Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New Bees, Old Burdens

A queen cage. Notice the white dot on the queen's abdomen.
One always approaches the beginning of the beekeeping season with trepidation. Did the hive survive the winter? Do they have a queen? Is she going to lay? When will first bloom be? They are delicate creatures, at least up here in the great white north they are. So it was with joy that I discovered both of my hives had survived. An excellent start. I started to count the extra pounds of honey I was going to harvest with two hives at full strength from the get go. But Grandma always said don't count your honey before it is bottled. Or something like that.
A closer subsequent inspection revealed that one of my hives was queenless. Damn. So I ordered a package, which is about 10,000 bees and a queen. This is what you usually use to start a new hive. I combined it with my queenless bees, giving them frames of honey to eat and placing a sheet of newspaper between them to give them a few days to get to know each other before mingling. It worked. They ate through much of the paper and combined into one hive, which as of now is doing well. I do not think I will harvest much if any honey off of them, but no worries, I have my other hive to count on, which is already storing extra honey. Or so I thought.
10,000 bees.
One of the greatest words in beekeeping is 'queenright'. It is great because it sounds cool and archaic but it also means that all is well with your hive, the queen is there and she is laying and everyone is doing their jobs. Well my other hive was not queenright. It started off that way, but somewhere along the line the queen died, and some of the worker bees morphed into drone laying bees. I am not sure why this happens, but when bees do not have a queen, weird shit goes on, and this is one of the things that definitely falls into the category of weird shit. As I looked through the hive, frame after frame of drone cells appeared and that's it. Drones basically have one task, to impregnate the queen. After that, they are dead weight. A hive full of drones will basically die, since no one will go out and forage for nectar and pollen. So I needed to make this hive 'queenright' ASAP.
Luckily there is a guy a few towns over who raises queens, and doubly luckily I have a neighbor who is my beekeeper compadre and who is retired. He volunteered not only to drive over and pick up the queen, and not only to bring over a few frames of brood, but also to watch O. while I installed the queen in the hive. Then he came back the next day, after doing some research, and let me know that simply installing the queen would not work, I had to go through a complex procedure of removing the 'house' bees but keeping the 'field' bees. Then he took O. for a walk so I could get this done. It took about an hour and was probably the most unpleasant beekeeping task I have ever performed. Angry angry bees, three of which got inside my suit. Anyway, they finally were all set up, and fingers crossed if it worked at all. But slim chance of harvesting honey from that hive this year either. So the reality is that the honey that goes in my tea every morning will not be from my own hives, once last year's supply runs out. And that pretty much sucks and makes you wonder why you bother.
Humble hives
That's where my beekeeping head is at right now. Even with the influx of new bees and new hopes, I am saddled with these same old burdens of trying to keep them alive and happy, and above all, queenright.


  1. Tough break, Richard. How much upkeep does it take to keep these around, other than making sure they are keeping themselves fed? Also, I wonder what happened to the queen. I hope you get something for your/their efforts this year.

    We were just at a museum that keeps a hive, connected to the exterior by a plexiglass tube through a window, so you can see the bees come in and out. Stella and I actually saw for the first time the pollen sacks, or "baskets" on the legs of the bees coming in. It was wild! I have never noticed them on bees outdoors before. Pretty cool.

  2. Theoretically, it should not take much upkeep at all. On the other hand, it is agriculture, so nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and until you do it on a large scale, any losses and setbacks will seem disproportionately huge. I have found it very rewarding but much more challenging than I ever anticipated.
    The pollen sacs are a beautiful thing, it is interesting to track their changing colors as different plants come into bloom.


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