Category Archives: The Apiary

Getting the Hives Ready for Fall

It has been a beautiful fall, with plenty of warm sunny days and just enough cool nights to bring out the asters, one of the primary sources of nectar in fall. When we harvest, we try to leave enough honey for the bees to get through the winter (at least two boxes of capped honey per hive), but we also count on the late-blooming sweet clover, asters, and goldenrod to help boost the honey stores after we take off the supers. A couple years ago, the asters didn’t bloom, and one of our hives starved to death before winter even set in, so now we make sure we check in earlier in the fall, while there is still time to feed any hives that are ailing.

This year, when we checked on the hives in late September, about four weeks after harvest, the boxes seemed heavy enough, and the asters have been blooming right on schedule. We have  noticed lots of honeybees, bumble bees, and little butterflies on our asters in the front yard, but when we drive out in the country to check on our hives, we don’t see much that the bees can work on, which is disturbing. We just hope the bees are able to locate sources of nectar and pollen that we can’t see.

We also hope that if there really aren’t enough flowers within foraging distance of our hives that the bees have not been flying around using up energy and eating through their winter stores of honey on these warm days. We decided one day last week to go look in on the hives again, just to make sure things were all right.  Sure enough, the hives felt lighter than we had remembered, and there was only a little bit of fresh nectar in the cells.

Worse still, one of the hives with a new Carniolan queen, a hive that had been strong during the summer, now appeared to be in decline. There was very little honey left, and on closer inspection, Jim discovered that many of the bees had deformed wings. It is hard to describe the ache I feel when we discover that a hive is sick.  I don’t think of myself as a farmer, but when something like this happens to our hives, I can imagine how farmers must feel, after a season of good work gets wiped out overnight in a sudden hailstorm or succumbs to a virus or infestation that ruins an entire crop.

The Varroa mite is known to carry a virus that causes deformed wings, so we decided we should order some Apistan strips and treat the hives for mites, even though we did not see any mites on the brood or on the bottom board under the hive.  Still, we had not treated for mites this year, so we decided it couldn’t hurt and might help. On Saturday,  we headed back to the bee yard, armed with the mite strips, three gallons of sugar water, and division board feeders to insert into the hives.

The bees were relatively calm as we inspected their hives.All the drones have been pushed out of the hive by now, and the bees are getting ready for winter. Each hive had quite a bit of pollen and nectar, and all but one hive still have brood. We’ll need to keep an eye on the one to see if they still have a queen. We hope nothing has happened to her and that maybe she just quit laying eggs already.


Summer in the Bee Yard

I'm always amazed at how different each hive can be, even in the same bee yard. From left to right: swarm hive, extra lids, split hive, mortgage lifter, sick hive, other split.

This was certainly an exciting summer in the bee yard. In addition to the usual maintenance necessary every  spring, we caught a swarm in May, we split one of the hives that had gone rogue over the years, and we introduced a couple new queens.  Requeening is always exciting work, because you have to first find the old queen and remove her before you can introduce a new one. Otherwise, the bees will kill the new queen. (Sometimes they will do that anyway.)

Then in June, at possibly the worst time we could have picked, we had to move our hives to another bee yard,  in anticipation of flooding “of historic proportion” along the Mississippi River when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the flood gates upstream. Although our hives were about a mile from the river, they were very near a creek that backs up when the river floods, so we decided not to take a chance on losing the hives. As it turned out, the river ran high all year but not so high as to threaten our hives.

After we moved the hives to the new bee yard, we noticed that one of them was sick. For weeks, the hive had been building dozens of queen cells and bringing in little to no honey, but in all that time, they had not managed to raise a healthy queen, and the brood was now shriveled. Jim suspected European foulbrood, which is less deadly than American foulbrood, so we treated the hive with tetracycline, which seemed to help some but not enough. Eventually we decided to order a new queen, but by that time, there were not enough healthy adult bees to take care of the brood, and the hive seemed doomed. We tried feeding the hive to give them a boost, but  it was too little too late, and the hive finally died. I felt bad for the beautiful new queen, who never had a chance.

This summer made me appreciate even more how different every hive can be, even within a very small bee yard. Early on, Jim dubbed one of our hives the “mortgage lifter.” It started building up early after the winter and the thousands of field bees brought in honey continually throughout the summer, so we had to keep adding boxes to the top for more storage space (and to try to keep them from swarming). As is often the case, this hive was also more aggressive than the others, but it turned out to be the only hive that produced enough honey for us to harvest. The other hives were industrious enough but started out behind, with fewer bees and young or ailing queens.

I also found out this summer that I am officially allergic to bee venom. I have since begun to take shots to build up my immunity, because I don’t want to stop keeping bees. I also wear my gloves now and am considering getting a full bee suit (not just the bug-baffler hooded shirt I have been wearing for the past twelve years). I had been stung before without incident, but I had my suspicions, as early as last fall, that I might have a problem, when I was stung by three bees and immediately became dizzy and had to lie down on the gravel drive for a while. There’s nothing like lying on your back watching the clouds float across a brilliant blue sky to remind you how much you want to live—while your husband and dear friends worry over you and call 911.

Preparing to move the bees.

The Missouri River just below Cooper's Landing

If the river gets as high as predicted in the coming weeks, it will in all likelihood take out our bees, so we need to move the hives before the field floods. When our friends Hank and Marie let us put the bees on their land (about twelve years ago now), I thought they said that the place where we put the hives was far enough from the creek that it had not flooded  in 1993, but they told us Friday at the dance that they weren’t actually at home that summer, so they’re not sure how much of the field was flooded.

They do know, however, that when the river hits 26 feet in Jefferson City, Hank’s brother, who lives down a gravel road past the bee yard, has to canoe in; they themselves have to park near their upper gate and walk in. That is the stage at which the creek that runs through their property overflows its banks and completely floods the lower field as water from the Missouri River backs up into nearby creeks and spreads out across the bottomlands. During the last major flood, in 1995, their 100-year-old farm house was only about four feet above the floodwaters, and the house is quite a ways up the hill from where the bees are.

From what I can tell by poking around various websites for the Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atsmospheric Association, news releases from cities upstream, and other sites that post river levels along the Missouri River, it takes approximately eight days for the additional water to reach us from Gavins Point. The current flow rate is about 80,000 cubic feet per second; the flow rate could go as high as 150,000 by mid-June. The resultant flooding is expected to last for six weeks.

Even if the flooding turns out to be less dire than predicted and the water doesn’t reach all the way across the field to the bees, the field will most likely be too wet to drive in for a while and the bees won’t have anything nearby for forage. (I wonder what it does to the bees’ sense of navigation when all their usual landmarks are covered in water.) At last reading the river at Boonville was at 23.4 feet (21 is flood stage). Cooper’s Landing cancels all events when the river hits 26 feet in Boonville. It is odd to have flood warnings out when the skies are blue and my garden plants are in need of water.

The Bee Whisperer

On Thursday after work, we drove a little ways south of town to help friends figure out what was going on with their new bee hives. They were fairly sure that one of the hives had lost its queen, so they had ordered a new queen but wanted some advice before leaving town this weekend to perform in a music contest at Silver Dollar City. The dad had first kept bees a couple years ago, and one of the sons had built several bee hives as part of a 4-H project. They had also helped us retrieve a colony out of a bee tree that the city had knocked down during a road construction project several years ago. Since then, however, they had lost all their bees. They decided this year to start over and had ordered four new packages from Art Gelder at Walk-About Acres.

Package bees in their shipping cases (photo from Honeyflow Farm website)

I thought about the day we went out to pick up our new queens and saw all those packages of bees.  I wondered how many of the packages were going to brand-new bee keepers and how they would know what to do with them when they got them back home. Art told us he had sold over 300 packages this year. I had never actually seen a “package” of bees myself until this spring and was fascinated to see hundreds of small wooden boxes stacked in the back building, each covered with screen and each containing a pound or so of bees. An assistant was using a large vacuum to clean up the bees that were crawling around on the outsides of the packages. While we were talking to Art, several people came and carried away 1-2 boxes of bees. It was a sunny breezy day, and we were all in good spirits and optimistic about our new packages and queens.

By now, it has been three or four weeks since our friends set up their new hives, inserted the new queens (one per hive), and then shook a package of bees into each hive body. (See Honeyflow Farm for a nice photo essay of this process.) Their bee yard looked great, with four freshly painted hives arranged on pallets behind a section of wooden fence that runs between the bee yard and the driveway. The father and his three sons (ages 14, 11, and 9) have each taken on responsibility for one of the hives, and they have named the hives accordingly. John’s hive was the one that seemed to be having problems, so we started with it. Compared to our hives at this time of year, the new hives seemed quite calm, with few bees flying around the yard, even when we had the hives opened. It was interesting to notice how they had set up their hives “by the book,” with components that Jim doesn’t typically use, such as the queen excluder, inner cover, a plastic frame for drone production, and an exterior feeder. It was also interesting to see all their hives at the same stage of development, while ours are all at different stages. Our two split hives and the swarm we caught all have small stacks of boxes (one hive body and one super), while a fourth hive has about three supers on top of two hive bodies, and the remaining hive (the one that made it through the winter in great shape and didn’t swarm this spring) already has filled six supers with honey.

While our friend worked to get the smoker going, Jim removed the cover, inner cover, and the empty super and set them aside. Then he took off the queen excluder and we all looked down into the top of the hive body and saw that the bees were building new white comb between the middle three frames. Jim noted that the bees had a little too much space between the frames and are starting to fill in with comb in a way that will make it difficult to work with the hive. Jim showed John how he usually starts inspecting a hive by prying out the frame closest to the outside edge of the box. At this time of the year, most of the activity will be in the center frames, where the queen will be laying eggs and the workers filling in the surrounding cells with pollen and nectar to feed the emerging brood. Jim removed the first frame, checked it quickly to confirm that nothing was happening there, and leaned the frame against a nearby hive. Having one frame out of the way makes it easier to inspect the other frames. Then he pulled out the next frame, noticed where the bees were starting to draw out the comb, confirmed that there were no eggs or brood in that frame, and put it back in the hive.

He proceeded to inspect each frame quickly until he got to the center frames in the hive, where there was more activity. At this point in the spring, we would expect to see brood in all stages of development, with the capped brood toward the center of the frame, surrounded by newer brood and eggs, and cells filled with nectar and pollen toward the edges of the frame. If the queen is healthy and laying eggs well, the bees will generally be calm as they go about their various tasks. Sometimes you can tell if a hive has lost its queen because the workers will be edgy and running around frantically. Although the bees seemed relatively calm, our friends had rightly noticed that there was an abundance of drone brood in this hive and an absence of worker brood, which did not bode well. Often a hive can raise its own queen if something happens to the original queen, but they need strong worker brood to do so. We saw one empty queen cell and one queen cell with brood in the bottom, but Jim was not convinced that it was viable brood and thought it possible that the bees, in desperation, might be trying to raise a queen from drone brood.

New queens arrive from the breeders in a small cage with 5-6 attendant bees and a lozenge of hard sugar to sustain them on their travels.

We had the new queen ready to insert in the hive, but we needed to do what we could to help the hive accept the queen and not kill her right away. Fortunately, it appeared that the workers had not yet started laying unfertilized eggs, as they sometimes will do. When the workers start to lay, it is almost impossible to get them to accept a new queen. A queen will lay a single egg in the bottom of every cell in a predicatable pattern, but workers may lay several eggs in each cell or may lay eggs on the sides of the cell. Since the workers are unfertilized, all the eggs they lay will turn into drones, which do no work in the hive. Once the workers start laying, the hive is generally doomed. Jim checked all the remaining frames to confirm that there was no queen and no new worker brood; then he cut out the queen cells where the workers were trying to raise their own queens. We discussed the advantages of releasing the new queen to the hive right away versus leaving her in her cage for several days to allow the bees some time to get used to her scent. Jim thought she would be fine in the cage until the family got back from Silver Dollar City early next week, so he left the corks in both ends of the small wooden cage and inserted the queen with her attendant bees and stash of sugar candy between the two center frames, pressing the cage into the wax and then sliding the frames close together. We were pleased to notice a couple bees raise their tails and extend their scent glands in the sign they often use to indicate “this way to the queen.” We hoped that meant they would accept the queen readily and start feeding her through the screen in the next coming days. Then we restacked the hive, placed the lid on top, and hoped for the best.

It’s Swarming Time

Bee swarm in the cedar tree

It has been another exciting spring in the bee yard. May is swarming time, and beekeepers all around have been talking of swarms they’ve lost and ones they’ve caught. Beekeepers new and old have been eagerly waiting for new queens and package bees to arrive. Art Gelder from WalkAbout Acres had orders for something like 300 packages and I don’t know how many queens. We had ordered two Carniolan queens and were looking forward to their arrival on April 30. Our plan was to split the aggressive hive toward the left of the bee yard and give each box a new queen, meaning we would end up with four hives altogether.

The week before the queens were to arrive, on a partly sunny day, we drove down to the bee yard. When we arrived, Jim drove the truck out into the field as usual but made a wider loop along the row of cedar trees, looking up into the branches as he drove. Just before he got to the yard, he stopped and put the truck in reverse, then drove backwards a few feet, stopped, and pointed to a branch about fourteen feet off the ground, where a large swarm of bees was clustered among the cedar needles. We were fortunate to have discovered the swarm before the queen managed to take off for unknown parts with half the worker bees and our hopes of a good harvest this fall, but I could not see how we were going to get the swarm out of the tree. I had helped Jim catch one swarm before, but that particular swarm had settled on a branch lower down in the cedar, so it was a simple matter of taking the loppers and cutting the branch off behind the swarm, then shaking the bees down into an empty hive body.  But this new swarm was much higher up in the tree. There was also no way of knowing how long the swarm had been there and whether they might fly en masse to a new location while we were trying to figure out how to catch them.

While Jim was forming his plan, he went over to the stack of empty boxes and started moving hive bodies and supers around, checking to see whether he had enough good frames to put together a suitable box for the swarm, noticing in disgust that mice had gotten into some of the boxes and torn up the comb. He found a couple of boards and bricks to use as a base, which we moved closer to the swarm. After we had assembled a new hive (bottom board, screen, hive body, ten frames, top), he said, “Let’s go see if Hank and Marie have a ladder we can borrow and some loppers and maybe a saw. I looked up again at the hive high in the tree and tried to imagine where we would lean a ladder if we had one, among all those prickly branches. Or if we could somehow get a step ladder under there, would any of us be tall enough to reach the branch with the hive? And then what?

When we helloed the house, Hank came out in his sock feet and greeted us as warmly as if he had been expecting us all along. He said with a smile that he had been working with his ham radio and thought at first that our knocking was some sort of Morse code communication. Jim told him what we were looking for, and Hank slipped on his boots and led us out back to the tool shed, where he lifted the loppers and a saw off the wall and handed them to Jim. He pointed out an eight-foot step ladder near the porch that we determined was probably not going to be tall enough, then we went on down the path to the machine shed looking for his extension ladder. When he didn’t find it in any of the usual locations, he called Marie on her cell phone to see if she knew where the ladder was, and she reminded him that his son had borrowed it to paint his house. So Hank called his son, who was on his way to St. Louis, to ask him where the ladder was and let him know that we needed to borrow the ladder back to catch a swarm of bees.

Soon after, Marie returned from a friend’s house with bags of fresh produce that she began dividing up to share with us. Hank and Jim got in the truck and headed off along a gravel road to retrieve the extension ladder from the other house, while Marie and I walked across the field along the creek to the bee hives and talked about how we were going to get the hive out of the tree. It was a gorgeous day, in the upper sixties, with periods of sun and shade, and it felt great to be with friends on such a lovely spring day, figuring out together what to do next, tossing out ideas, inventing tools and procedures, in great confidence that we would ultimately come up with a workable solution. When we all met back at the cedar tree, we decided the first step was to cut back the smaller outside branches so we could get the ladder under the large branch where the swarm was still clustered tightly together, while a few scout bees searched the nearby woods for a suitable home for the hive. As we were lopping and sawing off branches and dragging them off down the fence row, someone suggested that we could use some kind of forked stick to hold up the branch with the swarm while someone else used a chain saw to make a partial cut near the trunk, and maybe we could use the forked stick as a support to control the branch as the weight brought it down to the ground. Marie went back up to the house to get the chain saw, and by the time she got back, Jim had fashioned a sturdy forked stick out of a branch from the tree.

We decided the step ladder would be tall enough after all, so Hank moved it over near the trunk, then climbed up with his chain saw, while Jim and Marie positioned the forked stick under the branch between the swarm and the trunk. Marie preferred that I stay back from the swarm and let them handle the saws and forked sticks and all, since I had just last summer had an allergic reaction to a couple bee stings at their place, which brought out the first responders from Ashland and the ambulance from Columbia. Although swarms are typically not aggressive, I was still somewhat nervous around bees since my reaction, so I sat in my “bug baffler” on the tailgate of the truck and watched as Jim and Marie braced the forked stick against the branch and Hank started the chainsaw and queried, “Ready?” Then apparently, Hank’s new chainsaw cut more quickly than his old one, the branch began falling much more quickly than we had expected, the branch began to sway, Jim and Marie had trouble holding the stick steady, and suddenly half the swarm fell down in a clump on their heads.

By then, thousands of bees were flying everywhere. Jim told Marie he could handle the branch and that she should get away from the bees, so she began walking calmly but quickly across the field toward the creek. Since I had my bee veil on, I took Marie’s place and helped Jim guide the branch with the remaining bees down to the ground, not as slowly as we had originally imagined, but slowly enough. After the branch was most of the way down, I moved the bee box closer, and Jim shook the rest of the bees into the box. Then we all stood and watched in amazement for a good while as thousands of bees began pouring into the box. Later, I asked Hank and Marie what they had been planning to do before we showed up and got them involved in catching this swarm, and they said, “This, of course. This is absolutely what we were meant to do today.

Capturing a swarm

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

It’s a Blessing to Have Bees

I keep wishing we would get a warm sunny day so we could go check on the bees. I hope they had enough honey stores to get through this long snowy winter. Until I met Jim, I never thought about what bees do during the winter. If anything, I probably thought they hibernated. I am fairly sure I knew they didn’t fly south for the winter. I had no idea that they clustered together as they do, forming a tight ball of bees around the queen, the bees on the outside of the cluster continually fanning their wings to keep the temperature at the center near 70 degrees. Or that the cluster was like a single living being, made up of thousands of individual bees of identical genetic material, all descendants of the one queen being cared for at the center of the cluster. All during the cold days and nights, the bees rotate positions within the cluster, the ones on the outside moving nearer the heat at the center, the ones on the inside moving toward the edge where they will fan their wings to keep the hive warm, the whole cluster inching its way across the frames of stored honey, so the bees can sip from the cells to maintain their energy.

Nor did I realize that you could move beehives from one place to the other, until one cold winter night more than ten years ago, when Isaac and I helped Jim move bees from his old place to a field below our friends’ hundred-year-old farm house. Jim had kept bees for many years, at one time managing more than sixty hives, but he had lost most of them to Varroa mites in the early 1990s. The three remaining hives had been left untended for a couple of seasons after Jim and his ex-wife divorced, until Jim could make arrangements with friends to move the bees to their place. He tried to prepare Isaac and me for what needed to be done. We planned to move the bees at night, after the bees came in from the fields. He told us we would need to plug up the entrance and any other holes in the hive, so the bees wouldn’t escape. Then we’d use staples to hold the boxes together so we could pick up the whole hive at once and load it in the back of the truck.

I had never actually seen a beehive up close and didn’t know how many boxes typically made up a hive, what an entrance would look like, what kind of holes he was talking about, or anything else about bees. But Jim was calm and assured, and the plan sounded reasonable. We took a stack of newspapers to plug up the entrance hole, wire screen and duct tape to cover any larger holes we might find. We also brought heavy-duty staples and a stapler to connect the boxes together. It seemed that we were well prepared. What Jim hadn’t mentioned was that the hives were many years old, with numerous holes in the weathered wood; that it would be dark by the time we arrived at the beeyard, difficult to see what we were doing; and that the bees would immediately begin crawling out of the holes when we started messing with the hives.

As we loaded the truck for the drive to Jim’s old place, he talked us through the process and showed us the equipment he was taking along: the smoker, which he would use to blow puffs of smoke across the hives to calm the bees; the hive tool for prying boxes apart; the extra hive covers to stack the boxes on when he moved them into the truck. The sun was setting fast as we headed north on highway 63, and it was cold. Isaac and I were excited and full of questions about bees. Jim entertained us with stories about beekeeping. Our favorite was about the time he moved bees in his VW van, with bees flying around the inside as he was driving, crawling up the inside of the windows trying to follow the light.

As we got closer to the beeyard, we grew quiet with our own thoughts. It was just getting dark as we pulled into the drive. Jim walked over to each of the three hives and leaned close to inspect them. We had flashlights with us, but he didn’t want to turn them on until we needed to, because the bees would fly toward the light. He gestured to me to come closer and put my ear up against one of the hives, where I was surprised to hear a whirring sound like a small electric engine, a space heater or a fan. Isaac and I were mesmerized by the sound of thousands of bees fanning their wings in the dark interior of the hive.

Then Jim directed as we began preparing the hives for the move. Under his instruction, we stuffed newspaper in the cracks between the bottom board and the hive body and placed pieces of wire mesh over the sides of the oldest boxes and taped the edges. But it was difficult to see what we were doing, and bees were beginning to fly out of the holes to investigate. I realized there was no way we were going to be able to find and cover all the holes in the dark. More and more bees were beginning to pour out of the hives as Jim stapled the boxes together, and Isaac and I tried to locate and plug remaining holes.

We worked quickly to cover the holes as well as we could, turning the flashlight on briefly to check our work, trying not to disturb the bees any more than we already had. I tried to imagine what it sounded like from inside the hive, as we pounded the staples in the boxes. We finally lifted the hives one at a time to the bed of the truck, where Jim tied them down. After we loaded up the equipment, Jim took a last look around the yard, then got in the truck and drove back south. I hadn’t noticed on the ride up how bumpy the roads were, but now I worried about the bees bouncing around in the back. Jim assured me they would be fine in a day or so, after they had time to settle down in their new surroundings.

Our friends Hank and Marie opened the door as we pulled into their drive. Marie described the spot they had picked out for the hives and assured us it had stayed dry even during the floods of 1993. She told us about her plans to plant clover in the field along the creek. They weren’t sure what kinds of crops were in the area for the bees to work on, but they knew one of their neighbors had an orchard not too far. Farmers in the area usually planted soybeans one year, corn the next. And there were lots of wildflowers in the woods and honey locusts along the creeks. Jim told me later that bees will fly many miles in search of nectar and pollen.

“After you get the hives set up, come back and we’ll have tea,” Marie said, as she filled the tea pot and set it on the gas burner. “It’s such a blessing to have bees again.” She touched the fingers of each hand briefly together and smiled at us.

Bees in Winter

photo of bee hives covered with snow

Bee hives at the urban farm in Columbia, Missouri

Ten inches of snow covers the ground, with more snow expected in the next few days, and I am thinking about bees. We have not been down to our bee yard since last fall. Usually, we get at least one warm day during the winter when we can go check on the hives, but this year, once cold weather set in, it was here to stay. I would like to put my ear up against each hive and listen for the bees humming inside like a small engine, as thousands of bees fan their wings to warm the inside of the hive. Clustered together, with the queen at the very center of thousands of bees, on these cold days, the worker bees will be rotating in and out of the cluster; the entire cluster moving as a single being slowly across the frames of capped honey they put by during the summer. At the very center of the cluster, it will be close to seventy degrees, and mice may have crawled into the bottom of the hive for shelter.

The final entry in my notebook from 2010 was written on harvest day, September 11. According to my notes, it was 78 degrees when we headed down to the beeyard; the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the bees were out flying that afternoon. After weeks of near 100 degree temperatures late in the summer, the creek was way down, and you could see the tree roots along the riparian corridor where high waters had cut a deep channel during years of heavy rain. The field grasses were tall, with deep burgundy seeds bending in the breeze. Numerous brightly colored butterflies—yellow, orange, white, black and blue—flitted among the small star-shaped asters blooming near the hives.

The notebook doesn’t say anything about the actual harvest, other than to note that we took off six full supers of honey that day. I remember the process going smoothly, the way Jim described it to me more than ten years ago, before I helped him with my first harvest. On warm sunny days, when the fume boards can heat up quickly, it is a relatively simple matter of removing the cover from the hive, replacing it with a lid lined with canvas that has been soaked with a smelly substance; waiting for the sun to heat the metal lid and the fumes to drive the bees further down into the hive, then removing the box of honey to the truck and placing a cover over it so the bees don’t move back in right away. Then you take the lid with the fume board and place it on the next box and repeat the process.

On cool or cloudy days, or days when the Bee Go has lost its potency, however, the process doesn’t go quite so smoothly, and we’ve had some of those harvests, as well. Harvest is also easier when all the large hive bodies are near the bottom of the hive and the smaller supers are stacked on top. A super filled with capped honey can weigh about fifty pounds; a hive body filled with honey can weigh about eighty pounds. My husband and I are not tall, so if the boxes are stacked too high, that also becomes an issue.

After taking off the six supers of honey last September, we would have driven straight home and stacked the boxes in our garage for extracting. Usually we harvest on one day and extract on the next day. Then, as soon as possible after extracting, usually one day that week after work or sometime the following weekend, we take the empty boxes back to the bee yard so the bees can clean the comb of any remaining honey. We generally don’t put the supers back on the hives at that point but stack them off to one side, so bees from each hive can get to the boxes and take the honey back to their own hives.

After the boxes have been cleaned out, we put moth crystals on sheets of newspaper in between each empty box to keep the wax moths out. We never know exactly when will be our last trip to the beeyard for the season, depending on the weather and how busy we get during the fall, but sometime after harvest and after the asters have bloomed, Jim usually checks each hive by lifting one edge to weigh how much honey the bees have stored and estimate whether it is enough to get them through the winter. If the hives seem too light, as they did in 2009, when the asters failed to bloom and the bees were unable to replenish their stores after we had robbed the hives, we will feed them heavy sugar syrup as often as we can throughout the winter, until the nectar starts coming on in the spring.

All in a golden afternoon

Last Saturday we woke to an overcast sky but promises of sun later in the day and decided to run our errands in the morning so we would be ready to go to the bee yard as soon as the clouds broke. Our first stop was at the farmers market to see what summer vegetables might still be available. Having braced myself for signs of fall—pumpkins and butternut squash and apples and pears—I was more excited than is reasonable to find green beans again (I thought we had eaten the last of those weeks ago) and even a few cantaloupes. But as we cruised past the stands, we noticed fewer tomatoes than before, and the one farmer who still had corn on the cob said this was the last week for corn.

“I guess Fall’s coming, after all,” I said.

“You can’t deny the chill in the air of a morning,” he replied. “But I just hate winter! My livestock is so hard to care for. Last year was hard! Cold and muddy.”

I meant to ask him what kind of livestock, but I had gone deep inside myself by then, trying to remember last winter and thinking about what it would be like to get up in the cold and the dark to care for animals who were dependent on me for their lives. I was thinking also of the term “livestock,” which I hadn’t heard in awhile, and how people used to count their wealth in cattle (still do, probably, in other parts of the world) and how much better that seems than holding paper stock in ventures far removed from the daily lives of the stock holders.

I glanced at the sky for about the hundredth time that morning and wondered if the clouds really would clear in time for us to harvest honey. We were running out of weekends when we could count on good weather.

“They’re moving,” my husband said.

We continued strolling through the market, looking at every stand, spreading our purchases out as much as possible among several different farmers. I was looking forward to a few more meals of summer vegetables as we bought a cantaloupe, a pound of green beans, four tomatoes, a half dozen ears of corn, a few green peppers, an eggplant. We sampled pawpaws at one booth and brats at another. It made me smile to see a little boy in a stroller taking a big bite out of a fresh tomato; one of the farmers, Phil, was eating a cucumber the way you would eat an ear of corn. I remembered wonderful days in the garden with my grandfather, eating our way through the seasons, pulling pea pods off the vines and popping them in our mouths, nibbling lettuce and spinach in early spring, enjoying ripe red tomatoes and crunchy cucumbers right in the middle of the vegetable patch on hot summer days. How can anyone say they don’t like vegetables?

After we left the market, we headed to the hardware store to buy a new grease gun so Jim could lubricate the honey extractor. After that, we stopped by the Dollar Tree and Staples to pick up some composition books and pens to send to my son who is stationed in Afghanistan and who wanted school supplies for the children in his village. The brand of the notebook, Mead, made me think again of honey again. By then the clouds were starting to thin somewhat, but it was still overcast. I wanted to get the notebooks in the mail right away, so we stopped at the post office, where  I filled out mailing labels and customs forms, and we divided the supplies into two medium-size boxes. Then we stood in a long line waiting for one of the two postal clerks at the counter. Jim commented on the irony of notebooks made in India being shipped to the United States to be sold for $1.00 each and then shipped back across the world to Afghanistan. What a system!

By the time we left the post office, we could see patches of blue among the clouds. Finally, it was time to head to the beeyard to harvest honey. This is perhaps the tenth year I have harvested honey with Jim, but all those years have now blurred together into one golden afternoon. I do remember that last year and the year before were light harvests, but we counted ourselves fortunate not to have lost any hives to colony collapse or to mites or to foulbrood or to any of the other problems that plague beekeepers. We currently have three hives; of those, two did well enough during this wet summer that we could take off some honey for us and leave enough for them to make it through the winter.

A puff of smoke helps calm the bees

This is the first year I have worn gloves to work with the bees. Jim ordered them for me after I had a reaction to a couple of stings earlier in the summer. Two of our hives are easy to work with, but the third one, with its smaller darker bees, is more defensive and more easily alarmed. We should have requeened it in the spring, but since last summer’s harvest was so light, we decided to leave them alone, but they had grown wilder over the past few months. We always save that hive for last and then try to do what we need to do quickly and then get out. That day, we had finished working with the other two hives, and Jim was giving some smoke to the difficult hive while I was recording notes about what we had found in the first two hives. I hadn’t yet focused my attention on the third hive when Jim said, “Watch out. They’re not happy” and before I could say, “What?” three bees stung me on the hand one right after the other, although I had not put my hands anywhere near their hive.

“Get in the truck. I’ll finish up here,” Jim said.

As I walked slowly toward the truck, several bees followed me, buzzing loudly around my head, peering at me through the veil. A couple bumped angrily against me but did not sting. By that time I was noticing that the stings on my hand were not swelling as much as usual, which pleased me. I thought maybe I was finally building up a resistance or maybe I had just gotten the stingers out more quickly than usual. Jim finished with the bees, but by then there were so many buzzing around and following him that he suggested I drive the truck to the end of the field while he walked away from the bees. By the time we got to the road, the bees had stopped following him, but I was beginning to feel lightheaded.

I told Jim I felt funny, and I heard him say to me, “Why don’t you get out of the truck and lie down on the driveway?”

I found out later, after our friends who own the land where we keep our bees had called 911, and the first responders and then the ambulance had arrived, and after everyone had determined that I was going to be okay but should make an appointment with my doctor very soon, that what Jim had really said was, “I think I should drive.”

The main thing I remember from that day is lying on my back on the gravel road, watching the thin white clouds drift by, trying not to pass out, thinking what a shame it would be to die on such a beautiful afternoon and leave my husband and my friends and family behind, and how I must have some blood pressure, despite what the reading on the cuff said, or I wouldn’t be lying there peacefully watching the clouds drift by and wondering what was going to happen. I had never had a reaction to bee stings before and wasn’t exactly afraid, but I realized for the first time how easily things could go wrong at any time without notice and how far away we were from help.

I still don’t know what caused the dizziness that day, but after reading up on anaphalactic shock and realizing that people can suddenly develop allergies even after years of not having problems, now I carry an epi-pen when we go to the bee yard, just in case. And we decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to wear gloves while harvesting this year, even though they are hot and uncomfortable and awkward to work in.

I wish my great grandfather Chris McGuire were still living. I’d like to see how he went about beekeeping in the mountains of Kentucky. What has changed and what is still the same as when he was keeping bees in the early part of the last century? How many hives did he have? Did he paint his bee boxes with leftover paint in various bright colors? Did he worry about colony collapse? Did he have a honey house?

I’m always surprised how smoothly most harvests go compared with some of the other things we do in the beeyard. On good days, when the sun is shining, it really does work the way Jim first explained it to me. Basically, what we do is soak the canvas lining of a fumigation board with a smelly liquid called Bee-Go. Then we take the lid off the beehive and put the fume board in its place. The heat from the sun shining on the metal top creates fumes that force the bees to move out of the top box and down into the next one to escape the smell. When most of the bees are out of the box, the two of us together carry the super filled with honey to the truck. If there are still a few bees inside, we leave the lid off for a few minutes so they can escape but not so long that the other bees find the honey in the back of the truck. Then we repeat the process, placing the fumigation board back on the hive and driving the bees further down each time. We were blessed this time with a perfectly clear sky and warm sun shining down on the hives.

bee hives

By the end of the summer, the bee hives are stacked high with supers.

Early Spring in the Beeyard

It seems strange this year not requeening or splitting at least one of our hives. I always liked getting a new queen bee in the mail and keeping her at my desk during the work day until we could get down to the bee yard, although I suspect my coworkers were less enthusiastic. I find the buzzing a comfort, and I enjoy watching the nurse bees feed and groom the queen. The queens arrive in a red, white, and blue priority mail package that says in bold letters, “Live bee! Keep out of direct sun!” Each queen is inside a little wooden cage covered by a wire screen, with about ten nurse bees and a large piece of hard candy to sustain them on their travels. Occasionally throughout the day I would dip my finger in water and rub it across the wire screen, where they would put their mouths and sip the liquid.

However, this year we did not order new queens, partly because we weren’t able to get out to the hives to check on them at any time during the winter, so we didn’t know how many we might need, if any. Also, last year the requeening did not go particularly well, and the hives got off to a slow start, from which they never quite recovered. Best I can tell from our somewhat sketchy notes, neither of the new mite-resistant hybrid queens we introduced to the hives survived for long, and the hives raised their own queens instead. So this year we let the date pass when we should have ordered queens and hoped for the best.

During the first week of April, we were able to get out to the hives twice to see how things were going. On Tuesday we took off work early and headed to the beeyard; we went back again on Sunday. Both days were warm and windy, with plenty of sunshine, and the bees were happily going about their business. Between trips, so many new blossoms had opened, it really did seem like “pop day,” as my son used to call the day when we first noticed the flowers were suddenly in full bloom. On Sunday, while driving through the country, we passed several houses where small children with baskets were searching for colored eggs in the grass, while their parents followed behind with video cameras.

When we got to the beeyard, we drove the truck across the field and parked right in front of the hives. After Jim lit the smoker, we systematically opened up each box and looked through all the frames to see what we could find.  In each hive, we were happy to find the queen bee and see that she was laying eggs, the nurse bees were taking care of the brood, and the field bees were bringing in nectar and pollen. We even got to see one of the scouts doing the waggle dance to let the other bees know what direction and how far the flowers were.

This early in the spring, the hives are small, with relatively few bees and no more than three boxes stacked one on top of the other. Generally speaking, the bottom two boxes (the larger brood chambers) should house the queen and the developing brood and pollen to feed the new bees, while the top boxes (the smaller supers) should be used for extra stores of honey and nectar. If we discovered the queen in the top box, we rearranged the boxes, so she and the new brood were in the bottom box, knowing she would actually go wherever she pleased. We also replaced a couple frames of comb that had been damaged by mice. Then we filled the feeders with thick sugar water and closed the hives back up. All of the hives were doing well, but one was doing slightly better than the others, so we decided to come back in a few days and equalize the hives by moving some of the frames of brood from the stronger hive to the other two hives

After we finished with the bees, we headed to Coopers Landing for a cold beer, and we sat at a picnic table near the camp store and watched the river go by. Although we have had little rain this spring, the winter was wet and it has apparently been raining upstream, because the “Big Muddy” is high and the currents are moving fast.