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.

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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.

We had thought that we were done with our laying worker saga and so with punning on Song of Fire and Ice for our titles. Alas, not so. Clarissa nee Angharad, our swarm caught in joyful wonder, has succumbed to the white wrigglers and we are sickened by the loss and the manner of it.

It had seemed that our turbulent transfer of frames from nuc to hive had ended successfully with the bees settling down in their new home and foragers steadily departing and returning. We thought it best to leave them in peace for a spell but then recently noticed the traffic lessen to almost nonexistence. Last Wednesday(2018-Aug-22) we opened her for a look and found crawling horror. Be glad we have no pictures to share. Tiny, white, writhing wax moth larvae were carpeted atop the frames. Inside we saw a pool of fermenting honey and water with drowned bees and more wax moth larvae. Working through the sickening mess, we saw fallen comb after fallen comb and yet more wax moth larvae.

With dejection, disgust, and determination we collected all the comb into a trash bag for discarding, cutting free what had not fallen, and piled up the hastily scraped frames for a proper cleaning later. The hive interior, after all entrances were opened, was washed out with a garden hose, causing a flood of worms to flow out the entrance holes. When done we inverted the hive on the stand as we typically do for a deadout awaiting cleaning and repopulation. The frames have by now gotten a more complete scraping and bath in an oxalic solution.

We are not certain what happened. Something had caused major comb fall. The frames are foundationless and unwired but so are all our top bars in the other hives that did not suffer. However it occurred, we think the dispirited bees thereafter absconded and the wax moth took over. And it is, of course, somehow our fault.

The one bright spot is that in Dorcas, whom we examined first, we discovered the queen, capped worker brood, and uncapped larvae. Of eggs, as usual, we know not. It seems as if Dorcas is once more up to her tricks of last year and gone on a brood break. If she does this in response to nectar dearth, that may be a valuable behavior. But she needs to build up before the cold season. One comb of worker brood between two of drone is not impressive. Perhaps the recent, long-awaited rains and the goldenrod, which has begun yellowing, will give her encouragement.

The bees were calmer throughout our relocation project than we expected although their patience was finally exhausted towards the end. There were bees in the air, on the hive’s face, under the hive, on the hive stand, on nuc parts, just everywhere. Our gloves were decorated with feckless stingers and we collected a few injuries as they found weak spots in our armor. But there was little choice except to persist until nuc Angharad’s bees were housed in hive Clarissa. Then we had to take a long detour to discourage a group of unusually persistent followers and beelessly re-enter our house.

Nor were they quite settled by next day when we took the picture above. Not all the bees had found their way inside the hive. All the patches of bees from the day before were still in evidence, including the one on the ground where the nuc bodies had briefly sat. Of greater concern, the entire backyard felt under siege by a cloud of confused bees. We could not approach the barn without collecting a few interested followers. One particularly upset bee would come to buzz us as soon as we left the back door of the house. We did not acquire any more stings but it was unnerving to get such attention when not suited. Nor did we look forward to suiting up each time we needed a bit of basil from the herb bed or the lawn needed mowing. We feared for visitors.

As the day progressed the cloud pulled back to Clarissa ceding our backyard to us, leaving just the one angriest bee stubbornly menacing us each time we left the back door. Internet lore is that such especially defensive individuals occur even with the gentlest bees and one should simply swat them dead and be done. We considered suiting up and standing outside as a target to be stung by her, after which she would naturally die. But by evening even she had relented (or died of apoplexy) and things were back to a tolerable approximation of normalcy.

The patches of bees had vanished except for the one on the barn. Suiting up we carefully studied the little cluster, looking for a queen but not finding one. It seemed one explanation for these bees thoroughly ignoring the hive a few feet away, right where their old home was. But then if the queen were there surely the cluster would have grown rather than diminished. Another week later we tried gently collecting the bees by brushing them onto a tray and then dumping them on the hive roof to find their own way in. Where they had been was dotted with tiny bits of white wax, which we tried to remove without scraping the paint. The little cluster keeps reforming in spite of frequently being brushed or washed off and is there even now as this is being written. What pheromones are they leaving? Perhaps we shall have another location on which swarms will gather.

And what of the former Clarissans, the bees that had been dumped by the fruit trees? Both Beatrix and Frankie seemed to have sudden population increases, judging by their beards in the hot afternoons. Yet Dorcas, who was a nearest neighbor of Clarissa, somehow managed not to acquire any refugees. She is looking worryingly small by comparison. Actually she is just looking worryingly small. Sigh.

Having discovered that Clarissa had become a laying worker hive, we made a rather detailed plan to deal with her and perhaps harvest a little honey in the process.

  • Set up a table and buckets for processing comb under the fruit trees behind the hives.

  • Transfer Clarissa’s top bars to a pair of of eight-frame hive bodies in the garden cart and wheel them to the fruit trees some distance from the table.

  • Move Clarissa’s hive next to nae-sa-wee Angharad behind the barn.

  • The Mrs. would then systematically take a bar, brush off all the bees onto the ground, and carry the comb to her table. There she cut apart the comb, putting capped honey into one container and the rest, containing drone brood and nectar, into another.

  • Meanwhile the Mr. would disassemble Angharad and move the frames into the now empty and relocated Clarissa.

On the morning of the following Sunday (2018-Aug-05) we proceeded to implement it. Naturally, in spite of a smooth start, not all went according to this plan.

We had thought that the Mrs. had the harder job, that the bees would follow the comb to her honey station and bother her there, but instead they seemed keener on returning home. Meanwhile we expected the Mr.’s job to be a doddle, just move frames from here to there, but crazy comb made the task increasingly difficult and the bees increasingly annoyed.

In the top nuc box the bees had just begun to build comb down but on one frame they had also begun to build comb up and that part was soft, new wax heavy with honey and floppy, the work of a moment to cut away and no great harm done. Ah, but it was a portent. The second nuc box was full of honeycomb but with some crossing frame to frame, above the top bars, under the bottom bars. Much surgery was performed with dripping honey, never a happy thing for bees. They began to get upset. The last box seemed full of brood and even more badly crosscombed.

By now the Mr. had called for help from the Mrs. and we fumbled at things together. We tried cutting apart the comb but were dismayed to be cutting through brood and feared damaging a queen in hiding. We tried removing an end frame but the comb broke free from the top. We tried to remove the other end frame but quickly gave it up. We would have to move the five frames as a unit.

As always, the unexpected emergencies leave neither people not time for photography and words must paint the picture. After hasty brainstorming we used a pair of that unusual beekeeping tool, the bar clamp1. Starting on one side of the five frames we slipped the tabs one-by-one onto the bar of an open clamp then tightened it just enough to snugly hold the frames together. Repeat on the other side. Then lift the unit from nuc to hive and undo the clamps. And watch a large outer brood comb go splat into the bottom of the hive.

After running to fetch the house to fetch kitchen twine we applied skills we learned from our cutout. Tying one end of a long bit of twine around a tab of the frame we made several front-to-back loops around the frame, proceeding to the other tab where we again tied off the twine. Unfortunately we made our loops too loose. After another run, this time to the barn for a staple gun, we lifted up on a central loop of twine to get it taut enough and then twisted and stapled it to the top bar of the frame. Finally, after a quick search to reassure ourselves the comb fall had not smashed the queen, we reassembled the hive, moved the bee-less nuc parts away, and retreated to the house.

Third part to come soon.


1It is hard to overstate the convenience of having one’s bee yard in one’s back yard rather than in some distant out yard. Any possession found to be suddenly and unexpectedly useful is just a mad dash away.