beekeeping

The Vanishing Of The Bees

Signs of a healthy hive: entrance activity and full pollen baskets.

Signs of a healthy hive: entrance activity and full pollen baskets.

We've experienced another beekeeping first on on the farm. We lost our first hive. Honestly, it has taken me some time to process. I've gone through all kinds of emotions... shock, sadness, frustration, confusion, and finally acceptance. I haven't had the words to really write about it because before I arrived at "acceptance," I felt like sharing the news meant I had a beekeeping fail. Silly I know. 

Here's the thing... I always knew that all beekeepers lose bees at some point. I knew that the rates of hive losses are high across the nation. The problem is I am a perfectionist and a major competitor. What do you mean one hive of our bees left? I love them! They can't leave!

After grappling with the variety of emotions I've felt since we discovered one of our hives left, I started reflecting more on the weeks leading up to our discovery.  Did I see bees activity at the entry of the hive? YES. I thought for sure the high activity in February meant that the girls had survived the winter and that they were busy taking cleansing flights and preparing for the new foraging season. Did I stop to check for pollen going into the hive? NO. There wasn't anything blooming at that point of the year, so I wasn't concerned about that. Pollen going into the hive can be an indicator that there are babies to feed in the hive. February is pretty early for any major activity with the queen and new brood. Did I take time to inspect frames to see if the queen was laying and that honey supplies were enough to make it through to foraging season?  The weather didn't lend itself to a warm enough, wind free day to inspect. Did the hive have a funny smell to it? NO. HMMMMM.... 

Eric and I did a full inspection on the hive during the first few weeks in March. We announced ourselves to the ladies buzzing about and began looking at frames. Right away we noticed lots of honey remained. Good news... the girls didn't need all that we left and there might be some for us to harvest. We kept going across the frames...empty frame, empty frame, empty frame. Where were they? I quickly opened the screened bottom board on our hive and there weren't any bees there. During a normal inspection there are a few dead bees on the bottom board. There weren't any. Where were they? Eric and I just looked at each other. Who were these bees flying around us? 

The reality hit me like a freight train. These weren't my girls buzzing my head as we inspected. These were ROBBER BEES. Our hive was being robbed and our very first rescue swarm had picked up and left. When did they go? Why did they go? 

 

Tiny puncture holes in these capped cells are from varroa mites leaving the cells. All hives have varroa mites. The tiny white dots are varroa scat. The shiny cells toward the top in the image are unfinished honey from last season. There are also tiny pieces of crystallized honey. 

Tiny puncture holes in these capped cells are from varroa mites leaving the cells. All hives have varroa mites. The tiny white dots are varroa scat. The shiny cells toward the top in the image are unfinished honey from last season. There are also tiny pieces of crystallized honey. 

More reflecting, more considering. No bees on the bottom board, no bees inside. Evidence of varroa mites, but not lots of evidence. No varroa mites to count on my mite board. Plently of left over honey, so starvation wasn't an option. What happened? 

We removed the remaining capped honey frames and sealed up the hive. As we were preparing to leave and my confusion was mounting, I decided to look on the bottom side of our hive. As I leaned over, I felt a combination of shock and "ah-ha!" As you know, we use a long bodied style hive coined a Valhalla hive. It allows me to work with the bees with my back limitations. No heavy lifting, easy to inspect, bee friendly, and so very beautiful. As I looked at the bottom of the hive, I could see that the bottom slider drawers had not been completely closed and were not flush with the back wall. The poor bees had robbers with complete free reign to their hive and honey stores! They couldn't protect themselves because of the large opening I had inadvertently left! Was that why they left? 

There are two drawers on either side of the hive. The top drawer has a screened bottom board for the bees to walk across. The second drawer is a mite count board. It is white and helps to quickly spot mites and do a count during inspections. The mites do not travel back up through the screened bottom board. 

There are two drawers on either side of the hive. The top drawer has a screened bottom board for the bees to walk across. The second drawer is a mite count board. It is white and helps to quickly spot mites and do a count during inspections. The mites do not travel back up through the screened bottom board. 

We brought the hive into the shop and Eric made a few modifications to the drawers to prevent that from happening again. We cleaned off the built up propolis (bee glue) that the bees had covered the drawer slides with. In the future I will be very intentional to keep excess propolis off the drawers. A once thriving, busy, strong hive was now reduced to an empty cavity. Did my bees abscond? Was this colony collapse? 

I've been doing some reading online since all of this happened, and I have read countless stories about beekeepers losing their bees. As my beekeeping friend says, "you want to bee a bee keeper, not a bee buyer!" So many new beekeepers try their hand at beekeeping, purchase a bee package, and end up losing their bees for one reason or another. If you try again, you truly have to call yourself a bee buyer rather than a beekeeper. The honesty of that statement just makes me giggle. 

Little Emmett, my mentor and Valhalla hive designer, and our first hive. 

Little Emmett, my mentor and Valhalla hive designer, and our first hive. 

I haven't ever planned to purchase bees for many reasons and I don't plan on purchasing one to replace our empty hive. Not only is it late in the season to find a honey bee supplier, I want to have bees adept to living in Central Oregon. I don't want exhausted and unhealthy bees from a supplier out of state. That means honey bees native to our area. Honey bees aren't actually native at all, but I want to keep bees that have adapted to our climate, winters, and weather patterns. For me, I can get these type of bees two ways: capturing a swarm, or splitting one of my other hives. I am secretly hoping to do both this year!

Our first swarm catch on our property. Beeatrice and crew landed in our vegetable garden.

Our first swarm catch on our property. Beeatrice and crew landed in our vegetable garden.

Eleanor and Eric celebrating our swarm catch last spring.

Eleanor and Eric celebrating our swarm catch last spring.

Like I mentioned before, I've experienced all sorts of emotions related to losing our first hive. The biggest emotion honestly has been feeling sad. I've decided to consider this a true learning experience rather than focus on the sad aspects. I choose to believe that maybe some lucky beekeeper in Central Oregon discovered a swarm a month or so ago and Flora has settled into a new hive with good caretakers. I also choose to be humbled by the reality felt by so many beekeepers who lose hives. Remembering that nature is always ultimately in control sits much better in my heart. Honey bees are a creature worthy of our utmost respect and no matter how much we believe we can offer them and tame them, they go as they choose. I won't ever know for sure why they chose to leave, but I continue to appreciate the beauty of our precious honey bees. 

Finding the Queen Bee

Its been a few weeks around here since we helped relocate two local swarms to Prineville Honey Bee Haven. Each morning  the newest members of the family have been fed a fresh jar of sugar water to help them transition to life beyond their original hives. We've also tried not to interfere with their settling in and have only opened each hive just a few times. It takes a monumental effort to start from scratch and establish a new hive home. 

We decided to keep the swarm captures in these nuc boxes until they showed steady enough growth to move to a larger hive in the honey bee garden. The last inspection proved that these girls are tenacious builders and ready for a bigger home. 

One of the challenges to a swarm catch and the establishment of a new home, is the possibility that the honey bees may build various shaped comb. Our frames are foundationless here on the farm and this allows for some "creativity" on the girls end. As a beekeeper, you want the comb to meet size requirements for the hive and sometimes have to work to adjust the newly formed comb to fit correctly.  Notice how white this new comb is.

A trick you can use as a beekeeper is to borrow unused comb from another hive and to attach it to a foundationless frame with string to help give the girls a head start. Within a few days they will attach the comb themselves and make every effort to remove the string. It is important to get the string out as quickly as you can, as the bees can get caught in it and eventually die. 

Now that we know the new swarm catches each have a queen and  progress checks show freshly drawn comb, eggs and food stores, the next step is to ensure that each of the swarms have a large enough space to expand the colony and to check on them regularly. As the nectar flow comes on in the next few months, sugar water won't be needed at all. The girls will end up simply ignoring that it is even there...the real stuff simply tastes much better. 

If you build it, they will come

This weekend I experienced what I can only describe as simply AMAZING. Just after 1:00 pm I put our two kids down for a nap. When I walked out of the house, I heard what sounded like a jet plane taking off directly over my head. What I saw next absolutely stunned me: a honey bee swarm in our vegetable garden.

Almost instantly, my beekeeping instincts kicked into gear. I wanted to catch that swarm and I raced to tell both my husband and our daughter. We suited up and prepared to catch our newest farm family members before they decided to leave for somewhere else. 

 Honey bees swarm for a few reasons, but in essence half of the population of the mother hive leaves with the old queen to establish a new hive. When the bees leave the mother hive, they gorge themselves with honey in anticipation that it may take them some time to find a new home. Because of this, they are fairly docile and don't tend to sting. The swarm lands wherever the queen is and they cluster on top of her to protect her and keep her warm. 

   Once we donned our suits and collected our gear, we were ready to capture the swarm. This meant that we placed a "nuc box" directly underneath the cluster and gave them a good shake. The hope of course is to catch as many bees as possible inside of the box and more importantly, the queen. Afterwards, the box was set right near the original swarm location and the remaining bees ideally join the group within a few hours. If we missed the queen and she failed to land in the box, most likely the swarm would take off again.    Once evening fell and the swarm was inside for the night, we moved the box to its new home on the farm. We will keep the bees well fed with sugar syrup for at least a month and hope that they are able to establish residence in their new home.    The entire experience of course was surreal to say the least for all of us. Everything played into our favor on this one. We saw the swarm almost instantly, we had the equipment to catch it, the swarm landed in an ideal location and most importantly we were literally working on the finishing touches of the honey bee foraging garden fence. This truly goes to show, IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME. I am so incredibly thankful to have experienced this!

 

Once we donned our suits and collected our gear, we were ready to capture the swarm. This meant that we placed a "nuc box" directly underneath the cluster and gave them a good shake. The hope of course is to catch as many bees as possible inside of the box and more importantly, the queen. Afterwards, the box was set right near the original swarm location and the remaining bees ideally join the group within a few hours. If we missed the queen and she failed to land in the box, most likely the swarm would take off again. 

 Once evening fell and the swarm was inside for the night, we moved the box to its new home on the farm. We will keep the bees well fed with sugar syrup for at least a month and hope that they are able to establish residence in their new home. 

 The entire experience of course was surreal to say the least for all of us. Everything played into our favor on this one. We saw the swarm almost instantly, we had the equipment to catch it, the swarm landed in an ideal location and most importantly we were literally working on the finishing touches of the honey bee foraging garden fence. This truly goes to show, IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME. I am so incredibly thankful to have experienced this!