Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Working the bees

The bees arrived in a buzzing little box in mid-April (while I was off traveling in Kenya!).  So Jeremy took care of installing them in their new home and there are no pictures of any of that. You'll have to wait for those details because we do have more bees arriving next month. More about that later.

Here they are happy (? - I hope!) in their new home.

Coming and going.

It's not a good idea to disturb the bees too much so we really tried not to. In June Jeremy opened up the hive to make sure things were going well. I know - it's kind of silly that he wears a bee veil but has bare arms! I guess he'd rather get stung on his arm or hand and not his face.

Looking for the queen.

These guys have been busy! Yep, busy bees! =)

Oops, put this board in upside down! You can see how they're building comb all over in any place where there is space. Sue Hubbell talks about the "bee space" which is the ideal distance apart between combs. I think if there is too much space they may find it drafty so they fill it in. We're still working on finding the right spacing for our bees.

Jeremy checked the bees other times too, though it mostly looked the same as that time in June. We had a general idea of how much honey the bees should be making and when we should add more supers. But they were slow for some reason and it was some time before Jeremy felt they needed another super. I think they only got that third box on before fall came. Jeremy went out to check on them for the last time in about October and discovered they had all died.

Here you can see the comb, with honey, and dead bees in the comb.

We don't really know why they died. We've talked with a number of beekeepers and think we've narrowed it down. We're pretty sure it wasn't disease. That's good - one of the bee diseases is so bad the only solution is to burn the whole hive (there is no disagreement about that!). It's possible the queen died for some reason and the bees hadn't been prepared with a new queen. They are pretty dependent on that queen. She makes more bees, so if she dies, the bees slowly die out with no new bees to take their place.

The other possibility is that they starved. The first picture seems to show that: bees crammed into the comb eating the honey. I think we had some cool evenings and it's possible they were too cold to move over 3 inches to find more food. That does happen I guess.

But maybe it's a combination of those two - or neither of them. We don't know. We did learn some interesting things in the process though. First, we had a beekeeper extract the honey for us (she's a professional and has a machine and everything!). She said we had a lot of "wet honey." The bees bring in nectar and store it in the comb; the nectar has a high water content. Throughout the summer they fan their wings to dehydrate it, thereby creating the honey we all know and love. Our bees hadn't had time to dehydrate the nectar all the way so our honey had a high water content. It still tastes fine, the problem is it will go bad faster. We gave some little jars away to family and warned them not to admire the jar for too long - eat it right away! We put the rest in a bucket, secured cheesecloth over it, and set it in front of the heater vent. After a couple months it seemed to be the right consistency. I hope our future bees will do this job themselves!

The second thing I learned was about flowers and nectar. I wondered if our bees just hadn't found enough nectar and that's why they were so slow and then died. But we have tons of flowers in our yard, blooming a lot of the summer! I talked to a beekeeper about this and she said it's possible since there was such a drought last year that there wasn't much nectar in the flowers. I've prided myself on some native and drought-resistant plants - they still bloom and look pretty even when we haven't had much rain. But it turns out they aren't making much nectar and that's what the bees need. So this year I'm going to be better at watering the flowers - and I'm going to mulch better to keep all that moisture in.

In the end I think we got about a gallon or so of honey. Not bad for our first year!
That's all we've got left now; we'd better slow down and make it last! Our new bees are set to arrive at the beginning of April. I'll try not to take a whole year to let you know how that goes!

Oh, for those of you who are wondering, I haven't been stung at all (and I've gotten every bit as close to the bees as Jeremy). Jeremy got stung once I think. As long as you don't bother or harass them, they are very peaceful and content to go about their business.

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