Bee Blog: Catching Up

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Package of bees all surrounding the cage inside. (Photo by author.)

I didn’t follow up on my last bee blog, “To Bee or Not To Bee,” so I wanted my readers to know that I decided “to Bee.” This is probably surprising to most of you. I have written about my many disappointments with my bees, plus it turns out that my husband, PK, is allergic to “the girls.” However, I decided “to bee” because my daughter, Hannah, elected to do her sophomore personal project with the honey bees as her topic, and I concluded that I just cannot stay away from the girls.

So, let’s catch up…

We had a late start in June 2019. Too late to catch the nectar flow and harvest honey, we did have two decent hives through most of the summer. Unfortunately, they both collapsed by the fall, due to those dreaded varroa mites.

I am generally of the “survival of the fittest” mindset, and have not taken those mites seriously, but after another frustrating season, Hannah and I attended the Maryland State Annual Beekeeper’s meeting at the Department of Agriculture. We listened to fascinating lectures on bee genetics and bee allergies. Hannah interviewed many beekeepers for her project, and I followed up with further questions about their preferences for various varroa mite treatments. Many of the beekeepers we spoke with did not think my hop guard strips really could cut it against the mites. By the end of the meeting, Hannah and I walked out with a diagnostic kit which would allow us to count the mites by coating bees with sugar in a jar, then shaking the mites off into a counting tray. We also bought an arsenal of oxalic acid, a vaporizer, and a gas mask. We were ready for the next season, 2020.

2019 Bee Colony: Good news: there is the queen with a green dot signifying the year 2019. Bad news: they are infested with varroa mites. Look closely at the bee below the queen and brown disc (varroa mite) on her neck, then find others in the photo. These girls are ‘goners’. (Photo by author.)
Annual Maryland Beekeepers Meeting at the Department of Agriculture in Annapolis. (Photo by author.)

Fast forward to now. Hannah has bonded with bees and is officially my apiary partner. Over this past winter, she lobbied in the Maryland House of Delegates to ban chlorpyrifos, a deadly poison for bees, developing brains, and sea life in the Bay, but used on golf courses and in agriculture. This ban was passed by the Senate and House just in the nick of time before everything closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We ordered bees in March from our bee dealer and mentor, Larry, and we worked to get our backyard ready. Larry was developing nucs for us which, if you remember, are complete colonies of bees, including a queen, bees, larva, drones, and brood, all existing on five hive frames. These five frames are dropped into a hive boxes that has potential to hold 10 frames, and the bees multiply to fill the 5 empty frames. As a beekeeper, you make regular hive inspections, and watch the progress in the frames. We had initially ordered two nucs, but since we had an extra hive, we called Larry about adding one more nuc to our order, but he could not help us just yet. Instead, we attempted to draw a wild swarm of honey bees into our apiary by placing some q-tips dipped in lemon grass essential oil in slightly opened plastic zip lock bags in each hive, hoping to get lucky. We saw some bees sniffing around our boxes, but no large swarm decided to move in.

Hannah and I checked in regularly with Larry to get the status of our future bees. The bees were developing, but each time we called, the nucs were not ready. Then Earth Day arrived, and unexpectedly, I got a text from a beekeeper neighbor. It turned out that the mailman had just delivered two packages of bees to her. This was great for her, except that she had already received her packages of bees and these were extra. She asked me if I wanted a package of bees. Happy Earth Day! Now we had some bees for our third hive.

Packages of bees are handled differently from nucs, however. A package of bees includes a box of bees and a queen in a cage suspended inside the box, in order for all of the bees to get used to her pheromones and accept her as their own queen. My last package of bees murdered Megan Markle, the suspended queen. They apparently didn’t accept her, and started laying drones. Ultimately, they thought one of their own was the real queen. This is what beekeepers call “a laying worker.” These colonies ruled by a worker bee are futile and eventually die off.

Hannah and I picked up the package from my neighbor, and took the wooden slat off the top of the wooden box We pulled out the syrup can, and gingerly reached for the queen in the cage. We shook the bees into the hive as well as we could, then we laid the queen in her box flat on the frame bars. The queen cage has a hole, which is plugged with a piece of candy, and we jabbed at this candy with a nail, to assist the bees to release the queen. There are two theories about whether to put the candy hole in the “up” position or in the “down” position. Some people think ascribe to “candy hole up,” so that the hole doesn’t get clogged by a dead attendant bee and then the queen can’t get out. Others say to go with the “candy hole down” method to avoid a dead attendant bee falling on the queen in the “candy hole up” position, which also blocks her from getting out. I spent way too much time thinking about this, and ended up to put the queen cage horizontal. Call it “candy hole sideways.”

We placed a spacer frame around the top of the hive to give some space around the queen cage, so that the hive covers didn’t squash the cage and the queen. We covered the bees with a top feeder filled with sugar syrup to feed them, and then the hive cover. Our plan was to look in a few days to see if the queen was released. After a little while, I noticed that there were still a lot of bees in the box that hadn’t been shaken into the hive, so I opened the hive and shook some more and covered them up. By the evening, all the strays had entered the hive and all of the bees were inside. It felt great to have bees in the yard again.

Package of bees all surrounding the cage inside. (Photo by author.)

Hannah and I continued to stalk Larry, our bee dealer, on the phone. The cold and rainy weather kept delaying our nucs. Finally, on a Saturday, the time had come; our bees were coming home. Hannah and I removed half the frames in our hive boxes to make room for the nucs from Larry. While doing this, we noticed craziness on the third hive into which we had shaken the package from our neighbor many days earlier. Bees were flying around violently and all of the hive openings were cluttered with bees. It was almost as if the the bees were being robbed, but that is usually an end of summer occurrence when there are no food stores for the bees. I called my beekeeper friend Chris, who said the same thing was happening in his yard.

I decided to reduce the size of the hive entrances. I had some robber covers that I had purchased years earlier, which covered the main entrance but had little trap doors for bees to continue to move in and out of the hive. I slapped one onto the front of the hive, and we headed to Larry’s place in South County.

We arrived at the abandoned field marked by the orange cone and lined with hives and tulip poplar trees. Larry was standing with a mask in front of his pickup truck. Our nucs and two jars of honey were in the truck bed, and we loaded them up for the ride home. Larry gave us instructions and wished us luck, and we headed off. We got a call from Larry on our way home, which we always do, with one extra piece of encouragement. He said that he marked the queens green, signifying the year 2019.

On our way to pick up the bees at Larry’s. (Photo by author.)

We arrived home and smoothly hived the bees into two bee boxes with no problems. We spotted the first queen bee, marked in green, as Larry had told us, on the very last frame that we lowered into the bees’ new home. On the other nuc, we did not see a queen as we inspected the frames when we lowered them in. We looked at the extra bees in the nuc box to make sure she didn’t drop off the frames into the container, but we didn’t sight the queen there either. We decided not to go into the box and look further. Our plan was to wait a week, and then inspect, but it is always comforting to see the queen as she goes in. I guess it will just bee something to cause angst until we get in there again. On the same day that we re-homed the bees from Larry, I decided to look in on our Earth Day packaged bees since we were all geared up, and check whether the queen had been released from her cage. No, she had not. Three days had passed, so I decided rather than let her die in her cage, I would release her myself. The bees had to be used to her already. They surrounded her cage, but they didn’t seem to be attacking it to get her out. I tried to pull the plug off on the end away from the candy, but that didn’t work. So, I decided to pry the screen off the front of the cage. As I lifted the screen with my hive tool, the queen began to climb out of the cage. Suddenly, the screen slipped from my hive tool and slammed onto the queen’s back. I was shocked, but not paralyzed, and I lifted the screen. The queen completed her climb into the abyss of frames and disappeared. Still in shock, I second-guessed what I had seen. I did see her crawl, right? I didn’t see her drop, right? I closed up the hive feeling really ashamed and upset with myself, and then I fed them some more sugar water.

Hiving our two nucs. (Photo by author.)

I felt totally incompetent. I even went into the garage and tried to re-enact my screen lift. I let it snap off the hive tool. I noticed that it was not quite a snap, and there was even a small space between the screen and the wooden cage when released. Maybe there was a real chance that she survived my blunder. Only time will tell.

The pinnacle of all my dark thoughts and worries came next when the bees had calmed. I decided to move the robber bar off the front of the Earth Day bees. I noticed that there was a piece of Styrofoam stuck to the inside of the bar. It had been shredded by the bees, and there were many dead bees on the doorstep. Apparently, I had actually blocked the entrance of the hive with the robber bar, and the residents had to chew their way into their home through Styrofoam the day before. Do bees eat Styrofoam or just shred it? Did I poison my bees? Here I am trying to do the nurturing caring things for my girls, and I completely sabotage them. More things to try to make it better only make it worse. I can only wait to see the result. In the meantime, beekeeping for me is still an emotional rollercoaster and I will worry and think about my bees and pray for their queen.

Questions? See our Facebook post.

Janice Fisher is a writer, physical therapist, and beekeeper from Annapolis.

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