How to Deal with Disappointment…Look for Swarms

dead queen bee

I got a box today with LIVE QUEEN BEE written all over it in black marker. Only, there wasn’t. Everything in the box was DEAD, the queen and all her attendants. Right before I opened the box I put it to my ear and heard silence. I blamed it on my bad ear but that made no sense since I put the box to my good ear. When I opened it up my heart sank. The most frustrating thing about it, was I had made the decision to combine my failing hive with my brother’s hive and I tried to cancel the queen bee order, but they had shipped my order out already. So now I still have a (probably) queenless hive, AND I am out $40. Because in order to get a refund you have to inspect the box in the presence of the delivery person and get it in writing from them that the order was indeed Dead On Arrival. Which of course the person receiving the shipment for me didn’t do. I sent pictures of the dead bees and requested a refund, but since I don’t have the required documentation, they don’t have to give me the refund *SIGH*.

I don’t seem to have good luck with queens through the mail. For the record, I’ve ordered two queens through the mail and, for different reasons, neither of them took. Compared to about 4 queens I easily raised myself last summer without really knowing what the heck I was doing, I think there’s an argument for learning how to raise and bank enough queens over the winter to replace my own winter losses. It would certainly save some money.

From now on, if I have to replace bees though, I’m going to buy nucs and/or buy queens someplace local where I can more easily pick them up in person. Which of course is tricky since most bees around here are shipped up from Southern states each spring, but it is getting easier to find. The Chicago Honey Co-Op has website has some leads and the Illinois Queen Initiative looks promising. But most of all, I would like to try my hand at catching swarms. That sounds like fun to me!

The Queen Is???

So, I am almost embarrassed to write this. I apologize for being like a bad soap opera. At the last hive inspection, I could not locate the queen and my bees were acting “depressed” and overly docile. They weren’t flying much even though it was the first warm day (I was in short sleeves and I get cold easily). There was no brood or eggs that I could find. Although there was a population bump after I moved them to a dry hive which means there was recently a queen, I do not think she is there anymore. My brother has suggested that since it has been a cold spring and there may not be enough worker bees to keep brood warm, the queen has stopped laying for a while. And while that is a great theory, I think I would have seen the queen. I scoured the hive. I went over each frame like 3 times and there are not a whole lotta bees in there for her to hide behind. The only good sign I saw was that there are no dead bees in the hive, which means they are doing their housecleaning. So…queenless? You can take bets now. I’m thinking of combining this hive with my brother’s hive that could use a boost of worker bees.  I can place a queen excluder between boxes on the outside chance that there is still a queen in my hive, but I’ll bet you five dollars there isn’t. I have the feeling that unless I am lucky and catch a swarm later in the spring, or some kind beekeeper gifts me with a split, I am out of the bee business this season. Fingers Crossed.

April 8 – Mind Your Own Beeswax

I have collected beeswax since I started beekeeping. Some of it I’ve already used in lip gloss and hand lotion, in my artwork or as seasoning for my cast iron pots (got that tip from my Father-in-law, Tom). Since I don’t have a lot of hives, I don’t have enough to make a large amount of anything, but I finally got enough to make a few candles. I’ve done a bit of research about how to melt down and purify wax from your beehives. This YouTube video gives you an idea how the process works.

Since a lot of what I harvested was brood comb from my dead-out hives, it is going to take a bit of doing to purify it enough for craft uses. unlike the white wax cappings removed from new honey combs in the extracting process, the old dark brood comb contains the dried cocoons of earlier generations of bee larvae. All that must be separated from the pure wax to be useful, but I had so much of it I decided it was worth the extra effort.

I melted the combs down in a big pot with water and skimmed off as much debris as I could, but there’s a lot of pollen and other stuff still in it. From the videos I’ve watched, it can take a few cycles of melting/cooling/trimming the debris off the bottom before the wax is ready for use. I think I’m going to order a 5 micron polyester mesh bag like they used in the video above so I can cut down on the number of steps it will take. But, for now, here’s some of the wax I got from the first melting:

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I’ll post the finished product after the next round or two of processing it.

The queen is dead, long live the queen.

IMG_1630My bees died.

I had three hives last fall. Now, two are dead and one is queen less and failing fast. It was my fault, I moved the hives too close to the garage, ostensibly to keep them more sheltered from the elements, but what happened instead was water from the melting snow ran off the roof and got inside the hives. Wet bees are dead bees. Lesson learned, the hard way. I’ve tried not to get too frustrated with myself, but I keep thinking I could have three healthy hives right now If I’d only thought things through better.

Before I discovered that my bees were mostly dead, I had planned on making big changes to my beekeeping practices. I am replacing all of my 10-frame medium equipment with 8-frame medium equipment. These new, smaller “garden hives” have pretty peaked copper roofs and are quite decorative.  I am excited to have the smaller equipment because I will be able to lift and move them much more easily. This has been a real problem as I simply can’t lift the larger equipment; even 10-frame mediums have proven to be just a little too heavy for me when they are full. There have been times when I’ve dropped boxes full of bees and thrown my back out trying to work on my hives. Most of the times I’ve been stung are a direct result jostling bees around because I don’t have the strength to maneuver the boxes gently. I need equipment I can handle on my own.

Now it seems I will have a hard time filling those new hives with bees. I have ordered a new Carnolian queen from Apple Blossom honey farm, but I have my doubts about saving my remaining hive. It is true that I had written this particular hive of bees off last fall when the varroa mites nearly wiped out the hive, and they still made a full recovery. However, they didn’t lose their queen that time. Still, I transferred the remaining few frames of surviving bees into a small hive that is clean and dry, and added a swarm lure to the hive. Bees without a queen get demoralized and lose their work ethic. I’ve never heard of using a swarm lure this way but if I can trick them into thinking they still have a queen, maybe they will remain motivated enough to keep going until the new queen arrives.

If my last hive fails then I will have no bees this spring. I’ve thought long and hard about it but I don’t want to buy another package of bees. I’m already way over budget on garden projects this spring and another package will be about $160. I’m going to have to get creative about getting new bees. I’m going to put up a few swarm traps and might ask a few people in the area if I can hang one on their property. Also, I just filled out a form to be put on a swarm list. I’m hoping someone calls me to catch a swarm that is not beyond my skill level to deal with. I can’t deal with bees in a wall, or 20 feet up in a tree. But if someone in Chicago or the surrounding towns has a bee swarm in their bushes and wants it gone, then I’m back in business.

Wish me luck!

Meet Sweet Melissa

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I know this is a bit backward, but I’m a bit behind in my blogging. The first  video is of me feeding  my bees in the Sweet Melissa hive. I had just finished shaking the bees into their new home.  The second video is me feeding them again about a week later, after cold and stormy weather had finally broken. The plastic Ziploc baggie contains organic cane sugar and a bee attractant. The bee attractant was meant to be placed in the garden to attract and feed pollinating bees and other insects, so I thought they would like that. Plus I read that bees like herbs and some beekeepers put thyme and other herbs in their sugar syrup, so I put a few leaves of dried thyme from last year’s garden in there.  I later learned that the organic sugar may not be all that good for them…there are too many solids in the unprocessed evaporated cane juice that may cause dysentery in bees. So I ended up switching to plain, white, bleached overprocessed sugar to make my syrup, which they took much more eagerly, along with a pollen patty meant for feeding honeybees in the hive (my brother had extra and shared them with me). These are emergency survival foods meant to give a new hive enough calories and protein to survive until enough plants bloom to provide nectar and pollen. A new box of package bees has not a spec of honeycomb built nor a drop honey stored, so if plants aren’t blooming yet, they will quickly starve.

What I realized is that putting bees from unrelated hives in a box with an unrelated queen, shipping them in a truck hundreds of miles and shaking them into a brand new hive, is a highly inorganic, unnatural process anyway. Trying to make it natural by giving them organic sugar, while well-intentioned on my part, really wasn’t going to change that fact. In the future I will stick to plain ‘ole bad for you processed white sugar, if I need to feed sugar syrup. As long as it is pure cane sugar, for I’ve read that beet-derived sugar can cause the same type of dysentery as the brown organic stuff. But I will add a couple of thyme leaves, because I haven’t read anything bad about that and they seemed to really like it. Actually, in the future I hope to be able to have a backup stock of frozen frames of honey harvested from my own hives, so if I want to start a new package of bees I can give them real bee food…honey in the comb. It is not recommended to feed bees honey from an unknown source since it could carry bee diseases, so I can’t take a honey bear off the shelf of the grocery store and stick that in the hive!

I ended up feeding them in the hive for several weeks and placing feeding stations with the ziplock baggies in my yard, along with a shallow tray of rocks with water (that can be seen in the second video), both of which they eagerly visited until the second or third week of May. Then they abruptly stopped eating and drinking at those stations. I removed the food but not the water station. Given how expensive bee feeders can be, and the fact that my bees sucked the baggies dry both inside the hive and in my yard, I don’t see any reason to invest in any type of feeders at this point.