Tuesday, May 20, 2014

beekeeping ishly

from Ish, by Peter Reynolds

Beekeeping is a strange thing for me.  I tend bees ishly.  I really have no idea what I am doing.  I have taken a number of classes.  I have a bee mentor.  I can ask a number of bee experts in our area.  I read a great deal about bees.  

But really.  I have no idea what I am doing.  It is not like I grew up amidst the bees.  I never even got stung by a bee until I was in college.  There is no childhood experience that once I do something I can feel myself remembering, ah yes, I used to do this.  I don't feel the corners of my mind touching upon the vaguely familiar.

And in fact, I took a Sophomore Beekeeping class just a month ago.  In which I was taught how to perform a split of one of my hives into two, once the nectar flow was on in the Spring and then how to prevent swarming.   And one of my hives was extremely active I was told.  It was building up fast, faster even than typical hives in Spring.  But my teacher had said, wait for the dandelion flow.  And so I was dutifully waiting.  

And then it happened.  We started to look like a bonafide dandelion farm.  And I thought, well gee.  What do I do now?

And so, I returned to my notes.  It may be advanced maternal age and the beginning of my slow and steady cognitive decline, but I felt like I could not remember anything.  And my note taking skills seem to also be a part of the cognitive slide.  I took out my books.  I sat in bed this weekend in the early morning, determining that today was the day, with rain forecast for the next few days and knowing that Jonathan was here to help if I needed him.

My greatest fear is the one I have had since this all began.  That I would not be able to find, or maybe even worse, squish the queen.  Technical term there.

I decided to deal with this fear with a bit of a getting started craft project.  It is such a useful strategy, isn't it?  Crafting your way out of anxiety?

So, I made myself a queen cage.  Oh yes, there are lovely ones that can be purchased.  

But I had not purchased one.  And I am thrifty.  And I have all these Ball jars lying around.  Why not?


Craft project complete.  Anxiety lowered?  Not so much.

Oh, are you wondering why so crafty?  Well, yes.  I should splain.  To make a split, one hopefully finds the queen of the original hive.  And puts her in one hive, and leaves behind plenty of brood of all stages and nurse bees to care for the brood in another, and if the nectar flow is on and therefore there are plenty of resources for the bees, then supposedly, nurse bees can feed an egg or several, laid by the queen before she was taken to her new kingdom, royal jelly.  And grow a new queen.

It's fascinating stuff.  It certainly makes me think very differently about my special night cream that has royal jelly in it.  Magical stuff.  If it can turn an egg into a queen, imagine what it could do for me?

I digress.  Back to the fancy Ball jar with the craft mesh.  I was imagining looking in my four box deep hive of thousands of bees, who would most assuredly be angry and irritated with me, and beginning to feel concerned about my ability to find her.  And then, once I did find her, what in the world was I going to do with her? 

Enter Ball jar queen cage.  See?  Handy.

Then, I imagined, I would gently put her in it with a few nurse bees and then like a magician shuffle the frames of the one large hive into two perfectly ratio-ed hives.

It didn't exactly work that way.  But isn't the cage pretty?  With its wide topped, nonsquishing styling? Let's enjoy it for a minute together.

Ok.  Moving on.

Feeling buoyed by my skills, I took one more look at my notes.  Kept repeating dandelions in my head, pronounced the way I hear it pronounced often here in Maine.  DAN - DEE - li - ons.  Took a look at the yard.  And at the cloud of bees in front of the hive in the beeyard.  And knew it was time.

The Honeymobile, which spends its winters as a firewood cart.  This is the wagon I used to pull the kids in to the T-stop in Boston to meet Jonathan's train home from work.  How far we have all come. 


I hauled Honeymobile down the hill with me.  With all the materials and tools I thought I would need. With Jonathan in subpar protective garb and holding the camera, darting away every once in a while when bees got a bit too interested in him.


I have decided that my bees do not respond to smoke in the typical fashion described by many.  They do not move away.  They just hang.  And get irritated.  So, though I still fire it up, my smoker sits largely unused during my inspections.


I did some careful queen searching.  Jonathan kept telling me to stop looking like I need glasses.  Which I don't.  Really.  Despite the as yet unfilled prescription slip I am carrying around in my wallet.


I went frame by frame in the massive hive.  


There were four medium boxes on the hive, and I started bottom up.  In the second box from the bottom, I started finding some very creative comb.  And it looked to me a bit like there were swarm cups being constructed.  They were, in my opinion, getting ready to swarm.  




There was a lot going on in there.

I cleaned up the funky comb a bit so the frames would sit better.


I collected some lovely beeswax for my growing collection.  Someday I might get a candle out of this.


I continued on.  And the comb was getting wonkier and wonkier.




And then, on the messiest frame of all, I found the queen.  

Here's a helpful hint.  Don't be indecisive when beekeeping.  Because bees move.  So, when you can't quite decide which hive should get the queen and which hive should have to make a new one, and you look over and realize that the hive you are going to put her in is not ready for her, and you then lay the frame atop the frames of the box you are inspecting?  She is not going to wait around for you.  She is going to crawl away and hide on another frame.  

This would have been the moment to employ the crafty queen cage.  What can I say?  I was flummoxed.


Can't you hear them all calling to each other?  This way ladies!  Let's make a bee ladder.  And lead our Queen to safety!

Lesson learned.

I got the new hive ready.  Found her again.  And put her frame into the new hive.  Immediately.

I poked around for a bit.  All the instructions were swirling in my head.  Put in a frame of brood.  A frame of honey.  Pollen.  Make sure the brood is of all different stages of development.  Maybe include a swarm cell in case the queen does not survive the split.  

Snookums?  Don't you need to put the entrance reducer in? asked Jonathan innocently.

I curtly told the man with the helpful questions -- who was also the one not covered in dive-bombing bees -- to please be quiet.  I was thinking.


In reality, my hives were not so clean cut.  There were no frames of just one thing.  And there were no capped swarm cells.  I got the queen some brood and nurse bees to take good care of her.  Put in some pollen and honey, though I was feeling surprised at how little there was, given everything I see coming into the hive each day.  I sent Jonathan running to the barn to fetch some built out comb frames and some honey frames I had removed from the hive in the fall when I was reducing their boxes going into winter, and put those in with her.

While he was gone?  I put the entrance reducer in.


And then, I put back together both the hives.  I left brood of all stages in the now queen-less hive.  And I left that one in the same place, which means all of the bees out foraging would return to that hive.  My thought here was that this hive needed those foragers in order to continue to collect pollen and honey to have the resources they needed to raise a new queen.  And I popped in the remaining frames from the barn with a bit of pollen and honey in them.

And then I closed them all up.  Jonathan wandered away and on to something else.  And I stood just far enough away and watched the beeyard for a bit.

And I thought through what I had just done.  I am not sure I did it right.  I am not sure the queen is in the right hive.  Or if I should have moved the new hive farther away, or if I should have somehow gotten more mature bees, and therefore foragers, in the new hive.  Or...

I went for sugar syrup and popped feeders on top of both of the hives, and filled the one in the new package's hive.

I stood and thought some more.  I spent the evening Googling northern raised queens.  Considering trying to get one.  I reminded myself that the whole idea of this was to beekeep sustainably.  To be able to raise your own queens and grow your own beeyard.  But I was worried, because it seemed a long time until one of those eggs I put into the queenless hive were going to become a mated and mature queen.  I had not seen any capped swarm cells, and the swarm cells I did see seemed a bit small to be actual swarm cells.

And so, I thought.  And worried a bit.  And then, yesterday, I headed down.  Telling myself I was going to fill the feeders.  And take a look at the activity.

Which I did.  But then, don't tell anyone, because you are really supposed to leave them alone once you have done such an invasive inspection for a good while, I may have lifted a frame or two of the queenless hive.  Just to see what it looked like in there.

I was rewarded with a quick look at this.


See?  There on the bottom in the middle?  It is a capped cell. And there is something in it.  And the cell is larger and more extended than the smaller but domed drone cells near it.  And the wax is lighter, fresher perhaps.  Perhaps created more recently.  Perhaps, what I remember from my classes as being a queen cell, extended and elongated by the bees to accommodate the larger growing queen's body.  Perhaps.

The ladies were taking very good care of it.


And so, I closed the hive up quickly.  And reminded myself of all of the other possible swarm and supersedure cups I had left in there when I organized that hive.  And hoped that there was more than just this cell being cared for.

I was relieved.  And then, I stood back.  And looked over at the hive with the queen in it.  And noticed.  No bees out foraging.



And went back to worrying.  Would they be okay until those nurse bees I put in there mature enough to be able to fly out and forage?  Should I move some more mature brood over from the larger queenless hive?

When I fed them, they were active and the hive seemed full enough.


But I am back to wondering. 


Despite this, I think, we are on our way to being three.  


Three hives.  Ish.

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