Tag Archives: beekeeper

A Beekeepers Short Story

The troops were all dead.  It was a killing field, or maybe the detonation of a small nuclear device, befitting the size of a bee, smuggled in on the back of some non-descript illegal; maybe a yellow jacket, or a hive beetle perhaps?  The top bars were covered with dead and not a single one stirred when their home was taken away by wheelbarrow.

A cool breeze sifted through the lifeless tan and bronze bodies and found none worthy of flight.  The weak sun, its honey colored glow serving only to highlight the disaster, failed in its effort to muster even one to attention.

It had once been a thriving city, this emerald in the desert.  Its Queen was held in the highest esteem and the little city was known far and wide for its royal jelly.  So cheerful and productive were its citizens that the city burst with growth, ever expanding until its walls hummed with the buzz of good cheer.  Guards were stationed at the front gate, ever alert and at attention, while the citizens came and went on their busy errands. Some brought nectar to honor the Queen while others brought stores of pollen for her workers.  The Guardian thrilled at the sight of them approaching the gate, laden with their weighty loads of plunder and landing heavily on the deck before going inside to present their gifts to the Queen.

As the supplies came in, waves of other bees would leave for the fields to gather from crocus, daffodils and hyacinth.  This golden pollen and sweet nectar would not be enough to feed the masses, but the season was early and it was only the first fruits of the season.  A cry had gone out from the Queens attendants that food supplies were running low and every available worker was needed to bring in the fuel that would feed and heat the castle.

Alas, their efforts failed.

On the eve of a bitter, frosty night, with temperatures hovering near 8 degrees, the heat had gone out in the castle.  All hands gathered around the Queen to protect her and keep her warm.  They worked their wings like they did every night, striving to maintain 90 degrees in the castle, but one by one, they fell away.  The food supplies were exhausted and the workers, already weakened from lack of nourishment, could not keep the heat on throughout the night.  As they perished, the remaining few worked harder than ever to maintain warmth in the castle, causing them also to fall aside with exhaustion.

Prowling, baying and ever present, the Queens greatest enemy crept through the unguarded door.  First to the far reaches of the castle, then down the halls and through the doors to the inner chambers where it’s cold, frozen fingers immobilized the guards and reached the young brood snuggled in their beds. Quietly it stilled them before proceeding to snuff out the workers and subdue the Queen herself.  The castle fell silent.

This is how the Guardian found them the next morning.  Searching throughout the castle, not even a single bee was moving.  It appeared all had been lost and the thriving little kingdom would perish.

Resting on a stump, reflecting on his loss, he watched the workers in a nearby lesser realm working the same fields of spring color the now perished kingdom had once worked.  They would have known workers from the lost kingdom and he was sure that word had already spread throughout the land.  It was then the Guardian felt the pangs of loss again.  He looked back toward the empty gates of the now silent hive.  No longer were heavily laden flights landing like newborn birds learning their craft.  It seemed impossible, that just hours before, this flourishing little empire had been silenced.  The Guardian mourned the loss of a dear friend, a friend closer to his heart than he had known.

The world could never know what he had celebrated with these miniature friends, for few can know the intimacy shared between man and beast, however small, except those that occasionally choose to leave this world and become part of theirs.  He had walked the halls of their castle, known the inner sanctum and shared its secrets like no other.  The weight of it all brought not just the tears to his eyes, but the burden of knowing he had broken the bond of trust shared with the keepers of this little fortress.  If only he had brought food to carry them through the spring until natures nectar flow filled the hive with nourishment.

The Guardian remained there on the stump, pondering his mistake and longing for another chance.  The incessant buzz of workers in the nearby realm coming and going on their busy appointments, digging at his reminiscence of the times he had shared in the now silent deep residing before him.  One worker of those workers, struggling under its load came to rest upon his knee.  It paused long enough to rest its wings and he longed to carry it to the deck of its hive and spare it the effort to finish its trip.  Instead he simply watched while the bee looked up and appraised him with suspicion, before adjusting its wings to absorb the warmth of the sun.  Then, after a couple short buzzes, lifted up and lumbered to the landing deck of its own castle, the bright yellow pollen gleaming on its legs.

As that single bee moved on with its life, the Guardian knew he must do the same and with one last glance at the still and lifeless bodies lying atop the frames of the bottom deep, he turned to go. The sun was gaining strength now and he felt its warmth reaching through his jacket as he passed the swelling buds on the peach tree.  Then, upon approaching the upper half of the castle he had brought back to the house in his wheelbarrow, he could not believe his eyes.  Surely he was mistaken, but the top of the hive, all along the top bars, was moving, slowly, but moving none the less.

Quickly he returned with this piece of the hive and restored the castle.  He found blankets to wrap around the castle in an effort to keep out the wind and restore warmth.  He brought feed in the form of warm sugar water and soon the workers drank deeply.  A quart and a half in one day!  Now the fight was on.  Were their enough workers remaining to heat the castle?  Would sugar water be enough?  Was all the brood dead?  Was the Queen still a live?  Long live the Queen!

Surely honey would be better than sugar water and the Guardian knew just where to find it.  Off he went, but before he could return the weather turned sour, the wind grew strong and pulled the cold northern air down across the desert.  As the flower blossoms closed, the Guardian made sure the castle was wrapped tight so no drafts were allowed inside.  Were there enough bees remaining alive to fight off the cold?  He did not know if their diminished numbers could accomplish the task.

The following day the weather continued to deteriorate and the Guardian dared not open the hive lest he release any heat the bees had managed to sustain.  Once again he adjusted the blankets, making sure the little castle was protected from the wind and returned to his own castle to wait out the storm.  The wind brought with it dashes of snow and a light rain.  The odds were working against the keepers of the deep and he feared for their lives.

But in the morning blue sky had broke free and the wind abated, the Guardian approached the front of the hive where the sun now bestowed its warmth.  They were there, busily making their trips to the field and in greater numbers than he had dared to hope.  Still he restrained his hand from opening the hive and allowing in the cold.  Hope was alive and he dared not kill it for lack of patience.  He busied himself in the garden for much of the day while making frequent trips to the palace of the Queen to watch in amazement at the life now returned to these once lifeless bodies.

Late in the day the sun burst forth in a brilliant display of its strength and beauty.  Its golden glow brought life to all living creatures who now reveled in its warmth, shaking off the cold damp chill that had ruled the land.  The Guardian rushed to the castle with a frame of pure golden honey in his hands.  After removing the roof from the top of the castle he was thrilled and amazed at the activity within.  The killing field had returned to life.  Though mountains of dead bees lay upon the bottom board in the basement of the castle where the workers had cast them aside, it appeared enough of the once lifeless forms had returned from the dead to make a go of it.

Gently he removed an empty frame and replaced it with a full frame of the honey he had acquired.  Now they would have the fuel they needed to run at full strength. A number of the workers and guard bees bombed him and dove at his head, causing the Guardian to smile.  He had not used his smoker to subdue their activity as surely they had been through enough and instead wore only is protective suit, happy to see them alive and doing their jobs.

As the days passed, a procession of even more dead bodies consisting of workers bees and many, many young, killed in their slumber by Jack Frosts icy blue hands were added to the growing graveyard at front of the castle.  But the surviving bees, once brought low by the same winter cold, carried on.  They ate the honey, fed the Queen and she produced more young.  The workers brought in the abundance from the field.  Soon the glory of the old kingdom returned and with it so did the glow of satisfaction in simple things, return to the Guardian.

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A Thanksgiving Check Up

The day before Thanksgiving was sunny and mild and I could not resist the temptation to have a peak inside my hives.  After all, we had a serious cold spell about  two weeks ago.  Cold is not usually a problem for healthy hives, but this cold spell came on so fast I did have to wonder about my girls.

We had balmy weather for weeks this fall and then suddenly we were hit with single digit temperatures, including three nights below zero, the lowest being 19 degrees below!  I knew my hives were healthy going into winter with good stores of food, but remember those two new hives I spoke about in the last article?  Ah-huh, definitely smaller hives with fewer numbers of bees.

So with a full sun shining on my hives and no wind I decided to take a look inside.  I have eight hives here at the house and simply removed the cover and then the inner cover to peak inside.  Even though it was nice out you don’t leave the hive open for long so no frames were pulled from the hives, just a look on top for numbers.

I am happy to report that all hives weathered the cold just fine.  While you can clearly see a difference in numbers from one hive to the next, they all look good with the exception of one hive and this is the first of the two new hives.  Clearly there is enough food stored away but the ball of bees in this hive is not much larger than a softball.  Technically a cluster the size of a softball is all that is needed to stay warm and winter and clearly they had done so.  My concern with this hive is for when the queen takes a break from laying in December, something all queens do for a few weeks.  Because many of the bees in this hive were added from other hives I do not know how old they are, they may continue to die off and not be replaced with new bees when the queen takes a break from laying.  Otherwise, all the hives look really good, including the second of the two new hives that were started.

When we were tossing log after log into the woodstove to stay warm during those zero degree days, the bees in each hive were clustered together maintaining a temperature of around 90 degrees.  I thought of them often, almost every time I added wood to the stove, but there was no need to worry.  They are healthy, doing well and most of all, doing what bees do; gather around their queen, keep her warm, feed her and rest up while waiting for spring.

On a side note, bees born in late fall or early winter are the longest lived bees in the hive.  Because they are not outside flying each and every daylight hour to collet nectar and pollen, these bees will live for months instead of only weeks.  They will see the hive through the winter months so that it can prosper once again in the spring.

Happy Holidays to everyone.  Just like the bees, winter is a time of rest and staying warm.  May the warmth of your family sweeten winter days with cozy mugs of cheer.

The Honey Harvest Is In

This is a busy time of year.  The gardens bounty overflows, rewarding our efforts, but also making us hustle to bring it in and store it so we can enjoy its riches throughout  the winter.  Of course there is nothing better than fresh, organic produce and we enjoy the heck out of the tomatoes, corn, raspberries, onions, cabbage, beans, grapes and more, that grace our table right now.

In the middle of this blessing comes the honey harvest and I took time out this last week to inspect the hives and pull the honey.  It’s every bit as tasty as it was last year, if not better and the last of it is still slowly making it way through the screens prior to being bottled.  We have given away some of this liquid gold and used a couple quarts canning pears.  If you’ve never had pears canned with a syrup made from honey instead of sugar you’ve got to try it.  There’s nothing like it.

Did you know that much of the store bought honey is diluted up to 20% with corn syrup?  It’s why real honey has such a great taste compared to store bought.  Additionally the store bought comes from hives treated with chemicals to kill mites.  If you want to get the real thing, without chemicals or corn syrup, find a local beekeeper who advertises his product as “treatment free”, meaning he uses NO chemicals within the hive to kill mites.

Once I have it all bottled I’m thinking my hives will produce around six to seven gallons and its all spoken for.  I could easily sell twice that amount at $25 per quart because of the demand for locally grown, treatment free honey.

Now, for those of you who have been following along all year I’ve provided a report below on the condition of each hive.  In it you will see that each hive is different and has its own story to tell.  At least for me, it is part of the fascination and enjoyment that comes with keeping bees.

Hive 1 – is the hive I got as a split from a friend.  Because they have to develop a queen of their own after you take the split, these hives will run a little bit behind hives that wintered or even new hives started from a package.  Still, I did get a few frames of honey from these girls and they have plenty of stores laid in for the winter.  Very interesting to note that this hive has a huge amount of brood and mountains of drones (male bees).  Mites love drone brood so I would assume there is quite a mite load in this hive.  Still, its pretty much a carbon copy of the parent hive I took the split from, as that hive always has a huge amount of drones yet it continues to make it through the winter each year.

Hive 2 – This is the first of two Carny (Carniolan) hives.  Normally these bees are fast to build up and lay in a big supply of honey, so fast that you can plan on getting honey even from a package installed in a new hive at the beginning of spring.  In checking my notes, this hive got off to a great start, so why no honey, at least for the beek? (beekeeper)  There is a full box of honey for the bees themselves to use for winter, but they never even tried to use the third box I added.  My guess is that they went through a supercedure – a process of replacing their queen – and it set the hive back for awhile.  The queen that came with the package was marked and sometimes the bees will interpret that as a fault, raise a new queen and dispatch with the old one.  later this fall I will do a hive inspection to see if I can find the queen and if she is not marked it will confirm my suspicion.

Hive 3 – the second Carny hive.  This hive performed as expected.  It was a new hive I started with a package and they really went to town.  Built up a nice box of honey for themselves and about two-thirds of a box of honey for me.  I hope they make it through the winter as I’ve had trouble getting this race of bees to make it.  I’m trying something different this year and added a pollen supplement to help them prepare for the cold.  In our dry climate here in Central Oregon we have few things that bloom late in the season and it makes it more difficult for the bees to lay in the pollen supplies they need.  Pollen is full of amino acids the bees need and is just as critical as a good supply of honey.  I’ve added the pollen supplement to each hive while the weather is still warm so the bees can store it.

Hive 4 – is the first Italian hive.  We took honey from this hive a month ago and it looks as if they are well on their way to making more.  They have a good supply laid in for winter though for some reason, the number of bees in this hive seems to be less than the other hives.

Hive 5 – is the second Italian package and it came with a poor laying queen.  I ordered a new queen from a breeder that breeds for “survivor” traits to withstand mites and I replaced the queen in May.  This put the hive behind but they still produced a nice amount of honey.  I hope they winter as I’m very impressed with the how tame these bees are how productive they have been.  As with all these hives, they will face the challenge of surviving the mites this fall.  Like any predator, the mite numbers peak a little after the prey population peaks.  As the bees reduce their numbers in preparation for winter the smaller bee numbers combined with peaking mite numbers can kill off a hive and that is why most beekeepers treat the hive with a miticide (Insecticide).  But that’s not how I work and as fall rolls around I will be looking for the mite resistant traits bred into this queen to shine through and allow the hive to survive.  There are no guarantees but I am looking to acquire bees that deal with the mites on their own.

Hive 6 – the survivor hive.  This is my lone surviving hive from last year.  They clearly have traits that allowed them to survive a heavy mite load last year.  They seemed to have gotten a little aggressive the last two times I inspected them and I saved them for last.  This time they were perfect ladies and were not aggressive at all.  As with most hives that winter and don’t have to start from scratch, this hive has produced a massive amount of honey.  If they survive the winter again, I will probably attempt to take a split from them next year.

In a few more weeks I will do another hive inspection to check on the condition of the hives.  I know I will lose hives this year, as it just part of beekeeping, but this year I have three hives that contain traits give them a better chance of surviving the mites and the winters.  I will write another update after the next inspection.

Have a great weekend all and if you have questions please feel free to leave me a note.

The Sweetest of the Sweet!

Wow!  Only one way to describe the honey I just harvested.  Easily the best I have ever gotten.  “Intense” is the way my wife described it.  Lots of berry flavor, but as has been the case with our honey, there are a lot of other under tones to it as well.

The sad part was that when I removed the box with the honey, I found very little honey underneath in box two.  That was kind of surprising, but there is still time for these girls to get with it and store up what they need for the winter.  Besides, we always lose some hives and there will be honey I can use to supplement this hive if need bee.

I probably got into the hive a little early – lesson learned, but it will all work out.  Good good stuff and I hope the rest of what I get is as good as this first taste!  It’s draining through the screens right now.  Very hot in the garage and that will help.  Then I will bottle up what we get, keep some for ourselves and begin meeting the orders we have to fill.

I’m so stoked!  Ready to add another 4 hives or more next year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!