06 January 2017

Sleep On, Little Bees

Honeybees need a refreshing drink now and then.
We're in the dead of winter, with freezing temperatures, dreary, gray skies, and snow but only a few days ago, it was almost springlike. We all took advantage of the beautiful weather, including the bees, who came out to quench their thirst and to see if the good weather was here to stay. Since we've had a few people ask how our beekeeping's been going, so here's an overview of how the year went.
Ahh! Bees! Oh, wait. No. They're flies that look like bees, called syrphids.
After winter melted away last March, we were thrilled to discover the swarm that had showed up the previous year were hearty enough to survive the winter. In fact, they were doing so well that Jack was able to split that hive and create an entirely new hive with a new queen bee. Things were looking well for our apiary ventures.
The girls taking advantage of some fairy moss so they could get a sip of water.
With bee-crazy Jack, there are never really any surprises. Like when live bees show up in the mail. I just took the queen inside and left her on top of the mail pile until Jack got home.
In-the-mail bees weren't the only new guests we had this past year. While we were visiting Nebraska for my mom's birthday party, Jack helped out some friends who had a serious bee problem in their enclosed porch. So, one afternoon, he and his brother cut out a section of their wall and managed to get the hive stuffed into a box, along with the queen. Then, it was only a question of how to get the bees back to Indiana.
Peeking in on the angry bees.
Jack looked at me straight faced and said he was just planning on packing them on top of our suitcases in the back. Uh, no. We ended up using the car topper to take the hive home. No one got stung and the girls were more than happy to dip their fingers in the honey that had dripped out during our journey once Jack's new prize was unloaded.
Spring turned to summer (in case you were wondering) and the bees all seemed to be doing pretty well. In fact, some were doing too well.
Stay away from those angry girls, who also happen to be surrounded by a sea of poison ivy...
It is possible for bees to become so stuffed and hot in a beehive that they hang on the outside and buzz angrily whenever anyone gets close. That makes mowing, getting the mail, getting off the bus, picking dandelions, or playing in puddles pretty risky, as Jack can attest...

No, his ear isn't always that red and gigantic, only when it's been stung by a bee.
Ears aren't supposed to look like that...
Along with the flurry of activity and honey, it inevitably attracts freeloaders. Jack did his best to keep the ants, hive beetles, wax moths, mites, wasps, bears (ok, just kidding) etc away but in the end, it can overwhelm even the strongest of hives. Sometimes, they just pick up and leave.
The first to go was the swarm that had been so strong. Maybe they felt like they had no loyalty since they'd already given us so much or maybe, they were looking for greener pastures. Maybe they're just simple insects and they aren't capable of higher thought, like I imagine they are. Whatever the reason, it was only a matter of hours before they were gone and even if I had noticed them swarming, I wasn't about to run out there and throw a tarp over them to keep them put until Jack got home.
A gaping hole like that is a clue that they hatched a new queen before they left.
To add insult to injury, all those freeloaders cleaned out of all the honey and any remaining hive members before we could salvage anything. The telltale sign of robbing a hive is the crumbles of wax found within. Generally, when honeybees use their own honey, they're careful about uncapping it so they can reuse the wax. When a wasp or an invading honeybee or whoever the little wretches are come with the intent of gorging themselves on free honey, they rip the wax cap off as fast as they can and discard it. Those little jerks don't even clean up after themselves.
The hurriedly ripped apart honeycomb.
It was discouraging, to say the least, but it wasn't the only blow to our population. The poor Nebraska bees had a hard time establishing themselves so late in the season and ultimately met their demise as well. So, Jack collected the hive boxes and brought them inside to put them in the deep freeze.
Yes, the deep freeze (I told you, nothing he does surprises me anymore). While the frames of honeycomb were waiting their turn to be submerged in the cold for at least 24 hours, I learned why Jack was taking up so much freezer space. The bees had perished, yes, but there were still scavengers taking advantage of the nice location and I discovered them wriggling all over the mud room floor...wax worms. I know revenge is wrong, but there's something very satisfying about sweeping those horrible little creatures up and tossing them to the chickens to gobble up and sending the rest to an icy death.
Let me see...where did I put the frozen broccoli? Oh, right. Under the beehive frames.
Despite those setbacks, all was not lost. There was one hive that did well enough that Jack felt comfortable harvesting their honey (speaking of freeloaders...us, haha!) while leaving them enough for winter. It's really incredible how much honey one hive can produce in a decent year. It's the culminated effort of every individual that results in such astounding progress. Everything is done for the good of the hive. I think people, in general, could learn some valuable lessons from bees.
That's enough honey for a year for us!
One hive is generally enough honey for us for a year, if we're careful with it, two and we could use it more frequently and gift it more generously. Three or more hives? I think we could start selling some. When asked how many hives he's thinking of having, Jack gets a far-off look in his eye and murmurs something about having about ten. Ten?! Well, as long as we can find a spot for all of them without an enormous increase in bee stings, I'd be okay with it. My only job is to clean up after he's attempted to clean up (it's kind of cute when he tries to tidy up his messes), which is made easier with the help of, well, the bees.
Waste not, want not, right?
After we've scraped up what we can, Jack set the bowls and pitchers outside for the bees to come and clean off. They are all more than happy to come help with that chore.
Since the weather turned, all the bees are tucked inside their hives, hopefully keeping warm and well-fed so we can see them again next spring. We've learned a lot over the past few years about these fickle, fragile creatures and are becoming better stewards over them and are hoping that results in better success rates and ultimately, more honey. For now, sleep on, little bees.

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