I had forgotten what a tremendous, sad mess a dead box of bees can be. When I discovered this past February that I had lost all three of my hives, I sealed them up to keep rodents out and left them sit until the spring weather hit. But a few weeks ago – after I got fed up with waiting for the spring weather – I decided I had better tackle the job. I went out to the bee yard on a chilly, bright afternoon to get things tidied up for the new bees that would be arriving in a few weeks.
Without live bees in the hive boxes to regulate, moisture starts to accumulate and leaves things dank, damp and moldy. Add in clumps of slowly decaying wet bees and you’ve got one unfortunate state of affairs. Still, it was satisfying work to scrape everything clean, remove dark, old honeycomb past its prime, and bring home a few pieces of equipment for minor repairs.
Two of the hives were still loaded with honey, which means the girls probably died a temperature related death. Their populations could have been too small to generate the warmth they needed, or it simply could have been too cold for too long, preventing them from breaking away from the main cluster to access their food stores. The third hive was perilously low on honey, which means they might have starved. The colder it is, the more honey the bees go through.
No matter the cause, it’s a heart wrenching situation to see all of those limp little bee carcasses. I decided to collect as many bees as I could to bring back to my garden compost pile. I figure the best way to honor their lives is to return them to the soil where they can continue to give in another way. I ended up with a whopping 6 pounds of dead bees. And I was just about to tip them into the compost pile when my husband’s life flashed before my eyes.
What happens, I wondered, to bee venom as it decomposes? Does it become completely inert? Even after five years of shots to treat an off the charts allergy to honeybee venom, Mark is still highly reactive. It occurred to me that adding 6 pounds of venom filled bees to the compost might be an issue. It’s bad enough that Mark has to put up with my high risk hobby. The thought of sending him into anaphylaxis over a venom laced carrot seemed plain rude. It was a far fetched notion, I admit, but still, I thought it was worth looking into.
I called Mark’s allergist, who was on the forefront of treatment for bee allergies twenty years ago (they actually used to use live bees!). He chuckled at my predicament and said he didn’t think it would be an issue. Though he did suggest checking with an expert, just to make sure. I e-mailed the University of Minnesota Bee Lab who said that while it’s possible to get “stung” from a recently dead bee by brushing it away, a dead, dried, and composted bee shouldn’t be a problem. One “didn’t think” coupled with one “shouldn’t be” seemed reasonable enough.
I got my companions turned into the compost heap just as my good friend Kris was setting up two “nucs” for me from her 20-plus hive apiary. A nuc (rhymes with “fluke”) is essentially a miniature hive that contains a new queen and a few frames of brood covered with young nurse bees to attend to the larvae and queen. After the nucs are set up Kris monitors them for a couple of weeks to make sure the new queens are laying and that the hives are building their populations.
My nucs were eventually ready to go, but the spring weather simply wasn’t. I picked up my new bees from Kris last week on a rather miserable, rainy, 40º F day. It was definitely too cold and wet to transfer the bees into their full size boxes. Bee season was barely out of the gates and already I was in a quandary. I decided my best bet was to bundle the two mini hives together for warmth, make sure they had food and pollen, and like usual – hope for the best.
By Friday the weather had turned enough to make the switch. I’ll let the young ladies get settled into their new digs and check them again in a few days to make sure nothing happened to the queens en route. In the meantime I’m restlessly standing by, waiting for the dandelions to bloom (the bee’s first nectar source). Let the season begin!