Posts Tagged 'Honeybees'

tricky business

Northern Wisconsin has had a particularly blustery winter. Which means I’ve been checking in on my beehives more often than usual. Any time I hear talk of an Alberta clipper coming our way I make a trip out to the girls. And then I always check in on them again after the cold snap breaks. Of course my visits can’t really change the outcome of things, but still, I like them to know that we’re in this cold mess together.

hive view

I also visit them after significant snow falls. If we get more than a few inches, I’ll need to clear away their bottom entrances so the hives maintain adequate airflow. At least on these trips I feel useful. Another chore is to keep the electric bear fence shoveled out. It’s a small thing, I know, but it feels good to get the beeyard nice and tidy before checking in with each hive. By “checking in” I mean sitting down next to the hive and putting an ear up right against their top entrance. Sometimes it’s faint, but if you listen hard, you’ll be treated to the most magnificent buzzing.

But the buzz isn’t actually the sound of their wings moving. It’s the vibration of their flight muscles. In essence the bees generate just like we do – by shivering. It’s a remarkable thing though. Thousands of constantly shivering bees produce a core hive temperature of about 90ºF. I wish I could bring on 90º temps just by shivering. As the bees on the outer edge of this shivering mass get chilled, they move inward, pushing warmer bees out for a turn on the edge. Go team!

Naturally, the colder it is, the harder the bees need to work to maintain their cozy hive temperature. And just like humans, the harder they work, the more calories they need. This raises two potential problems. If it stays too cold for too long, it gets difficult for the bees to break away from their big warm cluster to access their honey stores. It also means they will need more honey than usual to make it through the winter. Which is why Alberta clippers make me nervous.

lonesome yard

My usual routine when visiting the winter bee yard is to shovel first, check second. But on my most recent trip, I went straight to the hives. Something in me must have known. I listened to each hive, but the life I craved wasn’t there. All three hives we quiet and still. Sweet queen Freeda, her newly established daughter hive, and even the boisterous and obnoxious girls of Valerie’s hive had moved on. I stared up into the colorless sky and waited for sadness to seep into me.

I know it sounds silly, to be emotionally attached to a box of stinging insects, but I am. Deeply. Which I guess just speaks to the extraordinariness of honeybees. The bees know something. And unlike humans, they have not forgotten. They have not buried their instincts. Nor have they managed to hide behind the veil of something better. I yearn for their sacred knowledge. I cling to it. So I watch and listen. And in doing so, they give me infinitesimal drops of wisdom.

Finally I manage to pick myself up from the snow and, because I don’t know what else to do, I shovel out the hives. While I work, I berate myself, wondering if I have failed my bees. Did I leave them enough honey? Did I wrap them differently, causing unforeseen airflow issues? Did they go into winter with too small of a population? Probably, after all my late summer shenanigans trying to “help” Freeda split her hive into two. Freeda’s hive is the one I will miss the most. She gave me something extra, something unnamable.

Enough. I shake off my sadness and instead focus my energy on opening my heart to the new arrivals who will come later in the spring. I think of the delight in getting to know each new hive. And in the meantime, I’ll be able to go through my equipment, remove old comb, and make any other necessary hive repairs. Fresh starts are good, I try and convince myself.

bee gone

Weeks later, on a Saturday morning, I find one of the last seats in the crowded basement of the Salem Baptist Church. About 60 of us have gathered for the Northern Wisconsin Honey Producers annual spring meeting. The room is a quirky mix of old timers and newcomers. We’re a funny lot, beekeepers, but the one thing we have in common is our willingness to sit on folding chairs in a church basement for hours on end to talk bees.

As I settle in, my neighbor informs me that Verne has already been by. Verne is our club’s secratary. Every fall he takes the honey report and every spring he takes the overwintering report. I go over, and with a sigh, give him my data – went in with three, lost three.

A few minutes into the meeting Verne is ready with a rough statistic. Out of 269 total hives going into winter, 125 are still living. Which means about a 46% survival rate. This low number saddens me, but as the meeting forges on, my curiosity and love of bees is sparked even higher. Bee keeping is a tricky business to be sure, but you can count me in. There’s so much more I need to learn from them.

royal mess

For those of you waiting for the next installment of “As the Hive Turns,” grab some popcorn and a drink. It’s a juicy episode. Previously in the beeyard, we were patiently waiting to see if Queen Freeda’s girls would successfully raise a new queen after Freeda herself had been intentionally removed from the hive. It was a long, mysterious wait. [play suspenseful music].
honeybee hives
But last week, things got even more mysterious. I was sitting at my friend Mary’s table, positively glowing from the effects of her amazing Nicoise salad, when she discovered a voice mail for me on her cell. It was Dana, gracious owner of the land where my bees humbly reside. “There’s a bee situation,” the message said. No matter what way you slice it, a “bee situation” at nine o’clock at night is never a good thing. [play suspenseful music]. I called him back to learn that the neighbors down the road from my hives had a swarm in their yard.
What made it a “situation” was that the swarm was evidentially moving into some cracks in their cabin siding. They were, understandably, upset by this. Swarms in and of themselves can be upsetting. They are big and intense sounding. But what most people don’t realize is that swarms are relatively harmless. The bees in a swarm are not aggressive and they don’t want to sting. In fact, they are so loaded down with honey in the guts, that most of them physically can’t sting. All they want is a new place to set up shop. Ideally just not in between the walls of  someone’s cabin.
My head was spinning. I didn’t see how it could possibly be my bees. I’d been checking them so thoroughly and regularly. None of the hives were in a position to swarm. Still, it did seem like a reasonable assumption that they were my bees. Either way, the light was fading fast. I called the neighbors to explain that there was not much I could do at the moment. Nor was I available until late the next day. But these details hardly mattered if the swarm was moving into the walls. I’m not a bee whisperer, I confessed. I can’t coax them out with a flute. I sadly concurred when they said they wanted to take care of it with poison. [play sorrowful music].
When I finally did get out to my hives the next evening, I was relieved to see that all three had strong populations. And all three hives had eggs! The presence of eggs suggests the presence of a queen. And if you recall from our last lesson, a swarm typically leaves with the old queen days before the new queen in the hive even hatches, and sometimes weeks before the new queen will start laying. My honeybees have taught me never to guarantee anything, but I was fairly reassured that the “situation” swarm did not originate from one of my hives.
I was particularly interested in seeing the new queen in Freeda’s former mystery hive. But of course, because I was really looking, she was nowhere to be found. Still, there were eggs! And small larvae. Surely this means there is a new queen, right? Right. Except for the fact that my bees have taught me never to guarantee anything. Maybe I have a new queen. Maybe I don’t. Maybe it was my swarm after all and those were residual eggs. I buttoned up the hives, not really convinced of anything.
But wait. There’s more. [play suspenseful music].
I decided to do what I do best. I gave it some time. I waited, my usual painstakingly long week. Then I mustered my confidence and went out to do another hive check. And on the first frame I pulled out of the deep hive box I found more eggs! And more little larvae. But after pulling a few more frames, I began to notice something suspicious. There was an awful lot of drone larvae. Drones are boy bees that develop from unfertilized, haploid eggs. They’re like big, nice thugs. You can tell drone larvae from worker bee larvae because it is larger and more rounded. Once it is capped over, it sort of pops out of the comb. A patch of drone brood looks bubbly. Worker bee larvae is flat and smooth. A queen lays both types of eggs, but mostly she lays worker bee eggs. (The photo above is a frame from Freeda’s real hive. The picture below is from the mystery hive. Pretty big difference, huh?)
It’s time for the quiz. Did I mention there would be a quiz? [play dreadful music]. Remember last time when I explained that the special royal jelly a larvae gets fed is what enables it to develop into a into a queen bee with fully functioning ovaries? Well guess what? All of the other hundred of thousands of worker girl bees have ovaries too. Most of them just aren’t fully developed. Which means (20 points)? Which means that some workers can lay eggs too. They just aren’t fertilized eggs. Which means? Anybody, anybody? Workers can only lay drone eggs. The problem with this is that drones don’t actually work – they don’t forage, they don’t help keep the hive clean, the don’t tend baby bees. They’re just nice, big thugs, remember? They’re nice though. They don’t even sting.
Sometimes when a hive is broodless for several weeks (as a result of there being no queen to lay eggs) a worker can be triggered into laying eggs. It doesn’t matter to them that they can’t lay fertilized worker bee eggs, they just simply sense a lack of eggs in the hive and try and pick up the slack. Yet one more thing I love about honeybees. They don’t slack. Unfortunately, it is very hard to stop laying workers once they start. And what you end up with is a mess. Instead of laying drone eggs off neatly to the sides and edges of the frame, like a queen does, laying workers put their eggs in cells all over the place, all willy-nilly. Including up in the honey supers – which is no place for eggs. The mystery hive is currently a royal mess.
But here’s the thing about laying workers. There are generally several in a hive. As a result, it is not uncommon to find 2, 3, or 4 eggs in one cell. And because they don’t have the long slender build of a queen it is difficult for them to drop their eggs in the bottom of the cell. Often they land on the side walls instead. So I was perplexed when examining the frames. I didn’t see any double eggs. And they seemed properly laid. So it’s possible the new queen hatched and came back to the hive, but was not successfully mated and is therefore laying mostly unfertilized drone eggs. But even well fertilized young queens can be a bit sporadic in their laying patterns. It takes them a while to dial into properly laying a 1000-2000 eggs per day! So maybe the new queen is just working out the kinks. Or maybe a few workers got restless and started to lay all that drone brood, only to have the new mated queen return and take over. And of course it could be that there really is no queen, but highly talented laying workers instead. You should know by now that I can’t guarantee anything.
So once again, I found myself pulling a frame of eggs from the real Freeda’s hive and giving it to the mystery hive. This way they will at least have some fertilized eggs to work with if they decide that they do infact need to raise another queen. Which means (another 20 pointer)? That I have another painstakingly long wait ahead. This wait, however, will be spent in a canoe in the Boundary Waters. And that, I’m pleased to say, is the very best sort of wait.

jumping the gun

This is a good time to be a honeybee. Summer is in full bloom. Basswood, sumac, white clover, ironwood, blackberries. It’s a veritable bee smorgasbord. And access to this endless buffet puts the girls in a very fine mood. It’s a joy to go out and visit with them. Even if I’m not going into the hives, I can wile away a good hour laying on my back, just watching the traffic come and go. But opening up the hives and snooping around is always exciting this time of year. There is so much going on. One look, and you’ll never again question the expression “busy as a bee.”

honeybee on flower
Before I pull the top cover off, I put my hands on the sides of the hive for a few moments to let the girls know I’m there. I think about the hive and what new mystery might be waiting inside. Then I give a gentle puff of smoke to the entrance and begin. I have to pull the honey supers off the top before I can get to the actual inner workings of the hive. The supers are the boxes where the bees make and store the bulk of their honey. They are about half as deep as the hive boxes, which is a good thing – honey is heavy. There are bees in these boxes as well, working to store and cap the honey, but the queen and the bulk of the hive are down below in the deep boxes. The photo below is from the gangbuster honey harvest of twenty-ten.
bee hives
With the honey supers set off to the side, I can start pulling out individual frames from the hive boxes. This is where the real action is. And there, on the very first frame I pull, is Queen Freeda. I don’t always see my queens, but it’s a treat when I do. They are magnificent. Long, slender, and graceful. Everything you’d expect from a queen. But there was something else on the frame. A tell-tale, peanut sized queen cell hanging near the bottom. This only means one thing. It means you’re about to lose your queen, half of your foragers, and a good quantity of the honey stores to boot. In other words, it means that the hive is getting ready to swarm.
When a hive is bursting with bees in the height of summer, they can start to feel a little cramped in their quarters. To remedy this, they make the decision to split their population in two. The workers will being to feed several small larvae copious amounts of royal jelly in specially constructed queen cups. Royal jelly is a substance secreted from glands in the heads of worker bees. And it’s what makes a larvae develop into a bee with fully formed ovaries – it’s what turns what would otherwise become a regular, non-fertile worker bee into a queen. Pretty cool.
But I’ve digressed. Back to the down and dirty details of a swarm. Shortly after these queen cells are underway and developing, roughly half of the bees in the hive will load up on honey and take flight with the original queen in tow. Within a few days, a new queen will hatch in the hive. Her first order of business is to destroy any other developing queen cells. Shortly after, she will exit the hive for her one and only mating flight. If the stars align and the weather is good, she will return to the hive and begin laying eggs in a few days. Meanwhile, the rouge gang that left the hive will have sent out scout bees to find a suitable place to take up residency. Two hives become one, and everyone has a little more elbow room. Preservation first hand.
As a beekeeper though, the trick with these shenanigans is to keep both halves of the hive in your possession. It bodes for a much better honey harvest. One way to accomplish this is to be ready the moment the hive decides to swarm and hope they land somewhere where you can capture the big cluster to install in a new set of hive boxes. This method is dicey though and generally requires either a sixth sense or constant vigilance. I’ve never managed to successfully re-hive a swarm.
The other way is to intervene and create sort of a mock swarm. This involves removing the frame that has the original queen on it, along with 9 other frames of bees and honey, and setting them up a new hive box. The rest of the hive is left as is, with the developing queen cells. But since there is now no queen in the hive, and because their population has been reduced by removing a box full of bees, there is little desire or capacity to swarm. The first new queen to hatch will take her mating flight and return to be heir to the hive.
I was positively giddy when I discovered what Freeda was up to. I knew instantly that I wanted to divide her hive. I tried not to get ahead of myself, but my mind raced with thoughts of having Freeda AND her daughter. I’ve boasted about Freeda before – how pleasant her girls are, and such workhorses! I’ve never had a nicer, more durable, sincere, hard working queen. And what luck to have her be right where I needed her. I ran to the car for an empty hive box to isolate her. Then I raced back home for the rest of my equipment – a hive stand, a bottom board, another hive box, and an inner and outer cover. I was running around with the excitement of a kid on Christmas. Out of breath I called my friend and bee mentor Kris for moral support. I’ve split hives before, but always with purchased queens to install, and never in height of summer with so many things to think about.
dividing the hives
Back at the bee yard, I got to work building up a new hive box for Freeda with the appropriate mix of honey, pollen, bees, and larvae. I discovered that in my initial haste I had damaged the queen cell hanging from the bottom of the frame. But I didn’t think much of it – there would be others in the hive. And besides, I didn’t want to put a developing queen into the  split hive anyway. The new queen could hatch and spur a mini-swarm. My heart sank a little though as I looked through the rest of the frames in the original hive. I had damaged the best of all the queen cells. Had I known, I could have removed Freeda from the frame and left that frame in the original hive. I had half a mind to call the whole thing off and reassemble the hive as one. I knew I was was jumping the gun, but I went ahead with the split, hoping that the remaining, less developed queen cells would make it. Or worse case that there were enough fresh eggs for the workers to start some more queen cells.
I buttoned everybody back up and headed for home with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. Would they pull it off, leaving me with Freeda and her daughter working side by side? Or did I go and botch it all up? I waited a painstakingly long week before checking in on the queenless hive’s progress. At which point my heart sank even further. The two most promising looking cells had literally vanished. Perhaps the growing queens were subpar and the workers removed them. That’s my best guess anyway. At this point, there were no new, young eggs in the hive since Freeda had been taken away over a week ago. So I did the next best thing. I went into Freeda’s new hive and found a frame with eggs on it to swap into the original hive. I hated to take a whole frame of developing bees from her fledgling population, but it needed to be done for the other hive to survive. I drove back home. Dread outweighed anticipation this time.
And now I’m in the midst of another painstakingly long week. My heart wants nothing more than to know how they are doing. But my head knows the best thing I can do is let them be. I’m better off just lying on my back in front of the hive and watching the traffic come and go.
bees entering hive

burst of life

In a perfect world, my schedule aligns itself such that I have a little time to kick around in the kitchen on any given Sunday. It doesn’t matter when or what I cook – waffles for breakfast, an afternoon batch of cookies, a pot of soup for later in the week. Anything will do really. There’s just something about lazing around the kitchen on Sunday that feels very right.

This past Sunday though, I did an entirely different kind of cooking. My kitchen looked more like a science lab than a food prep zone. I even fished out the fire extinguisher from behind the woodpile and familiarized myself with its operation – just in case. Sunday marked an annual event that is one of my favorite activities. Rendering beeswax.

The best time to clean beeswax, in my experience, is in the dead of winter when it is grey and lifeless and the thermometer can barely get itself above 0ºF. Here’s why. When you finally get all of your containers of miscellaneous wax rounded up and pull that lid off of your old Folger’s wax can, you will be instantaneously met with a burst of life. Brace yourself, because it’s going to smell like the sweetest, most gentle summer day you can imagine. And if you’re not ready for it, it can be confusing – all of a sudden feeling like you’ve just come in, barefoot, with a fistful of perfect sweet pea blooms. Reality will eventually settle back in, but you should run with your summery fantasy for as long as you can.

I’ve always had a penchant for wax – especially hot wax. As a kid, I used to get scolded at fancy dinners for dipping all ten of my fingers, one by one, into the little pools of hot candle wax. A crime I’m still guilty of as an adult. I’m pretty sure I got a stern glance across the table just this past Thanksgiving. Cheap thrills, I know, but love the feel of the wax as it cools and forms to my fingertips. Needless to say, when the day comes where I get to boil down a little cauldron full of wax, I feel like a kid in a candy shop.

My biggest haul of wax comes during honey harvest time in late summer. Before each frame of honey can be extracted, the thin layer of wax that protects and seals in the honey needs to be scraped off with a heated knife – called an uncapping knife. And what you’re left with (coincidentally) is a pile of “cappings.” I scrape this sticky mess, residual honey and all, into containers and store them away for a less busy time. I also get wax from rouge bits of comb that my girls build throughout the summer. To keep their hives more orderly, I scrape off the comb from areas where it doesn’t belong (at least in my humble opinion) and add it to my wax can.

The process of rendering wax is pretty cool – even if you aren’t a wax fiend. Essentially, the wax needs to be cleaned of any debris, residual honey, bee dirt, etc. This is done by scraping all of the wax bits and honey-laden cappings into a big pot with a bit of water in it. This messy concoction is slowly heated to the wax melting point (180ºF) over a double boiler. Here’s where the potential for a fire extinguisher comes in. It would take a catastrophic spill, but molten wax is scarily flammable, so I figure a little preparedness goes a long way.

After the pot is removed from the heat, the wax floats to the top as it cools while the water and most of the debris settles out below. Once it is completely cooled, a neat little wax disc can be popped right out of the pot. The slag and scummy water get tossed into the compost pile. The process is then repeated, only with no water added the second time around. The final melted wax is strained through cheesecloth as it’s poured into a mold. What results is clean, smooth, sweet-smelling wax in the most lovely shade of pale yellow. It’s plain gorgeous. And pretty amazing when you consider all of the hundreds of hours of bee energy that went into creating it.

So what do I do with all of my beeswax – besides dipping my fingers into it? I dabble a bit with making lotion bars and lip balm. I keep a bar in the kitchen drawer for odd household maintenance tricks. And I’ve turned out some pretty crude looking candles. But my most favorite thing is to simply hold it. I keep a chunk at my desk to remind myself of bigger things. Things more real than all my little day to day trifles. Something way more powerful than my triumphs. Some ancient force that is buried deep within. And it works. Because when I press that piece of cool wax against my cheek and inhale, I can remember.

girl talk

I tell my bees everything. From the mundane to the monumental, they get to hear all sorts of news from me. I especially like to tell them my troubles. They seem to have a way of talking me down from just about anything. They’re always so calm and practical. Their attitude sort of rubs off on me. And after a while, my problems generally seem less problematic. I can’t really explain it, but I’ll take it.
There is plenty of folklore out there that suggests bees should indeed be kept in the loop. Old timers will tell you that a hive will swarm if they aren’t informed of big news. This bit of Celtic wisdom nails it:
Marriage, birth, or burying, 
News across the seas, 
All your sad or marrying, 
You must tell the bees.

And I get chills when I read about the ritual of tapping three times on a hive to let the bees know that their keeper has died. There is a beautiful Deborah Digges poem about this gloomy task.

In the spring and summer I look in on my bees about once a week, which means I get ample time to gossip. Sometimes I even run out of things to say. But even then it’s an easy silence. Basically visiting with my bees is a little mini-escape. It’s like having coffee with a good friend. So I always get a little nostalgic on my last visit to the bee yard of the season. Sure, I’ll check in on them all winter long, but I won’t open up the hives again until early spring. So I take my sweet time tucking them in for winter.
After the fall asters and goldenrod have dwindled I usually give each hive a couple of pails of sugar water. This helps to bolster their winter food supply – one of the most critical factors affecting their odds of winter survival. And then some time before the end of October, ideally on one of those last sunny, brisk afternoons, I’ll pull off the food pails and literally wrap up the hives. I use a black plastic that is backed with a thin layer of insulation. I top each hive with a piece of moisture wicking construction board so that any winter moisture – another key survival issue – gets drawn out of the hive. I also make sure to leave an air opening on the top and bottom of the hive so that air will circulate though, hopefully keeping things nice and dry.
I especially like the top hole because it means I can peek in and see what the girls are up to. Even in the dead of winter I can usually coax a few girls out onto the opening. I like to think they are spreading any news I’ve brought once they scurry back into the warmth of the hive cluster.
We’re having such a splendid fall that I’ve been putting this job off for as long as I can. After a few nights of hard frost though, I know it’s finally time. So this afternoon I packed my lunch with a thermos of tea and headed out out to the hives to bundle the girls up for a long winter ahead. But not without telling them the news of the day.


I was in the middle of my workday last week when I got a call. It wasn’t a particularly happy call. “One of your hives is down.” It was my friend Kathy calling from Bayfield School where she teaches 5th grade. A bus driver that drives by my beehives regularly had stopped in her classroom to tell her the news. He knew she would get the message to me. My heart sank. A “hive down” only means one thing. It means a black bear has paid a visit.

I keep eight strands of wire around my beehives with an alternating current that emits 8000 volts of juice. Innocent dogs have touched their noses to it and spent the entire afternoon recuperating. But that’s what it takes to keep – to keep, how should I put it? To keep “well padded” bears at bay. I hurriedly finished up the project I was working on and headed out to the bee yard. My mind was racing on the drive over. Which hive, I wondered? Please don’t let it be Freeda’s. She’s had enough set backs lately. I pulled into the bee yard to an empty silence. No tell-tale clicking from the electric fencer. The amount of bee traffic in the air seemed diminished.
It took me at least a full minute before I could look. Drats. Freeda’s hive was in shambles. Things could have been worse, really, but still it was a sad sight. I got straight to work getting her hive put back together. The girls were frantic, of course. My explanation for what had happened felt meager at best. After a bit of reassembling I realized that an entire frame was missing from one of the brood boxes. (The whole bear and honey thing? It’s a myth. What they’re really after is bee larvae. Though I’m sure they don’t mind their snack slathered in a bit of honey.)
This bear meant business and my dander was up. Dip your paw in, fine. But don’t wander off with an entire frame of bees. I headed off into the woods in a huff, following a flattened down trail behind the hives. At some point, instinct kicked in. It occurred to me that I might not actually want to find the bear in question. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would ask for my bees back. I reluctantly retreated.
Back at the hive, I did a quick search for Freeda’s recently hatched daughter. No luck. One thing I have learned after years of beekeeping is to accept that when I am actively looking for the queen, I probably won’t find her. But on the days when I’m not in a hurry and the weather is especially fine, I’m bound to see her long slender torso moving across a frame. I tried to take this to heart. As much as I wanted to keep looking, I resisted, knowing that what the girls needed most was some order and calm restored to their home.
With my main task completed, I turned my attention to the fencer for a little troubleshooting. Luckily it was fluke and a quick fix. The breaker to the outbuilding that supplies the power had been tripped. I reset it and the reassuring clicking resumed. All I could do was hope it would be enough to ward off a bear with a whetted appetite.
I drove back home, trying not to dwell on the fact that the new, young Ms. Freeda could have been on the missing frame. And that she very well might now be residing inside a black bear’s stomach. And that her hive just went through the arduous process of raising a new queen. And that winter is coming. Time is too short for them to do it all over again. I remembered how giddy I felt the other week when I discovered that Freeda’s daughter had hatched and survived the odds. And then I laughed. I was thinking of a little tale that I leaned from my Dad. I took it to heart. And I felt better. Because after all, embracing the concept of “not knowing” is what makes room for life’s potential.
There is an old Chinese tale about a farmer whose horse ran away. His neighbors gathered that night to bemoan his loss. ‘Too bad, too bad,’ they sighed. ‘Maybe,’ the farmer said.
The next day, the horse came back, leading seven wild horses behind him. ‘Oh, aren’t you lucky!’ the neighbors exclaimed. ‘Maybe,’ the farmer said.
The next day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but he was thrown and broke his leg. ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ the neighbors agreed. ‘Maybe,’ the farmer said.
The next day the soldiers came to conscript young men for the army, but they didn’t take his son, because his leg was broken. ‘How wonderful for you!’ the neighbors cried. ‘Maybe,’ the farmer said.

stepping back

Why is it that one of life’s lessons feels the need to repeatedly hit me over the head? Thick skulled? Slow learner? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know. Keeping bees is good for me. And it has relatively little to do with any honey I garner. But it has everything to do with being a part of something ancient, something miraculous, and allowing it to seep in and be just that. A mystery. Sounds simple, I know. But for some of us – that whole “letting it be” thing? It’s just not that easy.

Here’s the nitty-gritty truth. I like to be in control. I like to know what is going on – and why. I like clear instructions. I like to work hard and get results and answers. I like things that are specific. Give me instructions. Give me a recipe. But, as it turns out, honeybees are not conducive to any of this. I read endlessly about honeybees. I participate in online honeybee chats. I go to honeybee meetings. I give it my all when it comes to understanding honeybees. And still, they always seem to one up me.

My girls have been having an off summer. And it pains me to tell you that I can not figure out why. I can’t blame it on the weather, I can’t even blame it on my management skills. By all indications, things should be going well. But something is off. Valerie’s hive has been lackadaisical all summer – and with no clear indication as to why. I actually miss her girls’ sassiness. Freeda, bless her little bee heart, has been charging along as usual, setting an exemplarily example of what an A+ beehive should look like in the height of summer. Until a few weeks ago that is. I was doing a routine hive check and I got the eerie sense that something was wrong. I buttoned her back up, gave the hive a pat, and hoped it was just me being silly.

But when I checked her hive again the other day, I was dismayed. No capped brood + no larvae + no eggs = no queen. No Freeda. I could tell right away that her girls were squirrelly and unusually frantic. A bad sign. It was all I could do to hold in my tears as I pulled out frame after empty frame from the brood nest. Lest you think I am entirely sappy, I should clarify that Freeda is the queen bee I have had the longest relationship with. She has set the bar for all others. So I feel a particular bond with her. Her absence was palpable. (That’s her in the photo above – right in the center.)

A hive without a queen is not really a hive. I immediately ran through my options. I could get online and search for an available queen, paying an exorbitant price to overnight her to northern Wisconsin. Or better yet, I could call my good friend and bee guru Kris (who lives conveniently down the road) to she if has any of her northern hardy, queen stock to spare.

Another option would be to take a frame of eggs from Valerie’s hive and give it to Freeda’s girls so they can raise a new queen. A slower process by far, but one that is entirely amazing. Bees are the only species I know of that can dictate the outcome of an egg based on how they treat it. The majority of eggs in a hive develop into more female worker bees. But should the need for a new queen arise, the workers can feed an egg a special substance called royal jelly and raise a new queen from an egg that would otherwise become a worker bee. How and why they know to do this astounds me. But when it happens, you know it. Queen cells are very distinct. They look like full-size peanuts hanging off of an otherwise flat frame of brood.

I opted to stick a frame of eggs from Valerie’s hive in just for insurance, which also bought me a bit of time to check into my other options. I called Kris first. No queens. Drats. I did find a queen in Georgia that could be sent via UPS. But the cost coupled with the fact that I am heading off to the Boundary Waters for a few days of paddling, deterred me. The new queen might arrive in time, but if she was at all delayed, she’d spend a sad week on my doorstep and neither of us would be the better for it. So I have decided to let the bees take charge and run their own show. After years of keeping bees, I fully acknowledge that the bees almost always know better than I do. I might think I know, and as much as I might think they should be doing something differently, I’m really second fiddle to it all. My girls repeatedly remind me to relax and take a big step back from things. I love them for that.

Even so, I can’t help mentally wrestling with what might have transpired in the hive. The last time I looked, I found one fully developed, neatly exited queen cell in the hive. It’s possible that they decided to swarm. Which means that once the new queen cell was underway and developing, the older bees with Freeda in tow took flight from the hive in search of less crowded accommodations (a simply astonishing sight and sound to behold). After Freeda’s new daughter hatched (a solid two weeks from the egg stage) she’d have to leave the hive in order to complete a few mating flights. So it could be that I looked in on the hive on an afternoon when the new queen was simply out. The timing was perfect for this. It could also be that the new queen went out, but never made it back – leaving the hive queenless, and eggless. A bad combination. Or, for all I know, they were planning on swarming but something happened to Freeda before they could pull it off.

If pressed, I could probably provide a half dozen renditions of what might have happened. But eventually, after several whacks to the head, I realize that I don’t need to figure it out. The girls certainly aren’t asking me to. They’re forging on in whatever way they can. For my part, I am reminded yet again to step back and watch the mystery unfold. Maybe when I return home from canoeing and peek in the hive I’ll see that tell-tale peanut, signifying one of Valerie’s daughters is about to hatch. Or perhaps there will already be new eggs and larvae, indicating that Freeda’s daughter made it back to the hive to carry on the legacy. And it’s entirely possible that I still won’t have a clue. And that’s okay too. I can let it be.

taste buds talk

One of the most thrilling aspects of bee keeping is having that first taste of each season’s honey. I’ve certainly been known to sneak some honey periodically throughout the summer, but generally I wait until the end of August to pull the honey supers off – which means I get a mix of everything the bees have foraged on all spring and summer. It always such a surprise to see what the girls have brought in each year.

I’ll never forget my very first honey crop and its delicate apple flavor. At the time, my bees were located in the heart of Bayfield’s “orchard district,” which meant no shortage of fruit blossoms to forage on. And then there was the harvest that had a decidedly minty undertone. That was the year when the basswood trees went crazy with blooms all summer long. I’ve pulled off late fall supers that are filled with the heady dark brown nectar from goldenrod and asters. And I’ve taken plenty of swipes of that gorgeous, light, early summer clover honey while working in the hives. But my main fall honey harvest is like a little mystery I get to try and crack each year. The color and taste of each super full of honey is my main clue to where the girls have been spending their summer afternoons.

So I couldn’t decide if I was more amused or distraught when I read an article in last Monday’s NY Times about several hives of New York bees who evidently spent their summer feeding on the sweet run off from a nearby maraschino cherry factory. The results were neon red frames of honey. The sort of gaudy red that only red dye number 40 can produce. Albeit shocking, it is a great example of how amazingly distinct honey can be, and how each honey is a direct link to what the bees are feeding on.

Foraging bees will travel up to 3 miles for food. And when they find something they like, word gets around quickly. Lets face it – taste buds talk, and bees are no exception. Bees not only have taste receptors on their tongues, but on their feet and legs as well (how cool is that?!). So who’s to fault them for choosing some manmade, red inflicted corn syrup over a fresh, dewy clover blossom? I’m no one to talk – I still have a soft spot for those cloyingly sweet cherries. They saw my brother and me through many a shirley-temple based cocktail hours as kids.

But unlike humans, bees shouldn’t have to know better. As a beekeeper, I feel a responsibility to keep my hives as healthy as I can. Yet I don’t think I could begrudge my girls their bliss should they happen to stumble upon some “junk” food. How lovely to go through life feasting on the best tasting things you can find in a 3-mile radius. I envy such simplicity.


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