looks very lush. Still, a bit of sunshine would be nice. Of course, the roses will be blooming for a few more weeks and this gloomy weather can’t last. Who wants to go on our Rose Walk may follow the guide below. Enjoy!


Guide to the fifth annual Rose Walk:

Enter the gate and look to your left. There is a collection of roses that include Alba White Meidiland, Stanwell Perpetual—an ancient cross between a Burnet rose (Rosa spinosissima) and a Damask rose—and Charles Mallerin.

Don Juan

Now, continue on the path and under the arbor covered with Don Juan. Through the arbor to your right is Phloxy Baby, a 2016 winner of the American Garden Rose Selections. Directly in front of you in the border, The Fairy is planted to the right of the large Rosa laxa. Please take a look at the other roses in this area to your left, which have yet to be identified.

Madame Hardy

Heading up the path, you will see Madame Hardy in the border, a Damask rose that is considered one of the most beautiful white roses ever bred (in 1832 by Alexander Hardy who named it after his wife Félicité). Next are several specimen of the Floribunda rose Pink Simplicity and the lavender colored Paradise that has been moved earlier this year and is still recovering from this shock.

Lavender Dream

Further down the path reveals Lavender Dream. Proudland is the red rose to your left. This area also contains several unidentified roses. Turning the corner, Dream Weaver appears and there is also Pretty Jessica. The next corner contains Chrysler Imperial, one of our oldest roses that was planted in a brick well 39 years ago. It won a Green Thumb contest and a wheelbarrow for the garden back in the ‘80’s.

Citrus Tease

Turning the tight corner, you will come to a large grove of tall red roses, Dr. Huey, frequently used as rootstock for hybrid roses. You will also see Senior Prom and Citrus Tease, and to your right is a rose which we still need to identify.

Following in the border is White Dawn. Look back into the garden to see Orange Honey Sunny Yellow Knockout and Oso Happy Smoothie Pink. There is also Baronne Prévost, an antique hybrid perpetual, and Green Ice, grown from a cutting a few years ago.

Livin’ Easy

Next is Livin’ Easy, and in the border, you will find French Lace, Eglantyne and Morden Blush. In the middle of the garden is one recently planted old garden rose Apple blossom, which was newly grown by the Heritage Rose Foundation and donated to a Green Thumb rose pruning event in Harlem three springs ago.

By now we are sure you are drawn to Zephirine Drouhin. This thornless beauty has been with us a long time. Happy Chappy and Peach Drift, which came to the garden from an AARS giveaway in Union Square years ago, are also here.

Kronprinzessin Viktoria

Please continue down the path, past the gate, and on your way to the patio. You will pass Love and Peace, which was planted in honor of two young neighborhood NYPD auxiliary officers, Nick Pekearo & Eugene Marshalik, who were gunned down on Sullivan street in 2007. Next is Chicago Peace. Follow your nose and be enthralled by the fragrance of Souvenir de la Malmaison, one of our Bourbon roses.

Pat Austin

The following section, next to the patio, is the most concentrated rose garden. Within this area, you will find two other Bourbon roses, Kronprinzessin Viktoria and Captaine Dyel de Graville. There are also a rare Canary Island Damask rose next to Munstead Wood and the hybrid Tea rose Leonie’s Appoline. Near the back fence is Pat Austin.

On the other side of the patio, you will find the Rosa rugosa cultivar Henry Hudson and the hybrid Musk rose The Ballerina. The Ballerina appears again with Dames de Chenonceau and a Pink Meidiland. The very last plot has The Fairy, Tropicana and Dan Poncet.

After leaving the garden, please also take a look at our small North Garden which contains a pink double Rosa rugosa variety and Pink Simplicity. You will also find The Prince behind a red rose, which we still need to identify. Finally, there are the European wild rose Rosa rubifolia and Maigold.

Thank you for coming! We hope this has been enjoyable and informative. We appreciate your ideas and input. If you think you can identify any of our mystery roses, please inform the guardian on duty or send us an e-mail:

The Ballerina

A Swarm

Yesterday evening, while checking on the roses and chatting with a fellow gardener, I suddenly noticed a strange buzz. When I looked up, I saw an amazing sight: a large cluster of bees was hanging from a branch of our crab apple tree. I remembered from my high school biology class that a queen bee must be in the middle of this swarm.

The swarm

This was exciting and a little scary. What should we do? First, we asked our visitors to avoid the area and blocked it off. Bees in a swarm are not at all aggressive, but it was certainly better to be careful.

The two beekeepers of our garden were not available and it was getting late. What now? Fortunately, New York City’s fantastic bee keeping community is ready to help in such an emergency.

A phone call and 15 minutes later, Ray Sage came to the rescue. Ray has been keeping bees for the last 6 years on a rooftop in the East Village and is an experienced swarm capturer. He quickly assessed the situation. The swarm had chosen a low branch and was accessible by stepladder; good. Did we have a hive for them? We improvised one with two spare stackable boxes from our hive, a few empty honey frames and a piece of plywood for a bottom. But how could we get the bees into this contraption? Ray took a large plastic garbage bag and climbed onto the ladder. I helped him to hold the open bag under the swarm. Then, Ray shook the branch. Clumps of bees fell down. Another shake and most of them were “bagged”.

Ray is shaking the bees into a bag

Normally, a beekeeper would wear a protective suit, but here, we were in a hurry. Amazingly, Ray got stung just a couple of times and I didn’t get stung at all, even though there were plenty of bees all over us. These ladies were completely focused on their queen.

Ray brought the bag to our makeshift hive and poured the bees inside. He then quickly put an improvised lid on the box.

The bees are emptied into the box.

A few wooden sticks wedged under the lid generated a space for the bees to get in and out. Since we had not captured all bees from the apple tree, Ray took the bag back and collected a few more. By the time we were ready to put these bees into the box, the ones inside had markedly calmed down.

By now, excitement was growing in our regular hive. The arrival of the new colony had not escaped the attention of our resident bees. Workers were sitting near the entrance with their rear end up. They were guarding their hive against possible intruders. Ray checked for fights, but did not see any. Perhaps, it was too dark by now and the bees were getting cold and sleepy. A short time later, the buzz in the new hive got quieter, bees crawled into the box and not out, and when we checked the area around the apple tree, it was abandoned. The smell of their queen must have guided all bees into their temporary home.

Ray is adjusting the lid on the box to generate an entrance.

Where did these bees come from? We think that the swarm originated from our own hive. Swarming is a normal occurrence during spring. It serves to propagate the colony. Bees may decide that it is time to swarm when their hive becomes crowded. They nurse a new queen and the old queen moves out with about half of her workers. They all fly away, congregate at a temporary site (like our crab apple tree) and send out scout bees to find a suitable place for a new nest. When such a place is found, the bees will move in, build cells and forage, and the queen will begin to lay eggs. Exactly this happened 5 years ago when our first bee colony moved into a little Asian cabinet that decorated one of our garden plots. The colony stayed there all summer long and even survived the winter. Ray was the one who helped transferring these bees into a proper hive.

The cabinet that served as the home for our first colony. The bees flew in and out of a crack between the doors. They were moved to a proper hive the next year (fotos by Hubert Steed).

That year, we gained a colony of bees. Yesterday, we almost lost half of ours. It was lucky that the swarm had not yet left the garden and we found it in time. Ray offered to bring a new hive in a couple of days. Hopefully, the bees will like it and stay with us, our much anticipated honey harvest depends on it.

Almost over night…

… the tree peonies are in bloom! On Thursday evening, the buds were still tightly closed, Saturday afternoon, almost all of them were open.

The striped tree peony next to the gate drew many visitors into the garden

Tree peonies are a short lived wonder. The buds pop open, the flowers attract bees and get pollinated, drop their lovely petals and are done for the season.

Peonies attracted a carpenter bee. They are also visited by our honeybees

Tree peonies are native to Asia and have been cultivated since ancient times. During the Tang dynasty (618–907) people were particularly crazy about peonies. The flowers were viewed as symbols of royalty and virtue, wealth and honor and female beauty. They were extensively bred and cultivated in royal gardens. The capital of this empire Luoyang is still the peony capital of the world.

This peony reminds of a Chinese painting.

Centuries after the Chinese were crazy about peonies, Europe experienced tulip mania. During the 17th century, tulips became extremely popular not only as a beautiful flower, but also as an investment and object of financial speculation. This led to an economic bubble in the Dutch Republic, which burst in February of 1637 and financially ruined many investors. At the height of tulip mania, one single bulb sold for many times the annual income of a normal worker. The most expensive bulbs were those of flowers with white stripes on red or purple background. This color pattern is caused by a infection with the “tulip breaking virus”, which also weakens the bulb. It is only transferred through the bulb itself, which doubtless contributed to the extraordinary value of these tulips, since they cannot be grown from seeds. Striped tulips are still popular, but today, they are affordable. We have a few in our garden, too.

Some spectacular tulips. The right variety would have cost a fortune during tuljp mania.

Aside from peonies and late tulips, the earlier irises have opened. Particularly pretty right now are the dwarf bearded irises that are always first to bloom.

Two varieties of dwarf bearded irises. The garden has a few more kinds.

While we were working in the garden yesterday, we could literally watch the buds on the Camassia open. At this time of the year, everything happens so quickly, it is hard to catch up!

miniature daffodils and Camassia