Saturday, February 20, 2016

Staying Alive, Staying Alive -- Whoo hoo hoo hoo

This morning, I did the unthinkable. Normally, I'm up and out of bed by 5 am, 5:30 at the very latest. Today, I didn't even open my eyes until 6:30, and I just lay there until about 9. Except for Boy #2, my entire family has been battling some kind of virus for the past week and a half, and we all feel like garbage.

However, bees don't stop eating honey just because their beek feels crummy, and I'm still responsible for them. Knowing we were going to have a lovely 55 F. day, I dragged myself away from the comfort of bed to check on their stores.

It's just as much work to lug all of the equipment down to the apiary for hive as it is for 7, so I figured why not check on all of them. I haven't cracked most of them open since the fall. Instead, I've been assessing their condition by looking for evidence of life at their entrances and hefting them (the nucs anyway). We had such a warm, prolonged fall, though, that I've been anxious about their remaining stores. This is the time of year, too, when many colonies starve.

This colony was started from a southern package in April, and she just never did well. Then sometime after Thanksgiving, she finally absconded. I didn't really inspect her carefully the last time because I wasn't wearing glasses. Today, I took a good look at her. Definitely a mite overload. Tons of mites on the floor and feces in the cells.  (BTW, don't ever let anyone tell you that colonies started from packages don't have mites/have fewer mites. It's just not true.)

All the dark dots are mites
You can see lots of mite feces in this photo.
Look at the cell on the left that is packed.

This is what I scraped out of that white cell in the previous photo.
It was not pollen.

The combs were mostly empty except for pollen and some thin honey bands, so I decided to just clean her out and remove the comb for melting. I think some people reuse combs that have had mites in them, but that seems icky to me. I don't have a problem melting them down. The idea of putting all those feces in a new hive grosses me out, and the bees can always build new comb.

More mite poo

Bubblegum, Buttercup & Peach
These nucs are doing very well in terms of stores. With 2-3 full bars of honey each, they should be set until spring. However, since they were open and I was there, I gave them each a bar filled with sugar. (BTW, my new method for hanging sugar in combs has worked out really well.)

Actually, Peach wouldn't have gotten any sugar today, but I accidentally knocked a comb of honey off the bar. Dang cold temps. Wax becomes very fragile. Anyway, if they use the sugar, fine. If not, a couple bucks of sucrose is cheap insurance.

Accidentally knocked this honeycomb off the bar

Elsa is my experiment with fully insulated hives. More and more, I'm liking this hive. I didn't even find the cluster in this one because after seeing about 4 full bars of uncapped honey, I quit looking for it. Besides, there were enough bees out front to tell me that she was alive and well.

My colony that swarmed late last season is the whole reason I went outside in the first place. A glance through the observation window told me she was low on stores. All the bars in back were empty, and she was desperate to protect what she had. I didn't want to rile her unnecessarily since the smell of banana was overwhelming as soon as I opened her up. Instead, she got 3 bars of sugar right off. If the other hives weren't already closed up, I would've stolen some honey from them for her. Maybe next time.

One thing I found interesting, though, is that theoretically, she should've had enough honey to last the entire winter. Going into winter, I think I made sure that each nuc colony had a minimum of 12-13 bars. (That's because my shortest nuc takes that number. The more recently built nucs take 15 bars.) Full-sized hives, like Austeja, had 13-15 combs going into winter. Each of my combs weighs an average of 4 lbs fully loaded with honey. All the other colonies had loads of honey, but I've fed Austeja three times now this winter. So why has Austeja been so light all season?

Lazutin says that smaller clusters will use more honey over the winter. He also says that colonies that are colder use more honey. Austeja was both of these things. After swarming in late August/early September, she wasn't as big as the other colonies. Also, because I wanted to see what would happen if I didn't insulate the walls and didn't mind losing a small colony, she was colder than my other bees, too.

So what are my takeaways?

  • Without supplemental feeding, Austeja would have probably starved in these subpar conditions. A larger colony, though, might have made it to spring.
  • So what if I fed her. Austeja still survived her second less than ideal winter despite everything, so she's a bad@$$ that I want to keep going.
  • Insulated roofs, I think, are a must, but insulated walls are not. This is what Sam Comfort keeps saying, but I had to see it to believe it. On the other hand, insulated walls seem to provide a great advantage to the colony in terms of keeping them warmer. Consequently, they use up fewer stores, so I'd rather use them than not.
I was going to leave this one alone because cold weather is known for making even the most docile bees cranky. Quite frankly, this one scares me even in the height of summer when most bees are their mellowest. Curiosity got the better of me, though. So, I saw about 3 1/2 bars of capped honey before I started seeing any bees climbing out. That's when I closed up.

One interesting thing was that both Hippolyte and Peach had puddles of water on the hive floor near the divider where the air gets colder. Both of these hives had a small top entrance. Since the water was on the floor of the hive and not on the bees, it's not a concern. Obviously, the water is not condensing over the bees. Still, it was unusual since I'd expected most of the hot air to vent out the top.

Puddles of water at bottom of hive.
(It's water. Against my better judgement, I tasted it.)

This is what the top entrance looks like

So after all the hives got a quick check, I sorted the combs from Persephone. I've been invited to speak about bees at my daughter's school in May, so some of the combs will be kept for "show and tell." Some went directly into my freezer. Personally, when I see a shelf full of wax, it always makes me sing, "Honeycomb's big, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's not small, no, no, no..." But I wonder what other people think when they open it up and see a shelf full hive parts? Maybe I should hang a sign that reads, "Not dinner. Do not eat."


  1. Glad to hear everyone is buzzing along, though sorry about Persephone. Hopefully those nasty mites all died in the hive and didn't transfer to a nearby hive.

    I'm looking forward to hearing how insulated Elsa does in the spring and summer.

  2. Sorry to hear about Persephone, but glad the rest of the girls are doing okay. There was a post on Honey Bee Suite recently about absconding/mites that I thought of when I read about Persephone. ( BTW, did you see the recent articles that Persephone was the first Disney princess - not Snow White? (

    I got a kick out of your Honeycomb cereal reference. A good friend of mine was one of the kids in the Honeycomb hideout back in the 70's which I think is way cool. Of course, now I have that song running through my brain!

    I've been collecting honeycombs from my deadout hives, putting them in the freezer to kill off varmints for a couple of days and then putting them in a nuc inside a plastic bag to keep new varmints from getting in. But I'm running out of nuc space! For comb to melt down, once they come out of the freezer, I put them in a sealed bucket. I don't think my wife would let me take up that much freezer space all the time! ;-)

    I too am looking forward to see how Elsa does!

    1. That's so cool that one of your friends was a Honeycomb kid!!! Those commercials were awesome!

      I hear you about running out of freezer space! You saw the comb in my freezer, but I have another nuc full of combs in the dining room. I left space between them so that light and air can get in there and suppress wax moths. Now my house smells like a hive.

      Thanks for the interesting article about Persephone! I actually looked up the video on YouTube. What a riot!


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