Windy Fun, Bees in the Sun

March 9th, 2009

So much wind this weekend, and the weather was beautiful.   A few heavy rainstorms came through, but the sun came out and the wind blew and blew… too strong for kite-flying, but who knew how much fun an umbrella could be?

Playing with an umbrella

And my goodness the past few days were really warm.  Saw the temps hit 80 degrees on Friday and I decided to really inspect the bee hives.  Hard to imagine how the bees come and go in such strong winds, but they seem to manage.  It’s quite a project to go in and take a bee hive apart, especially when you have two large hive bodies (or boxes) that you need to separate.   In concept it’s not a big deal, but to really get a good look you need pull out and inspect many of the frames and take the boxes apart down to the bottom board.  It’s important to take a good look at how the bees are doing after they’ve been eating through their honey stores during the winter and to look for disease or other problems.  My goal was to find out where they were and how much honey stores they had left to feed themselves over the next few critical weeks before the weather really warms up.

I’ve been fortunate that my bees are fairly gentle, and not easily stirred up.  I was a little hesitant to mess with them while the wind was blowing so strong- they don’t like being meddled with when it’s cold, rainy or windy.  But for a couple of hours the wind seemed to ease up and change directions a little so I seized the opportunity.  When you do this you try to move slowly and deliberately while working the bees and taking the hives apart… only makes sense right?  But it’s a compromise between wanting to get the job done expeditiously and standing around too long with a bunch of frustrated little bees all about.  I’ve heard stories of beekeepers being run out of the apiary because the bees were very aggressive or angry with being disturbed.  Hope I don’t see that with these guys, and so far it has been quite the opposite.  That may change as they build up their honey stores this year, but we’ll see.   They look so calm before you start…

Bee hive

So I took the top hive body off the first hive and set it down on top of a couple bricks to hold it steady.  “Clunk!” I jarred the hive body setting it down and thousands of bees in unison give a loud “Buzzzzz!” and settle down again.  I pulled several frames to inspect them- lots of honey, a little brood pattern here and there.  It turned out that most of the bees were in the upper hive body with the lower one nearly completely empty.  So the bees were clustered in the upper box for warmth during winter, and with the queen and honey stores to keep themselves fed. The weight difference was amazing- the upper hive body easily weighed around 40-50  pounds, but the lower one was very light and almost totally empty of both honey stores and bees.  

One of the challenges for the bees can be overcrowding that leads to swarming in spring (two-thirds of the hive may head out to find a new home), so some beekeepers like to reverse the hive body boxes- putting the honey/brood-filled box on the bottom (with all the bees and the queen), and moving the now empty bottom hive body up to the top.    Bees do not like being too croweded, and the queen likes to move up when laying eggs within the brood nest.  So after reversing the hive bodies, the queen has lots of new room upstairs for brood rearing and additional food stores. Not everyone does this… but beekeeping seems to be as much or more art than science anyway.  So even though it may have been a little early, I went ahead and reversed the hive bodies, and took the time to clean up the bottom boards and such.  

So there I was, all dressed up for a bee party with a hive completely disassembled, sweating in the 80 degree late winter sunshine.  It was pretty exciting until the bees let me know of their displeasure.  Now they didn’t sting or become too aggressive, but pretty soon this great cloud of bees were buzzing all around what should have been the entrance to their winter home… and it wasn’t there.  It was laying around in pieces being inspected by some wahoo in a white suit!   I’m trying to get the hive bodies back together, and there’s something blocking it when I try to lay one on top of the other. Back off again, and I look underneath to see a couple of rocks that got stuck to the bottom of the frames.  Ever heard the term bee glue?  That’s propolis, which the bees make to cement everything together in the hive, sealing up drafts and such.  It’s a very sticky substance.   Ugh, I must have got rocks underneath when I put the hives down… I pull them off, and then finally get the boxes back together.

I don’t know about other beekeepers, but after a while you like to think that you have some kind of ongoing relationship with these little guys… or girls to be more precise, since all the worker bees are female.  Wouldn’t it be neat to think that the bees get to know the beekeeper?   That they know you’ve only got their best interests at heart?   I like that idea… but no one asked the bees.  Everytime I go inpsect the hives it seems like a half dozen or more end up squished between the boxes somewhere.  I try really hard not to squish the little gals, but with many thousands of them crawling quickly all around it’s hard not to.   That probably doesn’t inspire confidence from the bees perspective…  Ah, but in my finest anthropomorphic beekeeping manner, I figured they were just being patient with me as I reassembled their home.  

Bees with pollen

Finally, with most of the hive put back together, they started plopping down on the landing again, packed with big globs of pollen, and marching right inside as if nothing had changed.  It must be a disorienting episode, and I was worn out, but the bees didn’t seem to mind too much.  In fact they looked pretty good- I saw brood in a few places which meant the queens were doing okay, the bees health looked strong with no apparent disease and lots of honey remained to carry them through early spring.   Couldn’t ask for more than that.

6 Responses to “Windy Fun, Bees in the Sun”

  1. wow, I learned a lot. I have often thought it would be nice to have bees.

  2. So do you use a smoker when working with bees? We almost always used one and it worked wonders with the bees attitude towards us. I also learned that a good shower and no deoderant, gels, or cologne also helped improve their attitudes though I would still recommend a anti-perspirant especially on an 80 degree day.

    Generally I would never have a problem unless it was on a rainy or overcast day beause they were busy doing their thing. Once in awhile, I would find one hive that was always more agressive than the others and I would put a mark on the top so that I only inspected them during the nicest of days to minimize their aggressiveness and my bee stings.

    I haven’t researched this in awhile but how far are you from the advance of Africanized bees? I think the last time I read on the subject they were well into Texas but I wasn’t sure how far north they have made it.

  3. Sage- The learning part is pretty fun… lots more to it than I realized going in, but I love having them around as pollinators for the plants and garden!
    Ed- Yes, and I’m all wrapped up head to toe… I like your wording: “…my bee stings.” I’ve only been stung by trapped bees, and hopefully it won’t become a regular habit! I’ve heard that requeening can keep them less aggressive, among other things… but I’d like to wait 2-3 years before doing that if I can. Did you requeen yearly? We don’t have the africanized bees this far north- they are into parts of AR, but hopefully the weather keeps ’em south. I won’t mess with them if they do get here.

  4. We requeened probably every two to three years on average. We would do those that were agressive or those hives where swarming looked like a possibility such as lots of brood, etc. We probably would have done it more often but the hardest part of doing so is finding the old queen and offing her. It was a skill that I never really mastered.

    I’ve heard lots of theories that by the time the Africanized bees got this far north, they would be so interbred with the gentler European bees that they wouldn’t be a danger and may actually help increase honey production. I hope that ends up being the case.

    I never really understood the phrase “a bee in your bonnet” until I helped my parents with their beekeeping and would occasionally get a pissed off bee inside my beekeepers helmet. Nothing like trying to stay focused while wondering where you were going to get stung.

  5. R. Sherman

    I know zilch about beekeeping so I find this fascinating. I wouldn’t mind giving it a try but my boys would undoubtedly knock the hives over playing soccer and then we’d have a heap of trouble.


  6. Ed- Interesting thoughts… a ‘bee in your bonnet’ is a great expression. Had one in my ear once which wasn’t much fun. This year will be the real test of their temperament when we pull off some honey with a second year queen.

    R.- That wouldn’t be fun! I’m shooting for a five year experiment…

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