The bees are always on my mind. I missed some bee blogging over the past year, and that was because I was licking my emotional and physical bee wounds after a busy bee season.
It is amazing how quickly you can be on a peak of joy with the bees, and then suddenly feel defeated and ruined in only a matter of moments. I guess that I take my bees too seriously. As the Spring of 2019 releases itself, I am reminded of the joy that I feel watching bees buzzing around and bringing pollen on their legs back to the hive. I do not have any bees at this moment, but I did order 2 nucs from one of my local bee suppliers. Nevertheless, I still wonder whether to bee or not to bee.
Last Summer, my bees taught me a lot, both good and bad. Many different scenarios played out. I had three hives to start my apiary last Spring, one of which turned out to be short-lived. This is the story.
This one started with a package that was gifted to me from Peter Cane, one of the APAT cofounders, when he was in the middle of a move last year and forgot that he had ordered a package of bees over the Winter. This was the short-lived colony. Upon arrival of the package, I shook it into the hive and placed their Queen, Megan Markle, dotted with red on her back, into her protective bee cage on the frames. I checked back a couple of times to see whether she had been released from the cage. On the first check, I had to poke at the candy on the top, to break it up so the bees could eat their way through to release her. On the next check, I saw that she had been released, but didn’t see her.
I checked back a number of times more. I found no Megan Markle, and no new brood. After several weeks, I noticed the familiar pencil-eraser brood coating the frames. This was the devastating result of a laying worker bee who was acting as a Queen and laying half the chromosomes. The bees had murdered their Queen Megan Markle after releasing her, since they recognized the worker bee as their reigning Queen and viewed Megan Markle as an imposter. The hive was doomed and soon died.
This hive started as a nuc, I thought, but it seemed that the colony was missing a queen. I waited patiently for this nuc to replicate so I could start adding boxes. This did not happen. I began to inspect more frantically. Still, I had no queen sightings and no new brood. Yet, the old brood was starting to hatch, so the bee population was increasing, but it would be unsustainable if the hive did not generate new growth from a queen.
This is where I tried something that a real beekeeper would do. I took a new frame of eggs from my third hive, my prior Winter’s success, and I slipped it into my queen-less nuc. Why didn’t I do this earlier? I asked myself. This action was a virtual diagnostic test. If the eggs developed normally through larva and capped brood to form worker bees, then my hive did, in fact, have a Queen present; I just hadn’t seen it. However, if my hive was lacking a Queen, then my smart bees would turn one of the eggs into a queen cell by treating that egg differently and feeding her some Royal Jelly.
Since queens take 16 days to hatch, I didn’t want to disturb her at such a crucial time. So I waited a little over a week, and then I opened the hive with anticipation, lifting the frame I had marked to remind me of the egg frame I had inserted. I lifted the frame and behold, there was a queen cell, the shape of a peanut, embedded in the frame. The scheme had worked! I placed the frame back into its position and waited some more to time my next inspection for after the hatching, if it should occur. Once again, when I finally inspected, I had success! The queen cell had hatched. I inspected regularly after this, and on some occasions, I did see her.
Unfortunately, the stars did not line up for total success. The Queen must have remained a virgin. She never laid eggs and couldn’t keep the hive going. She kept a laying worker from developing, and the hive just declined slowly until the end of the Summer, when the population was taken over by a wax moth invasion. It was sad as well as disgusting, but I still looked at hive number 2 as innovative and successful to a degree. At a minimum, this second hive, taught me a lot about beekeeping.
The third hive was one that survived the prior Winter and got off to a strong start. Do you remember Queen Beyonce? This was her hive, and it had lasted through a Winter. So, this colony was up and running early in the season and ready to jumpstart into the nectar flow. I was placing super boxes consistently one after the other as this colony became a super colony. I was giving the bees space so that they did not swarm, and they were also collecting honey rapidly, as the tulip poplar trees oozed out nectar.
By June, the stack was getting difficult to manage, but I put on my back brace and pulled out that frame of eggs for my queen-less nuc hive. By July, the stack was 6 tall and full of honey…about 120 pounds of it! Perhaps I should have harvested the honey at this point, but I had set August in my mind as my harvesting time since I had some vacation time then, and that was what I had done in the past.
However, one August day, prior to my planned honey harvest, my husband came in from the driveway and said, “Something’s up with your bees.” I walked out the back to the deck, and bees were flying all over, near the back door and near the cars. I went over and had a look. Lots of action around the hive openings. Could my prize hive be getting robbed? I looked closer at individual openings and bees, and I saw a war going on! My bees were trying to defend the hive while outside bees were attacking at the entrances. Bees were rolling around in the air and dropping to the ground. I donned the bee jacket and quickly corked up the hive entrances, and I tried to plug up the bottom while I bought myself time to worry and to figure out what to do. My poor bees. Now, I had clogged the holes so other bees couldn’t get in, but also, my bees couldn’t get out.
At night, the invader bees went home, but in the morning, the frenzy started up again. After one or two sleepless nights, I decided that I needed to harvest ASAP. Amy, my fellow work colleague, friend, and beekeeper, came over donned in her bee jacket. We began harvesting the boxes one super at a time, exchanging information about our different harvesting techniques, particularly in how we got the bees away from the boxes and the frames away from the bees. Amy had a bee-clean strategy of shaking the frames clear of bees and then placing them into large Tupperware containers.
We drove to her house, in a car loaded with the large Tupperware boxes filled with honey-loaded bee frames, leaving the bees behind in my yard. At Amy’s house, we began uncapping the comb and spinning off the honey with Amy’s extractor, listening to the Grateful Dead and drinking wine. This was a much saner method than what we had at the Fisher-Kelley harvest center last year, with a kitchen full of bees buzzing around. Amy and I learned that the bees had been robbed of half their harvest, an amazing feat for such small creatures in their collective efforts. The outsiders had stolen 60 pounds of honey, leaving some supers fully cleaned out, leaving not a drop.
I also learned that my pride and joy had lost its queen sometime in the Summer and had become weak and started to decline. The neighboring bees figured that out and attacked. There were also some wax moths that figured that out and took the opportunity to propagate in the lower hive bodies. UGH!
Lessons learned? Next time, I need to harvest my honey in July while there are ample food supplies. The bees get greedy in August, and the food supplies become less diverse. Was I getting greedy myself by stacking my hive so high? Originally, I did this to make more space for the bees, but then, I couldn’t check my hives as easily to keep tabs on what was going on in the brood boxes. I spent the rest of the season freezing my frames trying to kill all the wax moth larva and eggs. The joy that this colony had brought to me was dashed and replaced by regret, despair, and disgust.
Video of the invader bees robbing Beyonce’s hive. By author.
Finally, a major lesson was learned about beekeepers when PK, my assistant, developed an allergy to the bees. You will remember that in Hive 2, I was not sure whether I had a queen. I had not seen her, so I did not name her. I had become a bit frantic and checked the hive to look for her more and more frequently. During this period, one evening, I asked PK to be my second set of eyes to search for a Queen.
PK, trained in metallurgy and used to handling hot metals with his bare, steady hands, also liked to handle the frames with his bare hands. Well, this time, it did not go so well. He got stung in his hand by a bee, and the situation went “mob.” More bees detected the pheromones in the air, about 8 bees, and stung him in the hands. He blurted “you are on your own,” and he retreated into the house.
Some minutes later, Hannah, my daughter, came running to the back door, “Mom, come quickly; Dad is not good.” I threw the lid on the hive and rushed into the house to find PK lying on the floor wrapped in a towel. His heart was pounding, and his lips were numb. He was white and sweating profusely, and he said that he thought that he was going “to puke and poop all over the floor.” I popped him two Benadryl and called 911.
I was expecting comfort and safety from the first responders, and something totally different happened. To make a long story short, they did not buy the bee story and began questioning my husband’s predicament, because he happened to still be breathing. They asked me repeatedly to describe what had happened, sounding doubtful at my responses. Unbelievably, they connected our scene with the opioid crisis occurring in our country.
I also realized that the first responders, particularly the leader, did not appreciate having to deal with the overdose calls that are now commonplace for him and his crew. However, I answered their questions and followed their orders, since they were the guys in charge, and PK and I needed them.
“Get some shorts on your husband,” the leader yelled, and “Put your own shorts on,” as I was trying to string PK’s shorts over his feet. Thinking back, I was actually wondering whether he might kick PK across the floor, being so certain that he was dealing with an overdose situation. The entire experience was surreal, and eventually they left us alone, without an EpiPen injection and with the last words from the leader as he was walking through the door, “Prius in the driveway, beekeeping, are you guys marijuana users? I’m just wondering.”
I think he meant that to be funny, but I was not laughing. So here we are nearly one year later. I wrote a letter of discontent with my 911 experience, copied it to everyone I could think of, and action was supposedly taken. Our house is full of EpiPens. In my backyard, I have three empty hives, despite having attended a bee meeting discussing bee allergies amongst AABA beekeepers. Regardless, I am indecisive from the emotional baggage I acquired from my experiences to date with both the bees themselves and PK’s new allergy.
Even though I’ve ordered two nucs for this spring, should I even have bees on my property? Should I tend them somewhere else? Should I do bees at all?
To Bee or Not To Bee, that is the question.
Comments? See our Facebook Post.