Comings and goings, or, more bumbling in the beeyard
I’m behind this time not because there’s nothing new, but because there’s a lot new. For now it’s the bees’ story.
So we’ve had a week of delicious heat and sunshine, actually longer than a week, but you sort of lose track after a week. After April’s fickle weather – hail, rain, frost – coming after the sunny delight we had in March, May seems to be a reward. I happened to be home on May 1, waiting for the new propane tank to be installed*. We had a light frost that morning, but the day dawned sunny with the promise of warmth to come. I hadn’t been home to see the beehives in full sun for a month, so it was great to watch them wake up as the sun hit them after the chilly night. Except Beatrice’s hive was pretty sluggish. It was still chilly, so maybe it was just taking longer to warm up. Regina’s girls were out and flying, reveling in the sun as the tiny sun worshippers they are. By noon I was getting concerned. Sure, the propane guys were late (they’d called, and were only an hour or so behind targeted time), but Beatrice’s hive was looking really bad. A few bees flew in and out, aimlessly and almost as if they were confused. Not good.
By the time the propane guys came and went (GREAT service by Pacer Propane!), the hives had been in the sun for several hours. Regina’s hive looked just like it should – lots of happy, active bees flying in and out, full of purpose. Beatrice’s hive, my two year old Langstroth, was a little more active, but nothing like it should have been, and nothing like it had been just a month earlier. It was too late to do an inspection that day (something that should be done in full sun, at the height of the day’s heat, to reduce hive stress), and I knew the next day I’d be able to get to it would be Sunday, which promised to be a nice hot day.
I opened her up on a roasting hot Sunday noon. The first two boxes of Westerns looked good, as they had in April. The further down I went, the more mold I found. There was a LOT of mold. I stopped for a moment and went inside to look up what to do about it. I’d always read that the bees would take care of the mold (I had the usual mildew on the wood, but also fuzzy green mold on the honey stores, and white mold on the pollen stores). The Natural Beekeeper was reassuring, but also not – mold was harmless and the bees would handle it, unless the hive was weak. I went back out to continue my inspection. The frames on the deeps had honey, mold, some dead bees and…zero brood. Not a single egg, no larvae, no capped brood cells, nothing. Something had happened to Beatrice and my hive was queenless (I’ve only rarely seen my queens during inspection – I saw Aurora once or twice, and honestly hadn’t done a full inspection since Beatrice took the hive after Aurora swarmed back in July.
I was dumbfounded. No brood means my hive was basically dying a slow death. The bees there looked healthy and active enough, if a little aimless and purposeless. They seemed young, too – like they were still in the early phase of life, where they stay in and work hive duty – usually caring for young…no wonder they seemed confused, there was nothing to do. I finished up, putting the hive back together, minus one of the westerns (there was so much honey and no way they could all use it), and went inside to post on the local bee forum. I needed a queen, stat!
In conversing with a couple people in the next few days, it sounded like I wouldn’t have enough remaining bees to rebound with just adding a queen. I couldn’t remember how many were in there – a few hundred for sure, and one guy asked me how many cups of bees I had. I estimated two or three cups, feeling like maybe I’d overestimated. Once I realized I had no brood, though, I kind of lost track of the rest of things.
I wasn’t getting anywhere with the bee forum folks, so went to Craigslist. There was a guy about 60 miles north of me that had nucs and packages listed. This could work. When I called him he said he only had nucs (a nuc, or nucleus, is a small box, usually four to six frames, of bees and a queen). I made the arrangement to go up on Friday night. The drive wasn’t bad; I left at about 6:45 p.m., and after a stop for cash and some fuel for the car, hit the highway with Daisy in the back. We made good time, arriving right at 8:00. The bees were still quite active (it wouldn’t be dark for another hour or so), but he removed the feeder and brushed the girls off and I was on the road, a Rottweiler and a box of bees in the back of my car. I drove a little slower on the way home, but stopped at the grocery before heading all the way home.
From the weather forecast I knew I had a very short window of time to get the nuc installed, so as soon as it warmed up a bit
on Saturday, I was out prepping. I needed to reduce my hive to just the two deeps, and would use the newspaper trick – a sheet of newspaper between the bottom and top boxes; by the time the bees chewed through it, they’d all be settled in and used to each other’s scent. To add the nuc frames without some sort of buffer means an all-out war could ensue, potentially endangering the queen. The newspaper slowed this, and the queen pheromones would also go a long way in getting all the workers playing nicely. Beatrice’s girls were very docile, with no brood or queen to protect, they didn’t really have much to get angry about, so it was quick work. As I did this, though, I realized I had a pretty healthy supply of resident bees, and probably could have saved myself $100, two hours on the road, and four gallons of gas by just getting one of the local queens I’d talked about on the beek forum. Oh well. It would be good to have the extra stock, too. It’s not the first time I’ve blown a Benjamin when I didn’t have to.
I put the sheet of newspaper down, replaced the second box with all but four frames in place, and opened the nuc. It was packed with hungry bees (no food since I’d picked them up, 16 hours earlier). In theory adding them to the top box, with the newspaper between, would work well, but getting the resident bees out of the second box’s frames, and then, upon opening the nuc box, having those girls actually stay ON the frames as I transferred them into my hive box…well, I could only hope. I made the transfer amidst a swarm of bees flying.
It all went pretty smoothly, but the mixing of bees was inevitable. I saw a little interaction/altercation but considering what I was doing, it went fairly well. I put it all back together and kept my fingers crossed. I checked on them 30 minutes later and it looked like they were settling in. In two hours it looked even better. By the end of the day, all were in the hive, and on Sunday, a warm day, activity looked pretty normal. So far so good.
*I switched propane service when I realized (after 3 years) that I’d been paying roughly one third more for my fills and annual lease with Ferrellgas than several other competitors. I’d never had propane heat before, and since the tank was here when I moved in, I continued with them. I just figured they’re all the same, or within a few cents, like gas stations. I was depressed to learn I had been paying hundreds more each year with Ferrellgas 😦 as their price was almost $1.50 higher per gallon than several competitors, and the tank lease fee over $20 more annually. Live and learn, I guess.