We were told, upfront, when we got into this that we would make mistakes, loose bees, loose swarms, kill some of our colonies and basically, royally mess up before we got the hang of it and settled into a rhythm. Beekeeping is more of an art of exploration than it is an exact science. You can talk to five different experienced beekeepers about one distinct issue and get ten different solutions. See? The sheer number of options is daunting.
Fred and I really did not expect to be forced into hive action quite so soon. We believed with the losses suffered in the industry this year, the poor honey harvest of last year and the heavy winter we had, that we would only need to watch our bees closely for signs of mites or infections, feed them and basically coax them through the year to build up stock. We were wrong.
Late last week we went through the supers (the small boxes on the tops of the hives where the bees mostly store honey) on our smaller hive and found not only honey but brood cells, larva and what we suspected might be queen cells. We slightly panicked. Neither of us know much about beekeeping yet but we have read just enough to realize when you see queen cells you are in for a hot mess. It means that your hive has become too crowded and that your queen is preparing to leave taking with her half of everything in your hive and leaving you with a brand new queen and half your workforce and half their honey stores. EEK! We also suspected if our small hive was laying queen cells our big hive was laying twice as many. You could tell, just from observing the hives, the larger of the two had a great deal more bees and seemed to be getting quite crowded.
We quickly put the lid back on the smaller hive and in our inept, unskilled, freshman beekeeping manner began to bumble through our bigger hive. We were wearing long sleeved shirts long pants and bee veils, this costume had served us just fine through our last few casual inspections of our hives, however, we had not attempted to do anything except ascertain that: yes, there were bees, and yes, they seemed to be making honey. We did not take the whole hive apart nor did we venture down into the brood box (the large squarish box on the bottom of the hives). Like I said, we panicked. We stoked up the smoker and began to pry apart the large box.
Let me take a moment right here to tell you that bees are highly sensitive insects, they are intelligent and can pick up on your mood, smell your fear or your exhaustion and, like children, will take full advantage of whatever weakness you may exhibit at any giving time. Don't let their adorable fuzzy little bodies or the huge dumb eyes of the drones fool you.
They could sense the novice panic rolling off of us in waves and they lined up to attack! They were going to make the most of this opportunity to show us who was boss and take back control of their hive. Well I think that day we made every possible mistake, we over smoked them (which just made them angry), we were rough with the frames (which made them agitated and revealed our lack of experience) and we gave up too soon (which undermined our confidence and made it harder to get back in the box). Plus, we had waited until just too late in the afternoon to get started so we ran out of time and all the bees had come home to the hive while we were working making for a crowded messy situation. At this point we'd only gone through the supers on our small hive and one and a half supers on our large hive. We thought we had queen cells but we weren't for sure.
Saturday morning we went to the KVBA monthly meeting in St Albans and described our dilemma for several of the senior beekeepers, thus our frustration deepened. We heard everything from snuff the queen and let them raise a new one, to kill all the queen cells and that will solve your problem, to it is too late they are set to swarm, to split your hive. We opted to split the hive. Splitting a hive, in theory, is creating an artificial swarm which will make the bees in the original hive think they've fulfilled mother natures siren song and will ultimately leave you with an additional hive, without the need to climb fifty foot up a tree to retrieve your swarm. Everyone wins. Right? HA! Easier said than done.
Of course, like everything else in beekeeping everyone has a different opinion of how you split a hive, however, they all agree on three things: you must be able to locate your queen, you must locate all the queen cells and you must act quickly or nature will do it for you and you will have to chase down a swarm. Um, well, this is not as easy as it sounds. Sunday we made lots of phone calls, collected many varying opinions about the best course of action did more research.
After some intent online snooping we determined that queen cells look like large peanuts sticking out of the frame. Thank God for youtube it isn't just for singing cats after all. We still thought we had some queen cells but not as many as originally suspected we believed that some of what we thought were queens were actually drone cells. We still thought we had a few queen cells and we realized that it was imperative that we act quickly before we had a swarm and could not catch it.
Our major problem was time, Fred had to work all week and by the time he got home & showered (the bees do not appreciate the smell of AT fluid) we were constantly running out of time to do anything in the hives. So we agreed I would try to get through the last of the supers and the contents of the brood box while Fred was at work. Now I'd been stung once on the arm through my shirt while we pestered the large hive on Friday. I didn't care for the sensation (it is like itchy fire spreading through your skin) but I still was not wild about the tip to stern get up some beekeepers wore, especially the gloves, they make it really hard to hold the frames or to remove them from the box.
Tuesday was the first day after the meeting warm enough for me to get in the boxes so while Fred was at work I got the smoker ready, got the hive tool and prepared to get busy. I jokingly told Sarah if she heard screaming to call Pawpaw and tell him to get the hose but NOT to come out of the house. Hmmm, sometimes having a smarmy sense of humor does not work in my favor. I smoked the entrance to the large hive and cracked the top to puff a little smoke in there. I'd determined I would just set everything we'd already gone through off to the side and start where we'd left off. Let me tell you, supers full of honey are HEAVY and bees have grumpy, grudge-baring, long term memories.
I removed the lid, smoked them a little more and with a great effort set the top two supers off to the side. I had some angry ladies out of the hive and on me before I could blink. Although I was pretty well covered except for my hands I had worn flip-flops without even thinking. While I was trying to smoke and calm the bees one especially angry girl got me right on the arch of my right foot! OWWWWWWW! Can you say pain? I can. I dropped my shoe and my hive tool and hopped one one foot back to the house where I whimpered and doctored my foot with a sting swab. Right at this second I gave serious consideration to giving up beekeeping completely and leaving all those hateful little girls out their with their hive torn totally apart to take their chances in the elements. As I was sitting at the table ruminating over the excruciating pain in my foot and brooding over bee infanticide. I realized I had dragged one of my industrious little workers into the house with me.
As I watched her bang ineffectually against the sliding glass door I realized what a big meany I was and that my bees we simply acting as God had programed them. Like good little soldiers they were defending their homes at any cost with the ultimate sacrifice of their fuzzy little lives. You know, they really will go out of their way not to sting unless threatened because stinging equals death. The only honeybee that can sting more than once is the queen. I scooped my little worker up and tossed her out the door so she could return to her sisters and I began plotting my next course of action. I had to get back out there and I had to do it right away. I couldn't leave my hive exposed but how was I supposed to deal with all those angry bees?
I put on socks and boots and limped back out to the building. I thought if I could just find a pair of my father-in-laws abandoned coveralls I would slip those over my clothes. I'd also been told that bees could not sting through latex kitchen gloves so I'd dragged those out with me. As I was pilfering through the building I tripped over my bunker gear. EUREKA! If fire can't get through it, neither can a bee. The best part is it is sealed at every imaginable entrance so bees couldn't infiltrate. The worst part is it weighs about 30lbs and will make you sweat like a fiend. But it seemed like the best option at the moment.
I had a bittersweet moment of reflection as I donned my old gear and then I cracked up as I realized how moronic I looked wearing bunker gear fastened tip to stern over kitchen gloves and a bee veil. But I didn't have a lot of time so I restoked the smoker which had burnt out by this point, grab the hive tool and limped back out on my throbbing foot to rejoin the fight. I quickly learned that "bees can't sting through kitchen gloves" is a myth so I beat another hasty retreat back too the building and put some black work gloves over my kitchen gloves.
Take three. I finally made it back to the hive, smoked them again and got to work. The brood box of the largest hive was a mess. There was wax everywhere bridged between frames and glued to the bottom screen. I felt like an evil predatory villain as I scraped half emerged bees from their cells and tried to clean wax and larva from the edges. Needless to say the bees did not appreciate my murderous rampage either.
They were angry. Even knowing full well that I was impenetrable to their stings it is a disconcerting feeling to have angry bees crawling on every part of your body, also as they buzz around and gather in mass they create heat. The temperature change was noticeable through my gloves. Not to mention, I knew that every little soldier that stung me was sacrificing her life unnecessarily and ineffectually. It was sad. I know they are just insects but they are mine and I am already attached to them with a vested interest of time and money. I want to create a symbiotic relationship where we meet each others needs, not kills them uselessly. So by the time Fred got home I'd made it through the brood box of the larger hive. I found no queen cells and worse I couldn't find the queen.
Fred exited his car to the sight of me thirty or so feet from the hive sitting on the ground in full bunker gear covered in angry little bees singing "Jesus Loves Me" at the top of my lungs and puffing the smoker at my head trying desperately to calm them down. I'm sure at that moment he consider having me committed and tossing the hives in the river. From a safe distance he asked what I thought I was doing, I snapped that I was obviously getting my hair done. My frustration level had peaked but at least I had managed to put the hive back together. Fred went into the house and I went into the building and managed to extract myself from my garb and make into the house.
We discussed what we should do. Unable to locate the queen in either box should we kill all the queen cells and risk a swarm? Should we look again? Should we leave them to swarm and try to catch it? We were at a loss, with too many options and not enough education. I called the president of the KVBA and asked his advice. He told me even if we couldn't find the queen we could still create and artificial swarm by removing all the queen cells to the new brood box and letting them hatch and rear a new queen without the old one leaving. The only risk, he said, was that we would accidentally move the illusive old queen into the new box and leave the old box queen-less. Worst case scenario, he said, was that at some point we may have to requeen one or the other or both boxes. Well this did not really sound like the perfect solution but we were running out of time and options. Plus, if we did it this way it would allow us to take all the queen cells from both boxes and not just split one or the other, thus preventing a swarm from either box.
The invaluable tip that he shared with me was this: A 1:3 solution of sugar water with 2 drops of peppermint oil would (with light smoke) calm and disorient the bees, masking their natural pheromones and allowing you to combine bees from both hives without causing a war.
Fred took half a day off Thursday because, frankly, this is too much task for one novice beekeeper to handle alone and it is something we want to do together. We want it to be something that brings us into greater harmony with each other and nature, not something that becomes one person or the other's "chore". Fred got home about 10:30am on Thursday and we did some yard work and maintenance around the property waiting on the temperatures to rise enough to get back in the hives. Finally it was warm enough, we suited up, got the smoker ready and realized we didn't have a spray bottle for the sugar solution. SIGH. Off to the dollar store to pick up a spray bottle.
Once we were finally ready we decided to start in the biggest hive where I had left off. I knew there were no queen cells in the brood box so we could move back up into the supers below the excluder. We smoked and sugared the bees, set the top supers off to the side and covered them with a tarp, this kept those bees from getting angry and coming to join their sisters in the fight. The sugar water was like a magic elixir, it kept everyone much calmer than before and allowed us to use less smoke. We went through the supers and found queen cells, brood, honey, drone cells and pollen in one. We prepared the new brood box by screening in the entrance and laying a sheet of newspaper with a small slit across the top. We moved the entire super to the new box and covered it with another sheet of newspaper and the lid.
We then replaced all the remaining supers on the big hive and prepared to get in the little hive. We went through everything below the excluder on the little hive and realized that what we had mistaken for queen cells in the little hive were actually drone cells. We didn't find any queen cells in the little hive at all which is relieving. The one disturbing thing we did find, though, was in the brood box. The bees had apparently only filled one side. We aren't sure what this means but we cleaned it anyway and moved the cluster to the middle and the empty frames to either side. We put the small box back together and went about the task of topping the new box and making sure the bees could not escape.
Fred was concerned that we should remove the sheet of newspaper. The newspaper was originally to act as a temporary barrier if we had combined supers from both hives. We decided to leave it. The bees could chew through it and it would only be more traumatic for them, and us, to mess with their new hive anymore. We were told we would need to leave the new hive sealed for seven days to prevent the bees from abandoning the new hive and going back to the old one. By the time we put away our gear and emptied the smoker we realized our fears about the news paper were unfounded. The bees had already chewed through it and were clustered against the screen blocking the entrance buzzing angrily. It is a depressing sight to watch them fight so hard to get out and knowing we have to leave them there for at least four to seven days to create a new hive.
The good news is we have managed to clean up both hives and hopefully prevent a swarm. The potentially bad news is we have no clue what we are doing and still have been unable to locate either of our queens and may have just killed a whole super of our bees. I know this is a process of trial and error. I know that life is cyclical and thing will be born and things will die. That does not make me any bigger of a fan of killing my bees.
In Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 the Bible tells us "There is an appointed times for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven- A time to give birth, and a time to die...A time to kill, and a time to heal..." As Fred and I move forward into our "greener" existence, as we become closer to our food source and to our lives as we believe God intended, I find this passage of scripture, the whole chapter, more and more poignant. We as a culture have become so artificial and so determined to control and adjust these things that we forget there is a basic and unalterable rhythm to life. That ultimately we have no control.
Still, having realized that and working towards excepting that truth, as we walked back out to our hives at dusk to check the general well-being of our bees, I was momentarily grieved to look down and find one of my bees trapped between the super and the brood box. Her abdomen and thorax were partially crushed and her front legs and antenna were still struggling to free her body. I had a moment's pause and a wave of sadness as I reached down to snuff her life. I knew she lay there suffering and struggling and I knew it was my fault for a lack of caution and a lack of knowledge. The personal struggle of her tiny little life and her natural push for survival touched my heart.
As I mourned the loss of this one tiny creature I thought of all the others we had inevitable and unintentionally killed in the varying stages of their existence. I thought of how much God loves us and how he is not willing to loose one of us. I know the grief I felt over one tiny little bee and how, even as they railed against me and attacked, I still cared for them. I feel this translate into God's care and love for all humanity and how badly we must hurt his heart when we fight against him and intentionally or unintentionally hurt each other and abuse his creation, his gift to us.
Stay with us and come back to read about or success, or failure, in creating this new colony. Also we plan to begin work or our chicken coop soon and I will try my hand at making laundry detergent...