Some years ago I had the bright idea to try my hand at keeping honey bees. Seemed to be the thing to do - help pollinate my garden, do some good for the environment, get some great honey as a bonus. Right?
Keeping honey bees, as I learned, required a lot more skill, patience, and good luck than I had. That first summer, I got one strong hive and a nuke (small start up hive with a young queen and some workers) from local master bee keepers. I learned all about healthy brood patterns, when to add more brood and honey supers, when to put in the queen excluder. When to start feeding them sugar water in preparation for winter. All things you do to MANAGE the bees so you get a good honey crop. In the above photo you see me opening a hive that needs another super, a box with empty comb frames. The bees had started making more comb on top of the frames because they were running out of room. The bottom box was filled with brood - comb filled with worker bee larvae. That's where the queen was. The second box was packed with honey and the bees had started making free-form comb on top of the frames.
Getting ready to close up the hive after putting the queen excluder and extra super on top. The queen excluder is a metal or plastic grill - you can see its black edge underneath the top blue super - that keeps the large queen from going up and laying brood in the honey super. The worker bees are smaller and can fit through the wires. This ensures that the upper supers contain only honey. The board I'm holding is the inner cover. It has holes to help ventilate the hive.
Coaxing bees back into the hive. They had collected on the hive lid while I was working. The smoke accomplishes two things: it interferes with sensing alarm pheromones given off by guard bees and injured bees and it makes the bees think there is a forest fire so they fill their bellies with their precious honey in preparation for abandoning the hive. This makes them a bit dopey and fairly docile. I was always amused by how they would slowly and obediently file back into the front of the hive.
Putting the top back on the hive, trying hard not to crush any bees. This is a loosely fitting lid so air can still circulate. Honey bees generate a lot of moisture, especially when they are actively collected nectar and turning it into honey. They leave the comb cells open until the honey has lost enough moisture to keep well, then they cover the cells with wax.
I joined the local bee keepers association and went to the meetings, where I hoped to learn more about the practical aspects of bee keeping. I learned a few things but I also learned about the politics of bee keeping. Yes, the politics of bee keeping. Seems our region, at the time, was one of the few that had not yet been affected by the Varoa mite. Northwestern Ontario honey bees were mite free.
All the local bee keepers had an unwritten agreement to not introduce bees from outside our region. If someone needed a queen or a nuke, they would get it from one of the local bee keepers who had extras. The bee keepers association even invited an official from the Ministry of Agriculture to one of our meetings. We were trying to convince him to somehow help us make our unofficial ban an official one. How the Ministry could have effectively done such a thing was not clear. Anyone could order queens and nukes through the mail, usually from suppliers in Manitoba.
I really enjoyed my bee hives that summer. It was so much fun watching the bees as they went about their work. I loved opening the hives to check on how they were doing. The smell of honey and warm beeswax is one of the most comforting smells I know. A couple of times I was able to spot the queen surrounded by her attentive workers.
There was drama as well. Near the end of August I noticed drones being muscled out of the hive by guard bees. By this time, the drones were no longer wanted. The fact that they were still alive meant they hadn't fulfilled their procreative purpose --a honey bee drone dies after he mates with a queen. They don't help collect nectar or pollen for the hive, so out they go to eventually die alone of hunger and cold.
My nuke hive didn't make it through that first winter, they just never developed enough workers and collected enough honey to survive. I opened the hive in April to find only a few hundred live bees and many cells with a little dead bee bum sticking out, a sign that the bee had died of starvation.
The larger hive survived the winter but I noticed the workers were laying drone cells and there was no sign of regular worker cells, which meant my queen had died. My bee keeper mentor kindly gave me a frame from one of her thriving hives with two unhatched queen cells which I put into this hive. Two weeks later I wrote in my log that the queen cells had hatched. (The first hatched queen would then kill the still unhatched queen in her cell - ew!) But for some reason the queen never took - she may have been killed during her mating flight. A few weeks later I decided to disperse the hive - move whatever full honey frames there were to my other two hives (I had purchased two more nukes).
Looking through my log, I see I spent the rest of the summer coaxing the other two hives along, moving frames around, feeding one hive syrup in July because they seemed to be struggling to collect enough nectar. (I think the weather was cool and damp, which made things worse.) I had to kill off a swarming cell in the other hive - an extra queen cell - which if hatched, would have meant most of the workers would fly off with the new queen. I was still working at the time, so could only open the hives on the weekend, and only if the weather was good.
I can also tell from my notes that I was struggling with my inexperience. My two hives limped along through the summer. One produced some honey, which I had to donate to the weaker hive to help them get through the winter.
Finally I put them to bed in November after feeding with syrup for a while. I remember being in a bit of a hurry because it was near the end of the day and the temperature was dropping; I was hoping I had added enough insulation but left enough air space so they would be able to stay dry. My log book was full of worries.
Here's a note from November 6: Hive #2 -seems quiet - took 1/2 of gallon jar. Therefore, total of 5 and 1/2 gallons of syrup - landing board clean, no dead bees. Hive #3 took almost no syrup - still some leaked syrup on landing board - approx. 1 doz. dead bees including several drones - hive seems noisy inside - suspect NO Queen!!!
And one from November 12: +6 C. Flying!!! at 2:30 (Could they be too warm?) but so sheltered, this is probably normal. #2: 3 dead bees. #3: 1 dead drone, (still some drones flying?) Later that week noticed #3 finally starting to harass drones.
The smaller hive with the possibly missing queen did not make it through the winter, like the one the year before. The larger hive made it but came down with dysentery in early February. Those little out-flights in warm weather pictured above were accompanied by a large brown splat onto the snow. That was the saddest sight of all. This was probably caused by a combination of dampness in the hive and Nosema - a microscopic parasite now believed to be a from of fungus that infects honey bees.
I gave the bees sugar water containing a fungicide used by bee keepers to treat Nosema but without success. There are no more entries in my honey bee log after that. I remember opening the hive when the weather was finally warm enough and seeing the terrible mess inside and only a few bees struggling to survive. I left the hive open and let the bees fend for themselves. I decided I would give up honey bee keeping till I had more time to take care of them.
Since then, Varoa mite has been introduced into our region. Some think it may have been here all along but our honey bees had strong hygiene instincts that enabled them to keep it in check. I don't know for sure. Last winter was particularly long followed by a cool spring. I was glad I didn't have any hives to worry about when I heard how many of the local bee keepers had lost hives.
One gift my poor little honey bees left me with was an appreciation for all the wild pollinators out there. I started paying attention to how many different insects come to my flower beds. One day, shortly after I got my first hive, I was hanging laundry in our back yard. Next to the clothesline platform was a collection of raspberry, red currant and wild cherry bushes, all in flower. In the space of one minute I counted at least six different pollinating insects visiting the flowers there.
So now l buy my honey from a reputable Canadian source, and spend warm summer afternoons chasing other bees with my camera. No smoker, no sweaty bee suit, no worries.
Note: a special thanks to Larry for saving these pictures on his computer. I had forgotten we had these and am so glad I could share them here.
I'm Elizabeth Pszczolko, a writer living in the woods outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a child, I used to keep scrapbooks of nature stuff - drawings, musings, poems. This is my grown up (I use the term loosely) version of those long lost works. For more on what inspires this blog, please see the About page.