Postmortem

photo (18)

I didn’t have a lot of time last Sunday, but I managed to clean out one of the hives in the morning. (Then we got pounded by a winter storm, so the other is still waiting its turn.) It was pretty obvious that the colony was too cold and too wet. They had completely propolized (sealed with resin) over the mesh vents at the top of the hive. I have to assume it’s because they were cold and were trying to seal out drafts. Unfortunately, as my husband pointed out, “Bees aren’t HVAC technicians. They don’t know they need ventilation.” I had hoped instinct would have helped them out, but they effectively left the hive without a way to get rid of condensation–which then gets cold and “rains” back down on the bees. Bees are okay at being cold, but they can’t be wet.

As pointed out by Rusty on the HoneyBeeSuite blog–would you rather go camping in 40 degree weather with a wet sleeping bag, or in 20 degree weather with a dry sleeping bag? The choice is obvious. Temperature puts you at risk, but being wet will kill you.

I ended up making three stacks of comb:

  • Comb with honey that I can harvest
  • Comb with honey and mold that I’m not going to harvest (because ick), but that I can save for new bees.  They will clean up the mold and be happy to have honey to eat.
  • Empty/not well formed comb that I can use for wax

I ended up with an entire nuc (8 frames) of moldy comb that will give a great start to a new colony in the spring, about 12 half-full combs of honey, and about 8 partial combs of wax.

So that’s the silver (golden?) lining of losing a hive–you end up with some honey. honeycomb

I love to see the different shades of honeycomb. colored comb
The darker the comb, the older it is. You can see some of this has been used many times by the bees. It doesn’t have much wax left in it & once you melt it down it’s pretty papery and skims off the top as gunk called slumgum which makes a good firestarter for future use.

I didn’t find the queen, but she could have been hidden in the general mass of sopping wet dead bees at the bottom. I scooped them out and tossed them under my birdfeeders. Hopefully someone will get a good protein boost once this snow melts!  Looking forward to new bees in the spring.

 

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Oh, the Beemanity!

Again, we’ve had a few days with temps around 50, so I’d really expected to see more bees flying around and have seen, well….none. I have my first Master Beekeeper class tonight, so the hubby fed into my worries and said maybe I should check on the bees first (therefore, I’d have something to talk about). So, I did. And they’re all gone. Both hives. Damn.
photo 5

I’m not as devastated as I imagined I’d be when I lost a first hive. I think it’s because I’m so confused and want to know what happened. It’s possible they starved. I found honey in both hives, but if the bees were too far away from it (i.e. on the other end of the hive), they might not have had the energy to get back to eat. I did find some dead bees head first inside the cells–which means they died eating/trying to find honey. photo 3ircle

But I’m considering the more likely theory that they were too wet and cold. The insulation that I so wisely put on top of the hives was wet underneath which means it was trapping moisture. There’s a spot at the ends of the roof to let out moisture & it was not blocked but the outside of the roof, itself, was wet. The top bars were dry, though, so the inside of the hive wasn’t wet.

I’ve closed the hives back up for now because I have to leave for class in half an hour, but tomorrow I’ll be out to go through everything and see if I can figure out what happened. Anita at Beverlybees has a great article about how to autopsy your hive which I will be studying tonight.

Dead bees in a puddle of honey. Sad. photo 1

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Brrrrr…..Winter Bees

new-year-bee
First of all, Happy New Year to you & yours! We traveled for Thanksgiving, but hunkered down and had a quiet family Christmas at home this year. Which is why I get to show you my fantastic (and ever growing–thanks to the wonderful people in my life) group of bee-related Christmas ornaments! Click to see them in all their glory. And yes, my knitting friends, the one on the right is felted wool! My besties know me SO well.

ornaments

It’s been generally chilly and damp here in Oregon since late October when I last checked on the bees.

After Thanksgiving, I finally decided to insulate the hives. I didn’t do it last year & they overwintered just fine, but I figured a little help might be nice. I bought two sheets of rigid foam insulation from Home Depot and trimmed them to fit the top and sides. Then I hit up Harbor Freight for some cheap strapping and was set.

Insulated Hive

I made sure to leave an entrance open for the bees. While they can’t really fly when the temperature is below 50 degrees, they do enjoy the rare warm sunny winter day to head out, check for food & water, and take their cleansing flights (i.e. they don’t go potty inside the hive….they just hold it until it’s warm enough to fly out!).

entrance

On days like today where the sun was out and things were feeling warm(-ish), I really expected to see some bees flying around. When I saw no activity from either hive, I started to worry. I knocked on the hive, but didn’t hear anything (you can usually hear a low buzz), but I’m not the best at hearing through the hive even when I know the girls are doing well. So, I unwrapped one side and tried to see through the window. No bees, but I didn’t expect much. It’s very hard to see anything in winter because the bee ball is wedged up high in the comb where it’s warm. Yep, the bee ball. Bees don’t hibernate, they just make a ball and do the shuffling penguin thing where everyone gets a turn staying warm in the middle.

I had noticed back in October what looked like a small spot of fuzzy white mold staring to form on one of the honeycombs I could see through the window. Now it’s bigger–about the size of a quarter.

mold

Okay, I was really getting worried, now. Either I’ve lost the hive and might as well start cleaning it up now, or they’re fine and hiding from me but I’d rather have peace of mind. I figured it was almost 50 degrees, so even if I found the bees, it shouldn’t be enough exposure to chill them too much. Time to crack that sucker open.

I pried up the two bars closest to the end which is where I expected the bees to be hanging out. Nothing. Heavy honeycomb, which is good, but no bees or noise which is not good. *sigh* I carefully pried up the next two and still nothing. Damn. With a little panic setting in, I loosened the next four in quick order. And heard a buzz! A sweet little high-pitched buzz! Oh, what a sound! I dropped the bars right back down so as to not let too much cold air in. Kindly, the girls dropped down enough for me to see them in the window. There don’t seem to be very many, which is probably why they haven’t taken care of the mold yet, but it was good enough for me to know they’re doing okay.

bees

What a relief! I closed everything up lickety-split and didn’t even bother stressing out the other hive. Been surviving on their own for thousands of years without my help, right? But I manage to freak out anyway.

In other awesome news, I applied & have been accepted into the Oregon Master Beekeeping program that starts next month. I’m excited to learn all there is to know about these fantastic insects!
OSU

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Watch the Bee Cam

For those of you who wonder what goes on inside a hive, you can thank my father-in-law who sent me this link to a bee cam in Germany. I’ve also added it to a tab at the top so you can check it out whenever you visit! Super cool and fun to watch.

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Beekeeping Conference

workshops

This weekend, I attended the first annual Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference out in Forest Grove, OR.  The event was dreamed up & orchestrated by Kat Nesbit of Bliss Honeybees.  She is an amazing hostess, beekeeper and organizer extraordinaire!

The conference was amazing.  I think Kat had to finally cap registration at 150 attendees. We were treated to lectures and classes by the fantastically brilliant Dr. Tom Seeley (Honeybee Democracy), Dr. Deborah Delaney, Les Crowder (of top bar fame), Kirk Webster, Melanie Kirby, Matt Reed (owner of Portland’s Bee Thinking), Dr. Sujaya Rao, Eliese Watson, Dr. Lynn Royce, and Kirk Anderson.

I think when an event is held close to your home, I default to think of it as local.  I couldn’t have been more wrong about assuming this was a small little local conference.  There were beekeepers there from Washington; Michigan; Delaware; Idaho; all over California; Calgary, Alberta; Vancouver, B.C.; and even New Zealand.  Wow!

There’s always something new to learn with bees.  The topics ranged from swarm activity & decision making, to different types of hives (Warre, Top Bar), queen grafting, community involvement, bee genetics & sustainability, selective breeding, and even honey ice cream!  It was fun to have a combination of lectures and practical experience.  There were about 10 hives set up in a soccer field that we got to play with.  One of my favorite things was practicing marking queens (using drones since they don’t sting).  The hives were were supposed to be using didn’t have any drones, so we had to grab some off of Dr. Seeley’s swarm demo board.  Our instructor, Dr. Delaney, was even brave enough to mark a few workers for us!

I was also impressed with Elise Watson’s ability to stand straddle over a ground-level top bar hive and inspect it.  That surely would have gotten me stung somewhere undesirable!

Maybe her bravado comfort level with the bees inspired me, but I came home on Sunday and figured I should check my hives since I hadn’t done so in weeks and was worried there might be some crazy cross-combing going on.  There was a little, but nothing too bad.  The girls are really starting to bring in the honey! So much so that I may have to start moving things around so they have more space.  I had trouble keeping my smoker going and I really think my bees hate the smoke.  They seemed to do better when I wasn’t smoking them (i.e. they sent some aggressive guard bees after me when I smoked them), so I might try some sugar water next time & see if that keeps them busy.  I got through the first hive and 2/3rds of the way through the second before I got stung on the knuckle of my left ring finger.  So much for finishing that hive–I had to run in and pull off my rings quickly before my finger started to swell!    For all you gawkers out there, I had one of my kids take a picture of my hands side-by-side. I hope you can tell that I’ve totally lost the bones in my left hand.  It’s like I have a pudgy baby hand or when I had swollen pregnancy feet and could push a dent in my skin.  I can’t even make a fist.  Taking my Benadryl/Ibuprofin cocktail multiple times daily, but it doesn’t do much (or I’m completely terrified at what it might look like if I weren’t taking drugs!).  Tomorrow (day 3) is usually the worst for me and then it goes back down from there. *Click for full, horrifying effect.*

bee-stung handAfter that hand picture, I think it’s appropriate to end with a quote I read today from The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus.  The context is that in older mandarin orange groves bees are unwelcome because they could cross pollinate those yummy seedless oranges with pollen from a seeded orange and ruin the whole crop–but for many it’s easier to prohibit bees than to replant with new sterile oranges that aren’t as affected by cross-pollination.  But even out of context, I feel this quotation gets to the heart of beekeeping:

Unless, of course, you are a beekeeper.  Unless you need billions of flowers to feed      billions of insects that you can’t truly possess, that you can’t control, that can’t read NO TRESPASSING signs or understand the concepts of no-fly zones or hybridization or changing consumer preference.  Unless you love something that can’t love you back, that is just as happy to hurt you, that lives without concern for its keeper or his profit margins or his pride, and that dies with astonishing indiscretion–that simply does what it was born to do.

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Hawthorn Heaven

Our Hawthorn trees bloomed early this week and the bees are ecstatic! If you stand under our trees, you can hear them humming with life. It’s such a beautiful sound. I took a video the other day hoping you could hear the hum.  You’ll get the gist if you crank your speakers up to 11, but it’s difficult to capture.  You can see lots of bees on the flowers, even if I can’t show you the enormous scale of hundreds of bees on a single tree.
 
In fact, we had a package delivered on Wednesday and the UPS guy said, “Oh my god, there are a LOT of bees on that tree!”  I told him we had beehives in the backyard, but to be honest, these trees drew tons of bees even before we had hives.  Probably now they’re just more my girls than wild bees, but I saw three different types of bees on there this morning. The flowers must taste fantastic!
My favorite part of spring/early summer is to walk out in the morning and listen to the trees. I can still see a few buds left, so we probably have a few more days to enjoy them.
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Coronation Day

I can’t believe it, but they did it–we have a queen!  I inspected the hives today and found 6-7 bars full of brood in the first hive. Let’s all do the happy bee dance! What a sigh of relief.  I found the queen on bar 10. Do you see her?
Image
 She’s just below the central empty spot near the bottom.  Shiny & orange.

Then I moved to inspect hive #2.  Pulled all the bars, didn’t see a queen.  What?  I start to doubt myself and get that icky feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I know I shook off that comb of larvae to make sure I didn’t accidentally transfer this queen to the other hive.  Hmmm… I see lots of capped brood which means there was a queen at least 7 days ago….which is about when I transferred that comb*.  Crap.  I may have royally (excuse the pun) screwed up.  What if I mistakenly put this queen in the other hive and now these bees are queenless?  UGH!

I check every bar as I go down the whole hive. Nothing.  No new, open brood.  But then I start to wonder that one week wouldn’t be long enough for hive #1 to raise a new queen, have her mate and start laying.  Plus, I didn’t see any queen cells on the transferred comb (though I suppose they could have removed them). Where did she come from?

Okay, I need to look again.  I check the bars as I put the hive back together.   Somewhere around bar 6 or 7 a worker decides I’ve been peering in through their roof for too long and stings me on the pinky finger.  Yes, I had one glove off because I aspire to eventually work gloveless, but need to mentally work up to it. So much for that. I immediately take my rings off because we all know my fingers are going to look like sausages tomorrow.

But I can’t let it deter me from finding the queen.  At the very least, I have to close up the hive before I go inside.  I sort through a few more bars and THERE on bar 11–the queen!  Hallelujah.  We have two queenright hives!  Amazing insects, these girls.

I can now breathe easy and let them go about their work for a few weeks before another check.  What a great way to go into a sunny weekend!

*I looked back at the blog and found that I actually transferred the comb on May 20th which would be 11 days ago.  It takes about 23 days from egg for a new queen to be fertile, so even if the larvae were 3 days old when transferred, she’d still only be 14 days old & still two days from hatching.  So, what the hell happened?  I have no idea.  Is it possible that I missed the queen before?  Maybe, but they still didn’t have any brood, so why wasn’t she laying?  One possibility is that they’d already made a new queen and she was newly mated and coincidentally didn’t start laying until after I transferred the brood.   I guess I don’t really care as long as she’s here now.  Just weird.  Always learning with honeybees!

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