Bee hive management

It’s a busy day today — the second full day of Passover, Easter and April Fool’s Day — to start the first full month of spring. Looking ahead, on the 4th, Martin Luther King will have been dead 50 years. On the 15th, Abe Lincoln will have been dead 153 years. And on the 11th, Edward Wightman will have been dead 406 years. Not one of them died of natural causes. Assassins bullets, I need not say, took the first two. The last burning at the stake in England for heresy took the last, my ancestor.

The cruelest month opened with a brief shower that finished before I could get through the Times. My Easter bonnet for my daily walk down the road was not a rain hood but a grey fleece ear warmer. It may be 50 degrees, however a wind was lowering the feels-like factor quite a bit. The general direction of the wind has shifted, as is appropriate for the season, to originate in the south(west) causing a pattern of cold out, warm home that is the reverse of winter walks — a harbinger of hot out, hot home.

But before leapfrogging to summer, here’s some record keeping of late winter. On 5 March, the Red-winged Blackbirds announced their return with their welcome but harsh gurgle. Two weeks later, migratory American Robins were doing their run-run-run-stop-cock the head-peck the ground routine all over the yard. About the same time I had my first conversation of the year with a White-throated Sparrow:”Oh Sam pee peebody peebody” we took turns saying to each other several times. Down the road at 800 in a stand of spruces with an understory of green briar bramble, an Eastern Towhee scolds me whenever I pass to “drink my tea, tea, tea.” I trust my Towhee will return soon.

The Eastern Phoebes should be back, but I haven’t heard or seen them yet. The male will arrive first. When his mate gets here, they’ll take up residence somewhere in the electricity-producing infrastructure, either between the rafters and the PV panels in the folly or between the meter-that-runs-backwards and the north wall of the guest house. I don’t remove the nest I can reach because they seem willing to reuse it. The House Sparrows are here again. Is that why the Eastern Bluebird has not taken up residence in a nest box? Bluebirds have been reported elsewhere nearby for several weeks so I fear they just don’t find Kennel House homey enough.

Last season I had five pairs of Northern Cardinals but a female died (was eaten maybe but was not burned at the stake) in the fall. I have seen four males together at the feeders but not five. I might be down a pair going into the mating season.

The spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are chirping from the pond as of Wednesday. (Is crucifer related to crucifixion?) The ground hog seems to have moved house from under the canoe to under the large brush compost pile. The entrance to the new house is easily accessible for a have-a-heart trap. But suppose I caught him, what then (the assassin’s bullet)?

Ground Hog hole

The crocuses and the daffodils in the lee of the house are in bloom. An Italian honey bee was taking pollen from the crocuses as I was trying to take a photo only to realize that my battery had just died. That’s likely a honey bee of mine from a generation that escaped my careless beekeeping. I popped the inner cover off one of my hives (no tool needed); the smell of honey wafted up. Clearly my hives didn’t starve, but no bees emerged to check on what I was doing. Maybe they could not rotate to the honey in the long cold.

For the record, I pruned the blueberry bushes — the cultivars — today before it SNOWS later this evening! Historical records say it can snow here until the 10th.

We abide by the laws of nature around here so come May Day, there will be other deaths, timely and otherwise, more first-of-year (FOY) bird sightings and early season plant awakenings to recount from this first full month of spring. There is the fate of the ground hog to consider as well. But if past years predict, I’ll be counting how many pups were in the litter and survived the first moth of spring.

Something’s wrong when you’re taking honey off a hive in March. This is the make-or-break season for a hive. You’d never take its food stores. If you’re extracting honey now, it means you have a dead hive. I actually have two. All the glitches that I invariably encounter when extracting — foundation that separates from its frame when spun is a good one — pale in light of the loss.

Today, I took honey from one super of one hive. It produced about 10 pounds of honey, minus what’s in my hair, on my clothes and, I hope, mopped up from every kitchen counter, cupboard handle and the floor. I feel badly about all the honey that doesn’t make it into a jar given how hard the bees worked to produce it.

The honey is better than the last batch I took a couple of years ago. It’s the right viscosity. The color is good — not dark and not light. It tastes like honey from an old field, by which I mean good.

I covered the entrances to the hives still in the meadow with screen to prevent robbing by other bees. I plan to save at least some of the honey that’s still there for the new bees who will arrive in May. I’m not sure what I should do with the frames that held the honey I took today. I didn’t think this through very well. Maybe the wet frames need to go in the fridge? This problem could make honey in my hair seem like a cake walk.

The next wrong could be ants.

Weather predictions for the coming week are dire — another polar vortex if the forecasts are correct. The bees are out of food made by me and have been for some time. I never got to put the last bit of syrup into the hives in late fall before the average daily temperature dropped too close to freezing. And that cold has also meant that I could not add the fondant I made at Thanksgiving either. Fifty degrees F is the coldest it can be to open a hive.

When the temperature reached 52 degrees this afternoon, I ignored the breeze and fog and took the covers off the hives, one at a time of course. Both are still alive. I could walk on water when I discover the hives are alive I am so elated.

Fast as I could, I inserted an Imrie shim (explained below if you’re interested) to allow space for the fondant above the frames in the first hive, the weaker one. The operation was seamless. I even managed to put a layer of straw above the inner cover to serve as a sponge for excess moisture and maybe some warmth. The second hive was a different story. I had to bump it a bit to free up the inner cover. That disturbed the bees enough that some decided to take flight. “Bad idea girls,” I said. Maybe a dozen bees did not listen, and they were outside the hive as I put to cover back on. No time for the addition of straw in that hive, but I did add the shim and fondant.

Winter bees are different from summer bees. For one thing, they live longer. They are born in the fall and survive, when lucky, all winter. Their summer sisters only live about 6 weeks. Winter bees are also fatter than summer bees becasue they do not forage for food. All bees are cold-blooded but, unlike other insects, they stay active all winter. The job of the winter bees is to keep the queen warm and fed. They form a cluster around the queen and beat their flight muscles or shiver really, to keep her warm. Like migrating birds, the shivering bees rotate from the center of the cluster to its outer edges to share the burden of producing warmth. The cluster expands and contracts in size depending on the outside temperature. If its warm enough outside, the bees will roam around inside the hive. The winter bees also relay honey from hive stores to the queen so when I place the fondant in the hive, it has to be on the top of the frames and as close to the cluster as possible. Winter bees can starve even if they have honey and fondant if its too far away for them to get at it.

Half an hour later, I went out to check on the bees that flew. I hope some might have gone back in the hive. Winter bees can fly but that’s really their calling. They will leave the hive when the outside temperature reaches the high 50s to take what are politely called “cleansing flights.” Bees, both summer and winter, don’t poop in the hive. But the day was not warm enough for a cleansing flight. A handful of those escaped bees were expiring by the hive’s front door. (See the photo.) I picked them up by the wings or with the help of a twig and dropped them under the cover. Maybe they’ll survive and maybe I just added to the detritus the girls will have to attend to later. So much for trying to keep the hive tidy! I’m quite sure they always scratch their heads over the difference between what they need and what I provide.

Freezing at the gate

Freezing at the gate

I did not see mites or mite damage on that unlucky sample of bees that fly from the second hive. The insides of both hives were dry. I beefed up their food supply. That’s all to the good. But we’re now in the season in which decimation by disease, starvation or too much relentless cold and moisture is at least as likely as survival. Only time will tell whether I get to feel like walking on water at the next inspection.

A new batch of fondant is in the frig ready to confuse guests looking for human food. But I’m also prepared for opening the hives on another 50 degree day come February or early March.

Bee fondant

Bee fondant

Wondering what an Imrie shim might be? George Imrie was my instructor in bee school for the small amount of formal training that I had in beekeeping. He was an Eastern Apicultural Society Master Beekeeper — that means accreditation by one of the best institutions in beekeeping. He was also very forthright with his opinions. He would scream at us to be bee keepers not bee havers. As I misuse the Imrie shim as a spacer for fondant — it is supposed to go below drawn frames only — I can hear him shouting from his grave: “she’ll never be anything but a bee haver.”

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Disaster — in the form of weak hives invaded by wax moths — awaited, I was certain. So certain that I called in a veteran beekeeper to help me open my hives. True, bees were flying in and out of both hives but this summer challenged my sub par beekeeping skills more than ever. First, …

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Being a negligent bee keeper has its rewards. I harvested about 30 pounds of honey from one of the two hives that did not make it into February. The second hive with last summer’s captured swarm had not capped off any honey. I wonder how the bees made it to January.

Taking honey from a dead hive allows the beekeeper to skip the worst step of honey extraction — fumigating the frames with stinky stuff so the bees fly away for a breather. There’s another advantage to working on a dead hive; there are not as many bees trying to get on the porch to watch. The job is still strenuous and, of course, sticky. My extractor holds 2 frames. I am the motor.

Frames of capped honey are heavy. Spinning them entails sitting on the extractor so it doesn’t wobble too much and a long bouts of cranking the handle. Then I strain the honey through paint filters to remove the wax caps and other debris. It takes about a week to get all the bits of stray honey off the counters, door knobs, hand rails and floor after the process is over.

The harvest

Most of the harvest

This honey is dark no doubt because much of it started as goldenrod. It’s also thinner than usual as though the wax caps the bees made could not compete with the condition’s of this winter. Still, a honey harvest is compensation for a lost hive.


This gallery contains 1 photo.

An Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) landed on the grey wool turtleneck I had shed to better enjoy reading the Sunday paper in the midday sun. Italian honeybees are not native. The ones around my property are ones I introduced. But both my hives died sometime between Martin Luther King Day and Valentine’s Day. Last …

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The rain petered out briefly just as I came in from swimming. I jumped into my bee suit, grabbed the fondant from the fridge and the hive tool from the mud room. Imprudently, I decided to skip the smoker. It looked as though it might rain again any minute and more extreme cold weather is predicted for the coming days. I had already missed the chance to feed the hives in the mid December heat wave. This task is overdue.

Dead bees littered he landing areas of both hives. I lifted the rock that holds the outer cover of the smaller hive against extreme wind and improbable bears and pried up the inner cover. Bees were moving around on the frames. Eureka! They had made it through the recent bouts of cold. Ouch! One stung my ungloved hand as I began adding the fondant. The bees were alarmed by the opening of the hive.

I had only slightly zipped up my costume and had not put on my gloves possibly as a psychological hedge against the disappointment of finding a dead hive. But the bees, knowing they were live and well, wanted no part of this intrusion. Promptly they were on the war path. At least one seemed to be inside my bonnet before I could get it closed up. Another was walking down my leg into my boot.

Ladies, relax! I come bearing gifts. Isn’t fondant the modern equivalent of frankincense and myrrh? It is, after all, a resin of sugar and water. Perhaps they surmised that, despite my elaborate costume, I was no wise man, having come sloppily dressed and without a smoker. Maybe they have enough honey and don’t need the fondant. Or maybe bees don’t know this Christian tradition of gift bearing on 6 January.

I quickly closed that hive — its the one Carl brought down from the Spruce tree after it swarmed this summer — and moved as swiftly as a bee keeper should to open the larger hive. It too was buzzing with bees. I quite literally threw the fondant into the hive and beat a hasty retreat.

In the safety of the porch, I turned my bee suit inside out and gave it several vigorous shakes. A bee was buzzing somewhere close to me but I could not find her. Once upstairs, she staggered out of my fleece jacket and flew into the window. She’s in bee heaven now and in the accompanying photo.


At least 2 bees died in this caper — the one who stung me and the one I killed. But the hives seem to be doing all right. The coming months are the trickiest. Until the bees can forage for food, it’s my job to keep them fed. I’ll check them again around Martin Luther King Day. I hope we won’t have a civil rights type confrontation then.

No photos today. They would be more gruesome than the ones yesterday. A carrion-eating creature came back last night, dragged the fawn carcass to a new spot, removed the front legs and eat most of the head.

To lighten up this post, I borrow a caption for the title from a Gary Lawson Far Side cartoon that once tickled my children’s fancy and remained a family giggle.

Another carrion-eater torn a big hole in a garbage bag to help himself to the wax moth larva and pollen debris from the bottom board of an out-of-commission beehive. I’d planned to keep that mess until the state bee inspector stops by later this week. Not that he’ll be interested; there is nothing noteworthy about it. But, should our conversation lag. I thought I’d whip it out for show-and-tell.

Tomorrow I’ll report on the annual feeding frenzy of the dragonflies and show you the remaining bee hives in action. The bees from the two strong hives robbed the much-swarmed hive of its honey so I have nothing to harvest for my oatmeal this winter. The bees, however, will have plenty for their oatmeal. Da always said: feed the animals first.

The meadow is keeping wildlife of all stripes well fed.




Carl, my meadow mentor, and I were finishing a loop around the field having agreed not to mow this spring when we noticed the swarm. Unlike last week’s, this one was headed for the upper branches of a spruce tree behind the hives. Their queen must be freshly minted to swarm that high.

As the bees settled into their basketball-sized formation, Carl marveled — this was his first swarm — but I vacillated between relief that they had chosen a spot too high for a capture effort and dismay that again I had failed to provide space in the form of a deep super at the right time to keep the bees in residence. After last week’s debacle in which I killed more bees than I captured, I had no appetite for another woe-begotten interaction. This swarm would rest overnight in the spruce and then move on tomorrow to their new home.

Carl wanted to know what it would take to capture the swarm. Too high, I said. But we could climb the tree, he said. No box into which to knock them, I said. I took all my boxes to the dump last week and the agricultural cloth I had used last week had been a bad idea. The bees’ feet got caught in the mesh. But the more I explained methods for capture that admittedly have never played out in textbook fashion for me, the more Carl saw spruce branches as a ladder and recapture as a goal. He was up the tree and then down.

If it’s OK to saw off the limb they’re hanging from, I think we can get them down, he said.

He went home for a tree harness to attach him to the tree. I put together a hive with some foundation and space for the branch. We decided on a bee bonnet as the “box” into which to slip the portion of the limb with the swarm.

Carl put on the bee suit and climbed back up the tree. I lit the smoker, and more usefully played sous chef tying first the loppers and then the bee bonnet, wallpaper paste brush and back-up butterfly net to the pulley system we used to get supplies up the tree.

Do the bees seem suspicious? I asked from the safety of the ground sounding like Winnie the Pooh. They don’t seem to notice me, said Carl. Good. My sous chef tasks would not include Christopher Robin’s of walking under the tree carrying an umbrella, proclaiming the likely onset of rain.

Carl first cut the more distant part of the branch with the loppers that sadly needed an adjustment in order to bite correctly. Grrrr, he said. But then he gently sawed the near piece of the limb into a length that just fit in the bonnet. After some missteps because we’d tided the bonnet to the tree, he passed it down to me buzzing with unharmed bees. We had most of the bees from the swarm.

Day two, this morning, Carl stopped by. A subset of the swarm had regrouped on the trunk of the spruce, but most of the bees were in the new hive. I went in to remove the bonnet and fill out the hive with frames. I saw the queen.

Before the next swarm, which I feel is in the planning, the meager remains of last week’s swarm will have to join with another hive, maybe the newly captured one. I bought more equipment this afternoon. I hope Carl stops by again for the next swarm.