Harvest, Heartbreak and Hope Kindled

Wow, it’s been a while. That’s what happens when work demands and random lifestuff thwart one’s best laid plans. A ton of things have happened since my last post, including the most wonderful and the absolute worst moments in my beekeeping career, such as it is.

July

Hive1

My Saskatraz sweethearts continued to explode in number and also honey production. I added a second honey super after they filled the first early in the month. After the drama of Hive2 swarming, I started digging around in Hive1 more, looking for signs it was also planning to swarm. And I…found them?

A frame pulled from Hive1 is full of house bees…and what appears to be a couple swarm cells, hanging off frame at lower right.

I saw a number of cells that appeared to be swarm cells (when they prep new queens to replace the one that will be swarming) as well as supercedure cells (when they make emergency cells because they’ve decided the current queen needs to be replaced). I made the mistake of posting the pics online in a couple beekeeping forums. I say “mistake” because everybody has an opinion and they all start with “you’re doing it wrong.”

Another frame, showing another suspect cell. This is from below frame looking directly up into what appears to be an empty swarm cell (top center of image…ignore that ugly blob of comb in upper left, that’s just a bunch of drone cells)

I got stressed. The amount of conflicting information and negativity was unhelpful. So I thought about it for a while and decided hey, I am a reasonably intelligent, thoughtful person. I took a course. I read a bunch of books and blogs by people who seem to know what they’re talking about. I’m going to synthesize that knowledge and go with my gut.

My gut said to leave Hive1 alone. If it swarmed, it swarmed.

It didn’t swarm. What appeared to be supercedure cells were torn down. The swarm cells were never filled and, over time, were also dismantled.

At the end of July, I harvested the completely full super. Insane. Both sides of every frame were full and capped. They did a perfect job. I felt tremendous pride even though I had done essentially nothing but get in their way and annoy them.

Both sides of all ten frames of Hive1’s super looked like this. Picture perfect, fully filled and capped. Glorious work, sweet girls.

I extracted it with a cheapie hand-crank extractor and got a ton of honey, 16.5 percent moisture (that’s good, you want it under 20 percent for sure and ideally under 18 percent to avoid fermentation). Well done, girls.

The harvest from Hive1’s perfectly filled super. Light and floral and 16.5 percent moisture. Well done!

Speaking of fermentation, I also started two 1-gallon batches of wild-fermented mead with some of Hive1’s honey. Wild-fermented means no commercial yeast added, just whatever wild yeast fell in as I walked it around my garden, stirring.

Charles inspects mead in progress. The stuff floating in it is raspberry leaves from my garden to provide some tannins. It’s foamy because it’s actively fermenting. There are also a couple organic raisins in there, slowly dissolving to help kickstart the process.

Everything was going well, until I returned the extracted, empty frames to Hive1. I’d read and heard to give the frames back to the bees to let them clean things up, to do it in late afternoon to avoid setting off a robbing frenzy when foragers from other hives catch a whiff of the residual honey, tell their friends and descend en masse.

I popped the emptied super back on a couple hours before sunset, when all the hives in the apiary were already quiet. I was about to leave but decided to linger for a couple minutes.

And that’s when I saw it. A stream of bees from another hive (not mine) came shooting out of their entrance and, well, made a beeline for the entirely open entrance of Hive1. Within seconds it was a cloud. And my sweet Hive1 bees were fighting them off, rolling on the landing board, tackling them midair. Foragers returning to Hive1 were caught in the melee. Bees were getting torn apart.

I ran to my car and grabbed a robber screen I had just got in the mail with the intention of putting it on in fall when wasps become a threat. Even though it took a matter of seconds to put it on, by then Hive1 was covered in robber bees and there were dead and dying Hive1 guards and foragers everywhere. No longer able to get into the hive, the robbers formed massive clumps over the entrance and hung from underneath the screened bottom. And Hive1 foragers trying to return home were confused, exhausted, falling to the ground.

A few thwarted robbers, meanwhile, started investigating Hive2’s entrance, so I slapped another robber screen on them, stranding their foragers.

Taken the following morning. This poor, hardworking little forager is absolutely covered in pollen and just trying to get home.

The feeling of idiocy and helplessness was, at the time, the low point of my entire beekeeping experience. I wasn’t even expecting to get honey this year, but Hive1 did such a wonderful, beautiful job, and I took their hard work for myself (and HoneyOp supporters), then returned the remains to them to clean it for me, only my lack of experience resulted in massive stress to the colony and hundreds of needless deaths.

It was an ugly time.

The day after the robbing, Hive1 is still completely closed up. Bees outside the robber screen include several robbers and some stranded Hive1 foragers. I had already collected the dozens of dead bees from the entrance area before I thought to take a photo.

Hive2 and 2a

Meanwhile, still in July, you may recall Hive2 swarmed (thanks to Linda, the swarm was caught and installed in a cheapo budget box I bought at a local store…henceforth known as Hive2a).

I’m pleased to report that Hive2a immediately set to drawing comb in the first brood box, filling it in about two weeks (!). I added a second box which they filled to about 75 percent and then slowed. In retrospect, I should have understood that the slowdown was a signal of dearth, when nectar sources dry up and bees have less food. Robbing becomes a risk during dearth, so I would have been more cautious about returning Hive1’s extracted super. Live and learn.

I spotted the Hive2a queen, the beautiful butterscotch Buckfast who was Hive2’s original queen, busy laying eggs.

All hail her majesty. The enormous Hive2a queen, the original Buckfast queen installed into Hive2. She’s the bee (just to the lower left of center) that might be mistaken for a lobster.
Another shot of the queen, surrounded by her handmaidens.

I left Hive2, the half of the hive that did not swarm, alone for the entire month. They had the task of requeening themselves and I wanted to let them do their thing undisturbed by a well-intentioned but bumbling Godzilla. Requeening means that, once the new queens hatch, they fight it out and the one that survives leaves on a mating flight to hook up with local drones, then she returns to the hive and starts laying eggs. The process from a new queen hatching to laying eggs can take a few weeks, during which the population tends to dip as old bees die off and are not replaced.

So I did a lot of observing at the entrance. Hive2’s numbers were lower (they lost half their hive to 2a, after all) but I never saw a serious drop-off.

Hive2 activity about three weeks after half the hive reestablished itself as Hive2a.

August

Hive1

After the robbing incident, I left Hive1 alone for a while. Robbing can make a hive understandably aggressive, and I didn’t want to go digging around in there. I opened up the smallest entrance of their robbing screen after about 36 hours, once most of the robbers appeared to have given up. The following day, I opened a larger entrance but never took the screen off completely.

Because I left them alone for a couple weeks, I ended up being a week behind schedule for removing their drone frame. When I did remove it, several drones were already hatching. Oops.

Hello there, I say! Not what you want to see when removing a drone frame.

Worse yet, most of the drones hatching had at least one varroa mite clinging to them.

These drones I dispatched to Valhalla before putting the frame with the unhatched in a plastic bag and freezing it to feed to my friend Marie’s chickens. We salute you, drones, but it is for the good of the hive, the whole apiary, that you make the ultimate sacrifice.

The number of mites I saw on the Hive1 drones alarmed me, and when I saw one little Hive1 worker walking around with one on her back, I decided my treatment-free efforts, using drone frames and getting allegedly resistant strains, were not sufficient.

I’d researched varroa treatments earlier in the year and knew which ones I wanted to avoid, but I went back to the research again, including making use of a number of webinars university beekeeping programs put out. After looking at all my options and thinking about what would be best for my bees, not just Hive1 but 2 and 2a as well, I settled on Mite-Away Quick Strips (MAQS) and placed my order. More on that in September.

Within a fortnight after the robbing carnage, Hive1 appeared to have recovered. Busy but docile girls at the robber screen in mid-August.

Hive2

Hive2 successfully requeened itself, with nary a dip in in numbers. Well done, Hive2! Not every hive manages that, and the Facebook beekeeping groups I’m in are full of requeening dramas where colonies fail to make their own so the beekeeper purchases a new queen only to have it killed when introduced.

I have not actually met the new Hive2 queen, but I have seen and admired her work, laying eggs like a pro. Hive2 are Buckfast, you may recall, and they have a reputation for the second generation being extremely aggressive. I’m thrilled to say this is not the case for Hive2. They are, if anything, more docile than they were before.

After an inspection, this sweet little Hive2 house bee got dislodged from a frame and fell to the ground. I picked her up and placed her back in the hive, but not before taking a quick shot. Sweet as can bee. So much for second generation Buckfasts being evil!

All I really did in August was add a second super when it seemed they were ready for it. They never touched it, which again, a more experienced beekeeper would have recognized as a sign of dearth.

Hive2a

When I finally put two and two together and realized that, despite facing onto a hundred acres of flower farms, my hives were experiencing dearth, I decided to start feeding Hive2a. I knew I would not be adding a honey super, but I was concerned that they weren’t building up any honey stores for winter. Whatever I gave them, they ate. Eagerly. They’ve been going through 1-2 gallons a week. Mysteriously, they’re not storing much if any of it. Good thing sugar is cheap. I just bought 60 pounds of it.

September

Miticide Mess On a (Literally) Poopy Day

I anxiously waited for the MAQS to arrive, but when they did, we were having a heat wave. The miticide needs to be applied when temps are in a very specific range, otherwise they can kill your queen and too many workers, or cause the entire hive to abscond.

Finally, the week after Labor Day, it was cool enough for a long enough period (the treatment takes seven days). I went with MAQS because they are essentially super-concentrated formic acid, which already occurs in the colony and even in honey. They are one of a very few varroa treatments that are considered “organic” and can be done when honey supers are on the hives, which both Hive1 and Hive2 had.

MAQS are still a toxic miticide, however, and not to be used lightly. They are helpful for knocking down a significant mite infestation, which Hive1 had, but they will also kill some bees and brood.

They are, however, (allegedly) idiot-proof if you follow the directions. I followed the directions. I watched the videos. I visualized what I would do before heading up to the apiary. Maybe they’re idiot-proof, but they are not Godzilla-proof.

I decided to treat all three hives and, on application day, started with Hive2a, the smallest. (Whenever I open the hives, I always work smallest to largest which, I have read, reduces the risk of a larger hive robbing a smaller one.) I had removed the feeder the day before (they can’t be on when applying the treatment) and, for all three hives, had installed a new DIY robber screen made from a 6-inch high piece of hardware cloth and a wire hanger. The hives need a lot of ventilation during treatment, and the robber screens I’d had on earlier wouldn’t allow that.

It was a mess. Even standing upwind of the box of MAQS, when I opened it the rush of chemicals made me gag and cough. In the videos I’d watched, the strips were fairly dry, gel wrapped in paper that you leave on and just lay across the tops of the lower brood box frames. Well, my strips were soaking wet and the paper was ripping apart and disintegrating. That’s not good because it releases too much formic acid at once. I had no idea what to do, but put them in place and hoped for the best, closing Hive2a back up.

For Hive2, I was able to get the strips on without ripping the paper as much, but there were thousands of bees flying everywhere when I went to replace the top brood box, so many that I couldn’t even see the bottom brood box. That top brood box is stuffed full of honey, almost unbelievably so (all Hive2’s brood is in the lower box). It felt like it weighed more than my 72-pound pit bull. I was wearing nitrile gloves that were now slick with miticide.

Yeah, you know where this is going.

As I tried my damndest to place the top brood box gently onto the bottom one without squishing too many bees, it slipped. Many squished bees. Fortunately, I kind of caught it before it fell off completely, and slid it into place.

I had been standing at the rear of the hive. I stepped around to see how the front looked and saw half a MAQ strip, rolled around dozens of dead bees, hanging out the front.

I took the box off again, removed the ripped, gel-exposed strip and opened another pack to put another strip on, took the gloves off and managed to reassemble Hive2 without killing too many more bees, but at this point I was beyond upset.

That’s when I was reminded that, no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

I had lit my smoker, which I haven’t used in months, to move bees off the spots where I was placing the strips. The smoker had gone out. I relit it before moving on to Hive1, using the same cool white smoke, quick-start pellets I always use (on the rare occasion I use the smoker). I raised Hive1’s lid and delivered a gentle puff of smoke. It came out black and smelled weird. I looked in the hive. The dozens of bees that had been sitting on the inner lid curled up and died.

I pulled off my glove and checked the smoke. It was scorching hot.

I do not understand what happened. I had never had that experience, including moments earlier when I lit the smoker and used it on Hives 2 and 2a. All I can think of is that, in the messy application, I got miticide on the pellets. I don’t know that’s what happened, but I do know I killed several Hive1 bees for no reason.

Already upset, my stress levels inched up a little more. To hell with this stupid smoker, I decided, and went to lay it on the mini charbroil grill I brought to the apiary in April to use as a safe spot to let the smoker cool. I have not, of course, used it in months, but it’s been sitting inside the locked gate undisturbed for all that time.

I grabbed it, thinking it would be empty and planning to move it out of the weeds and onto the gravel.

That’s when liquid sloshed all over my bee suit. At first I thought it was rainwater that had collected in the covered grill somehow.

Nope. When I removed the lid, I discovered it was full of urine, feces and a couple baby wipes.

One of the other beekeepers had used my hot ash receptacle as a toilet.

You know, I don’t even have the time to waste on pondering why the asshole did it. Prank, passive-aggressive nonsense from a weak and impotent man, whatever. All I can say (and cover your eyes if you’re tender) is that he can go fuck himself with a hive tool, pathetic loser. Karma is a bitch and she will come for you, jackass. I’ve got bigger concerns.

It is at this point I hear a loud buzzing and see Hive2 bees streaming out by the thousands. They are swarming.

I stood there watching them form a column about ten feet high over the hive. Unless they had been planning to swarm (which I saw no signs of them doing), they were likely absconding, fleeing what they perceived as an uninhabitable hive on empty stomachs. Absconding is a last resort for a hive, and is always high risk. At this time of year, with only a few weeks before the first frost, it is a death sentence.

I tried tanging, which is hitting metal against metal. The sound can, allegedly, persuade swarming bees to go back into a hive, but I saw no change.

Hive1’s outer cover was still off at this point, so I gritted my teeth and finished applying the MAQS to them so I could cover it all up.

Meanwhile, Hive2 was still airborne, but it also wasn’t going anywhere. I told them I was sorry for their upset, that I was just trying to protect them from mites, and that I was also having a bad day. I also told them if they thought I was as spectacularly bad a beekeeper as I was feeling at the moment, they should go. But that, if they would give me a chance, I promised to learn from my rookie mistakes.

I am glad there was no one else in the apiary as I stood there talking to the bees, covered in miticide and someone else’s shit and piss. I am glad not because I would have been embarrassed, but because I was so enraged at the toilet stunt that, had another beekeeper been present, he would have been, by that point, a dead beekeeper. And who will care for my bees if I am in jail serving time for homicide?

The Day After

I went home with Hive2 still in the air, feeling that I had done all I could do. I returned at dawn the next morning to see. Dozens of dead bees everywhere, especially around Hive1, which had the largest population and the biggest mite problem.

The following morning, dead bees can be seen littering the entrance area of Hive1. On another note, this is a good shot of the “open” robber screens I made for all three hives during the treatment. Wire hanger opened to create a frame and prevent the collapse of a 6-inch strip of hardware cloth staple gunned into place.

I stood and observed each entrance, fearing that I had killed all my bees. Then, as I watched, bees started to stir. Foragers climbed up the newfangled robber screens and oriented themselves, then headed off into the morning. Mortuary bees — house bees whose job is to remove the dead — started picking up bodies and doing their best to carry them up and over the screens. I snipped little holes, one in each screen, at the bottom so they wouldn’t have to struggle removing their dead.

And yes, Hive2 was still there. I guess they decided to give me another chance. Thanks, Hive2.

Robbers Gonna Rob

Per instructions, I left the hives alone for a week. All three of my hives have screened bottoms with removable boards. Again per instructions, before treatment I had slid the boards in, blocking the screened bottom and catching any debris that fell from the hives. And boy, did it. Here are some comparison shots:

Hive2a’s board. The bees were not on it when I pulled it, but settled in as I took pictures. Fairly empty, but a few dead mites, as to be expected following a varroa treatment.
Close-up of Hive2a’s board with a trio of dead mites near middle. They look like little reddish ovals. The other stuff is pollen, bits of wax and some of the paper from the MAQS, which bees tend to rip apart and toss once the treatment is over.
Similar story at Hive2 (their board doesn’t have a grid pattern, but you can see several mites, some wax, a few random bee parts, especially wings in the foreground, and a pile of pollen at upper left, right below where their entrance is, so it probably got knocked off as they returned home.)
Contrast Hives 2 and 2a with the hot mess that is Hive1’s bottom board. Lots, I mean tons, of mites, and other stuff, including…
…mixed in with the dead mites and wax and bee parts and assorted other crap, I found several wriggling small hive beetle larvae. Gaah! SHB are awful little pests that ruin honey by laying slimy larvae in it that tunnel around spreading bacteria. I haven’t seen any larvae in the hive, where house bees usually patrol. My hope is that these were alive only because the house bees couldn’t reach them through the screen.

Yeeish. I had beetle traps in Hive1 after I saw a one SHB walking around in July, but it never caught any of them. A large, strong hive, which Hive1 is, should be able to keep SHB in check, but just seeing it in Wisconsin is concerning (it’s supposed to be too cold here), especially since my hives are in full sun (which SHB avoid). I’ll be keeping an eye on them and researching the best measures to take.

Meanwhile…

I started feeding Hive2a again, and took the supers off Hive2. One was completely empty, and the other had less than half the frames filled. Knowing they have enough stored for winter in the brood boxes (and planning to feed them anyway), I extracted what they did make.

The Hive2 honey is significantly thicker than Hive1’s, and darker. It’s a seasonal thing rather than variation between the hives themselves. It’s also a little higher in moisture — 17.5 percent compared with Hive1’s 16.5 percent — but still within the acceptable range.

On the left, Hive1’s light, floral summer honey. On the right, Hive2’s much thicker, more intensely flavored autumn honey.

The taste is completely different. Hive1’s summer honey is mild and smells intensely floral. Hive2’s autumn honey is much more intense, with a slight funkiness to it that makes me think it’s mostly from goldenrod, which can smell like socks.

I dithered over returning the extracted super to Hive2 for cleaning after Hive1’s robbing fiasco in July. I decided to try again, this time going much later in the day, right at twilight.

All the hives were silent, no activity at the entrances. I popped the super back on the hive, this time above the inner cover, which I’d read reduces the risk of robbing. And then I waited.

I observed around all the hives, pulled a bunch of weeds, killed a couple wasps lurking about (I let the wasps who’ve build a nest in my backyard just be, but not the ones I find sniffing around my bees). It was almost dark and, I decided, safe to leave. I started walking back to my car.

bzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

You have got to be kidding me.

I ran back to see a few dozen robber bees arriving at Hive2’s entrance. The open robber screen was no deterrent to them. They started streaming in. Quite frankly, because these bees were all dark, I suspect they were from Hive1, which has the same kind of screen.

Goddammit!

I ran to the car, got the Fort Knox-style robber screen, and put it on. Bees were continuing to gather around the hive, looking for another way in. So I ran back to my trunk, which is completely given over to “things I might need” beekeeping junk, and pulled out an old sheet and several bottles of water. Ran back, threw the sheet over the entire hive and emptied a couple gallons of water over it, soaking it.

The robbers’ numbers stopped increasing, but the hundred or so already there hung on. Meanwhile, I noticed an uptick in activity at Hive2a’s entrance. They’ve got the feeder on and I had just refilled it. I slapped another Serious Robber Screen on them and called it a night.

The next morning, I drove up just after dawn. I removed the sheet and found nary a robber, so I opened the smallest entrance for both Hive2 and 2a. And I waited. Foragers from all of my hives started heading out as if nothing had happened. No fighting, no brawls.

I headed home for a shower before going into work. Because the mosquitos have been so outrageous this year, especially in the wooded area where I park my car at the apiary, I’ve taken to putting my beesuit on at home and driving (without the veil up) in it. As I was driving home on the Interstate, I felt a little tickle tickle on my hand. I looked down to see a Hive2 guard out for an adventure.

She looks like a Buckfast — it’s the butterscotchiness of her, and is probably from Hive2 since I was barely around 2a. I think she’s a guard because she’s so fuzzy. When bees are ready to move out of the hive, they start as guards until all their muscles develop. Then they graduate to foragers, who literally work themselves to death and lose their hair as they do so.

I’d had another hitchhiker a few weeks earlier, but managed to get her in the house and into a queen cage, then return her safely the following day. This little guard was determined to go her own way, however, and though she sat calmly on my hand for eight miles, as soon as I opened the door she flew off.

Brave little guard’s big day out.

It’s almost certain her freedom was brief. She basically flew off towards my resident wasps and, even if she eluded them, she’d need to find another colony and be accepted. I suspect she has already finished her brief life, and while I’m sorry she left my protection, part of me likes to think that she was saying “I’ve been nominated by the others to tell you that you make some dumb mistakes, but you’re not too awful. We’ll stick with you. At least for now.”

Winter Is Coming

Winding up this epic post, I’ll be taking off the Hive1 supers this weekend and starting to feed them as well as Hive2, and continuing to feed Hive2a. I’m also starting other preparations for winter. I spent Labor Day making what are called quilting boxes that will sit on top of the hives in winter to provide ventilation, control moisture and keep the bees dry, and I’m researching a few other things. My next post will hopefully be shorter and sooner, and free of other people’s poop and bee calamity.

And oh yeah…I bottled one of the batches of mead! I made one that will ferment over a year, and another called a “small mead,” meant to be drunk young. The small mead was ready. It’s unlike any other mead I’ve tasted, light and sweet but not cloyingly so. It reminds me of a cloudy, mild “farmhouse style” hard cider I had in England years ago. It’s delicious, and I am thankful to Hive1 for providing it.

One gallon of wild-fermented small mead, ready to toast Hive1’s efforts.

 

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Honey Supers, A Swarm And The Bodies In My Freezer

As Jane Austen might say, I have so much to acquaint you with: the dearth of posts has been due to a serious uptick in activity at my day job, at the apiary and pretty much in all corners of my life. It’s been a dramatic, possibly traumatic couple weeks for the bees, but so far, they seem to be okay.

Oh, and I have three hives now. In the words of Inigo Montoya: I ess-plain. No. It is too much. I sum up. Continue reading “Honey Supers, A Swarm And The Bodies In My Freezer”

Favorite Beek Trick Ever!

Sunday morning I dreaded heading to the bee yard because it was super hot, in the 90s at 9 a.m. Southern friends will laugh, but that is not typical of Wisconsin on a May morning. I’ve heard bees can be more aggressive in the heat. I know I get cranky in the heat. I assumed it was going to be an unpleasant visit.

I was wrong.

I also did not foresee getting quite so excited about a dishtowel. Continue reading “Favorite Beek Trick Ever!”