To our dismay (but not surprise) neither of our hives survived the winter. We’ve heard that a lot of RI beekeepers lost hives, perhaps because many of us have southern bees—ours came from Georgia last spring. The two colonies were never very robust, and this winter was bitter cold, so perhaps they didn’t stand a chance.
This year we are buying northern bees—a nuc (with an already active queen). We are getting them through an interesting new store in Providence called Cluck. The store’s owner will make the trip to a Vermont apiary in the middle of a May night. This way all the working bees will have returned to their hives, and will wake up (hopefully) to a new home in RI. We will try to do better by them.
From the start, our second hive struggled. We found its queen still in her cage two days after installation (the bees need to eat through the candy plug to free her). We interceded and, once released, the queen began to lay eggs—but never in great quantity. Then we couldn’t find her. The diminishing brood cells indicated she had gone, died, or stopped laying. We did find some queen cells though, which we left in hopes the hive would successfully make their own queen.
In the other, stronger hive, over-population became a concern—we didn’t want them to split off in a swarm. So after a couple weeks with no signs of a queen in the second hive, we pulled frames laden with capped brood and honey from the strong hive and placed them in the weaker one. Then we crossed our fingers that, with this minor intervention, the hive would solve its own problem.
And it did! We checked a week ago and Cherisse spied a new queen busily at work (we know she isn’t the original because she has no identifying dot). This past weekend we checked again, and the new queen has been laying eggs. Thanks to a combined effort, we may have averted disaster in both hives—avoiding a swarm and buying the other hive enough time (with stolen brood) to hatch their own queen. The next couple of months will be a critical time for both hives, as they work to build a strong, steady stream of brood and put away enough honey to see them through the winter. We’ll watch their progress.
Our second hive has been successfully installed—a much livelier (and bigger) colony than the one from two weeks ago. Sunday we will check both hives. In the first we hope to see further signs of egg laying and capped brood. In the new hive we will make sure the bees have released their queen.
Nearly a week has gone by since the bees released their queen. By now we should see signs of egg laying, and in some cells, larvae beginning to take shape. The worker bees should be gathering pollen and making food from sugar water (until they can collect nectar). This week they’ve gone through close to a quart of sugar water a day—a good sign.
A busy hive greeted us. We saw new comb being made, and cells filled with food and pollen. Frame by frame we looked for the queen (marked helpfully with a red dot for easier identification…when the bee population swells to summer strength, identifying her in the mass will be difficult, even given her larger size). And then we found her, on a frame near the center of the hive, working harmoniously with the others.
Examining the frames swarming with bees, through our mesh bee hats, we have a difficult time making out egg cells. To help, we took pictures of each frame and enlarged them on the computer….and saw signs of new life. All is well.
This Saturday we will pick up the bees for our second colony and install them, and begin this process again.
As members of the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association, we can participate in the annual bee run to Georgia. Someone from the organization makes this round-trip twice in April—a less stressful way for the bees to get to their new homes in New England.
Cold weather in Georgia reduced the number of available bees, so this past Saturday we were only able to pick up one of the two 3 lb. packages we’d ordered. However, we were happy to have them, and eager to install them in the hive Cherisse had cleaned up earlier in the week. All going well, we’ll get the second package with the other colony in two weeks.
Around 12,000 bees arrived in a wire cage the size of a shoebox. Inside that box was a much smaller wire cage that contained the queen and a few “nurse bees” that attended her. A candy plug and piece of cork kept the queen and her attendants separate from the rest of the colony until we pried out the cork and hung the queen cage in a space we’d made by removing one of the frames. If they accept her, the bees eat through the candy and release her. This allows for a more gradual introduction of the queen, and reduces the likelihood that she’ll be rejected.
Once we had the queen cage hanging from the frame, we shook all of the bees into the hive, gave them a jar of sugar water for food, and covered them up.
Yesterday (two days later) we checked on the queen. This timing is critical because if she isn’t released in 48 hours, we would need to intervene. To our great relief, the bees had eaten through the candy plug. We didn’t look for the queen—it was enough to know she was out and the less we disturb them in the beginning the more easily they’ll settle in. In a few days we’ll see if she has begun laying eggs; if so, we’re off to a good start. (If we don’t see brood we will look for the queen. Most likely we won’t find her, and we’ll need to get a replacement queen immediately.)
I’ve enjoyed watching activity in the hive entrance once again. From a distance you can just see a shimmer, like heat bouncing off hot pavement, as the bees hover waiting their turn to enter the hive. Right now they will only find pollen on their foraging trips, but soon flowers will bloom and they can collect nectar as well. Once again, Cherisse and I are beekeepers.
An occasional bee hovers over the blooming crocuses, and I realize how much I miss our own honeybees. It was so exciting to see the bees fly from their hives after the long winter to begin to replenish their supplies. This Saturday we will pick up bees for two new colonies and start over—avoiding last year’s mistakes, and as many new ones as possible.
A recent article in The New York Times told of a big decline in commercial bee populations over the winter, “wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.”
Beekeepers and researchers believe that new pesticides “incorporated into the plants themselves” are to blame. This seems so obvious to me—pesticides kill insects indiscriminately. Commercial bees are shipped around the country, pollinating one single crop at a time. So it seems equally obvious that these bees would be more vulnerable, with the stress of frequent travel and the lack of diversity in each monoculture they pollinate. Honeybees’ saving grace may be their importance to our food system—because bees are so essential in pollinating a large portion of our food supply, we have to take notice; it is critical that a solution is found.
With our two hives, we have only ourselves to blame. We mishandled our swarm last summer and failed to replace the older queen in time. In other ways we’ve done what we can to help them survive, planting a diverse array of flowering plants which bloom through spring, summer and fall. And of course we use no pesticides on our property. So with more experience and good intentions we hope our new hives will prosper for years to come.
Today was windy, but pretty warm, so we finally decided to open up the beehive and see how our diminished colony was faring. We found complete devastation. Every bee had died, some in clusters; many were inside comb cells, with only their backs sticking out, making a beautiful pattern. We found no signs of mites. The bees looked fine, just lifeless, so our assumption is that they simply froze to death. We knew their numbers were so few they were unlikely to survive the winter—their survival depends on their ability to keep warm, and they need a large population to generate warmth.
We went through the frames, examining each one carefully. A lot of honey is still left, which we will extract. Some of the frames have a gray film on them that we will attempt to identify.
It is a sad day. We let our bees down. The moment we knew their population had grown too large we should have given them more space by adding another super. Instead they swarmed. Then we were unsuccessful with the new queens we introduced to both the hives (the queens were accepted, but they never produced enough brood). As their numbers dropped, so did their chances for survival.
Bees have a fairly short life and they spend it working hard, with the sole focus of perpetuating their colony. They died a little prematurely, and failed to produce the next generation. This failure was ours as well. We will try again, ordering new bees, building new frames (in case there is any disease in the ones we have). And we will try to learn from our mistakes so in some way our lost hives will benefit future generations.
Hurricane Sandy is making herself felt, just fourteen months after Irene left us without power for eight days. We spent yesterday preparing. The generator, purchased after last year’s ordeal, is gassed up and ready to go if needed. We dug up the potatoes and carrots, and pulled out the celeriac and kohlrabi. Only the parsnips remain in the garden (if they stay in the ground through a frost they will get sweeter). I also potted rosemary and thyme plants, bringing them inside for winter use. Sage is drying from a hook in the dining room. The gardens need a lot more clean up, but that can wait until next weekend.
I was headed to New York City for work, but public transportation stopped running at 7 pm last night. Bridges and tunnels are closing—shutting off all access to the city. My mother, safely in her apartment, said that yellow tape blocked the entrance to Riverside Park.
While rain and wind buffet the house, Cherisse is in the kitchen removing honey from numerous frames. Our bees are not going to survive the winter. The oldest hive has almost no bees left, and the newer hive has too few to make it through. We aren’t exactly sure where we went wrong, but we think that our two replacement queens simply were not productive. I am sure human error played a big role.
Once the storm passes we will check the hives again; we want to see how many bees are in the newer hive and then we might leave them with honey, and see if they can make it. We are taking the frames from the older hive because they don’t need it, plus we don’t want other creatures (rodents most likely) to take advantage of the defenseless hive and steal the honey. This surplus of honey for us comes at a sad cost. Next spring we will have to buy new colonies and start over again—hopefully just a little wiser.
We checked the beehives today. The older hive seems to be busier than the newer one, but both have a good amount of capped brood, and capped honey. The new queens came with a yellow dot, to make it easier to identify them among the mass of bees, but we couldn’t pick them out in either hive—the brood is an indication that the queens are there, but it would have been reassuring to actually see them.
Many of the bees seem really tiny, and a few seem ancient—almost papery looking, moving more slowly over the comb, but still active. Perhaps the older ones hung in longer than usual to keep the hives going during the dark days when no queen was laying eggs. Now newer generations are emerging, and can take over.
In the garden the honeybees cover the echinacea, filling up their sacs with the flower’s pollen. We’ve had an abundance of flowering plants, drawing a wide range of bees (from tiny ones attracted to the even tinier flowers of the yarrow, to big fat bumble bees). The easy access and close proximity to food is probably a saving grace for our dangerously depleted hives.
When we open the hives we are suited up, and armed with the smoker (and now a sugar spray which distracts the bees). Honeybees are not aggressive, but they will protect their home, so they don’t like us pulling out the frames and examining them. However, because we are protected, and work quickly and methodically, I never feel alarmed (which is good, because bees can also sense fear, and that makes them uneasy).
I have also become accustomed to bees flying around me in the garden, and so I ignored repeated warnings from some wasps last weekend. I was trimming the forsythia and viburnum bushes, which had such huge growth spurts they created too much shade in the flower garden. I heard the buzzing but paid no heed, until finally getting stung twice, on the forehead and elbow, by what looks like a baldfaced hornet (mostly black, with white). I later found their papery nest in the bush, which I had been pushing up against. So the bushes will remain untrimmed, and I will pay more attention to warnings.
On Wednesday we had a birth and a death. A healthy chick emerged and seems determined to catch up to its four-day old siblings. That excitement was dampened by the loss of an Ancona—our favorite breed, and the one that lays the prettiest eggs. Cherisse had made a trip to Allie’s Tack and Feed, so she was gone and the dogs were in the house. When she returned, Oliver picked up a scent and—as with the Dominique a month earlier—led Cherisse to the discovery of a pile of Ancona feathers. Now we have six laying hens, a rooster, a mother hen and four baby chicks of undetermined sex.
This same day Cherisse checked the hives to see how the queens were doing in their new homes. Signs of their acceptance by the colonies were evident in the abundance of newly laid eggs and capped brood. The bees, which become aimless without a queen, have renewed purpose. It appears the hives will survive…little thanks to us.