If you’re thinking about getting bees, I have one recommendation: move to Cape Cod.
It’s not because bees thrive here, or because we’re in particular need of pollination. It’s because you can learn about beekeeping from the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, a group of insanely committed volunteers who are very generous with their time and expertise.
A couple weeks back, I took a look in our hives and didn’t like what I saw. There were bees in both – just a few in Big Bee, a few more in Little Bee – but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of brood, and a lot of the cells were wet and empty.
I e-mailed Claire and Paul Desilets, club veterans who have been keeping bees on the Cape for two decades, to ask about the wet cells and lack of activity. Claire offered to swing by and take a look at the hives one day when the weather was good.
That was yesterday. They came over in the early afternoon, and we suited up. We opened Big Bee, the weaker hive, first.
The news wasn’t good. There were a few bees, and the queen was still alive, but there was no viable brood. Claire found a patch of dead brood, but the queen had clearly stopped laying, in the absence of a critical mass of bees to tend the eggs. We took both deeps off the bottom board, and found a huge pile of dead bees.
What happened? No way to know. It didn’t seem to be starvation, as they had plenty of honey stores and there were still fragments of the fondant we fed them over the winter sitting on top of the frames. Claire said it could have been that they broke cluster when weather warmed, and then didn’t re-cluster when it got cold again.
Big Bee, I’m sorry to report, is doomed.
Little Bee has a slim chance. We found more bees, and some brood, in that hive, but it wasn’t nearly as robust as it should have been. Compounding its problems is the probability that its queen is weak – last year, Big Bee was the strong hive and Little Bee didn’t even manage to draw out all its comb.
We’re going to let Little Bee take its chances. But what to do about Big Bee? The club ordered some nucs (mini hives of four frames, complete with laying queen), and we could buy one of them for $85. Or we could hope for a swarm.
Every year, people find swarming bees where they’re not wanted – in the eaves of houses, the parking lots of restaurants, the trees in parks – and call the few people who specialize in swarm removal to come get them.
I’ve never dealt with a swarm, but people who have say it’s pretty straightforward. You shake the swarm into a receptacle, make sure you have the queen, pop a lid on it, and Bob’s your uncle. Then some lucky beekeeper gets a swarm delivery. I have officially volunteered to be Swarm Removal Assistant, both so I can see how its done and so I can get on the list of hopeful recipients.
The only upside to all this is that there is some honey to be harvested from Big Bee. We’ll leave some, in case we get new inhabitants, but we’ll be able to take a couple of frames’ worth.
The state of the hives, in short, leaves much to be desired.