Perimeter Breach

July 2, 2005

It’s been almost a month since I last checked on the girls, so I wanted to make sure the queens were properly situated in their brood chambers below the queen excluder. I suited up, more or less (I use cotton gloves, which they can sting through but slows them down, and a shirt with a full head veil sewn into it, made for mosquito-averse hikers) and pulled off the top of Hive 1. Given that I’d been stung the last umpteen times straight I’d been into the hives, I decided to use smoke this time to calm them down. I generally prefer not to use it, because it causes them to gorge on honey from the comb and thus sets them back a few days in their honey collection efforts, but I’m getting kind of sick of having hands swollen like a diabetics after every foray into the hives, so smoke ’em I did.

As you may remember, Hive 1 is performing much more strongly (and behaving much more aggressively than Hive 2. My first surprise: Hive 2 had almost completely filled their third honey super. I thought that was pretty damn good, considering they had only filled two honey supers total in all of last year, and here it is just the end of June.

My second surprise: despite the use of gloves and smoke, the girls are still ornery enough to jab their little stingers through my gloves into my waiting hands. OUCH! Apparently, in my flailing and cursing, I swung my hive tool (looks like a miniature crowbar) a bit too close to my veil and tore a little rip.

Well, I didn’t immediately notice said rip, leading to my third and most startling surprise. There I am, pulling out the frames of comb, looking at the lush, sweet honey being built up in each, when I notice a bee crawling along my veil. No big deal, lots of bees buzzing around everywhere. I mean, I am a beekeeper tending his beehives, right? Well, what I noticed with a start about this particular bee crawling along my veil was that, rather than crawling along the outside of the veil, she was crawling along the inside. PERIMETER BREACH! The bees have entered the bonnet!

Omigod, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet! I don’t even know what a god dang bonnet is but sweet Lord above that bee with her stinger is on the wrong side of the veil, the side with my nose and eyes and lips, whereas everything I’ve got to protect myself is on the other side of the veil!

Now, I ask you, what would you do?

  1. Put down your hive tool, walk calmly away from the hive and remove your hat and veil
  2. Calmly pinch the bee between thumb and forefinger from the outside of your veil
  3. Flail your arms wildly, batting and grabbing at your veil while prancing and stumbling madly away from the swarm of 50,000+ angry bees that are roaring about your exposed head

If you answered 3, you are well on your way to graduation from the Hive Mind School of Beekeeping. Fortunately, 3 actually turns out to work in this case, and the placid, mildly confused and tragically lost bee that has entered my bonnet is summarily executed between my thumb and forefinger a short while later.

Back to the hives.

So Hive 1 has almost filled their third honey super, which means that they are probably overcrowded now, and are probably getting ready to hatch a new queen and swarm. Hive 2, on the other hand, while having completely filled their first honey super, have not even entered their second. It’s really weird to look at, it’s like there’s this invisible ceiling above them that they don’t realize they can cross. In the bottom honey super, they’re packed in, overcrowded, and in the top honey super, inches away and without any obstruction, they’re not stepping a foot, the frames are still nothing but pressed foundation.

This isn’t underheard of, and I’ve read what you’re supposed to do. So I take a couple frames from the outer edges of the top honey super of Hive 1, shake off the bees, and a couple frames from the outer edges of the full honey super of Hive 2, and place them in the middle of the top, empty honey super of Hive 2, swapping in the undrawn frames from the top honey super of Hive 2 for the ones I removed elsewhere. This should have the effect of helping the bees realize that the top honey super is ripe territory for moving into.

Below are pictures of almost fully capped honey, undrawn foundation, and the box of mixed drawn and undrawn comb.

That, I’m pretty sure, should solve the problem of Hive 2 and their empty honey super, but it doesn’t solve the problem of Hive 1 and their overcrowding. So today, I jumped in the car and headed up to Beez Neez Apiary supply in Snohomish with my shopping list:

  • 1 Western (honey) super
  • 10 new frames of foundation
  • 1 new veil
  • 1 pair of real friggin’ beekeeping gloves thick enough to keep those sharp stinger from constantly jabbing my poor, swollen hands

Jean of Beez Neez was, as always, a trove of information. I lucked out by arriving just as a beekeeper even more incompetent than myself left, putting her in a commiseratory mood. I gave her a quick brief on what was up with my hives, and here’s what she had to say:

  • I did the right thing by swapping the frames around in Hive 2
  • She was not surprised that Hive 1 had filled three supers. Whereas I thought my girls were bad-ass foragers having accumulated this stunning pile of wealth, Jean said that she often stacked as many as 9 honey supers. Oh. Wow. That’s alot. I mean, I’m going to need a stepladder just to get my fourth one on.
  • Once the bees start laying extra queen cells for a swarm, they will continue to do so for the rest of the season, so I need to go in every couple of weeks and clear out the queen cells. I didn’t realize this. This explains that swarm that ended up on my neighbor’s sculpture. Oops.
  • When clearing out the queen cells, there is a danger that I kill all the queen cells, the old queen leaves and then there is no queen. The avoid this, I have to look carefully for an empty queen cell. If there is one, that means that the new queen has hatched and it’s OK to kill all the queen cells I find. If there isn’t one, I need to leave one intact queen cell to replace that old queen that may have already left. This is very important, because it means I’m going to have to open the hives and get stung a lot more. Dang.
  • It takes 20,000 bees to maintain the brood chamber. So if you’ve got a hive of 40,000 bees, only half of them are out foraging. If you’ve got a hive of 80,000 bees, then 60,000 of them are out foraging. These numbers are so large they boggle my mind and make me think maybe I just misplaced a decimal point. I did not.

Beyond that info, had a nice chat with Jean, talked to her about baseball and a boy she’s been mentoring in beekeeping for the past 5 or so years on the other side of the country. She seems very happy with her vocation, which she’s been doing since 1973.

Got everything on my shopping list, headed home. Threw a coat of paint on the new hive body, will finish up painting it over the weekend, then head back in with my new veil and bad-ass gloves to kill the queen cells.

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