The Girls Are Back In Town

April 30, 2006

Time to dust off the ol’ keyboard. The long winter is over, the girls are back in town!

Yep, Michelle and I hopped up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 8 am this morning for the drive up to Beez Neez Apiary Supply in Snohomish, Washington to pick up our two packages of bees.

OK, that’s a lie. I was crusty-eyed and Michelle made me promise not to talk about tail on my blog, but we did get up early for a Saturday morning to retrieve our two new colonies of bees. Why did we need to buy two colonies, when, last you heard, I had two healthy hives? Well, they died, OK? I’m a bad beekeeper and they died because I neglected them.

See, over winter, bees hunker down with their supplies of honey, unwrap a fresh deck of cards, open a box of Havana cigars and get ready to pass the time until Spring. Unfortunately, there are a bunch of diseases that plague hives and, it appears, my hives got one of them. Probably Nosema, a microsporidian, if you must know. Also, if you must know, I have no idea what a microsporidian is, except that it’s what Nosema is, and that’s what killed my hives. Dead.

You don’t believe me? Perhaps you’d like to see pictures? No, I don’t think that would be wise. It’s for your own good that I spare you.

Still, you insist. Listen, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Small children and women who are considering becoming pregnant within the next six months may wish to shield their eyes. This isn’t going to be pretty.

deadbee Dead Hive

See, I told you. Nasty. What you got there is some heavy Jonestown-type shit. Bodies piled on top of bodies. Mold growing on their decaying carcasses. Look, don’t complain to me if you can’t sleep tonight, I warned you.

Can we make this story cheery again, please? It’s a happy day. Two new colonies.

So, anyway, Michelle and I cruised up to Beez Neez to get two new colonies of bees to replace the dearly departed, may they rest in peace. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll remember that bees come in 3 or 4 pound boxes, with a queen in a little mini-cage in the middle. To the right are what the boxes look like, you can see the metal can of sugar syrup in the middle that they feed on while travelling. I don’t really have a good photo of the queen in her cage, but if you watch the video at the end of this post, you can see what’s up with it.

It was something of a sad day at Beez Neez. Jean, who has been keeping bees since the early seventies and has run Beez Neez Apiary supply for almost as long, has sold the business and is retiring. She agreed to stick around and help Jim and his daughter Rachel, who bought it, operate it through the delivery season, which ended today, so today was her last day.

Jean, so you know, is awesome. Every time I go to Beez Neez, I always have a few questions, and she is fantastic about answering in understandable terms, and volunteering extra information I wouldn’t think to ask and just generally guiding me through the whole beekeeping process.

Michelle's beekeeping dudsToday was no different. First, we had to get Michelle some beekeeping duds (left), and she helped us get the right fit and the right type of equipment. Then, I mentioned the whole thing about the little Jonestown escapade my bees pulled over the winter, and asked whether it was OK to put the new bees in the same hive that the old bees died in.

The answer is that it depends. If they really did die of Nosema or had waxmoth, it’s OK. If they died of foulbrood, then, no, it’s not. Here’s the rundown:

  • If there was sort of a cobwebby-like layer over the hive, this is probably waxmoth. Not a big deal. A new strong hive will clean it out, but, to help them, I should put my frames in the freezer overnight. This will kill the waxmoth larvae.
  • If it was the microsporidian Nosema, it should be treated in the Fall with essential oils or formic acid (which is also good for Varroa mites).
  • If it was foulbrood, I’ll know it because the hives will smell, well, foul. This is not to be confused with smelling like decaying bees, which smells like death. Foulbrood smells foul. To be sure, I can put the frames in a plastic bag in the sun for an hour and then open it up. Foul smell, foulbrood. If you’ve got foulbrood, you have to burn the frames and at a minimum apply a propane torch to the hive bodies.

Well, the thing is, Michelle remembered me saying at the end of last year that the hives smelled a bit funky and I remember it as well, but it’s hard to say whether they smelled like death or they smelled foul. I mean, can you tell the difference?

To play it safe, we bought 10 brand new frames. Usually, you want 10 frames total per hive body (which means with two hives I’d want 20), but Jean said we could get away with five each for the first week or so while we figured out whether we had foulbrood in the rest of the hive. She also said that there was no point in using the Apistan or Terramyacin to try to protect them against mites and Foulbrood, because they had all become immune to those pesticides. That came as a relief to me, as I had always thought my reluctance to use pesticides meant I was a bad beekeeper.

Anyway, we bought ourselves a bee jacket for Michelle (couldn’t find gloves that fit her), the ten frames, an entrance reducer (as you’ll read below, I should have bought two) and two lemon honey candies. Mmmm….candy.

When we went to get the boxes of bees themselves, it was a bit disturbing. A number of the boxes they had were light and had lots of dead bees in them. Jean did her best to be polite about the whole thing, but it was apparent that somehow Jim and Rachel had screwed something up, and poor Jean was seeing her life’s work handed over to someone who was not as experienced or as competent as herself, and there was a bit of a hiss between her teeth over it. Fortunately, we’ve always gotten along well, plus, through a small-world coincidence, I know her son Bruce (a fellow burner), so she dug around and found us a couple of the better boxes.

Apparently, part of the problem was that they had been sitting around too long, because Jean said we had to get them into their new hives by tonight. Well, the thing is, at this point it was 10 a.m. and my friend Brady had done me the great favor of swinging me a last minute pass to Mind Camp, a weekend-long geek conference where a bunch of techies got together and talked about all sorts of technogeeky wonky shit that I happen to find fascinating and, not coincidentally, is my day job.

Mind Camp started at noon. It was 10 a.m. Clearly we were going to need to be creative. After we drove home, Michelle cleared out the area where we set the hives while I went to the opening few hours of Mind Camp, then, at a break in the sessions, I headed home, bought a propane torch at Stoneway Hardware on the way, and we got to work.

First, I scraped any remaining comb off the old hive bodies and ran the propane torch over all the surfaces to kill off any spores (but, per Jean’s instructions, didn’t scorch the boxes). Michelle, in the meantime, had mixed up some syrup for the bees to feed on as they established the hive (one part water, one part sugar) and jarred it in mason jars with little holes in the lids just big enough for their little probiscides.

Did I mention it was pouring rain? No? Well, it was pouring rain.

We set the bottom boards on a palette at a bit of a forward tilt so the rain would run out the front, set the empty hive bodies on top of those, then set the five frames a piece into the hive bodies. The front door of the bee hive is pretty big, which is no problem when the hive is strong, because they can easily defend it from scavenging hornets and yellowjackets and such, but when the hive is new and small, a big front door is a liability, so you stick a small board across it with a hole, reducing the amount of space they have to defend. I thought I had one and so I only bought one extra.

I didn’t have one. Time to improvise. I MacGyvered a piece of bamboo from the garden into a makeshift entrance reducer, and, presto-magico, hives are ready for the bees!


I’ve got to admit I’ve got a bit of a thing about bee suits: I don’t like to wear a veil and gloves unless I have to. Partly, it’s a Zen, “be one with the bees” kind of thing, partly I know that when they’re being hived or swarming, they’re at their most docile, and honestly, partly, I like to imagine the look of admiration and awe on people’s faces when I say “I’m an old hand at this, I don’t mind a few stings.” I may be confusing this look with the look amazement at my stupidity, but I think it’s important to have a strong imagination.

In any case, I hived the first colony in just a short sleeve shirt and pair of pants. The process is this:

I removed can of syrup from the box and carefully slid the queen cage out of the box. The bees were agitated but I’d dosed them with a heavy spraying of sugar syrup, plus it was pouring rain (I mentioned that, right?), so they were pretty docile. I plucked the cork that was keeping the queen in her cage and replaced it with a little mini-marshmallow (provided by Jean, gratis), and dropped in between two of the frames. The marshmallow makes sure the queen can’t get out for a few days. After they’ve been in the hive long enough for them to show their giant s’more, they think of it as home.

I then turned the box upside down over the hive and shook while they came pouring out like water.

Angry, buzzing, stinging water.

OK, I got stung a couple of times. Zen be damned, I donned a veil but stayed gloveless. After this, it was pretty much a cakewalk. I put on the inner cover (which has a largeish whole in the middle to allow the bees to get up into the upper chamber), set a couple bottles of sugary syrup in the feeder (just a piece of wood with holes for the jar lids to set in), put the box with the remaining bees next to the feeders (I didn’t want to leave it out in front of the hive because of the cold rain), popped a hive body around that and plopped the outer cover on the whole stack.

Beekeeping 2006 042 Beekeeping 2006 047 Beekeeping06 003 Beekeeping 2006 052 Beekeeping 2006 058

Wash, rinse, repeat. Michelle had planned to take care of this second hive, but her camerawoman duty in the rain (I’m pretty sure I mentioned that, but I should reinforce at this point, that, for real, it was pouring) had frozen her hands white, so it was the same story over again. Bees are hived, I was back at Mind Camp in time for the 4 o’clock session on mobile social network software (which, if you’re curious, was fatally undermined by one guy who kept trying to channel the conversation back to why his particular company’s application was so awesome).

At this point, I need to just let them be chill for a while and get used to home. I’ll crack the boxes next weekend and see how they’re doing, and add another five frames to the hives. I’ll let you know how it goes…

As a little bonus, I put together this video of the whole hiving escapade. Check it out.

(4/5/07: YouTube broke my video, so I’ve reposted to Soapbox)

Video: Hiving the Bees

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