Bee Kill

Bee KillUgh, I was in the middle of a phone call, looking out at my window to admire my hives this past week, and what do I see? A pile of bee carcasses outside the front stoop of my middle hive. That’s a picture of it on the right.

The odd thing (or perhaps, Dr. Watson, a clue!) is that of my three hives, that one was far and away the most active in the weeks leading up to the die-off. Enough so that when I had a class of second graders over a few weeks back to see my hives, one of the questions they asked as “why does that hive have so many bees and the other ones don’t?”

So, Internet, what’s your thought? Whodunnit? Here are my best guesses, but I’m just an amateur beekeeper, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers to guide to me.

  • photo.JPGCold: We had an early snow here in Seattle (see right), and maybe it took them unawares. The problem with this theory is that a) it didn’t effect the other two hives and b) it wasn’t that cold. Sure, it snowed, and we had ice on the roads for three or four days, but that was it. I’m sure Montana beekeepers would laugh if I tried to call this a “cold snap”.
  • Pesticide: I visited some bee hives they have at a nearby arboretum some years ago and saw a pile of dead bees out front. When I asked, I was told that likely some bees had gotten into some pesticide somewhere and brought it home. The problem with this theory is who the hell puts out pesticide at the end of November after a snowstorm?
  • Hornets: I’ve seen that National Geographic video of the hornets wiping out a hive of bees while the Flight of the Valkyrie plays in the background. It’s astounding. And, suspiciously, a close inspection of the bee carcasses showed most in parts, and hollow shells. However, the problem with this theory is that there are no marauding hornets in Seattle in November. Plus, I’ve been around the house recently, and I would have heard Wagner playing.

I cracked all three hives to see what they looked like, and the affected hive was definitely decimated, with the remaining bees clustered in the center. The bottom brood box was mostly empty, just some bits of capped honey around the edges of the frames, a few frames of pollen and a scattering of partially hatched bees. The top brood chamber had a good strong store of honey, though, as would be expected given only November. There was a partially filled Western on top of that, also half full of honey.

I removed the empty brood chamber from the bottom and left the frames out for the bees to scavenge from.

Any advice, Internets?

Look, Up In the Sky!

What do you get when you combine two hives of very active, healthy bees with one very active, healthy two-year-old boy?

Nah, it’s not the set-up for a joke, just a setup for about a month’s worth of work on my part.

My bees are located about 10′ off the deck in our back yard, an easy stroll for a curious two-year-old. So, as Zevin’s crawling days started turning into toddling days, and his toddling started bringing him closer and closer to the hives (“beees! beees!”), I knew I had to do something about it. And if I couldn’t keep Mohamed away from the mountain, I figured I’d just have to move the mountain away from Mohamed.

Given our standard-sized Seattle backyard, where there was no “away” to move them to, I was left with “up”.

So, this past spring, Michelle, Zevin and I loaded up and headed down to The Rusty Rack Guys down in Pacific, WA to find us some used warehouse palette racks, the kind forklifts drop skids of lumber onto. I figured if it’s strong enough for skids of lumber, it’s strong enough for my girls.

We noodled a bit over size, finally opting for the 14′ high (higher is better, right?), 14′ long (roughly same length as the garage it was sitting against, plus that meant enough room to space the hives) and 3 1/2′ deep (enough room to walk around behind them). The infrastructure, plus enough cut lumber to line three layers of floor came to around $350. Not cheap, but such is the price of not having your two-year-old stung incessantly (or, worse, having to give up beekeeping).

Assembling the system was a bit of a trick because there was an active hive of bees sitting where the rack needed to be (only one of my two hives successfully overwintered), but I managed to get most of the work done without a bee suit by working during the cooler parts of the day and keeping my body low to the ground.

Here’s a slideshow of the construction, to make Bob Villa proud:

Now, you should know that I’m writing this some six or seven months after the work was done, so I’m a bit foggy on some of the details of what happened. For example, I didn’t remember what a horse’s ass I was to work in shorts and t-shirt this close to the bee hives. I mean, come on people, would you look at this? What was I thinking?

Anyhoo, it worked out fine, probably got one or two stings, max, in the whole procedure, and the result was fantastic. Not only are the hives safely out of Zevin’s reach (except when he follows me up the ladder), but the flight paths of the bees tend to take them horizontal and up, not down, meaning they’re not buzzing through people’s hair when we have backyard BBQ’s anymore. If I had one thing to change, I probably would have gone with a shorter rack, so that the top lined up with the edge of the garage roof without any extra metal protruding. Being able to use the roof for stacking things is handy.

Not to say that this has entirely solved the two-year-old v. bee problem. My bees do have mites, which means that there are a fair number of bees with slightly deformed wings crawling around in the grass. A barefoot two-year-old and a crawling bee make for an unpleasant combo, as Zevin (and I) have learned the hard way (“Da BEE! Da Bee! Owee!”), but he recovers remarkably quickly, typically going from crying to on-about-his-business inside of five minutes (thanks in part to the shaker of meat tenderizer we keep on hand to treat the sting).

Of course, the other benefit of moving the hives up was that it meant we had a big space underneath the hives to do something with. And what was that something?




First, for those of you who have been losing sleep over my difficulties in establishing a laying queen in my second hive, rest easy: she’s there and she’s laying. I checked over the weekend and the two brood chambers are full of good, healthy brood. I pulled over the top feeder and added a honey super. All’s well.

The first hive is doing well, too. I checked up on them last week and saw that the second honey super was getting close to full, so I added a third. I decided to try an experiment, though.

I know that every little bit of extra work you make the bees do can come out of your bottom line, even making them climb through two extra honey supers to get to the new empty one I’d put on top. So I tried a little swap: I reversed the positions of the honey supers. That is, I put what had previously been the bottom honey super on top of the stack and added the new, empty super to the middle of the stack, just above the brood chambers.

Since it’s not a true, controlled experiment (how will I know whether it “worked”?), I decided to ask the advice of Karen Bean of Brookfield Farm, the beekeeper selling at our local farmer’s market who I have drafted as my mentor.

Karen gave my move the thumb’s up. She said she doesn’t bother with all that switching, mostly to spare her back (a wise woman, indeed), but she did recommend one easier switch:

When adding a new super, she suggested taking two center frames from the top-most honey super, which would likely have some brood in them, and placing them in the center of the newly added super. (The presence of brood on those frames is predicated on the notion that you’re not using a queen excluder, which we don’t.) Then take the displaced empty frames from the new super and place them in positions 2 and 9 of the almost full super (that is, not outermost, where they may be ignored, but close to it).

The goal of the maneuver is to give the bees some encouragement to start moving in to the new, empty super. She noted that if there is brood present, it’s best not to shake off the nurse bees that will be tending them.

I’ll give that a whirl next.

Bees in his Bonnet

Got a question from a reader, Louise:

Wondering if you’ve ever experienced this: We thought the bees had been particularly busy and were all set to add a second honey super on one hive. Went in to look at the first and were shocked to see that all the cells that should have been loaded with honey had larvae in them! We must have trapped the queen in above the excluder some how. We can’t figure out how she got up there otherwise. We’re not looking at drone cells either. So technically there are now three hive bodies on one hive. We plan to remove the unintended hive body (the honey super) in the fall and start over. Cannot figure out how this happened. We will place a honey super on top though–have moved the excluder, brushed off all bees before doing so.

We had 5 swarms this spring, not sure if this has anything to do with this–could the queen be small enough to fit through the excluder? We haven’t been able to spot her.

For myself, I don’t use a queen excluder: I figure a little bit of brood in the lower chamber is small price to pay for the extra ease of motion it gives the bees, and the cells tend to have hatched by the time I go to harvest in the Fall, anyway.

That said, it sounds to me like, despite their best efforts, the queen ended up on the wrong side of the barrier. I doubt it was that she slipped through, otherwise I would expect her to be able to slip through in the other direction, and she would certainly prefer to lay low than high.

Others have advice to share?

Importing Honey?

I got an e-mail tonight that I almost deleted as spam. It seemed at first glance to be one of those “I want to transfer $2 million to your account” scams. But it isn’t. Here’s what it said:

Dear Jordan.
Is any way you can find me market of honey in order to increase more Hives in my Farm?
What is the price for one litre in your country.
I can get one 1000 litres per season.
I am from Tanzania East Africa.
Eagerly waiting for your responds and comments regarding this.
Joseph Liberio Pablo

Maybe I’m a sucker for the idea of farmers (beekeepers!) in poor countries trying to make a living by look beyond their horizons, but I want to help. I’m also a sucker for exotic honeys: I have a jar of killer bee from Venezuela, what does Tanzanian honey taste like?

So, is there any advice people have for Joseph? My guess is that there are all sorts of import rules and tariffs and quotas and what-have-yous, but maybe somebody has an idea?

Missing Eggs: Solved

I’ve got to say, it’s become very handy having a beekeeper at my local Farmer’s Market. I wandered up there this past week, as I always do, and chatted up Karen Bean of Brookfield Farm. In particular, I wondered if she had any insight into the Case of the Missing Eggs. Turns out, she did!

One reason that a queen will pause egg-laying, apparently, is a “nectar dearth”. She said this with some puzzlement, since we’ve had spectacular weather here lately and we’re in the full blush of Spring, so there shouldn’t really be any shortage in area. However, when I offered that I had removed the sugar syrup supplies from my hives, she brightened: yep, the withdrawal of a ready source of nectar-like drink could be interpreted as a nectar dearth and would lead to a gap in egg-laying.

I don’t regret pulling the syrup. I know many beekeepers keep feeding until the girls stop taking it, but I prefer to pull when I put on the honey supers: 100% of my honey should come from Wallingford flowers, not Florida sugar plantations. (No offense intended if you prefer the supplement. I’m sure the amount of sugar that ends up in the supers is infinitesimal, it’s just matter of pride for me.)

I’ll try again this weekend (I’m giving a tour of my hives on Sunday to some folks from the neighborhood, so I’ll have to hassle the girls anyway). Hopefully we’ll be able to get both hives back on track.