Minding the Bees

It’s almost impossible to pay close attention to anything these days and not succumb to Monkey Mind and go leaping wildly from one “shiny” to the next. Thinking deeply about anything has become a luxury we mistakenly think we can’t afford. Although I deliberately try not to “multitask,” and I do what I can to guard against overstimulation whenever possible, still I notice myself losing focus far more often than I’d like, skimming the surface of thoughts, skipping from one thing to the next, and generally trying to do way too much at once. Even when I mean to pay close attention to something or someone, more often than not, I let myself get distracted by my own thoughts, catch myself humming little tunes inside my head, start free associating on something I just saw or heard, or simply forget over and over that I really can’t do two things at once (for example, talk on the phone and simultaneously check my email) if I am to give my full attention to either one.

Last night I felt particularly jumpy after a distracting sort of day at work and more than a week of not hearing from my son who is deployed to Afghanistan with an infantry unit. Although I had a long list of things I wanted to do during the evening, I decided that first I should take twenty minutes to just lie on my back on the floor and try to focus only on my breath. I expected it would be somewhat difficult, but I was not prepared for the amount of effort it took to keep still and just breathe. I kept thinking of things I wanted to do, things I meant to do, things I forgot to do, things I needed to write down; I thought about people I hadn’t heard from and wanted to call; I kept trying to remember what was coming up on the calendar, and I had to stop myself several times from jumping up to go see. I felt myself get irritated at sounds out in the street (loud engines, children arguing, dogs barking, basketballs bouncing). How can I possibly be “mindful” with all that racket going on, I thought. And even though we have a clock that chimes on the quarter hour, meaning I would be able to tell with my eyes closed when my self-allotted time was up, I kept opening my eyes every few minutes to see what time it was and then playing with the numbers in my head (counting up and down, subtracting, comparing). I continually had to bring myself back to my breath to try to quiet my mind. Eventually, I got close to a place of stillness, but when the clock started striking six, I didn’t even wait for it to finish before I got up. I obviously need much more practice in mindfulness.

I think that is what I love most about working with the bees. There is nothing like a hive of 70,000 bees or so to make you pay attention and focus on what you are doing. On Thursday as soon as we got home from work, we changed clothes, put the smoker and the hive tool in the truck, and then headed toward the river to our friends’ farm to check on the bees. It was about 70 degrees, overcast, and breezy. I was happy to be going back to the beeyard and anxious to see how they had fared over the winter. It felt good to be driving the familiar winding roads again, looking forward to visiting the bees after months of cold and snowy weather. As soon as we drove across the field and got close to the hives, we could see that bees were flying in and out of all three hives, which made me very happy. It felt right to be going through the rituals again on such a pleasant spring evening.

Jim gathered the fuel for the smoker, lit the fire, then pumped the bellows until smoke rolled out of the spout, while I fastened straps around my ankles to keep bees from flying up my pants legs and got the bee veils out of the truck. Then I looked around the field and jotted down some notes—peering up at the trees and out across the field to see what is coming into bloom, wondering what sources of nectar and pollen the bees are able to find. I heard spring peepers along the creek and saw a hawk soaring high above the trees. I watched the bees flying in and out of the hives.

photo of three bee hives in March

How the hives looked when we arrived

When the smoker was going good, we put on our veils and walked over to the hives. Because this was the first time we had been able to open up the hives since last fall, we looked through every box and noted the presence of pollen, honey, nectar, and brood. We were delighted to see plenty of capped brood and pollen, plus lots of baby bees, including some new ones just emerging from the cells. The honey stores are running a little light, however, so the adult bees are going to need some help until more nectar starts flowing a little later in the spring. We made plans to come back over the weekend with sugar syrup to fill the feeders.

Here is what we do when we check bees early in the spring (moving slowly and mindfully):

  • Squeeze the bellows on the smoker to send puffs of smoke under each hive to calm the bees and also see if we can chase out any mice that might have moved in under the hives during the winter. (None came running out that we saw.)
  • Starting with the hive on the right (the farthest from the one we dubbed “the wild hive” last summer), use the hive tool to pry off the cover. Notice that it is stuck tight with propolis that the bees have used to seal cracks during the winter. Set the cover upside down near the hive.
  • Blow puffs of smoke across the top of the hive and listen as the bees buzz loudly and briefly in unison before they descend into the hive.
  • Use the hive tool to scrape some of the propolis off the top edges of the box; then (using the same extremely handy hive tool) loosen the first frame until you can ease it out of the hive and hold it up for inspection. With luck, you’ll find a picture-perfect frame with the center cells filled with beautiful capped brood, surrounded by stores of bright yellow pollen and nectar. If you have started with a frame near the outside edge of the box, it is not unusual for the cells to be empty of brood, because the queen usually works from the middle of the box toward the outside. After inspecting the frame carefully to verify that the queen is not on that frame, lean it against the outside of the hive; that way you’ll have an easier time getting the other frames out to inspect.
  • photo of beekeeper inspecting frame of bees

    Inspecting the frame

    Pry the next frame out and repeat the process, except this time, put the frame back inside the hive rather than lean it against the outside of the box.

  • After looking at every frame in the top box, put the first frame back in, then lift the entire box and set it aside on top of the upside-down cover, so you can go through the next box down.
  • Repeat steps until you have looked at all ten frames in all the boxes of the hive.
  • This early in the spring, most of our hives contain only two hive bodies or brood chambers (the deeper boxes where we want the hive to build up their brood). One of the three hives also has two supers (the shallower boxes where we want bees to store their honey later in the summer). Throughout the spring and summer, as the number of bees in the hives increases, we will add more boxes on top of each hive to give them room to expand and store plenty of honey, so we can take some and leave plenty for them to get through next winter. Ideally, by harvest time, the larger boxes will be toward the bottom and the smaller supers filled with honey will be toward the top. (Boxes completely filled with honey are heavy.)
  • closeup photo of frame of capped brood

    A frame of beautiful capped brood

    When you get to the bottom board and screen, use the hive tool to scrape off any debris, shake out the screen, stamp down the earth beneath the hive if it appears that mice have been burrowing underneath, and rearrange the supporting bricks or boards, as needed.

  • Replace the bottom board and screen. Think about whether you need to rearrange the boxes or replace any frames). By this time, with the hive disassembled and the bees disoriented, there will be bees flying all about. The first time I stood in a beeyard filled with flying bees, I felt dizzy with all the motion and the buzzing going on around me and completely vulnerable with only a mesh cloth between me and “sudden death.” At that time, all the buzzing sounded the same, but I have learned to identify different sounds and can usually tell by their sound when the bees are happy and when they’re not. No matter how happy they might be when you first approach the hive, by the time you have messed with them and their hive is in disarray, some of the bees will undoubtedly have started investigating you more closely and may changed the tone of their buzzing to a louder, more aggressive warning kind of buzz, not the contented humming sort of buzz when they are working the flowers or the alarmed buzz when you smoke the hive. You might notice a couple bees coming up close to your face and hovering nearby peering into your veil, as though they were trying to look you in the eye and get your attention. Some guard bees will physically bump up against you to try to tell you to back off. The important thing is to remain calm, not flail around or swat at the bees, as you put the hive back together. Sometimes a little smoke helps as you re-stack the boxes.
  • Place the cover back on top.
  • Repeat the whole process with the remaining hives.

What we discovered with each hive was that the boxes lower down were basically empty, with no brood and no honey, so when we restacked the hives, we reversed the boxes, putting the empty ones up top. As I understand it, when the queen is laying eggs, she naturally moves up in the hive in her search for empty cells in which to deposit her eggs, so if we put the boxes of brood (where the queen is most likely to be) on the bottom and the empty boxes on top, the queen will be encouraged to move up into those empties as she continues laying eggs. Also, the feeders were originally in the bottom boxes, so having them toward the top will make it easier when we take sugar water down to the bees this weekend. (The feeders we use are plastic trays that fit in the space of a frame and can hold about three quarts of sugar water each).

We also discovered in one of the hives that three frames had big holes in the foundation (old damage from wax moths or mice from some earlier season), which would not bother the bees at all but would make it more difficult on us later, after the bees get going and fill in all the empty space with new comb. The same hive has already “made a mess” of comb around the feeder, which had warped and left spaces bigger than the traditional “bee space” that bees seem to like between each layer of comb. So they filled in the gaps with layers of creamy white comb that follows the natural shape of the warped plastic rather than the engineered straight lines of the frames, which beekeepers prefer. We left the feeder as is for now but looked through the stack of empty boxes at the edge of the beeyard and swapped out the damaged frames before the bees start building new comb in between the frames, which would make it difficult to remove frames without tearing up the comb.

 

photo of inside of bee hive

The bees will fill any available space with comb

If it’s not already too late, we need to order a couple queens so we can split one hive and requeen the more aggressive hive on the left (so we end up with four hives total). It is interesting how each hive has its own personality, with all the bees in one hive descended from a single queen. Some of the hives are easy to work with, while others are nasty brutes protecting their hive at all cost against robber beekepers like us. Last year the hive on the far left was one of those that we would always save for last and then work as quickly as possible, doing the bare minimum maintenance needed, and then getting out. Most of the stings I have gotten over the years have been from not paying attention (for example, putting my hand directly on a bee while moving boxes, panicking when a bee got stuck in my hair), but with this particular hive, some days it didn’t matter how much attention we paid. Sometimes just standing near the hive was enough to set them off. Usually they would give at least some warning (loud buzzing, aggressive body slamming), but sometimes they would sting any unexposed skin as soon as you approached the hive, before you even began to open it up.

One day, before I realized what was happening, three bees had stung my hand one right after the other, like little kamikaze fighters.  I had not yet even thought of putting my hands in their hive. Naturally, the most aggressive hives are sometimes the best honey producers, so it’s a tradeoff. At any rate, we want to requeen this hive, if possible. A queen will live about five or six years, but we generally try to requeen more often than that. Unfortunately for us, the hives don’t always accept the new queen we have picked out and will kill her and then raise their own. Then instead of getting baby bees emerging from eggs laid by the beautiful new queen we have selected for her gentleness and mite resistance and other positive qualities, we get yet another generation of dark angry bees descended from the old rogue queen, with all her unsavory characteristics.

photo of three bee hives in March

How the hives looked when we left

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