one collapsed late last fall and the other didn't survive the winter. If we're completely honest, I was really disheartened by the loss of both hives. I worked hard last summer, felt like I was doing everything right, and even then I lost both of the hives. Bee keeping is quite a bit of work. And when it came time to try it again this spring, I didn't have it in me to start from scratch.
Rory took over, and I was so grateful. He has written about his bee keeping at length at The Grovestead Blog. The thing about beekeeping is that it takes two years to get a hive to produce enough honey for you to eat. The entire first year is spent building and strengthening the hive and ensuring the bees will have enough honey to live on all winter long. It is only in the second summer that you get to add honey supers (the smaller boxes with shallow frames) to the top of your stack, and it is only out of those supers that you can harvest your honey.
But because both of our hives died, we ended up with frames full of honey. Some of those frames Rory actually gave to the new bees this year to help get them started and up and running. Some of those frames I have stuck my own finger into and eaten straight out of the comb (the best!). And Some of those frames we recently brought to Adam's house so they could be spun and we could have our first honey. We'd rather have living bees from last year, but second best would be some of our own honey.
It was fun to watch and I was proud of our little contribution. Rory is doing an awesome job with our bees this year and we're hopeful that maybe next year, we'll have honey bees healthy and strong, on year two.
He's got a new venture up his sleeve, and I think the fact that I have been so very unproductive has made his incredible productivity somewhat of a marvel to me. I've heard him on the phone with seed suppliers. I've watched him open packages with all sorts of envelop sizes and samples. I've seen his spread sheets for pricing out postage. I've helped him with the art and design mock ups for his packaging before he hands it all off to an awesome artist next week. I have heard him on the phone sorting through permits and licenses. And I've seen his plans for packaging and branding. He's on the phone with vendors asking if the seeds are organic.
And in the meantime, I have watched a whole lot of Downton Abbey.
A few weeks ago when I had the flu, I was watching youtube videos of Wendell Berry, our favorite farmer-author. He was being interviewed for a morning show and was telling of his environmental work in Kentucky where he lives. The guy interviewing him said, "what is the solution to the water quality in the Kentucky river? Do we need more regulations on mining?" And Wendell slowed way down and shook his head. And he talked about how big problems can never be solved with big solutions. It's what got us into big trouble in the first place. But the only solution for big problems are small solutions.
It's pretty well known by now that we have a big problem with honey bees and other pollinators that we are greatly dependent on. One of the factors is the loss of wild food sources from mono-crop farming. The bees are looking for food, and it is hard to find. Our small solution is to get more people planting the right flowers to help the honey bee.
We're really excited about these seeds. Honeybees have become a big deal for us. And we're so thrilled to get to do our small part.
These lovely pictures are all taken from my second hive. That hive is thriving and the bees look great. They are making a lot of honey and look strong going into the winter ahead. I love the look of capped honey showing in the picture just above. That's what they'll live on during the winter months until the dandelions bloom in the springtime.
The first hive isn't thriving. I've known this for weeks now, but haven't been sure what to do about it. I always see dead bees around the base, in disturbing numbers. In one of the first bee keeping books I read it recommended always starting your bee keeping experience with at least two hives so you have something to compare your hives against. I am so glad we did this, because towards the middle of August I could tell that the first hive wasn't keeping up with the second hive.
The trouble was that I didn't know what to do about it.
I kept telling myself that bees are resilient. They don't have keepers in the wild. Surely they would figure it out. I had read that if the queen was unwell or abandoned the hive, the other bees would build a new queen cell. But apparently that didn't happen. Adam, my bee keeping mentor came out the same day Mama J died, and confirmed what I already knew...my first hive had no queen. As we stood in the noisy cloud of bees surrounding the hive he told me that the bees swarming around and in and out of the hive were likely robbers from other area hives coming to get the honey.
I've taken the loss of this hive pretty personally. Adam assured me that it's really common. That it is not uncommon for a bee keeper to loose 1/3 of their hives in a year. He knew it would be sad, but assured me that next year he'd get me set up with splits from his own hives, queens that he grows and we'll be on our feet again. But I'm still so disappointed and feel so guilty about having lost an entire hive.
Adam did mention that if I had caught it soon enough, there usually is about a 10 day window to introduce a new queen (I thought this was done by the bees, but apparently a keeper can introduce a new queen as well) with hopes that the hive might resurrect.
The biggest lesson learned is simply that I still have so much more to learn. It is obvious to me that I need to be in some sort of bee keeping class, or honey bee school.
It's sad and disappointing. I'll study up this winter and be ready for another round next spring. In the meantime, I'll be building a silt fence around the second hive preparing it for winter.
The walk to my honeybees leads me through our grove and then through our field. And every time, when I finally make my way I round the grove so the hives are in eye shot, I hold my breath. Because I love my bees and want them to thrive. But weird things are happening to bees like colony collapse and I feel like I'm sort of waiting for something to go wrong. My greatest fear is that I'll round the corner and find my bees have swarmed and are gone or that disease has set into my hives or that the bees have died. I am strangely attached to my bees. And I would be devastated if something happened.
Last Friday I put on my gear, rounded the corner and found a scattering of dead bees at the base of each hive. I wanted to cry. I felt so responsible, so helpless and so sad. I loaded my smoker and slowly watched the activity around the hives.
There wasn't a whole lot to watch...the runway that is usually dense with bees flying in and out of the hive was pretty quiet. So I opened the first hive and saw lots of bees in there, moving pretty slowly. There wasn't a lot of buzzing but they seemed to be fanning themselves a lot.
I opened the second hive and it was about the same. The bees were still there, but they were less active. I walked back to the house and called my bee teacher, Adam. And then I got on a bee keeping forum and explained what I had seen.
I didn't have any answers and left for an overnight with my cousins and aunts and mom and sister and found myself at the Stockholm, Wisconsin farmers market later that night. There I met a woman selling hot pepper jelly, sweetened with her own honey and told her about my bees.
I told her all that I had seen and that I was pretty upset to see my hives look so weak. Clearly something terrible was wrong with dead bees surrounding the hives. And then she told me the 713th crazy bee fact I have learned since starting this whole adventure: She explained that because it had been so hot the day before and gotten so chilly over night the bees were likely preparing for winter. And that to prepare for winter the female bees will clean house by stinging the male bees to death so they don't have to house and feed the moochers eating their honey all winter long.
What in the world?!! Oh I died. I was so relieved my hives are fine (actually, this is a sign of health she said!) and so shocked by the murders that had happened in my hives that morning. So much of what I have read about hives and bee colonies paints this glorious utopia-like picture of a society that works in unity, each person fulfilling their particular job, working hand in hand to get the job done.
But somehow they have left out the part where the women kill off all the men before wintertime.
At any rate, I was relieved. And humored. And taken aback. All at the same time. I left the farmers market with my mom and sister, aunts and cousins and went out for a lovely dinner to kick off our girls getaway. How very fitting.
Monday's are sort of becoming my update day for the honeybees. I hope you don't mind. There is just so much to pass along and learn! Yesterday I had Adam, our friend who is getting me up and running come out and tell me what I should be looking for when I check on my bees.
So far when I go to check on the bees I look for bees. And if there are a lot of them, and they seem to be busy I have felt successful. But I knew there must be more. As it turns out, Adam had me look past the bees right at the comb. And with his help he was able to show me larvae, eggs (!!!), honey, capped honey and brood.
That top picture is stunning to me. Can you see the dimension of the comb? They build that up, slightly at an up angle so that the honey doesn't drip out. This honey is their food for the winter. It is what they will survive on when there is no pollen or nectar all those long, long months, and will feed the future larvae.
This picture below is capped honey. They're basically preserving their food for the winter just like I'm preserving ours from the garden.
The picture below is brood. There are baby bees in each cell. Adam was happy when we found little larvae and eggs because it means the queen is doing her job and the hive is healthy. The eggs are microscopic. We stepped into the sun to see them, pale white and teeny tiny, just a dot in a cell. The sun helped but it took me a while to actually see what I was looking for. The larvae were fascinating. A bit gross, if we're really honest. But they'll grow into worker bees, and I do love my bees.
Yesterday was an exciting day because we added another deep super to one hive. We would have added another deep super to the second hive, except I haven't purchased it yet. When it arrives, I'll go back out and add it to the second hive. Adam was really encouraged by how healthy my hives are looking. I'm so happy for my bees!
And do you know that I will never touch the honey in these first three supers? All of this honey they are making right now is for them, to help them survive the winter. This first year it is most important to build a healthy hive that will survive the winter.
Saturday morning I went out and checked on my hives. And both are looking awesome. The second hive had looked a little weak just seven days earlier but they both were thriving. I brought the camera again and wanted to get pictures as close as possible. My gloves were sticky so I ended up taking my gloves off, which I find to be pretty hard core. :)
Ironically, I did not get stung (I haven't been stung once yet! And I've been out at least six or seven times.) but I did get bit on my hands by two mosquitoes. I was so annoyed. But those mosquitoes are so thick in the woods...I was grateful to have all of my bee gear on, just to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
This time I was just checking on the bees, making sure the ants had gone away, checking to see how full the frames were and guessing when I'll need to add another box. So once I decided everything looked healthy I just stood for a long time and watched the bees. I would watch one bee and follow just that one, watching it's pattern, trying to figure out what it was working on. It was so fascinating.
This week both hives are looking healthy. I can't say it loud enough: I love keeping bees. I would wish this experience on everyone.
I came back from checking on my bees on Friday morning so, so happy. Bee keeping is a really calming, quiet and almost meditative practice. I am aware of my breathing, aware of my posture and where I am walking. The sound is calming to me...and maybe it helps that I'm inhaling a bit of that smoke too. Who knows.
At any rate, when I go to uncover the bees there is a special adrenaline that comes when you see that they are thriving. It's exciting. And it's so amazing. They've been working so hard since in the seven days since I saw them last. This picture below is the board directly under the white lid. There are always bees on this board, building comb.
This month has been so rainy, that my greatest challenge in bee keeping, has been finding dry kindling to light in the smoker. We had so many rainy days that Rory finally suggested I dry some pine needles in the oven at 250 for 20 minutes. I flipped it over half way through and the whole kitchen filled with a smell that was something of a cross between Christmastime and mud pies. But it totally worked. This stuff smoked like crazy.
In one of the books I read, way in the beginning, it recommended always starting with at least two hives, so you would have something to compare each hive against. The picture above is one hive and the picture below is my second hive. From the start the hive above seemed healthier. And we added a second box a whole week earlier than the bottom hive. And actually, I would admit that I probably should have waited even another week or so before I added the second box to the bottom hive.
It is as if this hive pictured below can't keep up. I think I overwhelmed those bees with too many frames, too soon. I'll be interested to see how they're doing in another week. This was also the hive that I found big ants swarming under the lid. It was so gross. Hopefully another week will show a healthier hive. But again, having the two hives to compare has been really helpful and quickened my own education.
And I'm learning fast. And mostly I am learning that I really, really love bee keeping.
When worker bees return to the hive, they tell the other bees where the flowers are by doing a little dance:
- The Round Dance: If the bee walks in a circle, and then turns around and walks in a circle the other direction it means the food source is close by. The other bees go outside and fly in a circular pattern near the hive until they find the flowers.
- The Waggle Dance: This dance tells bees that a food source is far away. It also tells which way to fly. The dancing bee makes a figure eight. She waggles her body in the middle of the figure eight. If she waggles straight up, the other bees fly toward the sun. If she waggles to the left, the other bees fly to the left of the sun. If she waggles to the right, the other bees fly to the right of the sun.
So here's a fun fact: In a honeybee colony there are three types of bees: 1) the queen: her job is to lay eggs, eggs, eggs. 2) the worker bees (all worker bees are females who do not lay eggs): their job is to guard the hive, pollinate flowers, make royal jelly, build honey comb, feed larvae, collect nectar to make honey. They will live only 30-40 days and will literally work themselves to death. 3) the male drones: their only job is to be ready to mate with a queen. And when they have done so, they will immediately drop from the sky and die. Bring that up at your next trivia night!
Another amazing fact: bees wax is made inside of the worker bees bodies around the 10th day of their life. The wax comes out through openings in the bees abdomens and then they use their back and middle legs to pass the wax to their front legs at which point they will chew the wax and shape it into wax cells, making the honey comb shape. Did you catch that?!! It comes out of openings in her abdomen! CRAZY!
We had a station set up for kids to get to roll their own bees wax candle to take home. My mom graciously helped each kid at this station. Thanks Mom!
And then we walked down to the hives. Somehow the rain kept holding off. It would sprinkle every once in a while, and then it was as if the rain was having mercy on our little honeyfest and it would stop.
Adam held up frames for everyone to see crawling with bees.
And then it really did start to rain...at least enough that the adults went to the garage and the kids stayed out to play. Adam's wife and my friend, Christina was there with her parents to sell their incredible honey and gorgeous candles. Christina's mom, Jan, is the one who makes the candles and they are stunning. She was telling me how finicky they are to make...the room as to be at the right temperature and humidity level, the pots and molds have to be preheated. It sounds amazing and I begged her to invite me the next time she's making them. And she makes this body bar that is incredible. It is like lotion in a bar of soap and it's great for hydrating dry hands. I loved it.
Elsie was our mascot all day long. I had meant for other kids to get to try this costume on with their parents in the bee keeping gear, but I couldn't get Elsie to take it off once she put it on. So she walked around all morning, our sweet little busy bee happily feeding the chickens.
It was a super fun morning. Adam and Christina, Tom and Jan are awesome, awesome people. You can follow their bee keeping adventures at Honey Patch Apiaries.