Though it’s a sweaty affair, harvesting honey in 100° weather is liquid joy. This morning, I took 2 gallons from my backyard hive and the floral ambrosia flowed fast and light. Divine!
If you’re itchy for signs of life over the winter, lord knows you can’t open the hive! But given the right “ear”, you might be able to hear the crunching sounds of life within those four wooden walls.
This week, during Albuquerque’s wicked cold snap, I borrowed a “mechanic’s” stethoscope from a local computer hardware geek and tried to spy on my hive. ZERO. I heard nothing.
Was it the stethoscope? Was it my bees?
Just when I was about to give up hope, the weather broke and Albuquerque warmed up to 50° which means the girls could get busy if indeed they were alive. Sure enough, about 11 a.m. today, I saw a steady stream of honeybees going about their winter business of pooping, cleaning out dead bees, and possibly even looking for signs of early pollen. Ahhh… beekeeper bliss.
Want to Hear Your Hive?
- Try a doctor’s stethoscope which amplifies the sounds of bees inside. A mechanic’s stethoscope just didn’t work for me but fellow beeks testify that a doctor’s version will work.
- Don’t hear anything? Try again at different times in the day. Whatever you do, don’t open the hive until spring!
In a record-breaking winter maneuver, we’ve plunged below zero here in Albuquerque. The ever-present sun masks a cruel truth: It’s wickedly cold outside and most local critters aren’t prepared.
This morning, I knocked on my hive and listened. With an ear to the wood, I thought I might hear the faint crunching of a cluster of bees huddled inside. SILENCE.
And so, I must wait, like a mama eagle teaching her fledgling to fly — I supported you well and this, you must survive on your own.
It’s tough love, to be sure, but if Albuquerque is to support honeybees for the long haul, I believe the species must adapt to local conditions without human intervention.
And so I wait. The first warm day above 50 will bring me news of their survival.
UPDATE 1/18/13: The weather has broken and my girls took to the sky today as only critters with cabin fever will do. They’re alive!
Desperation is starting to set in.
After a chilly morning today, the scene at my backyard hive was frenzied. As though all creatures knew that time was running out and that their last meal was rapidly approaching.
In some cases, that meal was a juicy honeybee snatched in mid-air like candy at the Day of the Dead parade. Hay más tiempo que vida.
Waste no more.
Whether you’re a beekeeper or a bee lover, you can help your neighborhood honeybees AND recycle a few wine corks all in one superhero swoop. Here’s how:
- Take a handful of corks
- Toss ’em in a bucket or birdbath filled with clean water
- Watch your neighborhood honeybees come drinking
- Keep the water replenished regularly
Last month, this bee hive near Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood was in dire straits. Queenless and eggless, the colony was on the brink of collapse when I requeened her with a virgin from Zia Queen Bee in northern NM.
It’s been three weeks since then and yesterday I popped open the hive to see what I could see. Did the queen die in her cage? Did she fly out for her sky orgy and get snatched by a bird? Did she start laying with sufficient skill to be accepted by the workers?
Here’s what I found…
And peace and prosperity reigned across the land…
The queen bee’s gone missing. And all the tell-tale signs are there: no brood, a restless wings-spread stance, and an anxious hum when you open the colony. I’ve got to give this otherwise strong hive a new brood mare, pronto.
Last night, I scored a virgin queen from Zia Queen Bee Co but night’s no time to install a queen. So Queen Elizabeth and I spent the night together chastely waiting for sunlight and attempting to stay warm.
This morning before my 9 a.m. meeting, I installed Good Queen Bess in the lonely hive. And now my job is to wait 3-4 weeks for her to:
- Engage in a productive sky orgy
- Return safely and start laying
- Be deemed acceptable by the colony
In the meantime, nature doesn’t need any meddling from me.
UPDATE 6/14/12: Success! The queen was successfully mated and is laying a monster batch of brood as we speak. View photos if you’re curious.
7 months later, it’s time to clean the hive of doom, utterly devastated by wax moths last September. Like the unbearable pain of losing your sweetest love, sometimes denial works best. Denial and the slow plod of time’s anesthesia.
But eventually, one must don a pair of work gloves and dig in. This weekend, I finally lifted the lid of my devastated hive and began the slow and disgusting work of cleaning her out.
Fortunately, the chill of winter had killed all remaining wax moths, and robber bees had removed all remaining drops of honey. So, you see, avoidance seems to have worked in my favor after all.
What would have been a sticky slime-filled mess, was now simply dessicated and devoid of life.
And so, I’ll clean off the cocoons and webbing. I’ll freeze the frames to kill any remaining moth eggs. And I’ll pick up my heavy heart and start over.
‘Tis no time for inaction. The dandelions are blooming and neighborhood fruit trees are covered with frizzy flowers, all of which means SWARM SEASON is upon us!
So giddy up, it’s time to dig into my hives and see how they fared the winter.
Spring is unpredictable in Albuquerque with great swings from night to day, so I try not to open my hives AT ALL until late March when temperatures stabilize. This restraint prevents me from destroying clustering bees or chilling brood but it’s also a fine line — how late is too late? If I delay too long, will the colony swarm?
What the landing board can tell you…
To slake my curiosity, I watch the landing board for weeks before opening the hive. I’m looking for 2 things:
- Pollen on the legs of bees entering the hive: If worker bees are carrying pollen inside the hive, this likely means a) there are fresh larvae inside needing pollen and b) those workers aren’t robber bees.
- Lots of orienting bees in the afternoon: When temps warm up each afternoon I should see the familiar arc of new bees orienting themselves near the hive entrance. If I don’t see this but there’s pollen entering the hive, something is keeping the queen from laying aggressively.
First… a health check.
Once it’s consistently warm enough (above 60° F), I’m ready for my first hive check of the season. Here’s what I look for to determine the overall health of the hive:
- Bees: Are the brood boxes full of bees? If so, this means a strong hive with enough bodies to possibly split the hive.
- Pollen: Are the bees finding and storing pollen in the hive? Pollen = protein for new larvae, so it’s a critical component in building colony numbers.
- Capped Brood: Is the queen laying? The ultimate goal of the first Spring check is to determine whether the queen is solidly laying worker brood. A solid brood pattern looks like the image below, with worker brood as far as the eye can see with only a few holes for heater bees.
Then… a swarm check.
While we’re in there, let’s gauge the colony’s likelihood of swarming. Here are the indicators I look for:
- Drones or capped drone brood cells: If there are drones walking around, consider making a hive split. If there are capped drone cells (but no live drones), start preparing for a split, maybe 1 or 2 weeks out.
- Swarm cells: If the hive contains swarm cells, split ASAP. In fact, some experts say that the presence of swarm cells means it may already be too late as the hive is determined to swarm regardless of your interventions.
In the case of my hive check this weekend, I found drone cells (but no live drones) and queen cups (but no swarm cells). In about a week, I’ll go in and split this hive in two. More on that technique below…
With a strong disease-free hive, the main goals for Spring maintenance are to provide room for brood & honey and prevent swarming. Here’s how I manage both:
If the hive doesn’t have enough empty frames in the brood chamber, the queen can’t lay eggs. And if the super (assuming you’ve overwintered with 3 boxes) doesn’t have empty frames, there’s nowhere to store honey. In my case, I had both problems. Nowhere to lay eggs and nowhere to store new honey. My hive was totally honeybound.
So, I decided to “checkerboard” the hive by alternating empty and full frames in the super and upper brood box (but keeping existing frames with brood next to each other for warmth. It still gets chilly at night in Albuquerque).
How to checkerboard a hive:
If your hive is burgeoning with bees, drone brood, and swarm cells, make a split ASAP. Otherwise, start preparing for a split in 1 or 2 weeks.
How to make a split:
If your brood pattern is spotty or the hive is aggressive (in urban areas, it’s important to promote docile bee genetics), make a call to your favorite queen breeder and order new royalty for your hive.
What do bees do all winter anyway? According to my elementary school nieces, here’s what goes down inside a hive full of girl bees waiting all winter for a sip of spring nectar…
In Ella’s words:
If I we’re a bee I would sleep all winter and I would decorate my house with flowers also I would decorate it with snowmen pictures in the summer I will collect pollin from flowers!
According to Nina:
If I we’re a bee I would paint my house with gold and black paint my bed would be lime green and my job would be to pollinate I would do anything to become a bee for just one hour all I would like to do is to soar I just hope they have cherrys to eat if not I would eat honey bees are fassanating creatures.
Sasha’s thoughts on bees:
Have you ever thought what it would be like to be a bee? I have and I think it would be awesome to be a bee for even 1 second! If I were a bee, in the winter, I would chatter with my friends all night as we snuggled up in our honeycomb, trying to stay warm. My friends and I would drink warm honey all day long. It would be HEAVEN for me! I would have a smokey fire in my room to keep me warm all winter. I would probably get loney, though. I would miss my parents and my sister bees. I would especially miss my baby brother bee, Luka!!! After the cold winter, I would get up and smell the fresh Spring air. I’d spread my wings, leap into the air, and gather pollen for the queen to make honey. PERFECT!!