Bee-ing Honest About the Bees... First Week Check-In
It's been a while since we've talked about keeping bees, hasn't it? In ways, I feel like I have been keeping a secret, but in others I feel like I just couldn't talk about what happened until everything was resolved. The thing is... our first hive of bees perished. It was not an easy thing to go through. In fact, it was something that we expected entirely, which one would think would be easier to bear, but it was just as difficult.
Back in the first week of April, we received our first ever package of honeybees. You can read all about the process and step-by-step instructions on how to hive them there. Definitely do not take our hive dying as that we hived them wrongly. In fact, we did everything right! What happened was this: the bees froze to death. It's that simple. It was something that we knew might happen. The bees just came too early, or perhaps, spring came too late. We had ordered the bees knowing the date of their arrival, and while I wish I could have asked our supplier to back off the shipment... They were not about to turn the truck around for one person! It just wasn't in the cards, and we did not expect to see temperatures at 15-20 below in April. No one did.
The day we installed the hive was pleasant weather, feeling warm. In the days after, the temperature dropped severely, and then it snowed. I provided them with syrup over the inner cover hole and even moved the hive into the garage so that they could have added protection from the snow, wind, and cold. It just wasn't enough; mother nature does what she must. It was tough! I am not going to lie... Opening the hive the week after installation to find each and every bee frozen into position was hard. I cried, for them, but mostly for me. It was frustrating because there was just nothing better that I could have done except to not have taken them home at all. I learned later that a lot of the new keepers also lost their hives as well as established keepers around our area. One man lost 12 hives that weekend! It was insane.
I've been holding back the story a bit out of embarrassment and newbie shame, but also because I was waiting for our new shipment of bees to come. Yes, we tried again. That was hard, too. If you have ever thought of keeping bees or have them yourself then you know how much they cost. This is not a cheap hobby! It's not terribly expensive, or else no one would try it, because beekeeping is a risk. You don't get immediate satisfaction, you don't get to have honey. If you are beekeeping solely for the sake of honey, then you might as well try looking into a more commercial production over one hive... To me, from what I have experienced, it doesn't work that way. I honestly don't expect to harvest much of anything from our hive this year, especially since they are getting a much later start! I am keeping bees to provide a home for them, to pollinate our farm, and to experience their amazing behavior.
Our new bees arrived the Saturday before last, right after the farmer's market. I felt a little more at ease picking these guys up, like I had gained some knowledge already after doing it the first time. We drove home and placed them in the garage until sundown. My dad and I went out together all suited up (last time I did not wear my suit and was stung a few times). Hiving them was a breeze. We were so utterly calm and fast that I it felt almost as if we had done it a million times. I am thankful that we had already gone through it once before, even with the complications.
The fun part was checking in on the hive for the first time on Saturday.
How to Check a Hive: Week One
STEP ONE | Choose a sunny day to check the hive for the first time. You want it to be a week after installing the bees to allow time for the queen to remove herself from the cage and for the workers to become used to her scent and accept her. This can take five days or longer, so you do not want to open the hive and unconsciously have them kill her. If you open the hive on a rainy, cloudy, or windy day it's most likely that a majority of the bees will be home at the hive. You want to do this when the workers are out foraging and there are less ladies to deal with. Optimum times for hive checking are between 10 AM and 5 PM. This is when the sun is at its peak, and the foraging workers are out harvesting in the field. As a first time beekeeper, you will check the bees once a week for the season. The number of check-ins will dwindle as the years go on!
STEP TWO | Wear the appropriate attire. This includes your suit or natural, plant material clothing that covers your arms and legs. Bees do not like the scent of animal materials (leather and wool) so try not to wear those. Cotton or linen is preferred! Most bee suits come in white because bees do not like dark colors. If you choose not to wear a suit make sure to wear something light in color. It's almost important to not wear perfumes or colognes as well as making sure that you are not smelly from after a workout or, like me, working out in the field. Strong odors can set the bees off and alarm them. Wear your veil and closed toed shoes. I always wear my work boots when checking the hive and place the legs of my suit over the boot to prevent bees from buzzing into them. If you are brave enough, try not to wear gloves. Build up your courage early as the gloves are bulky and can make you clumsy. If you are already prone to clumsiness without gloves, just ditch them now.
STEP THREE | Prepare your tools. You will need a smoker! I am a current believer in the smoker. There are some beekeepers that think it's an evil thing, and while I can totally support that, I am feeling like in my first year I just want to follow the rules. Later down the road I can try more unique practices! Using a smoker is pretty easy. Stuff the bottom with smoke shredded newspaper and light it. Place some small twigs, about the size of a matchstick inside and wait for them to start smoking - of course make sure that they are dry. Add larger kindling as the smoke grows. Top the smoker off with a dry material that will make a lot of smoke such as burlap, twine, leaves, pine needles, or cotton balls. You want to always make sure that the material you are burning is natural and not synthetic! Close the smoker and test for smoke puffs. It should come out pure white and be cool when your hand is in front of it; if the smoke is too hot for your hand, then it's too hot for the bees!
STEP FOUR | Approach the hive. You will want to stand in front of it, about two to three feet away, and watch to see where the bees are entering from. Are they entering the hive straight forward or coming in at the sides. If they are flying in from a certain side, you'll want to try and approach the opposite one so no one is flying into you. It is also a good idea, if possible, to approach from behind so there are no issues with directions at all.
Once there, blow smoke in long, billowy puffs towards the entrance about 2 feet away. The smoke changes the behavior of the bees and masks the alarm pheromones. You want to smoke the entrance first to alert the guard bees of your presence.
STEP FIVE | Smoke the inside of the hive by gently lifting the outer cover on one side and sending in puffs of smoke to the center of the hive down below. Close the hive and wait about 30 seconds. This allows time for the smoke to fall into the frames and calm the bees. After waiting place the smoker on the ground and remove the outer cover carefully. It may have bees on it, and that's okay. Place it on the ground with the metal top on the ground and the inside of it facing the sky.
STEP SIX | This part will be different for everyone depending on what type of feeder that you have. I am working with a top feeder, which is a box that goes on the top of deep hive box like a honey super. You may just have and inner cover on. Removing them is the same. Puff some smoke over the inner cover's opening or the feeder's opening. Wait about 30 seconds again.
Taking your hive tool, begin prying around the bottom of the feeder where it meets the deep box. Be gentle; work slowly with precise decisions and movements. It may help if you place a hand on top of the feeder while you pry up as this will create a counterbalance and prevent loud cracking noises, which alarms the bees. Once the feeder is loosened, place it on top of the outer cover. Make sure to cover the feeder with a towel (and cover your extra sugar syrup too) as this can attract the bees to it as well as other critters like robber bees from another tribe, ants, flies, etc.
STEP SEVEN | Smoke the hive again from about 1-2 feet away. You do not want to keep the hive completely open for more than 20 minutes, so these next steps are crucial!
STEP EIGHT | As this is your first time opening the hive after installation, you will want to the have the 10th frame that you left out handy. I left mine on the ground outside of the hive. Place the frame vertically on the ground leaning against the hive - you'll need it later.
Carefully remove the queen cage. You want to begin looking for signs that she left successfully, the first being if the marshmallow is completely removed. If yes and she does not appear in the cage, then you are in good business. There will most likely be worker bees inside of the cage, so just place it near the hive entrance so they can remove themselves and march back inside.
It's also likely that there will be burr comb in the place where the queen cage was in between frames. This is some of the first comb that the bees make, and it is really cool! However, it will need to be removed so that the frames are built correctly later down the road. Carefully remove this with your hive tool and try to keep it in one piece. If there are bees on it, them brush them off with fingers or the bee brush. Inspect it for eggs. This is easily done by turning your back towards the sun and letting it shine over your shoulder onto the comb. Look for tiny little white flecks like pieces of rice in each chamber. This is a sign that the queen is alive and well, doing her job. If there is more than one egg in the chambers, then those were laid by worker bees and will develop into drones - no bueno!
Keep the burr comb for you! Place it aside somewhere and then take it inside. It can be really fun for kids to enjoy. Tad was absolutely fascinated. I will most likely melt it down later for wax for our candles - you can't take it with you!
STEP NINE | Begin removing the frames. Because you are already missing one, remove the first frame in the hive by gently prying the edges off of the ledge much like you did with inner cover/feeder. Hold the frame with both hands, fingers grasping the top ends. What you are looking for is so important!
BROOD: Search for brood being laid. This is the same as checking for eggs in the burr comb. Look thoroughly. You may not be able to see them; try bringing a magnifying glass with you. They are extremely tiny! This is a for sure sign that your queen is there. Basically checking for brood is the same as making sure the queen is alive - if you see her, then you're in even better luck! But you also want to make sure that the brood looks healthy. If they are being laid in a tight, compact pattern then that's really good. If they are being laid here and there in big patches, then your queen may be old or ill, and you will have to replace her.
Look for brood that is capped. It will be covered with tan wax that is a bit porous to allow air circulation to the larvae. If the caps are caved in, that is a sign of illness within the hive as well. The capping should be a bit convex.
FOOD: Look for pollen and nectar! Pollen comes in all different colors and will fill most of the cells not occupied by eggs. There may also be material on the cells that looks wet. This can either be nectar or water, which the bees do store in the cells to keep the hive cool in hot weather. The week I put my bees in it was in the mid 90s! Yikes!
STEP NINE | After you inspect the first frame, place it back into the hive carefully without squishing any bees and scoot it against the wall of the hive nearest to you. Pull out the next frame and inspect it just the same. Place the second frame back into the hive and push it close to the first. Repeat this process with all of the frames until there are none left.
Once all are checked, you will want to push them back into place by pushing them gently as one unit to the opposite side of the hive. Moving them as one is much easier than moving them individually as it causes less casualties! Place the 10th frame (or 8th) back into the empty space.
STEP TEN | Send some smoke onto the bees one last time before closing up. This drives them back into the hive making it easier for you to place the covers back on. Fill up the top feeder, or whichever feeder you choose to use, and place it back on top of the deep box. Put on the outer cover and your weight.
That's it! You checked your first hive.
The experience was magical yet short. I felt a lot less nervous this time around, as it wasn't my first time ever opening up a hive and holding a frame full of bees. That made the process a lot nicer! If it is your first time ever, don't panic. The less frazzled you are and precise in your movements, the less likely the bees are to even notice you. There was only once, when we stopped for a few moments to try and snap photos of the Queen (epic fail LOL) that the hive started to grow louder. We knew that it was time to give them another couple puffs of smoke to calm down.
We did spot the queen! The first thing I saw in the hive, on the very little wax comb made, was several cells filled with liquid (water and/or nectar) and a few cells filled with bright orange and yellow pollen. Then I looked for eggs and was pleasantly surprised that I could see them quite easily! I think it helped that my foundations are black - the eggs stood out right away. If it helps, she lays them in the very back center of the cells, so look there. After I saw the eggs on a couple of frames, I started to look for the queen, but I didn't get my hopes up of seeing her. But we did! She was out and about working, her attendants all following her trail. It was amazing. I also spotted a few drones, too! I am not sure where they are pulling pollen from, but my hope is the wild dill in our ditches and perhaps even the marigolds surrounding our herb garden. Not too much blooming with heavy pollen sources around here! I did have to refill their sugar syrup as it was completely empty. My neighbor and mentor across the road (The Barn Iowa) has told me to feed them until they no longer take the syrup.
It was a lot of fun! I'll be sure to keep you all updated on the following checks and what to do next (: