Tag Archives: beekeeping

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.

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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.

Maple Trees in Bloom

Last week I noticed for the first time that the maple trees in front of the education building are in bloom and bees are working the fuzzy red blossoms. I was walking to lunch through the middle of campus, past the construction site where they are putting in a new steam tunnel that will eventually run from the power plant to the hospital, past the place where I usually look down into the deep hole they have dug in the street or up at the large crane that always brings to mind menacing characters in cartoons, when something else caught my attention—a certain shimmer in the air, perhaps, an almost imperceptible shadow as unseen bees flew between me and the sun.

I looked up into the trees and saw hundreds of bees collecting pollen and nectar. It made me smile. My first thought was to wonder where the beekeeper lives who owns the hives the bees came from. There are few wild hives left;  these days we rely on beekeepers to ensure that we have enough bees to pollinate our crops. I thought perhaps the University has a couple of hives on campus, but if so, I don’t know where they are. Then I thought about the hive that Jim showed me the other day in a neighborhood not too far away, about two stories up on support posts close to the trunk of an old tree. The hive body was obviously put there in an effort to entice the bees to move out of the tree and into the box, either by the homeowners themselves or by some beekeeper they had called upon to remove the bees from the tree.

The next few times I walked past the row of maples, I looked for the bees but did not see them. One day it was too cloudy; the next it was sunny but too cold. I wonder how many days the maples will stay in bloom, whether the blossoms will be gone before the bees can return to collect the bright red pollen to feed the newly emerging brood back in the hive. Each particular tree and flower stays in bloom for such a short time.

Checking on the Hives

It is ironic that on the last day of winter, we had sun and seventy degrees, but on the first day of spring, we have snow. Still, I can tell it’s spring because the college women have begun wearing shorts with their fur boots, and a few days ago the young men were out in the quadrangle near the columns tossing frisbees while schoolchildren on field trips climbed on the sculptures outside the University Museum of Art and Archeology. But mostly, I know it’s spring because the bees have been out collecting pollen from the crocuses, and the wrens have made a messy pile of sticks and leaves above our front window.  I also think I heard tree frogs singing near our house the other night. I have been listening for them, without knowing quite what to expect, ever since the night three or four years ago when we brought a jar full of baby tree frogs home from a friend’s house and released them into our wooded back yard.

It was a long winter, but now I can’t remember how many snows we had or how deep they were. For some reason, when it’s cold, I can’t remember how it felt to be warm, and when it’s warm, I forget how it was to be cold. I only know that we couldn’t get out to the beeyard for a long time, and I was worried about our hives making it through the winter. Usually we get at least a few warm days in January or February when we can drive down to our friends’ farm near the Missouri River to check on our bees and feed them sugar water if needed, to help them survive until spring. But this year, once it turned cold, it stayed cold. I pictured the bees clustered together in their hives, with the queen in the center and the workers on the outside of the cluster continually fanning their wings to keep the hive warm. If you put your ear against a beehive in winter, the thousands of whirring wings sound like a small motor running.

Last September, after a cool and rainy summer, we harvested a small amount of honey, leaving each hive with enough capped honey (we thought) to get the bees through at least until the asters bloomed. But the asters never bloomed, and when we went back in late October to look in on the hives before winter set in, we found that one of our five hives had already starved to death and two were close to starving. The other two hives were somewhat better off, but their boxes were lighter than they should have been going into winter. We knew they would never make it through on their own, but we were running out of warm days when we could open up the hives without breaking up their clusters and freezing the bees.

Disappointed, we shook the dead bees out of the one hive and added the empty boxes to the stack of supers at the end of the beeyard, then added moth crystals to the empties so the moths wouldn’t destroy the comb in the frames. Next we combined the two weak hives with a sheet of newspaper between the boxes. The theory was that by the time the worker bees chewed through the newspaper, they would be used to each other’s scent and could then behave as one hive. But of course, only one of the queens would be allowed to live. We replaced an empty frame in the two stronger hives with a feeder, a deep narrow plastic tray that holds about three quarts of sugar water. We put two of these feeders in the weakest hive, one in each box. We then began feeding the hives a thick sugar syrup to try to build them up. We were lucky to get several weekends in a row when the temperature was warm enough to open up the hives, and we fed them every chance we got. Each time we returned, the feeder was empty and the hive was heavier that the week before. We last visited the hives at the end of November before winter set in.

We did not get back to the hives until the first weekend of March, when the temperature finally rose above fifty degrees. We mixed up four 4-pound bags of sugar with enough water to make three gallons of syrup. Then we gathered up the smoker and the hive tool and our “bug bafflers” and headed toward the river, along a road that curves just right and takes us past some of my favorite places in the county, including Rock Bridge State Park, the Pierpont store, the Nashville Baptist Church, and a spot of land that feels like home, just before we head down a steep grade into a place known as Whoopup Holler. It is about fifteen miles from our house to the apiary, and we scanned the woods and fields looking for what might be in bloom but didn’t see anything. We kept travelling in silence down to the bottom lands until we passed our friend’s house, then made a right turn off the road and drove across the field, with the creek on our left and our friends’ hundred-year-old farmhouse on our right. The hives were straight ahead, near a row of cedars, in a spot that stayed dry even during the flood of 1993.

Even before we got out of the truck, we could see that bees were flying near each hive entrance. They seemed calm, not frenzied like robber bees stealing honey from a dead or dying hive, so we were hopeful that all three hives had made it through the winter. Jim lit the smoker, and we put on our “bug bafflers” (hooded net shirts, with elastic at the wrists and waist) and carried the five-gallon bucket of sugar water over to the hives. We stopped at each entrance and watched the bees coming in from the woods and fields, trying to see if any of them were bringing in nectar for the brood. Jim spotted a couple bees with filled pollen baskets, probably gathered from the maple trees. A mouse ran out from under one of the hives and scampered under the barbed-wire fence into the woods.

It was time to look into the hives. I held my breath while Jim usThis photo shows a frame of bees, with capped brood and nectar.ed the hive tool to pry off the lid of the first hive. I squeezed the bellows of the smoker to send a little puff of smoke across the top box, which caused the hive to buzz loudly before the bees moved down into the frames. Jim set the lid off to the side and then began systematically pulling out each frame to see what we could see, tipping the frames toward the sun so he could see deep into each cell. It was hard not to shout “hooray” each time we opened a hive and found ample stores of honey, cells filled with new brood in various stages, bright yellow and red pollen, and –joy of joy—the queen calmly moving across the frames, laying a single threadlike egg in the bottom of each cell.