A backyard that once housed honeybees seems and sounds so bleak without them. Every glance at an empty hive sinks the heart and, should a honeybee be sighted in the yard, delight is smothered with sorrow from the absolute knowledge that this is a stranger. From a few houses down or a few miles away, in either case she is not one of ours.

But for now we are again joyful, even welcoming the return of that eternal worry that dwells in the thoughts of the amateur beekeeper. Thanks to a dear friend we were able to obtain three, five-frame nucleus hives late this past Saturday and hived them on Sunday, giving each a jar of syrup and an empty bar in front of the follower.

We checked on them Tuesday afternoon, hoping to find the marked queens we did not spot on Sunday.

Beatrix: We did not find the queen. She has been draining the syrup hard enough that we may need to refill tomorrow but there is no new comb on the empty top bar. Is she storing the syrup? We moved the existing empty bar to go between the last brood comb and first food comb and added no new ones.

Clarissa: Nor did we find this queen. She was bursting with shirty bees when we hived her but now seemed much less populous. Foragers out and about? Surely she would not have swarmed already? The syrup was hardly touched. A wee bit of fresh comb was under construction on the empty bar. We added another empty bar at the food/brood boundary.

Dorcas: We did find the queen moving at a dignified pace across the comb. And many more bees than we recalled. Could they have drifted from Clarissa? The syrup jar was still mostly full but the empty bar had comb under construction in several places along it. Again we added another empty bar at the food/brood boundary.

And thus we are content. Our backyard is whole once more.

Long time readers will recognize the significance of the black border. Yes, we are once again bee-less. We long suspected that Beatrix and Frankie had died when we saw no flights on the few, isolated, warm days but Dorcas still reliably produced clouds until recently and we had been counting on splitting her to repopulate our beeyard.

We began this warm weekend by opening Dorcas and found moldy but largely empty honeycomb without any sign of varroa crystals in the cells. As we cut away and discarded the combs an increasing number of neighborhood bees began arriving to mock us and clean up the dribs and drabs of honey we were spilling. We should have looked for mites among the dead bees carpeting the floor but forgot. We are poor coroners in the throes of grief. Our suspicion is that she died of starvation. We did pop in a feeder a few weeks ago but it was too late.

Moving on to Beatrix we found, except for the carpet of dead bees, a textbook case of winter death by varroa. A formerly populous colony reduced to a tiny cluster among much honey and the telltale varroa crystals in empty cells. Not entirely unexpected. We have learned the importance of a late season oxalic treatment but life kept us from applying it last year. The honeycombs were quite moldy. We would be denied the honey harvest consolation of our previous deadouts.

Finally in Frankie we managed to find a little honeycomb that was not moldy along with another dead bee carpet. No varroa crystals. Our guess is that she simply had not grown large enough to keep herself warm in spite of all the insulation we added.

We found a few, dead small hive beetles in Beatrix and Frankie. The bees apparently kept them under control until they could die together. No sign of wax moth either. None of the combs were slimed by either pest.

The bags of silica gel were saturated and we had the passing thought that they had, perhaps, been less effective than the wool we had used and the bees got damp. But then we considered that the bees themselves manage to keep air circulating to control humidity and, just as the mold appears after there are too few bees for this task, so too might the bags have become sodden after most bees were dead. A result, not a cause.

In our misplaced confidence we did not order any just-in-case nucs or packages so it is not clear where we shall get our bees for the season. Perhaps another swarm will visit our apple tree but we can not count on that. At least we will be able to perform various intended repairs and modifications on empty hives without troubling any stinging residents. Not exactly a silver lining.


Once again we find ourselves sprinting to finish posts about the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Conference before it is time for the next Spring Conference.

Ned Stoller demonstrating a DIY hive lifter

Ned Stoller demonstrating a DIY hive lifter

Here then is a report on a presentation by Ned Stoller of AgrAbility. Briefly stated, the organization tries to allow disabled and/or aging agricultural workers to carry on productively working. It provides individual solutions that are some mix of body mechanics, modified techniques, special tools, and powered equipment. The last two are sometimes specific to the job as found, sometimes cleverly bodged, and sometimes re-purposed from an unrelated area. Serving farmers, ranchers, and foresters for years the organization has recently been approached by beekeepers.

It is well known that Langstroth beekeepers1 tend to develop back problems from repeatedly bending, reaching, and twisting while lifting heavy hive bodies. Part of the solution is the simple one of learning correct technique for lifting and carrying heavy objects. Another is the common practice of replacing deep hive bodies with mediums. Yet another may be to take a readily available small, folding, adjustable height table to the beeyard2. When removing honey supers to inspect the brood chamber they may be placed on a waist high table rather than on the ground. And when lifting supers at all is a challenge there is the Kaptárlift hive lifter, available as a manual or electric model. It is particularly useful for inspections as it is capable of lifting an entire stack of supers at once to speedily provide access to the brood chamber. The one criticism made was that it could be unstable on very uneven ground. A similar device may be bodged with a hand truck, boat lift, some angle iron, and a little welding.

Another challenge is strength in the hands or fingers that may be lacking or easily exhausted. That can make using the typical cut-out handholds of a hive body difficult. Enter the weight-lifter hook. The padded strap goes around the wrist providing a strong metal hook on the inside of the forearm. The hook is not large enough to interfere with most hand work but easily and securely slips into the hive handholds to hold them.

Such weakness can also make wielding a hive tool for long periods difficult. A simple DIY solution is to cut a piece of the foam insulation used around hot water pipes and fashion a sleeve into which the hive tool may be inserted. Should that prove insufficient, another solution is the Gripeeze. It looks like a mitten with a large velcro flap on the palm side of the wrist. The wearer grips the tool and then wraps the flap over the top of the fingers. Even with fingers relaxed the mitten will grip the tool.

Everyone’s grip loses half its strength when the wrist is cocked forward. For an already weak grip this makes scraping with hive tools or cutting with knives difficult. This can be addressed by finding or making versions of the needed tool with a right angle handle to allow the wrist to remain straight and retain all its strength.

Not only did Ned present an interesting talk covering many other tips, tricks, and tools in addition to those we have mentioned as examples of the kinds of help AgrAbility can provide but he kindly brought all his gear to the gala that evening for attendees to inspect closely and try using.

At present our years have yet left us sufficiently hale to not to require such assistance but be certain that we paid close attention for the future.

1We, of course, put in our two cents for horizontal hives.
2We felt a bit smug since we use such a table ourselves for sugar rolls.

Tom Baker as PuddleglumSince late November we have been engaged in the usual winter worry of beekeepers. Too cold to open the hive and see, one can only fret and hope that the clustered bees yet live and have adequate stores to last until still distant Spring.

Then we fretted intensely as the cold dipped for days to negative Fahrenheit teens (-18°F/-28°C), made even worse when wind chill was factored in(-40°F/-40°C). These are the temperatures at which we leave faucets dripping and yet still may have one or two freeze shut.

At last, this past weekend the polar vortex had mercy and allowed a day sufficiently warm for cleansing flights(50°F/10°C). Water again flowed freely from all the taps and we saw bees flying from all three hives!

In response to such a cheering sight, we must, as is our nature, look for another reason to fret. Dorcas had a good-sized cloud while Beatrix and Frankie only had a few bees coming and going. Might they be dwindling their way to death? But we remind ourselves that their peak flights are ever at different times and the lighter traffic does not necessarily indicate lower population or distress. We may simply not be observing at the right time.

With such reassurances we can now watch today’s freezing rain and return to our comfortable level of fretting as we observe that there is yet plenty of time for them to starve before springtime blooms in warmth.

Blackclad hives in the snowThree months without blogging! And still with a backlog of drafts from the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Conference last March. We have been neglecting our readership almost as much as we have been neglecting our bees. By now we have had our first two snowfalls and while poor, empty Clarissa is by the barn, flipped roofless onto her stand lest mice occupy her before we can once again fill her with bees, the occupied hives are in a row, dressed in their winter black. We also have several one-pound bags of silica gel in their unoccupied halves to absorb moisture. They should work as well as the wool we had been using and be reusable next season after a spell in the oven. Sadly this is nearly all the winter care we have provided this season.

Master beekeeper Rusty Burlew has great overwintering success and attributes it to always doing what the bees need without delay or excuse. By contrast, we, slackers, in many of our blog posts lament trying to find a suitable window to tend to our few hives, when weather, our paying jobs, and other commitments combine to allow sufficient bee time. This year we did not even apply the late season oxalic drip although we are convinced it has been the largest factor in what overwintering success we have had. Although the mite loads have been low, almost nonexistent, all season they could still climb rapidly in late fall. Rather than sugar roll to check we hastily applied some formic acid pads while weather was still in the effective temperature range.

And for even more fretting, a late peek into the hives revealed that Beatrix and Frankie had, in what seemed to us a very sudden outbreak, small hive beetles. Fortunately the bees seemed to be keeping them adequately confined. Without time to make the boric acid bait for the traps we used six years ago, we hastily added along side the silica gel bags some strips of Swiffer pad to tangle-trap the tiny beetles.

Our winter fretting this season will be laden with guilt.