A pollen-covered honeybee on a late-season sunflower. COURTESY JANE BRAUN
If your expectations are low enough, success is a given.As I write this, it’s 70 degrees outside in early November. At some point soon the weather is bound to catch up with the calendar, and my bees will tuck themselves into their hives for the winter. When they do, my mom anxiety will kick in hard: Do they have enough food stored up to survive until the first crocuses pop up next spring? Do they have enough insulation to keep from freezing? Enough ventilation to keep their bee breath from creating too much moisture in the hive, which will then drop onto their tiny little bee heads and give them a fatal chill?
All this anxiety is exhausting, frankly, but I do love my bees. I am going to count this as a successful year of beekeeping. Not because of the abundant honey we harvested from the hives, because we didn’t. Not one drop. In fact, we have been feeding them 10 pounds of organic sugar, plus bee vitamins, every week for the past month, and we will probably continue until winter sets firmly in. This is not a profit deal, by any measure.
But we started out this year with two hives, and we’re ending the year with two hives, so that counts for something. I am going to ignore the fact that we also purchased two nucs, or starter hives, so by the rules of normal math we should have four hives now. Between that bright, shiny optimistic day and now we lost one weak colony to a raging hive beetle infestation, and another to the same menace, although the second colony didn’t die, it simply up and left despite my best efforts to slay the evil beetles.
I’ve heard from other local beekeepers that this wasn’t a great year for honey because of the late spring and dry summer. But I have a strong suspicion that the lack of honey this year in my hives is also attributable to these horrible little vermin. They set up housekeeping in the hive, eating honey as fast as the bees make it. It’s more than a little depressing, for me and the bees.
So let’s just accept that my bar for calling this season a success is very low. Most importantly, I think we have finally subdued the mighty beetle. Patrick drenched the earth beneath the hives with a permethrin solution that kills beetle larvae in the ground, where they mature before emerging to fly back up into the hive as adults. We covered the hive bottom boards with diatomaceous earth, an odorless powdery substance made from the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms. Consisting of sharp little pieces of silica, it slices the soft bodies of hive beetle larvae when they fall onto it.
I placed hive beetle traps in strategic corners of both hives, filled with balsamic vinegar as bait and vegetable oil for the beetles to drown in. I laid Swiffer sheets over the top of the frames so their nasty little feet get stuck when the bees chase them up there.
I also abandoned my purist principles and treated both hives for varroa destructor mites this fall—something I’ve resisted in the past. In an ideal world, these aptly named villains wouldn’t exist. In a non-ideal, but still admirable, world the bees would be strong enough to scoff dismissively at the mites and carry on unhindered by the nearly invisible bloodsuckers. In the real world of my backyard, however, we’re not quite there yet.
Until 1987, varroa mites were non-existent in the U.S. Today, they are the bane of beekeepers worldwide, having spread from their first identification in Japan and Russia in the late 1960s. Their presence was confirmed in Australia, the last holdout, just this year. Female mites lay eggs on developing honeybee larvae, and the growing mites feed on the larval honeybees; adult mites suck the bees’ blood, leaving open wounds and making them more susceptible to other dangers — like hive beetles. Hives weakened by mite infestations are less able to keep hive beetles under control.
Breeders are selecting queens for “hygienic” tendencies. Hives populated with hygienic bees are scrupulous about routing varroa mites from the colony. They will uncap brood cells where mite larvae hide and toss the infested larvae out the door of the hive. The hope is that, eventually, this hygienic behavior will be widespread enough to make varroa an annoyance, not a dire threat. For now, though, it’s a battle. I haven’t seen large numbers of mites on my bees, but the mites are tiny, a little over 1 millimeter long, and my eyes aren’t what they used to be, so I decided to treat them just in case.
Which leads me to my favorite success of this beekeeping season. I have long admired beekeepers who do quick hive checks without the whole hat, veil and glove rigmarole. Besides the simplicity, it’s a lot easier to really see the bees—and their mites—without a screen over your face. But I’m not a naturally brave person, and bee stings hurt. They’re a given when you’re a beekeeper, but it’s not something to look forward to.
So this year, I started to relax and trust my gut with my girls. And because I’m relaxed with them, I’m not sending out fear pheromones. Those pheromones put the bees on full alert, and things can get painful real quick. I’ve learned to watch them and gauge the mood by the pitch of their collective buzz. Relaxed bees buzz at a lower register than agitated bees, so when the pitch starts to rise, it’s time to leave them alone or, if you have to work them, make sure you’re in full hazmat gear.
But when I’m doing something quick, like just filling the hive-top feeder or pulling a frame or two for a quick beetle check, I don’t have my hat on most days. As soon as the roof comes off, the bees on the inner cover instantly go into defensive posture—heads down, butts up, stingers ready. But if I’m calm, and I move deliberately to keep disruption to a minimum, they relax. They’ll walk on my hands, land on my clothes, but stings are mercifully rare.
My venture into commando beekeeping brings me back to my very first involuntary introduction to the hobby, when Rwandan beekeeper Faustine Nsabumukunzi, wearing just shorts and a T-shirt, pulled frames out of our first hive to figure out why the bees were dying. I was amazed, and a little horrified, pretty sure he was going to be covered in bee stings any minute. I just knew I would never be that comfortable around these scary insects. But here I am. So even with no honey to harvest, I’m pleased with what I’ve learned this season. And much as I love the honey, this success feels even sweeter.
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One fine body…