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Winter Clustering-90 Degree Bees in the Snow!

When I looked out the window this morning the snow-blanketed hills were back lit with the blush of the rising sun. I grabbed my camera to capture the moment and almost caught the full effect before it stole completely away.  Then I remembered how impressed my students were in class by the bees keeping a constant brood-rearing temperature of 93 degrees inside the hive, and how the roof of our hive sheds snow seemingly faster than a vehicle warming in the driveway!  Quick, quick I donned my muck boots (and shed any pretense of style)and ran out to the hive in my robe in order to illustrate to my class and you the power the bees have to keep themselves warm in the winter.

The hive was already losing it’s snow cap, and it was 30 degrees F out!  What’s happening inside the hive in winter?

Winter Cluster

Think of the Earth herself with a hot, molten core ever-cooling until it reaches the earth’s crust, or mantle.  The same goes for the bees in winter. They gather together in a ball, called a cluster, with the queen in the center and keep each other warm. In the  cluster’s core  the temperature reaches 90 degrees F.  The bees produce this heat by vibrating their wing muscles. You can put your ear against the hive and hear them quietly humming away in winter.  I found an interesting scientific article showing infrared images of hives and the cluster within:  http://www.beebehavior.com/infrared_camera_pictures.php See how much the cluster of bees looks like this cut-away of the earth? The article doesn’t mention anything about the bees’ circulation within the cluster, but I’ve read before that the warm bees from the center will rotate outward to the exterior, trading places with the cooler bees on the surface, or mantle.  In my imagination this circulation is a microcosm of the earth’s electromagnetic field:

Soul Soil- Part I

Here in the Columbia River Gorge, the bees are beginning their forays into spring, collecting Alder pollen and minerals from the soil. That means they’re beginning to raise brood, or new babies. I’m seeing them clambering around on the soil a lot, particularly freshly dug areas, which leads me to write a story about how to improve soil naturally, as the bees are apothecaries and need healthy spots for gathering their wares.

Like all things of value and integrity, soil takes time to make, something like several hundred years for every inch. The great deciduous forests of the Midwestern United States built eight feet of black, carbon-rich topsoil from leaf litter alone. It was on this soil that America became a breadbasket of the world. Unfortunately we haven’t been great keepers of that soil, and most of it now resides in the Gulf of Mexico, having been washed from farmland tributaries into the Mississippi River. Improving your soil and becoming a steward of it wherever you are is an exercise in delayed gratification for sure, however it will only take a few months or years to see dramatic results! I will show you how I am doing it in my own garden, from a rough quack-grass infested patch of ground, to a veritable Eden in a few months.

Let the Worms do the Work
Here in the Northwest, our valley soils are comprised of silt washed down from the mountains. This silt is made up of layers of tiny platelets that adhere to one another, and when stuck together, make sticky, blocky clay soil that resists water infiltration. These ‘chips off the old block’ of mountain volcanoes are chock-full of minerals that plants love. In addition to a mild climate, mineral rich soils is one of the reasons why we have such a large plant growing community and industry. In order to unlock these minerals, carbon, in the form of composted vegetative matter, manure, or leaf litter must be added to the soil. The presence of carbon will attract worms (and microbes) who will digest it and excrete castings, thereby improving soil tilth, and in effect mix the layers of soil. The worms’ movements also help improve infiltration, as they leave behind tunnels from the depths to the surface.

Leaf Mulching to Kill Grass
I’ve used a variety of sheet mulching techniques in clients’ gardens for years: layers of newspaper, cardboard, paper rolls and even organic burlap topped with compost and it is a very effective way to kill the most pernicious grass, like quack-grass and make new garden beds. Here at our new home, we are inundated by quack-grass, so I decided this fall to bury our backyard in it’s entirety with leaves, Oregon White Oak leaves mostly. (Ever notice how its tough to grow lawn under trees, and how grass dies if you leave the leaves on it too long?) I took advantage of my neighbors’ propensity to bag their leaves and gathered approximately 8 cu. yards of them in my spare time.

I spread approximately 8-10″ of leaves in November. After three months the leaves compacted to about 5-6″ and have already browned-out the quack grass. As you can see in the photo the dandelion is showing color and will most likely poke through. That’s okay, because we need bee forage here and I eat dandelion greens! http://melissabees.com/thats-the-spirit-make-an-easy-eden-right-here-on-earth-for-the-bees/ (The ones that are growing too close to the veggies I want will be pulled.) The grass will continue to cook under the heat of the spring sun, and some of it may poke through, but that’s okay because I have a plan for that scenario, so stay tuned.

Birds Love Leaf Litter
We have some serious bird turf wars going on since the leaves went down this fall. Yesterday morning, after waking to the sound of quail scratching and pecking under the window, there was a flock of Cedar Waxwings, Junkos and Robins duking it out for supremacy in the backyard. We don’t even have a feeder out yet- just the leaves on the ground, which harbor thousands of insects! The birds have easy pickings as well as a place to gather water, as the leaves hold moisture as well as bugs.

Soul Soil
Quite a few of our neighbors have ‘manicured’ landscapes of lawn, rock, bark dust and a narrow selection of plants, which I have witnessed being sprayed with herbicides. It warms my heart to see that our backyard with it’s brown layering of leaves (step one in the preparation for a garden) has already become an oasis for wildlife! This one small act has far reaching implications. I hope you are inspired to work with the land around your home. In keeping the soil, you will make homes for many souls, including your own. Stay tuned for Part II.


That’s the Spirit: Make an easy Eden right here on Earth for the bees!

A student from class last Tuesday wrote to say:

I just want to do whatever I can to make it a happy place for the Bees……

That’s the spirit! Happy bees mean a happy garden and happy people and a happy and healthier earth.

What can you do to make an easy Eden for yourself and the bees?  Put down your sprayer and let the dandelions grow! Take a close look at this image: the bee is foraging on dandelion. Dandelion is a terrific source of nectar and pollen for the bees and it is one of the first flowers of spring. Not only that, but dandelion greens are chock full of goodness for humans: www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/health-benefits-of-dandelion.html, especially human women.

The ubiquitous dandelion, brought to the US by the French settlers and their taste for bitter greens, has been demonized as a weed by the chemical companies. Why not? It’s an endless source of business- as the greens will die back to the root when sprayed, only to spring up anew from their deep tap roots!

So, my advice to you is to let your lawn grow a little longer- or, leave a patch of taller grass and dandelions for yourself and the bees.  You’ll be surprised to see what else comes up. The bees also forage on grass pollen, which I will talk about in a future post.

Use the uplifting power of the dandelion to improve your energy and that of the bees in Springtime. Dandelion greens tossed with olive oil, tamari and salt is one of my favorite salads. How about you? Have any dandelion experience or recipes to share?

Bon apetit, mes abeilles!

Melissa on Carl Wolfson’s ‘The Morning Show’ on 620 KPOJ Portland’s Progressive Radio 2/11

KPOJ with Melissa

Busking for the Bees, A Letter to the Filmmakers: Portland helps ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ on its way to the United Nations

Dear Maryam and George:

I stood there raw and unpracticed, with a hat in one hand and a microphone in the other facing a 200 plus crowd of people, asking them for money. One by one they rose from their seats as if on cue and came forward to make an offering; as if the hat I held was a wishing well to cast into in exchange for the fulfillment of a hope or a dream.  I received them all, as a flower opens in gracious acceptance of the sun’s blessings.

Sounds like a dream doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t- and yet it is: for us, the bees and for you.  It actually happened last night after our showing of your film ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ at TaborSpace in Portland.  After I intimated to the crowd the tremendous investment of heart energy in the crafting of this film and the travails involved, and that you were invited to show it at the United Nations in Belgium for Environmental Day, June 5th and needed help to get there- the participants responded with donations.

Carl Wolfson, the esteemed host of ‘The Morning Show’ at our local progressive radio station 620 KPOJ (who I learned, in my interview yesterday morning, is desirous of becoming the next Bee Master) circled round to add to the pot as well as a handful of bee professionals and hobbyists and a whole lot of people who want to become beekeepers, including a girl named Georgia who wants to keep bees at her school, thanks to your beautiful film.

A check is in the mail to you for $250 along with a 50 Euro bill that a man gave to the beekeeper’s veil that served as my busking hat. He must have known you’d need some cash on hand when you got to Europe. 

Many blessing on your travels, our hearts are with you!

From Portland,


Melissa Bees on 620 KPOJ Portland’s Progressive Radio

Listen in to Melissa Elliott of Melissa Bees chatting live with Carl Wolfson on his ‘Carl in the Morning’ show on 620 KPOJ, this Friday, Feb. 11th at 7:30 am!

Vanishing of the Bees Documentary Screening

Vanishing of the Bees Screening TaborSpace, SE Portland Feb. 11th, 7pm
Melissa Bees presents the film, ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ which last weekend won Best Documentary at the Idyllwild Film Festival and is receiving worldwide recognition. It’s about the plight of the honeybee and the phenomenon known as CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder. The film follows two commercial beekeeepers, David Hackenberg and Dave Mendes as they strive to keep their bees healthy and fulfill pollination contracts across the U.S. The film explores the struggles they face as the two friends plead their case on Capital Hill and travel across the Pacific Ocean in the quest to protect their honeybees.

Filming across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between mankind and mother earth. Honeybees pollinate over 60% of our food crops, and since no one wants to end up only eating gruel, this film is a must-see for everyone!

After the film there will be a sign-up for beginning beekeeping classes at TaborSpace, starting the following week.

What: Vanishing of the Bees (www.vanishingbees.com)

Where: TaborSpace 5441 SE Belmont St.
Portland, OR 97215
Phone: 503.238.3904

When: February 11th. Film @ 7, Doors open @6:30

Suggested Donation: $5

Sign up for beginning beekeeping classes after the show!

Hosted by: Melissa Elliott of Melissa Bees, the local go-to source for landscape design, contracting and consultation services for honeybee gardens.

Music by: Area54, Chill Electronic Music http://www.area54.com

For more info go to: http://www.Melissabees.com, elliottmelissa@mac.com or http://www.Taborspace.org and click on calendar of events.

Honey in the Rock

My limbs are heavy from lifting rocks all week. The weather is unusually good for early spring and I’m making the most of it, building a dry-stack wall of sedimentary stone chipped from the flanks of the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. Its golden colors are exotic to our Northwestern landscape of gray igneous basalt. I’ve noticed there’s a certain kind of honey in these rocks that attracts passersby to them like bees to nectar. In Portland, these bees are usually accompanied by dogs, pausing on their visiting routes to admire its amber and gilt-flecked hues. Last Saturday, the numbers of the curious swelled right along with the heat of late afternoon and they buzzed around me as I worked.

They stand between the unfinished wall and scattered rock piles, wanting to know among other things the origin of the rock, and to ply me with do-it-yourselfer questions. The sweaty brim of my straw hat reveals only the sneakers of the inquirers and paws on the periphery as I attempt to focus on tapping with the hammer in my left hand and checking level with my right while answering as politely as I can muster and still concentrate on the work. I stand up to wipe my brow and speak briefly with an elderly couple holding matching Shih Tzus, then turn back, intent on finishing the puzzle at hand.

I discover that in stopping to chat my attention is broken and not to mention my fragile patience. The last rock I choose to finish a row just won’t seat and no matter how many ways I turn it, it wants to wobble. “Damn,” I growl in frustration, and stand again, this time to stretch imploringly toward the clear blue sky for assistance, “God help me!”
The small swarm of onlookers took a step back.

No rain for at least another week, the paper said, and it isn’t lying. Not a cloud in the sky and eighty degrees, in April. In Oregon.

A black Lab stands on similarly colored asphalt, panting endlessly, overheating in its shedding winter coat. Thin strands of saliva separate from its tongue and splatter on the pavement in a random yet incessant pattern, reminding me of a wild boar fountain I saw in Rome once that salivates grossly and regularly into a grate at its feet. The dog’s owner, in pink slippers and red toenails, apparently takes no notice of her pet’s discomfort and stares disapprovingly at me through her Jackie-O’s. I can’t tell if it was my entreaty to God or the grungy cut-offs I’m wearing that disturbs her most.

I turn back to the rock pile, and ask searchingly, “Whoooo wants to go next?” “Whooo’s going to be the lucky fella?” With this utterance the dry spell is broken and I spy a lone rock, sitting all by itself in the grass. Somehow I had missed it. Perhaps it rolled away from the pallet during one of my desperate and impatient siftings through the stack. I take a closer look and see how exquisite this one is, with a design like a stylized cloud, reminiscent of the ‘cloud step’ form in Japanese carpentry. It is as if it had drifted away from the haphazard pile on purpose, patiently waiting to be noticed for its singular beauty. I scoop it up from the grass and it floats effortlessly in my hands to the wall, finding a perfect home.