Ever since we bought our “starter kit” of bees last fall, we have been very concerned that we were suckered into buying a  bunch of sick, diseased, and dying bees.  S has been researching like crazy, learning all he can about honey bees, natural methods, and so forth.  He then teaches me the “need-to-know” facts.  

For example, based on my last bee post, you might be asking why we didn’t just open the hives and find out how many were surviving.  It’s because in the winter, the bees go into a sort of hibernation mode, where they all gather together, surround the queen to protect her, and use their bodies to heat the hive.  No matter how cold the temperature is outside, they can create temperatures of around 80* in whatever section of the hive they decide to gather in.  On the coldest of days, they put all their energy into simply warming the queen, while on cool days, the queen will actually continue to lay her eggs, and the workers will fulfill most of the inside duties, like raising the brood (babies) and basic housekeeping.  However, the outside temperature must get over 50* for several hours during the day in order for hive to warm enough to signal to the bees that it is safe to come outside.  If you open the hive before the bees come out, you risk cooling it too much and killing off the queen or the workers, both of which are critical to hive survival.  About the only thing we could do was tap on the outside of the box and listen for buzzing.  Even then, if it is too cold, there won’t be much of a response. On the few days of temperatures that were just warm enough for the bees to emerge, but not warm enough to open the hive, we only saw mounds of dead bees being dumped outside one hive by the “cleaning crews.”  We knew some dead ones were normal, but the mounds we saw had us concerned.

Finally, after about 3 solid months of below freezing temps, we had a spell of weather that was warm enough to bring the bees outside so we could check on them.  S decided it was time to open the boxes and do a quick check on things.  He prepared his smoker–a special tool used to burn items, in order to create smoke which actually calms the bees–and set to work.

You can imagine our delight to discover that all 3 hives were still alive, and the one in the middle was absolutely thriving, with the cleanliness, brood, and plentiful honey stores of a healthy hive. 

S, with his sidekick, JR, checking on the bees.

Just as he got the hives open, the winds picked up and the temps started dropping, so he had to rush.  Unfortunately, he was unable to take the time to find the queens.  He could only look at the position of the bees and the honey stores. Bees and honey evenly scattered throughout frames of the hive is indicative of a thriving hive, whereas bees grouped together in one section is indicative of the honey stores (their food) running out.

This past weekend, S attended a bee-keeping class for the weekend, where he was able to ask questions, compare notes, and figure out more about what he was looking for.  He was then able to come home and re-evaluate our bees and their condition, and the results were very encouraging. 

Apparently, in this high-altitude, long winters, area, many bee keepers lose a number of hives each winter.  The fact that all 3 of ours are still alive is a huge bonus, and almost guarantees they aren’t diseased.  We actually have no real concerns about the middle hive, as the bees are plentiful, active on warm days, and still have plenty of stores left to finish out winter.  The other 2 are a little more concerning, though, as their numbers have really been reduced, and their honey stores are almost non-existant.  Their hives aren’t as clean either, littered with dead bees, old wax, and miscellaneous bee “trash.” As a result, S has started supplemental feeding of those 2 hives, which they seemed to very much appreciate.  It seems the previous owner simply didn’t leave them enough honey for them to eat through the winter. 

As a result of all he has been learning, we now have a game plan for how to proceed for the best chance of harvesting honey this summer.  He will be working on sterilizing all our equipment, including the hives, so we can have a fresher start for this year.  This will also allow us to eliminate as much of the antibiotics, pesticides, and chemicals as possible used by the previous owner (he told us about all the preventative medicines he used).  Then, he is going to find the queens in the 2 weaker hives, and destroy the queen from the hive that is more aggressive.  The workers from that hive will be scent-disguised and combined with the remaining hive.  With bees, there is strength in numbers, so by simply combining them, he will double the number of workers available to care for the queen, the brood, and produce honey.  Finally, we have ordered 2 full packages of bees (approximately 30,000 workers and a queen in each package) to populate our 2 empty hives with. He will be doing some experimenting with different types of frames and foundations to see what he likes best, and he is also going to be experimenting with non-chemical control of the varoa mites (a very common mite that can kill bees). 

It will be fun to see how this all comes together as the weather warms up and summer moves in.  I am just looking forward to hopefully reaping the benefits of all the fresh, raw, local honey produced!!