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Lessons Learned and Sweet Rewards: Reflecting on a Year of Beekeeping

We just came from doing a split using a borrowed nuc with the hope that the workers in the nuc would produce a queen. We added an eight-frame deep to prevent a more successful hive from swarming. If you are wondering what I am talking about let me introduce you to the language of beekeepers. I barely understand it myself. 

The Buzzz Words

The basic story is that my husband Dale and I are celebrating our first year of beekeeping. A real bonus is that this is an effort we have shared and it has been a joy to learn together. Dale is an amazing beekeeper. His wisdom and support is unwavering. What we have learned is that apiary science is part magic and part knowledge. I cannot explain the magic so let me explain just some of what we learned.

A year ago we purchased two packages of bees and placed them into two different hives. We named the hives Irma and August respectively. Irma is named after my sweet momma and August for my most favorite fictional character from the Secret Life of Bees written by Sue Monk Kidd. A package of bees is about 3 pounds, or roughly 10,000 bees. Over the first spring and summer we watched as the queen in the hive named Irma immediately started doing her job, which is to lay about 1500 eggs a day. She was so dedicated to her task that we added a second box (called a deep) so that we essentially had two boxes stacked one on top of the other.

August was another story. The first queen and her replacement quickly disappeared. Their departure remains a mystery. The third time was the charm because Queen Bee number 3 quickly picked up the slack and started producing lots of baby bees.

Throughout the summer we fed them, and did regular hive checks to be sure they were ok. We even treated them for Varroa mites which are tiny parasites that threaten the health of the entire colony if not eradicated. By fall, both hives were doing well. They had drawn comb, there were eggs and capped larva. I watched as baby bees emerged from their tiny cells. Both hives had even produced honey. Although the honey was tempting, the first-year honey supply is left for the bees as it sees them through the winter.  

A queen bee cell circled inside a nucleus colony

Preparing for winter was work. We needed to build insulation around the hives for warmth. We changed the screen bottom boards to solid for additional warmth as well. We fed them high power, sugary fuel to help fatten them up for winter. We zipped them up tight within the hive and hoped they had everything they needed to make it through the cold winter months. A shout out here to my community drones who are always busy as … well bees. Jim, John and Hans are the best helpers, and I cannot thank them enough.  

Winter is a challenge for bees. They cannot fly when the temperatures drop below 50. They stay in the hive and form a tight little ball. The queen is at the center of the ball where she is kept comfortable. Bees are extremely hygienic so on a warmer day they will take a bathroom flight because they never use the hive as a toilet.

Despite our best efforts only one hive survived. In mid-February a hive check indicated that both hives were viable. August was more successful but Irma was still home to a good number of bees. At the next check in March there was no sign of life in Irma. It couldn’t be determined if they swarmed or if they succumbed. I hope they just took off in search of a better home. This is why doing a split was necessary. In-order to have two hives we needed to help them get started.

Sweet Miracles: A Queen Is Born

A split means moving some bees from a successful hive to an empty hive. You relocate frames of just worker bees with egg and larva to a small, temporary box called a nuc – which is a nucleus colony borrowed from an established hive. Amazingly, the workers will realize they are queenless and produce a queen on their own. Yes, this is the magic. When a queen is needed they have the capacity to create one which takes 16 days. I was doubtful about this but guess what?  We did a nuc check about 9 days after doing the split and we saw a queen cell! Hopefully, this means we will have an egg laying queen by mid-May.

I have to mention my appreciation for the amazing beekeepers who have generously given their time and expertise to help us along the way. The Lancaster Beekeepers Society holds monthly meetings, host a day long “Bee College” and conduct regular hive checks where you get to watch and learn the necessary tasks that are a part of keeping hives. Everyone is as sweet as the honey they produce and we are proud to be members.

The magic of bees is a constant delight. Working around hives, hearing their hum and watching them work is actually calming. I am always reminded that bees know how to be bees. I am just an assistant.