Bee is for broken-hearted

Since we left New York, Kevin and I have undertaken more new projects than two fifty-year-olds have any business attempting. And it is with surprise and gratification that we have seen most of them go well. We’ve raised chickens, turkeys, and ducks. We’ve designed and built coops, pens, and a hoophouse. We’ve grown a whole crop of beautiful oysters.

But the bees are defeating us.

How is it that I can’t manage to provide a hospitable home for an insect that, left to its own devices, lives comfortably in a hollow tree?

Our beekeeping began last spring. Over the previous winter, we attended Bee School, the beginner’s course offered by the Barnstable County Beekeepers’ Association, and it prepared us to order our equipment and know what to do with it when it came.

We got two standard-issue Langstroth hives, and packages of bees to put in them. All went well through summer and fall. There was no extra honey to harvest, but that’s often the case in the first year. We went into the fall cautiously optimistic.

In February we still had bees, but by April they were all dead. What happened? Hard to know for sure. Our best guess is that they broke cluster with a spell of warm weather, and then froze to death when it got cold again. I never would have expected that insects could make me sad, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I grieved for my bees.

Kevin and I talked about getting new packages this spring, but we decided against it. We didn’t know what had gone wrong with the others, and it seemed too much like that adage about doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Luckily, I was on the receiving end of some extreme apian generosity, and a local beekeeper who removes hives from houses gave me not one, but two hives that came out of someone’s eaves.

It was late in the season by the time I got them. The first one came in mid-August, and the second not until a month later. I knew that the chances of successful overwintering were slim for colonies that had such a limited time to establish themselves before the cold set in. But the bees were homeless, and I had homes and a score to settle, so I took them and did my best.

I was lucky in that I wasn’t flying blind. My friend Claire, who is an experienced and accomplished beekeeper, stopped by regularly to help me assess the hives and solve the problems.

And there were problems. The first queen wasn’t laying, so we replaced her with one of the queens Claire reared. There wasn’t enough brood, so she brought over a full frame. The second hive just wasn’t going to get big enough to reach critical mass, so we killed that queen and combined the two hives.

That was about a month ago, and it was with some satisfaction that I added frames of bees and stores from the second hive to the first. I had one deep that was chock-full of bees, brood, and honey. I had a local queen. I laid pieces of fondant over the tops of the frames, and left the hive to its business.

I opened it over the weekend, and it was almost empty. The queen was there, the stores were there, but there was only a handful of workers. I almost wept.

Claire came over this afternoon to take a look, but she can’t tell what happened. Nobody can. There are some dead bees on the bottom board, but not nearly enough to explain the population decrease; the bees seem to have simply left. Best guess is that there was rampant varroa in the second hive, and when we added the frames to the first hives the bees absconded. But that’s just a guess.

When you open a hive and all is not well, there are just so many things to feel bad about. You feel bad for the bees, who must be confused and unhappy (to the extent that an insect can be). You feel bad because you’ve been an inadequate steward – what didn’t you do? You feel bad because honeybees are in trouble, and you’ve let down the side. It is heartbreaking.

I was almost ready to throw in the towel on beekeeping, but Claire has been so encouraging and helpful that she’s made me want to stick with it. I know our hive won’t make it through the winter, but I’ll try again in the spring

11 people are having a conversation about “Bee is for broken-hearted

  1. although you know my feelings about bees generally, i did take a look at it most days when coming down the driveway, or walking from the chickens to the turkeys. it seemed like there were less bees, but then, i still saw SOME flying about and I figured that was good enough. it makes me very sad as well, so I understand. but you’ll conquer this.

  2. Tamar (aka Posh Pilgrim)
    I admire your courageous heart…
    to try new things
    to trust yourself
    to allow mistakes and learning along the way
    to love (bees and a great many others that you’ve embraced into your lives) come what may
    and to keep on journeying…

    You and Kevin are inspiring.

  3. So sorry. We lost our bees over the winter last year and started again in the spring. They were going strong two months ago but now it’s too cold/damp to check on them, so my fingers are crossed. I’d be really sad if I lost them again.

  4. So sorry to hear of your continuing bee problems. We, too have them. Replaced the lost hive last year with a local split and new queen (tho not in time to save the fruit) and they are doing well; ordered a package this spring they are not doing well; fear they wont survive. Funny how one can come to love a bunch of bees!!!! And grieve at their loss.

  5. Greg the Beeman says:

    I share your sad feelings over the loss of your girls (I call my bees ‘the girls’), but I have to remind you that as late as you got them, the odds were very much against you. “A swarm in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm in June is none too soon. A swarm in July deserves a sigh.” Still, therre are some that do survive, it’s just that most late swarms do not. In addition to varroa mites, a lot of small colonies (swarms) get robbed out and forced to abscond by nearby stronger hives in fall. There is little or no floral nectar or honeydew available after a few frosts, but somehow strong hives seem able to add to their stores and scale weights in spite of such dearths. CCD is another possibility. In any case, please try to get some package bees, or local nucs, in the spring and try again. You might also try using a propane torch to sear or singe your woodenware and replace frames and wax in case you have a foulbrood issue. Although I think you are probably a little too far north just yet, is it possible you have small hive beetles in your area? Maybe brought in on package bees from the South? Those little pests are a cause of many absconding colonies and they love sandy soils. If you got your first packages from someplace like central or southern Georgia, Florida, etc. (Anywhere south of the Meso-Atlantic line), look closely for signs of an infestation. There is nothing about bees you and Kevin cannot do. There just may be some challenges to overcome or issues to be addressed. In a way, bees are just like oysters. You think a cement block is an adequate anchor for a marker buoy, but then you find out you have to use a far more expensive manufactured anchor. It’s just a learning process. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. You can do it. Just keep your chin up and learn.

  6. I’m sorry you’ve lost your bees Tamar, and you know I’ve experienced the same heartbreak. I’m glad that you’ll try again next year.

    It’s kind of like having a dog- you keep getting a new dog even though you know they don’t last forever and eventually they’re going to break your heart someday. You do it anyway though.

  7. The cape definitely has small hive beetle and it something a lot of us fight every year.
    There is something about bees… despite the heartbreak when things go wrong, you just keep coming back to them and trying to do your best by them. Chin up and good luck this spring!

  8. I’m sorry to hear about the bees, Tamar, and I hope you do try again in the spring with a new nuc or another swarm. You haven’t let anyone or anything down. Far from it; you’ve done so much to learn about them and try to provide what they need. This just sounds like bad timing, all around. The mean bee seasons can never be your fault.

  9. Funny how one can come to love tens of thousands of stinging insects. We have been known to canvass the entire surface of the local swimming pool on swimming days to rescue the floating bees. Usually several have been trying to drink, especially on really hot days!

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