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

Friday, August 27, 2010

Harvest: DENIED

Well yesterday evening we got in the hives. Let me start by saying this blog is not entirely negative just severely disappointing. We went through all three hives and we found all three queens (first time ever), workers, a few drones (summer is winding down so drones are being eliminated), capped brood, larva, some pollen and some capped honey. We saw no evidence of mites, brood foul or other disease. Now would be the time that most beekeepers have begun to medicate. Fred and I are choosing not to medicate our hives and I guess this time next year we will know if that was a wise avant-garde decision or a foolish novice mistake. Time will tell.

That is the good news. Here is the bad: the super/shallow that we placed on top of our most active hive had no more honey in it than it did at last inspection. This is really, really disappointing. When we placed that shallow above the queen excluder it was in hopes of harvesting our first honey crop of the year. The bees of that hive were very active and abounding in stored honey, pollen and babies in their brood box and shallows. We actually thought they were beginning to get crowded and running out of room for their own stores so we placed the shallow above the queen excluder in hopes of giving them more room and of harvesting a little honey this year.

We were denied and we still are not sure exactly why. Now granted, our goal this year was not to harvest honey but to raise healthy bees for a bountiful crop next year. On the premise that last year was a bad year for bees in general our goals were simply to sustain and thrive a generation of bees that would raise strong producers next year. We gained a hive this spring during swarm season when we split the larger of our two hives. We requeened our hateful hive with a pure bred, mated Italian queen (after believing the hive to have lost their queen and in need of a gentler temperament anyway) and we have since located all three queens and appear to have a healthy generation of bees.

So why do we not have any honey? I do not know and frankly I am really frustrated. There has been a second late summer bloom which means the bees would have plenty of pollen and nectar to gather. I’ve let the yard go to clover on several occasions to keep them happy at home. They have a source of fresh water in the creek that runs past the house and the weather has been fairly cooperative, if not somewhat too hot, with only intermittent rain showers which should allow the bees plenty of harvest time. So what did we do wrong?

Again, my answer is I just do not know. Yesterday when Fred and I went out to the hives I fully expected to be harvesting an entire super. We dragged a large Tupperware container out to the apiary, stoked the smoker and prepared a heavy concentration of sugar syrup to engage the bee’s attention while we pilfered their hive. We decided to start with the hive whose super we intended to harvest.

We smoked the entrance and popped the outer lid, smoked them a little more, waited a few seconds then popped the top. This is our most docile hive and the one from which we had made the split. These are gentle bees that will curiously crawl around your veil without even attempting to sting. So we can move through this hive and their stores in a relatively slow pace without fear of angering them to attack. We popped the inner lid, sprayed them with a little sugar water and disappointingly gazed into a practically empty super. Virtually no different than when we placed it a month ago.

We fully expected to harvest this entire super but it was just not meant to be. We sat it off to the side and moved down into the lower two shallows and the brood box. We found plenty of late summer stores, lots of bees, substantial brood, lots of workers and the queen. Everything a beekeeper could want, except our own honey to harvest. This hive consists of one brood box, two shallows, a queen excluder and another shallow on top which in theory would be ours to harvest. I have come up with two theories as to why our bees did not make enough honey for us to steal a little.

The first theory is this: we have given them entirely too much room. If you remember back this would have happened when I botched the placement of the queen excluder and inadvertently trapped her majesty above in a shallow for approximately a week. You see the bees should have the brood box (or deep) and one super (or shallow) which belongs exclusively to them. This allows the queen plenty of room to raise new bees and the workers plenty of room to put up stores to feed the hive. I had intended to add a harvest shallow and had put down a queen excluder towards this goal, somehow trapping the queen above it when I could not locate her. This allowed her a week or more to lay several frame of brood in the shallow which basically means it now belongs to the bees (no one wants honey with little bee eyeballs and body parts floating about in it).

So we gave that shallow up for naught and placed the queen excluder above it and added a third shallow. This seemed like a fine idea at the time considering the bees were actively filling up every available inch of space. We figured it would be no time at all before they had completely filled their own stores and begun working in ours. We were wrong.

The other theory is this: The main complaint people have with Italian bees (which all of ours now are since we requeened the mongrel hive) is that the queen never cycles dormant. Regardless of food stores, or lack thereof, an Italian queen will continuously lay brood all summer long. If food starts to become scarce she will continue to make babies, which means more mouths to feed from the stores since nothing new is coming about. So the other option is that they bees hit a dry spell where there was not enough bloom to sustain the new bees that the queen was making so they robbed their own store (or our super) to feed this new influx of mouths.

Although they had drawn out the wax in our harvest shallow (this means they built it up from flat to comb shaped to store honey) I still tend to go with the first theory. I just do not think they had enough time to fill and then eat that entire shallow. I think they simply had too much room and just did not bother with it as they continued to store honey in the brood box an two shallows which belonged to them. Still, regardless of the reason they did not fill it or robbed it, whichever, it was tremendously disappointing to see almost nothing in that shallow.

After we had moved through the bottom of the hive we put the lids back on and moved over into our hateful hive. I think after this we will save the hateful hive till last from now on when we do our inspections. After aggravating them they tend to stay angry for a while and disrupt our ability to move through the last hive which also tends to be fairly docile until annoyed by their more temperamental sisters. The nasty hive seemed to be thriving; we located their new queen easily due to the blue dot on her thorax. I got stung twice as we examined this hive. No amount of smoke or sugar water ever seems to dull their temper. We had hoped after requeening that they would become more pleasant but it seems their new monarch is equally as volatile as her predecessor. They too had all the necessary components to be pronounced healthy and we quickly put them back together to let them calm down.

As we moved into our last hive, this was the split we made earlier in the season, we located their queen almost immediately. She and her subjects all seemed in good condition although they were notably agitated as their neighbors continued to attack me due to the release of potent pheromones from the last two stings. We moved quickly through this hive with smoke and sugar water in attempts to keep them mostly calm and do a baseline check since we had already located the queen and could see she was in good condition. If you remember this was the hive I was sure I had completely annihilated with my beginner‘s fumblings when we attempted the split. Much to my joy they have thrived in spite of my clumsy and inept attempts to manage their existence.

Their stores seemed a little puny compared to the others and after much debate we decided to give them the shallow from the first hive that we had intended to keep for ourselves. Because, ultimately, it is our primary goal this year to keep all three hives in healthy robust condition. Harvesting a crop of honey would simply have been an added boon and apparently it was just not fated for this year. We are trying diligently not to be too disheartened after all they are still alive and we have one more hive than we started out with. This is more than we had hoped.

We will get back in them next week and decide how and when we will begin feeding for the fall and winter. We will probably have to feed at least the smaller of the three and we will probably feed all three just to keep them even and to prevent robbing. For all of you who were expecting a jar of honey for Christmas, I am sorry, maybe next year.

Please keep us and our endeavors in your prayers. Disappointments, even small ones, can sometimes weigh heavily on our motivation. We are not giving up, we know that we have to press forward and that every time cannot be a success but we just want to see a little fruit for what we are doing. We want to know that it is worth it and that we are making a difference, not just wasting time and money.

Thank you for reading,
Much love,


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