Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spring: A Time of New Beginnings

On Thursday, April 5 with butterflies in my tummy, I drove to Madison County to pick up the new bees. The nucs were available to take home the previous Saturday but I was out of town. They had overwintered in southern Ohio and had been brought to my mentor in Plain City along with I don't know how many other nucs. The cardboard nucs are too confining to keep the girls inside for several days, so they had spent a few days flying about their very temporary home in suburban Plain City. Because I was coming for them Thursday, late Wednesday night they had been barricaded inside the nuc.

On this beautiful, clear spring day, I moved the nucs from the driveway into the trunk of my car. The nucs were surprisingly heavy, perhaps 10 pounds. They were full of bees or full of honey, or maybe full of bees and honey. There were a few hitchhikers on the outside of the vents so I was happy to have the nucs in my trunk and not inside my car. In addition to the circular vents there were medallions of small holes in both end panels. Bees create a lot of heat and enclosed in a box they could easily overheat. Back home in Worthington, when I opened the trunk I found the nuc on the right had more bees outside than the hitchhikers that were there when I closed the trunk in Madison County. I watched as the bees squeezed out of the holes in the cardboard. I could see that the holes were too small for the bees to escape but apparently the bees thought otherwise and I was amazed to see bee after bee emerge from the box. I decided to deal with that nuc last.

Now that my husband's office is five minutes from home, I talked him into coming home to help me with the logistics. I needed to move three nucs, each containing 5 deep frames, thousands of worker bees and a queen into my waiting 8-frame medium hives. Working through the logistics reminded me of one of those brain teasers about moving foxes, hens and corn across a river in a canoe in such a way that the foxes wouldn't each the hens and the hens wouldn't eat the corn.

A little background. When I bought my hives last year I decided to use all 8-frame medium hive boxes. Hive boxes come as shallows, mediums or deeps and hold eight or 10 frames. A deep hive box filled with bees and honey can weigh more than 50 pounds. Show me even one beekeeper who doesn't have a bad back! Schlepping 35 pound hive boxes seemed like a much better idea. BUT, the nucs' frames are deep so I knew they wouldn't fit in my medium boxes. My mentor made me wooden spacers to lift the bottom brood boxes so the deep frames would fit. I would fill out the box with my medium frames. I know that bees don't like empty spaces, so I expected they would fill the gaps with drone comb or other weird wax configurations. The beauty of having all mediums or all deeps is that all the equipment, including frames, is interchangeable. So much for that idea. At the last minute, I ordered deep hive boxes for my brood boxes, but they hadn't yet arrived. I needed to go with what I had.

My three hives were still as I had left them last fall. Two colonies were four boxes tall and one was three boxes tall. At the end of the installation, I would need each hive to be comprised of (starting from the bottom) a bottom screen, a wooden spacer, two hive boxes, an inner cover and a telescoping cover. I had to make room in the bottom boxes for the fully loaded frames from the nucs. I had more frames than I had boxes to put them and more boxes than I needed, for now. And I had three nucs full of bees that had been on lockdown for 15 hours. Let's call them potentially unhappy bees.

We staged everything, I was already suited up and I stoked my new electric smoker (thank you Harvey for a beekeeper's best present). I carried the first nuc of bees to Hive 3, former home of the cranky girls. The frames were all drawn out and full of brood and honey. And there were bees everywhere. I didn't take the time to look for eggs nor to try to find the queen. I just wanted to get those frames safely transferred! After moving the nuc frames there were plenty of bees still in the box so I shook it over the frames and prayed that the queen was in the hive box and that I hadn't accidentally crushed her. I stacked the next hive body, put on the two covers, left the open nuc in front of the hive for the lingerers and headed back across the meadow to my garage for the next nuc.

More escapees from the nuc on the right! I selected the nuc from the middle. The transfer went much the same. Harvey was watching from a distance since he was in banker's clothes and headed back to the office. He mentioned that I had a lot of bees on my suit.

Back in the garage, I studied the nuc with bees inside and out and tried to figure out how to lift it out of my trunk without crushing any bees and without holding any bees close to my body. The protective clothing is heavy twill, not kevlar. Now on my own, I opened the last nuc. These girls were making it very clear that they were mad as, well, hornets, that they had been closed up in that box for so long. I paid close attention to what I was doing and moved the last of the frames into Hive 1.

Back in the garage, a good number of bees (100+) had decided that my trunk felt like home. Every time I tried to sweep them out they flew back in. I left the trunk open and the garage doors open and hoped they'd figure out where their queen went.

I love my bees and am fascinated with them but I still find working with them to be stressful. If I didn't get those nasty reactions to the stings, I would probably be more relaxed. By the time I am finished doing whatever I need to do with all those flying stingers, I'm sweaty and pretty wiped out. Still in my bee suit, I tromped into the kitchen. That's when I heard the buzzing sound that meant I had a bee on my hood.

Beekeeping with a partner has its advantages. The advantage of the moment would have been for me to do a slow pirouette while someone else tells me if I have any bees on my suit BEFORE I go into the house. A really good partner would help brush the bees away. I decided to take off my hood and jacket outside on the deck. Here's what had come into the house with me!

I figure that's a little cluster of about 50 bees. I did remove three bees from the kitchen.

The deep hive boxes arrived Friday, one damaged. I'm still working on that and have not gotten motivated to tear down the current configuration to put the girls into the deeps. Since Thursday, I have been out to the hives several times a day. The bees are flying happily about. I have seen them in the meadow, hanging out with the dandelions. They are coming back to the hives laden with white and pale yellow pollen. This is all a good four to six weeks ahead of what we had last spring.

2012 0
2011 13

Friday, April 6, 2012

What Happened this Winter

One might think that a mild winter would be easy on the bees. One would be wrong. Bees are actually programmed to survive the cold. When the temperature drops, the queen stops laying eggs and the bees gather together in a cluster. They shiver their wings and take turns being in the warmest part of the cluster. Enter the mildest Ohio winter anyone can remember.

When the temperature gets above 40, the bees come out of their cluster and take cleansing flights (NO POOPING IN THE HIVE!!). In January, we had some 60 degree days. In February, too. We all know the trees and flowers were confused with the springlike winter and so were the bees. They broke out of their clusters. The queens starting laying eggs two months earlier than they were supposed to. The workers were beginning to care for the brood and when the temperatures dropped to the 30s, they were not in their clusters. They got too cold and they died. Well, most of them died, and more importantly, the queens died.

On Feburary 20, after a couple of glorious 60 degree days, I opened up my hives. I had been seeing bees flying about so I expected to see bees in the hive. In each hive I found puny little clusters the size of a large egg. A healthy cluster is the size of a basketball. A week later I looked again and found two out of three of my queens, dead. There were still bees flying about. They might have been my own bees who had not yet died of old age or they might have been someone else's bees robbing the honey still stored in the combs. I felt SO sad. I was sure at least one hive (the one with the cranky bees) would make it.

The same scene played out all over central Ohio. The seasoned beekeepers are quite matter of fact about dead colonies. This is agriculture; they are not pets. They spend no time mourning, but look intellectually at what went wrong. Easy for them.

I know I had strong colonies going into the winter. I know they did not starve as there was ample honey stored in each hive. They were fed, sugared, insulated. I can't control the variables any more than that. I can't control the weather. And I have no idea if my Madison County bees survived.

I can, and did, order new bees. This time instead of ordering packages of Italian bees with Italian queens, I ordered three nucs. A nuc is a mini beehive. Instead of 8 or 10 frames it has 5. There are lots of reasons beekeepers create nucs and perhaps I'll cover them in a future post, but these nucs were created by one of my mentors. The queens are from the best stock of a line of Ohio queens and the nucs were created while the queens were still laying last summer. These Ohio queens in their mini hives with their genetic daughters overwintered beautifully. Last April 20, I installed three packages of bees. Yesterday, April 5, I picked up my nucs and installed them in my ghost town hive boxes. Tune in tomorrow and I'll tell you how that went.

Here's a hint: 2012 sting count, 0.