The (Dead) Bee Report

In true procrastinator form, after ignoring the fact that one of my bee hives had died out much earlier this winter, I finally cleaned up the hive and brought it inside.

In extra true procrastinator form I did it today because it was sunny and cold and beautiful outside and I was doing all I could to avoid my inside chores.


I’m sure you will be pleased to know that unlike the mess of a mouse nest I expected to find in a hive that had been left out for part of the winter, (because of course this isn’t the first time I’ve made such a poor decision) it was empty.

All that was inside was a small cluster of dead bees still clinging around hundreds of bee butts sticking out of empty cells. A sad sight.dead bees in frame

The cluster was much smaller than I expected which made me wonder if the hive was never as big and strong as I had thought it was. Perhaps that was why it was the target of the robbing behavior last fall and they never would have made it through the winter anyway. Or perhaps the robbing threw them off, destroying so much of their home, hive and brood that it caused them to be low in number going into winter.dead bees in frame

Whatever it is, it drives home the fact that the longer I keep bees the more I know how little I really know.

After shaking off what bees we could and cleaning up the hive for transport into the garage for the rest of the winter, Jane and I spent some time poking about in the pile of dead bees. I’m going to fob this behavior off as “investigative research”  but I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty fascinating to look through the pile of bees. Frozen and dead they look very much the same as when they were alive and the hairs on their legs will still “grab” onto jacks and gloves and each other. Sifting through the pile I only saw one (dead) mite still clinging to it’s host which I shall take to be a good sign. And after a bit of searching we pulled the queen out of the pile and were able to take her back to the house for a morbid little photo shoot.

Queen bee on top with one of her daughters below to show the size difference.

Queen bee on top with one of her daughters below to show the size difference.

While we looked through the dead hive evidence of cleansing flights from the live hive was all around us and they appear to be doing fine. I’m crossing my fingers and making a note to check them during the next warm spell, it can be hard to be a hive of bees in the winter that might be counting on a little extra care from an expert procrastinator.



Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

I stood in front of a room full of people and hoped they didn’t notice the “Oh shit!” look that had just crossed my face.

It wasn’t that the presentation my friend and I were in the middle of giving on bees and beekeeping wasn’t going well (for two hobbyist beekeepers putting together our first talk, I felt like it was going quite well). It wasn’t even that my shirt was on inside out (I caught that problem early and already fixed it) or that my sandal broke (I was barefoot and fine with it). No, it was that my friend had just explain how in the fall there is a dearth of nectar for the bees and that this is the time of year they will often turn to robbing behaviors, descending on another hive and stealing all their honey stores. Then he mentioned how it’s best to tighten up your hive, reduce the main entrance and block off smaller entrances completely so a hive has a chance to defend itself against robbing bees.

robbing bees

Standing in front of a room of people who are under the impression that you might know what you are talking about is an unfortunate time to realize you forgot to do the very thing you are in the middle of telling them they should do.  An “Oh shit” moment if I’ve ever had one.

Which might have been a totally acceptable as a “do as I say not as I do/ I’ve never run into this problem” sort of moment except that, for the first time, one of my two hives had been robbed.

A week ago I had been sitting at the table working on the very presentation we were giving when Jane looked out the window behind me and asked why there were so many bees. My pat answer of, “Oh, there are just lots of flowers,” died on my tongue when I looked out and saw that our house seemed to be surrounded by bees.  Further investigation found that not only was our house surrounded by bees, but they seemed aimless, bumbling into the side of the house and totally docile. Which was good  (because our house was surrounded by bees) but bad because something was definitely up with the bees. I went to the hives to see what they were doing and discovered one of the hives was also surrounded by bees.

robbing bees

I put on my bee suit to investigate up close and came to no definitive conclusions in the small amount of time I had before I had to walk Jane slowly and calmly  through a bumbling mass of bees (Turns out Jane doesn’t naturally do slow and calm when faced with hundreds of bees) to leave for the rest of the day.

The next chance I got, I went back out to the hives and discovered the one that had been surrounded by bees weighed almost nothing. The 60 or so pounds of honey I had left for that hive to live on through the winter when I extracted earlier in the month was all gone. After ten plus years of beekeeping it seemed like a rude introduction to my first robbing experience but live and learn right?

Except here I was listening to the presentation, that I had helped write, that we had gone over more than once and here was my friend saying, again, how we should reduce our entrances in the fall and I still hadn’t done it and I had already lost a hive’s worth of honey, and therefore quite likely the entire hive because of it.

Do as I say, not as I do.

This all would have been a bit sad, slightly ironic, but essentially fine, until the very next morning when I went to let the dogs in the door and they came in with a retinue of honey bees. Again the house was being surrounded by bees. I headed out to the hives to find that my other hive, was surrounded by bees. Smarter now, in theory anyway, I found my entrance reducers and closed their big “front door” down to a small opening and to the annoyance of many, many bees stuffed grass in the upper hive entrances. Then I crossed my fingers told them to kick those rotten intruders to the curb and and ran off, now late, to the rest of my day.

That evening when I got home I checked, there were still more bees and activity than their should have been and the grass plugs had been ripped out.  I haven’t had the heart or the chance to check the hive yet. I worry that my two strong hives have been reduced to food-less weaklings that won’t make it through the winter without huge amounts of supplemental feeding and even then it will be dicey.

Live and learn.

The hive that already had been robbed had it's grass door still in place.

The hive that already had been robbed had it’s grass door still in place.

And so another season of beekeeping is coming to a close and, as always, I have learned something. This year I learned that when you have other hives in the neighborhood that advice about closing up the hive in the fall is not to be taken lightly. On the other hand I haven’t learned why my house was surrounded by so many aimless bees. Their odd behavior totally threw me off track and I missed that my hive was being robbed that first day. But I’m not hopeless, because I also learned that when they showed up around the house again I needed to head out to help protect my hives even if I still didn’t understand why they were congregating at the house in the first place.

Live and Learn.

honey bees

As we put together our talk we discussed that we’ve probably learned more in our combined years of beekeeping by messing things up and doing things the wrong way than anything else. Which is why, during the Question and Answer session, when asked what advice we’d give to a new beekeeper that we wish we had known when we started I nodded my head vigorously to my friends suggestion of finding a mentor.
honey bee

And now, another day wiser, I’d like to add, “And do as they say, not as they do!”



Sorting the Hives

Neither of my bee hives made it though the winter.

Again.bee hives

To add another layer of insult, I’m pretty sure that I’m worse at overwintering hives now than I was when I started this whole apiary thing ten years ago.  It could be the genetics of the bees, it could be mites, it could be funky winter weather, or it could just be that I’m easily distracted by fluffy white flakes and warm fires and I’m a terribly inattentive winter bee keeper.bee hives

Next year, I tell myself once again, I will do things differently.bee hives

But for this year, there is nothing to be done but clean the hives in preparation for new bees.bee hives

I set the girls up and then watched from the sidelines as all three girls jumped into the project together.bee hives

They poked through the hives figuring out what happened (one starved, one froze), evicting the mice (serious excitement), comparing moldy bee colors, searching for the dead queen, and (helpfully) sorting the good frames from the bad.bee hives

Next year I’ll do better.bee hives

But this year, despite my dead bees, I couldn’t help but enjoy the process.

The Littlest Beekeeper

It was one of those long circular discussions but in the end Clara agreed, no pet bees would be living in the house.

Had Jane been paying attention to our conversation, rather than cowering and screaming each time an escapee honey bee from the two packages in the back of the truck whizzed near her, she would have been relieved.

Clara inspects the two packages of bees.

Clara inspects the two packages of bees.

Even I, the one who brought the idea of beekeeping and then the bees into our life, draw the line at house bees.

But neither of us could stop Clara from dreaming and wondering… What if she could hold still enough that one would land on her… and maybe stay on her hand during dinner… and she could feed it some honey… and if it was there at breakfast she could give it a little more…

“What if… Mom… What if…”

Clara holding up the queen bee in her cage for inspection.

Clara holding up the queen bee in her cage for inspection.

Needless to say Clara was a willing and enthusiastic helper when it came time to hive the bees that evening. (Jane stayed in the house with Ivy.)Clara and John open bee package

Clara listened to what needed to be done. She watched as John and I installed the first hive and then grabbing her own little hive tool, did it herself on the second.

Clara dumping the bees into the hive.

Clara dumping the bees into the hive.

As the final bees got shook out of their box and into the hive, she caught some on her glove, “What if just one of them stayed on my hand Mom…”Clara in bee suit

“What if…”

Domestic Momster

Dead Bees On Snow!

I was out walking the dogs on a bright sunny afternoon, enjoying the relative warmth after our recent cold snap, when I checked on the beehives.  Even from a distance, I could tell that the ground around the hives was littered with dead bees and I smiled as I went to take a closer look.dead bees in the snow

I smiled, not because I’m the world’s meanest beekeeper, but because I know that dead bees on snow are a sign that the hives are still alive and well.

The bees, unable to fly out at all when it gets very cold, wait for warm winter days when they can take short flights outside as they clean out their hive. When the snow around the hive is littered with droppings and dead bees it may look like a massacre but it’s actually a very good sign.

Sure enough, when I looked a little closer, someone was looking back at me!bee peeking out of hive in winter

There is still a lot of winter left but I’m crossing my fingers and hoping to keep seeing dead bees on snow through the rest of it!