Saturday, March 13, 2010
Checking in with the bees
Well, one hive made it through the winter--one did not and here's the story of how it all happened.
Last April I started two hives with bees delivered to Maine from a bee farm in Georgia--being a transplanted southern girl myself, I had a great deal of sympathy for the 20,000 little honeybees and I committed to giving them the best life possible in this cold climate.
I named the two hives for the first two 4000 footers that I climbed. Washington and Madison. From the very beginning Washington seemed to be the stronger hive. They built their comb faster and seemed to be filling up their space with hive and honey. Madison was working hard but just never quite seemed to keep up with Washington. Then---tragedy struck in the form of the summer of 2009 with basically two months of rain, no sunshine or warmth. Veteran beekeepers said it was the worst summer ever for them and my two hives apparently had had enough and swarmed while I was away in Latvia and Sweden during August.
My dad and I consulted with the State Beekeeper--yes, indeed a sweet state job if ever I heard of one. He re-assured us and said that he had been fielding calls all summer about hives swarming. He told us to be patient and leave the hive alone for a couple of weeks.
Before a hive of bees decide to swarm--they plan--they are such smart little creatures. They begin their plan by building some queen cells. Queen cells are larger than the regular cells that the bees normally create for eggs and the nurse bees feed the larvae in the queen cell something called royal jelly. The royal jelly triggers her to grow larger and to develop sexually so that she can reproduce. Both my hives had created queen cells and when they swarmed they left behind nurse bees to take care of the developing queen.
So, during the time that the State beekeeper told us to leave the hive alone it was doing naturally exactly what it was supposed to--it was developing a new hive full of bees--no remnants of the Georgia bees any more except maybe a little bit of DNA telling them to seek out sweet tea and cornbread.
By early September, both hives were again producing and storing honey for the fall--despite our abysmal summer, the fall of 2009 was full of sunny warm days and the bees were busy. Washington completely filled its 3 "supers". Supers are the boxes that contain the frames on which the bees build their comb. The experts told us that we should have all 3 supers full before we could harvest any for ourselves--well under the circumstances we were just hoping that the bees filled the supers for themselves and we resigned to wait until next year for our honey.
Washington filled its 3 supers by mid-October when we were ready to cover the hives for the winter. Madison had filled 2 supers and the third was completely empty but we left the empty box on and hoped somehow that maybe they would be able to fill it. That was our mistake. We covered the hives with tar paper and watched the snow fall.
One day in between Christmas and New Year, we had a terrible storm full of fierce wind and the next morning when I looked across the field at the hives--I realized our error--the empty box on the top of Madison had blown off exposing the hive to the cold.
I threw on my snowshoes and ran to the hive--I could still see that some bees were alive--I brushed the snow off and covered it as quickly as I could but I knew that it was probably too late. So, I cried a little bit yet hoped for the best.
Last Sunday, the temperatures were in the 40's and the sun was shining so I went out to check. I was hoping to see little yellow spots on the snow around the hives--the bees will not urinate or defecate in the hive so they hold it until a sunny day then fly out to relieve themselves. I was encouraged when I got close and saw little yellow spots on the snow around Washington--and then as I got even closer some bees flew out to greet me. Washington Lived! I was so happy.
I opened Madison knowing what I would find and I did find a hive full of dead bees. But one hive had made it and while I am very sad about Madison, we fight on through adversity and so I came home and ordered another box of those Georgia bees--they'll be here in mid-April and they have a nice little hive to move into with beautiful comb and even a good bit of honey--all courtesy of Madison. The new hive will be called Lafayette in honor of that beautiful mountain in Franconia Notch--the third one I climbed on my personal journey to find new heights.