It’s 8:30 on a Sunday evening in mid-July, and I’m sitting next to my beehive with a nice glass of red, Pal leaning against me (my arm is around him as I type), watching the girls buzz in and out. Farley is nearby obsessing on a ball (for me to throw for him) and Daisy is wandering around sniffing and exploring, while Pal soaks up the time with mom-dog (er, that’d be me). He’s become much more interested in me, and getting attention from me, since Daisy came to us, and I have to say I like it. I know it’s part maturity, part competition and hierarchy, but I’m glad he’s a little more in tune to me, and not just his bird obsessed brain. Farley followed much the same timeline with this. Part of me is sad to see that half-wild, spirited (euphemism alert!) part of them settle down and become tame. The other part is rejoicing at having a dog that can “hear” you when you call to him, or ask him to STOP whatever it is he’s doing.
My bees are still quite active for the late hour, but it’s prime nectar season, and a warm summer evening (finally!) where the sun won’t set for another hour, and there’s plenty to do. The morning started sunny and warm and they got up even before the sun came over the trees to beam on the hive (on cooler days it’s sometimes almost 10:00 a.m. before they “rise.” Right now it’s a little breezy, but not so much that they’re affected overmuch. They are fascinating to watch, and it’s gratifying to see them so active. I spent part of the afternoon lying on my belly in the sun in front of the hive, with my face less than a yard away, thrilled at how active they were and seeing how many of them were flying in and out, and all of us happy.
I wonder where they go, how far they’re roaming to collect nectar. Only a few are coming back with noticeable pollen sacs (bright yellow), so either the flowers they’re visiting aren’t pollen-heavy, or they’re not so concerned with getting pollen as nectar. It’s blackberry season, and for bees in this area the blackberry bloom is the most important one of the year. It’s at the peak of summer bloom and it’s everywhere. The Himalayan blackberry is a non-native species and nearly as invasive as the South’s kudzu. If left unchecked, it will literally swallow small buildings and various and sundry inanimate objects. An old car, rusty farm implements, tools, a pile of lumber or fencing. In one season it will make serious advance, its muscular, thorny brambles sent up high, up and over whatever it’s next to (including shrubs and small trees). When the tipping point is reached, the bramble begins to accede to gravity and its soft, green tips (a delicacy for herbivores) slowly descend. When it finally grows long enough to touch the ground it instantly sends out roots and if left unchecked this tip will become a new mother plant. The blackberry has found its ideal habitat in the damp, temperate Pacific Northwest. And is pretty much the sole reason beekeepers can keep a honeybee hive successfully in an area where the wet and cool weather for 9 months of the year is an anathema to the honeybee.
When I’m out driving now I see, really see, the blackberry brambles – they’re ubiquitous roadside greenery along highways and back roads. I have some here on my property (though am working on reclaiming some of the land from them). When I head out to work each day, or drive out on the weekend to run errands, I look at the roadside profusion of white blooms, glad to see them and wondering if my bees have found a particular patch. A mile or two out and I begin to worry – are my girls out here in this patch (mother lode-sized bramble patch)? It’s across a busy highway, and I hope my girls are safe, flying up high over the highway to avoid becoming a temporary hood ornament or windshield smear on the passing cars.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve done an inspection, and that last one wasn’t as thorough as it probably should have been. They are busy, and looking happy and productive, and that’s good enough for me. Still, I should check to make sure things are going well, and perhaps move some frames around so they build more comb on all of the frames. Right now they’re more thoroughly built on the mid-right of the hive, and the outer frames have zero comb built up. I got a third box to put on the top a month or so ago, and they’re building up rather than out. This is typical, and to be expected. Still, if I want them strong and healthy, with plenty of honey stores for the winter, the more comb throughout the hive, the better.
Part of the reason I’ve been lax on the inspections is due to a little bit of change in attitude. My girls aren’t the gentle, sweet bees of earlier in the season. They’re still plenty gentle, honestly, but they have a little more at stake now – a hive full of brood and honey stores – and the instinct to protect is enhanced by this fact. I’ve been stung a few times now and am a little more wary of them. Up until last month I could open the top and inspect without too much disturbance, and would often take a peek without bothering to suit up with veil or gloves. Last month, when they were so hungry and I supplemented with sugar syrup for a week or so, I made the mistake of checking on them one evening at dusk. It was a compounding of newbie foolhardiness that got me what I deserved.
I figured they’d be quiet and I’d just grab the feeder jars and refill. Well, they got a little agitated. I was wearing dark clothes and pulled the hive top off. The feeders were near empty, but covered with bees. I tried to shoo them off, and then, in an amazing display of stupidity, I blew on them (like I had enough force to blow away several dozen bees?). It was like I’d flipped a switch; dusk be damned, all hands on deck, man the torpedoes and the girls immediately took action. An open, exposed hive, a big dark blob hovering, then hot omnivore breath in the hive and bam. I got stung on the inside of my wrist. Yeeouch that stings! Good word, sting. Temporarily oblivious, all I needed was to grab the feeders refill and be done, I kept going. They flew out of the hive wildly, if not in a cartoon-swarm (visions of a bullet shaped cluster of bees chasing Elmer Fudd) then in a dozen or so tiny avengers loaded for bear, as it were. No veil meant they were in my hair. I shook my head, entangling the couple that landed there. Dang my wrist stung! I ran a few feet away, shaking my head like a headbanger at a Whitesnake concert. One dislodged, but another kept buzzing and buzzing as I danced around, tossing my head like Angus Young of AC/DC. Later I was glad it was both late in the day AND that I have no visible neighbors. I finally ran into the house to get a brush or comb to pick the bee out, but it was too late. By the time I combed her out she’d stung me on the head.
I donned the veil and gloves and went outside to finish the job. The next day my head hurt – not only from the sting, but all the head tossing I’d done. And the sting on the inside of my wrist was swollen, red, and painful. It was a few days before the redness and swelling subsided and the itching began. So now I know to always don my veil and gloves, and will probably start using my smoker too. I should, at the very least, be doing some varroa mite control (a dusting of powdered sugar will dislodge them from the bees, but it must be done weekly) and need to get over my new sort-of nervousness around them. I’m not really afraid of them (witness my lying on the ground in front of their hive, watching bee tv on a sunny afternoon), but just don’t want to piss them off again.
The third box I added is smaller – called a super, and three inches shorter than the hive body (the first two boxes are these larger boxes, also known as deeps). Supers are probably all I’ll add from here on out, because picking up a well built and stocked (with honey and brood) deep is difficult. The full deeps are heavy and unwieldy – they can run more than 80 pounds when full with honey and brood – and it’s hard lifting, never mind trying to set it down with any finesse. A full super is only about 60 pounds. (!) I also decided to use some foundationless frames in this smaller box . This means there isn’t a plastic base (with waxy coating sprayed on for attraction) for the bees to build on. Since they’ve only had foundation to work with, I got foundationless for every other frame, and put them in there, not sure what to expect. Foundationless is kind of what I wanted to do from the start – this whole journey began with me reading an article about top-bar beehives, a natural method of beekeeping – but foundationless isn’t common among beekeepers, mainly because it’s hard to harvest honey on foundationless combs. You basically have to crush the comb and strain the honey out – slow and messy and inefficient if you’re looking to harvest honey as a crop of any sort. Comb built on a foundation can be uncapped (top of capped comb is sliced off with a hot knife) and the frame put in an extractor, where centrifugal force spins out the honey and the foundation and comb is put back into the hive for the bees to refill. Still, my purpose in getting bees was never for the honey. I just wanted bees to support them and pollination. And I have to say the cherry tree in my front yard is absolutely loaded with cherries this year. Like, plenty for me and the dozens of birds visiting daily, and Pal too (of the three dogs he’s the only one who’s keyed in to the cherries). Coincidence? Maybe, but I rather think it was hungry bees in April at blossom time.
I didn’t know what to expect when I did the inspection of the foundationless frames, and was thrilled and awestruck when I saw that the bees not only knew exactly what to do, they obviously preferred to do it their way. In the alternating frames of foundation and foundationless, only the foundationless was being built to any degree. When left to their own devices, they did what comes naturally and built absolutely beautiful comb. The gorgeous white comb they built was glistening with clear honey – still not cured enough to cap – from the first of the blackberry run. They were happy and calm as I held the comb out, wishing I wasn’t wearing gloves or a veil, so I could break off a piece and taste it, to see if it was as delicious as it looked. Since this is a first year hive, the goal is to get them established and be sure they’re strong enough and have enough stored honey to survive the winter. A harvest isn’t something you can expect, necessarily, from a first year hive. Some do, of course, and then have to feed their bees sugar syrup all winter long (and even on established hives, all the honey is often harvested and the bees routinely fed syrup instead). Commercially produced honey is from bees that are managed in this way. My bees will be dining on their own honey, this year and every year, as I believe it’s healthier for them and I want to give them every chance to make it.
I did a quick inspection again tonight, again without the smoker. They got a little peeved at my intrusion, so I didn’t go past looking at a few of the frames on the top box, and I am beyond delighted to say they are LOADED with honey. The foundationless comb is built out to the edges of the frame now and loaded with glistening honey. Some of the combs are even capped or half capped – the bees cap it only when it’s ready (it has to cure or dry a bit before capping so the honey is thick and the nutrient is maximized). And I have to say they are really heavy, it was all I could do to hold them with one hand while I took these delicious pictures with the other.