I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Monday, May 17, 2010

Harvest Time

Harvest Time
Saturday was a beautiful day, the first in a while, not marred by beastly humidity or rain. Fred was off work and we were about 4 days overdue for hive inspection and maintenance but weather and time had been against us all week. On days when it cleared off enough to get in the hives we were only left with mere hours, or less, before the bees return. This is barely enough time to open one hive let alone three. The state inspector was once again put off for another week because inspecting hives in the rain is both dangerous (for yourself and your stock) and futile (the hive would be unbearably crowded with put upon bees in a bad temper). So we found ourselves, once again, frustrated through the week and antsy to get a look in our hives.

When Fred got home from work on Friday it was after five p.m. and nearing the time when the last straggling workers would be returning to the hive with their bounty. Fred came in the house shouting for me to “come here”. I assumed “here” was somewhere outside considering he promptly banged back out the door he had come in. Any of you who are my friends on facebook already know that Friday had been a trying day. After a muggy hot walk to the insurance agency Louie had crapped out on me and refused to take another step, forcing me to bribe him with a cheeseburger and call my dad for a ride home. I was pooped, had just lay down and was in no mood to play hide-and-seek with my husband.

When I got my shoes on (My neighbors were appalled, I’m sure. My outfit consisted of the remnants of my walk: a dirty sports top, camo-cargo shorts and socks, and the only shoes close to the door: Mary-Jane crocs.) I went outside to locate Fred. I found him in the building scrambling into his beekeeping gear and fooling around with the smoker. “Huh?” was about the only thing close to coherent that came out of my mouth. He advised me that he thought our original “small” hive had swarmed. Sure enough, I looked over, and, seeing as how this was the first really sunny day we have had, may have muttered some serious grumblings against the spring rains under my breath. How could they have swarmed? It had been raining for days. Bees cannot fly once their wings are wet so on rainy days they mostly stay close to the hive.

I was aggravated. The bees were heavy around the mouth of the hive and bearded on one side of the entrance. Bearding is what the bees do when the hives become too hot or crowded, or they have already decided to swarm. They come outside of the hive and cling together draping in front of the hive and resembling a man’s beard. This allows them to cool off and to be instantaneously ready to leave when the queen does. Fred’s panic was caused when he pulled in from work and the bearding was visible from the driveway. I told him to calm down. If they had swarmed they would not still be there clinging to the hive and the possibility of them swarming that late in the evening was slim. I figured we at least had until Saturday morning but just to be sure we took a look around the surrounding trees and buildings looking for the cluster of a swarm. Thank goodness we did not find any because I am not entirely sure what we would have done.

Normally when bees swarm what happens is they leave in a group following tightly behind and around the queen and usually their first maneuver is to go straight up to the highest, nearest point and cluster there, either to wait out the night or to regroup before looking for new shelter. Some beekeepers clip the wings of their queen to ensure never losing a swarm. What happens then is the queen who is preparing to swarm comes out of the hive and promptly falls to the ground, where ultimately she dies. The bees that were swarming with her will go out from the hive some distance but when they no longer smell her pheromones they will eventually return to the hive and re-assimilate.

We think this may have been the case with our hive. Apparently what we were watching was not our bees preparing to swarm but instead returning to the hive after a failed attempt to swarm. Let me pause to say this hive was newly supered last week so there is an empty box on the top and plenty of room for the bees, however once nature has taken over and the bees have begun to make preparations to swarm there is little to nothing that can be done to prevent it. We believe the old queen had either had her wings clipped or injured at some point which also makes us think we had actually located her during one of our earlier hive checks. We had found a large bee with what appeared to be damaged wings but we were unsure if she was the queen because at that point in time we were unaware of the practice of wing clipping.

We got down on our hands and knees in front of the hive in the encroaching darkness and began to search around to see if we could locate the former queen. I do not know what exactly we thought we would do with her if we did find her. I suppose we would have simple put her out of her misery and kept her for comparison sake late on. You see, there would be no reason to return her to the hive the new queen would have already hatched and would kill her anyway. We could have tried to put her in a new brood box but since her swarm had already returned to the ranks it would be unlikely they would come back out and join her in a new location, so it is probably best that we could not find her in the tall grass in front of the hive. We did find a couple of dead drones which may have been from the new queen’s mating flight but we did not see our former queen.

The politics of the hive frequently ring with the echoes of the Elizabethan royal court or the Biblical adventures of the Old Testament. There are coups, there are murders, there are mass exoduses, there are violent overthrows, and there is a veritable drama of operatic proportions always afoot in the hive. So now our small hive has a new queen, or so we in our novice skills believe. We think the former queen’s army has been assimilated almost bloodlessly and we, as beekeepers, are thankful to not loose yet another part of another hive. We put our tools away and headed in for the evening.

Saturday morning dawned with beautiful sunshine and mild temperatures. We had an appointment early in the morning to take a look at some property in Frame and then we planned to systematically go through each hive, checking for all the keys “ingredients” and for any pest or predator that may have invaded. We got home a little later than planned but got in the hive about one o’clock. The super on the hive we believed tried to swarm was still mostly empty which meant there was plenty of room for the returning masses, as we moved down into the other supers and the brood box we found plenty of everything: bees, drones, brood, larva, honey and pollen. It seemed like all was well. We were not (as usual) able to locate the new queen but we saw definite signs that there is a new queen there were several hatched and partially hatched queen cells.

Which brings me to another quandary; I am not entirely sure how we missed those queen cells during our inspection last week. (Or I should say I missed them, Fred cannot be blamed for that hive because I went through it myself before he got home from work.) It is supposed to take twenty-one days total to rear a new queen, from egg to hatchling, I was in the hive approximately eleven days ago and did not see those cells. I think I know what I am looking for but obviously I still have a lot to learn. We systematically went through every hive inspecting each super, brood box and frame. Although we are still unable to locate our queens our hives look healthy and all three show signs of having a queen i.e. there is fresh brood in each and the bees appear to be gathering honey.

I am also proud to announce that this past Saturday we made our first harvest! Not of honey, so do not get too excited, but of wax. Earlier this week while we gave our presentation to the Girl Scout troop of Dunbar we were able to have a look at some of the wares of our fellow beekeepers. The treasurer of the KVBA brought with him a box of molded beeswax. Now we knew that beeswax has a great value for many things from lubricating sewing thread to making cosmetics, what we did not know was that it was prudent to keep every small scrap of wax for our harvest!

The treasurer of the KVBA told us he never throws away a piece of wax, instead as he inspects his hives he takes all the little scrapings and puts them in a jar to later be melted down and poured into a mold. He then sells those chunks of wax alongside his honey at the fairs and festivals and in his own little shop. Genius! I hate to throw anything away and this is right up my alley. So on Saturday Fred and I got a little box and carefully hoarded every tiny scrap of wax. I am happy to say that when cleaning the edges of the frames and the edges of the brood box and pinching off any hatched queen cells we collected about a cup to a cup and a half of wax. Now I have not had time yet to try my hand at melting it down and straining it of odd bee bits but I am looking forward to doing that this evening.

We brought our little treasure inside and left it on the kitchen counter over night, mistake. We woke up to find ants feasting on the tiny bits of honey clinging to the wax. So right now the wax is sitting outside waiting on me to finish up this blog and get busy.


For those of you who are curious the Girl Scout meeting went wonderfully! We could not have asked for a more attentive and interested group of young girls. They enjoyed our little demonstration of how beekeeping works and they also enjoyed tasting various types of honey provided by the president of the KVBA. We had a great time and were invited back to do a future demo on making beeswax lip balm.

Thank you all for reading and stay tuned for my foray into cleaning and molding beeswax,
Much love,


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