Making Lemonade

23-beehive

Today was a great day. We started out the day at a UU service, followed by a walk through the woods with other wonderful UU families, and ended the day by doing good work around the homestead.

This afternoon I took my dead-beehive situation, a metaphorical bowl of lemons, and tried my best to turn it into lemonade. I look at it as a learning opportunity. I cleaned out the hive and as I went through each frame, I examined it. I made mental observations about placement of honey, placement of dead bees, placement of stored pollen. I looked for signs of disease and signs of mites. I looked for the queen (I didn’t find her). I tried to assess the ultimate cause of death. After examining the entire hive I stand by my earlier assessment of death by freezing temperatures. The bees were mostly found in a heap at the bottom of the hive. There was no sign of disease. No foulbrood, no wing disorders. There were mite bodies that had fallen through the screened bottom board, but not enough to cause a serious problem in the hive. A few bees were found face-first in the honeycomb, a sign of a “starve out”, or a starved hive, but not enough of them were in that position to indicate that there was a real starvation issue. Besides, there was plenty of honey left in the hive. The bees were just too cold to access it.

23-signs-of-a-starve-out

The two bees in the center are head-first in the comb. This is a sign of starving bees. If all the bees in the hive were found this way, it would have been a stave-out. You can see that other bees died as they were walking on the frame. They didn’t starve.

I worked for a long while on cleaning the hive and readying it for the next colony of bees. I made a pile of frames with lopsided and loopy foundation, and I will replace the foundation in those frames or discard them entirely. I scraped down propolis and replaced my 10-frame arrangement with the nine frames I have wanted for over a year now. It’s easier to do all of this when the bees aren’t busy in the hive, busy growing new life, busy watching out for intruders, busy storing food for the upcoming season. I am still a young beekeeper. I respect the awesome power and ability of the bees, and I happily stand back and let them do what they do best. In my newness, I forget that my job as a beekeeper is to steward, encourage and protect them. I fulfill my basic promise by providing them with boxes and frames in which to store their brood (baby bees), their pollen (a protein source) and their honey (a food source). But I can’t just leave them to do their thing. I need to make sure their frames are being used to the best of their ability, and if they are not, I have to replace them. I need to make sure their queen is doing her job, and if she is not, I have to replace her. I need to make sure their home is as perfect as they try to make it.

23-honey

There was a lot of honey left in the hive. This deep frame is almost full of honey. The bees were too cold to get to it, even though it wasn’t too far away.

It is a combination of three things that keeps me from fulfilling my duty as the bee’s steward:

1: Fear of killing the queen. I am so afraid that if I take out frames and spend time moving frames around, I will inadvertently kill the queen. I think I may have killed the queen during my first year of beekeeping, and it has haunted me ever since. If the queen is dead, the colony is set back. It’s not the end of the colony necessarily, but you certainly don’t want to kill the queen;

2: Fear of getting stung. I get stung quite a bit. I take it as a sign of being a beekeeper. The guard bees are ready to defend their hive as soon as you open the cover. The smoke from the smoker does only so much to subdue them. I have gotten stung enough that I now get phantom stings when I work in the hive – my legs will start to hurt as if I have gotten stung, when actually I haven’t. Fear of pain is a powerful subconscious motivator;

3: My firmly established desire to leave the natural cycle alone. I come from a place of letting things in nature do what they will do with minimal interference from me. If the bees are happy in their hive, why do they need me in there with them? I let this mentality take over where the fear of killing the queen and of getting stung leave off.

All of these honey comb cells are packed with pollen stored from last year. The bees need the protein from pollen as they enter the spring season. If they had survived this winter, they would be eating this pollen in the next few weeks for energy.

All of these honey comb cells are packed with pollen stored from last year. The bees need the protein from pollen as they enter the spring season. If they had survived this winter, they would be eating this pollen in the next few weeks for energy.

I am coming learn that to be a responsible beekeeper, I need to get into my hives more often and take on a greater role in managing them. What that means for this coming year remains to be seen. I have learned some valuable lessons about beekeeping so far, all through trial and error. I’ll employ these tactics in addition to some new ones this summer:

  • Add more honey supers before you need them. In my first year as a beekeeper I didn’t add honey supers quickly enough. A few things happened as a result: the bees swarmed multiple times, and I didn’t collect as much honey as I would have if I had added enough supers;
  • Feed more often than you think: I realize now that the bees use sugar syrup to help build comb. Even if all of the frames in your hive have drawn comb, some comb might be too brittle or misshapen. Give the bees some food and energy so that they can clean their house as well as they like;
  • Check each frame to be sure the comb is drawn out to the fullest. If adjacent frames are being drawn out but one or both sides of a frame are not, remove the frame. Replace the foundation or spray it with sugar syrup. Something about that frame isn’t right. Ditto for frames with partially or irregularly drawn comb.

It was good for me to go through the hive today and become reacquainted with these rules for life. It even felt like I was making lemonade out of lemons while I was working. The outside temperature was in the 30s – cold for some of you, but pleasant for us. I started thinking about how life is essentially good for me right now, how things are coming alive and are on a good path. I looked over at the maple tree near the hive and thought,

There is only one thing that will make everything sweeter: maple syrup.

You know by now what it means when I think something like this. Jeff was in the woodworking shop making the new chicken coop, so I grabbed him and asked him to drill into the sugar maples to see if the sap was flowing… and it is! Out of the drilled hole dripped a steady stream of clear sap. I went to buy some taps and buckets but it was too late on a Sunday to get anything, so tomorrow I will go out again. We won’t get the 40 gallons needed to make a gallon of syrup, but we might get enough for a good homemade taste. We’ll boil it down on our wood stove.

Syrup is better than lemonade!

Now that the beehive is cleaned out, I’ll order a package of bees that will probably arrive in a month. I’m setting this one up with 9 frames in each box instead of 10, so that may yield more honey and may make it easier to get in and out of the hive. When 10 frames are pressed into a small box, it is hard to get them in and out. I’ll find out this summer if it is easier to manipulate them. I will start with a sturdy hive. Most of all, I vow to be a more responsible beekeeper. Life is one learning experience after another, isn’t it? Life is about making lemonade.

 

 

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