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.
The mechanic’s stethoscope offered no clues about my bee’s survival.
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.
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…
Freshly capped brood as far as the eye can see
Meet the new queen!
And peace and prosperity reigned across the land…
[View photos of the requeening process]
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.
Keeping the queen warm in my pocket til I can take her home
The queen spent the night in a sock on a shelf 6 inches above my head
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.
Anatomy of a queen cage
The chicken wire keeps our chickens away from the hive
I hope to see something like this: Fresh bee eggs on black foundation with spring pollen nearby
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.
More gross than a thousand creepy ex-boyfriends is this: A wax moth-infested beehive.
Hive overtaken by wax moths
Two months ago, this hive was booming. But when it exuberantly swarmed in July during one of the hottest and driest summers on record in Albuquerque, we already knew the end of the story.
It goes a little something like this…
- First, the girls can’t/won’t/don’t raise a new queen.
- Next, their numbers dwindle.
- Then, the delicate balance of nature tips in favor of wax moths and ants and robber bees.
And thusly skin-crawling putrefaction occurs in the hive as moths build tunnels through wax comb and ants pilfer the remaining honey. It’s a race to the bottom and the few remaining worker bees struggle hopelessly like violinists on the sinking Titanic. They scurry and gather and clean but are destined for death.
Opening such a hive is a visceral endeavor for you’re not sure whether to cry or wretch. If it weren’t for a stiff drink afterwards, I’d probably do both.
A dirty landing board means the end is near.
Wax moth webbing shows they've moved in.
The few remaining bees can't keep up.
Wax moth larva crawl everywhere.
At this point, we’re focusing on our strong remaining hives and will let this one sadly languish until winter’s hard freeze. Both bees and moths will have perished then and we’ll clean and freeze for a fresh start next year.
And so the tale of this hive ends. Except that I happen to know there’s a little Lebowski on the way and that the early spring split from this hive is going strong, strong enough to survive the winter and promise new birth next year.
Today, I enter the infested realm, the web of neglect. Today, I open the hive of doom.
Neglect rules at the hive of doom
It’s the hive that swarmed massively and inexplicably in July like rioters late to the rave. We attempted to requeen but activity on the landing board remains dismal. By now, it’s surely failed and certainly overrun by wax moths and ants, opportunists feasting on the colony’s remains.
This afternoon, I’m donning the hazmat gear and going in… And I promise to take photos of the gory scene.
UPDATE: Gory indeed. Hold your breath and dive in!
Like ghosts, a few drones such as this one limped eerily through our hive last week. It’s a hive hosted at City of Albuquerque Open Space near the Rio Grande and we suspect deformed wing virus transmitted by varroa but aren’t quite sure.
White Drone: Symptom of Deformed Wing Virus?
- Yes, there’s a deformed wing.
- Yes, we saw a few varroa on drones in the hives.
- But I can’t find a description in our bee books of the “whitening” of live bees.
Can anyone offer further insight?
Photo by Karl Arcuri
Karl from Austin is the coolest damn beekeeper I know. Not only does he examine his hives in a baby blue sweatband, but he paints his hives day-glo yellow.
And this, his latest inspired move, is beyond rad — a Day of the Dead beekeeper he commissioned from Austin artist, Cindy Raschke.
See the full piece at Karl’s place