It's been a rough year for our livestock.
As you may know, Erin and I ventured away from the plant kingdom last Spring with a foray into bee-keeping. We needed animals that could look after themselves while we were off in town three days a week, and bees seemed to be about the only candidates.
You might have read the account of our somewhat bumpy start with the bees in last year's newsletters. But our charges acclimated themselves well despite our ineptitude, and all appeared well until they started to outgrow their nesting chamber in July.
This was not as obvious as you might imagine. Honey bees are inclined, from their natural homes inside trees, to build hives in cone- or columnar-fashion, a strategy which also allows them to better conserve heat during the winter. Langstroth hive boxes – the type you see stacked in farmer's fields or along the side of the road – are composed of vertically-hanging “frames” (10 per box) on which the bees can build comb for raising young and storing honey. The queen lays eggs in the lower chambers and the workers store honey in the boxes above where it will insulate them as well as provide food for the vigorous business of shivering through the long Wisconsin winter. The boxes are fairly voluminous to the human eye, but the bees – traditionalists that they are – are mostly concerned with the cylinder of space that might occupy, say, the middle five or six frames.
So, with the bee population soaring and the insects putting up several pounds of honey a week, we assumed they were quite happy, if a bit parsimonious in their use of space. While waiting for them to fill out the sides and corners of the brood box, we suddenly received a surprise.
Having run completely out of what the bees deemed acceptable breeding space, the queen took half the colony and fled. Fortunately, Erin discovered the nascent swarm in a nearby seaberry bush (swarming bees often land close to the home hive while scouting out new digs), but unfortunately this was only a few minutes before we were due to leave for town. Our cloutish efforts to retrieve the bees -- recorded for our website on Erin's cell phone (thanks, Erin!) – may still serve as a source of amusement to those of you who saw it.
The following weeks were a bit fraught. Half the bees remained, but we didn't know whether they had prepared a new queen. Without one, the colony would die within six or seven weeks (the normal life span of a honey bee) since no new eggs would be produced. Bees are capable of producing replacement queens so long as eggs from the old queen are still present in the nest, but this involves building a special, larger brooding cell and feeding the larva therein “royal jelly,” which transforms an ordinary pupating worker into an egg-laying matriarch. We observed at least one or two structures in the brood boxes that looked like such “queen cells,” so we decided to wait the three or four weeks it would take for an egg to hatch into a new queen, rather than re-queen immediately with an insect purchased from a dealer.
This was a bit of a gamble. We knew that if we didn't somehow get new eggs into the nest by early September, there would no longer be any living adults left to rear and train the young bees when the eggs hatched three weeks later. What we didn't know at the time was that in addition to building queen cells, honey bees produce structures quite similar in appearance in order to signal swarming behavior in the colony. Once again, our learning curve was just behind where it needed to be. When no new queen turned up after a thorough search of the boxes in late August, we knew we had just a few days to re-queen with a purchased insect.
Through a bit of good fortune and fortuitous timing, we managed to do this. The new queen laid plenty of eggs, but every time we checked the hive we could see the numbers of workers clearly dropping. We wrung our hands a lot during September. But, in the end, enough of the old workers survived long enough to raise the new generation, and by early October the boxes were again teeming with adult bees. Now we just had to hope for good weather so that the new colony could forage and put up honey.
The goldenrod and asters were on the wane by then, so we began providing sugar-water (a common practice) which the bees sucked-down by the gallon all the way to Halloween. But the thermodynamics of honey-making begin to weigh heavily once the temperature drops below 50ºf. Newly-produced honey, after it's placed in the comb, needs to have water evaporated until it reaches a brix at which it will be stable and can be capped with wax. Cold air tends to be drier than warm air, but this is because its capacity to hold moisture is reduced. Below 50ºf, honey ripening essentially becomes impossible.
The honey boxes had grown heavy during October, but we decided to cap the hive for the winter with a “candy board,” a replacement top-cover with a two-inch thick pad of nougat weighing several pounds on its underside that the bees could nosh if their honey-supplies ran low in late winter. After a bit of insulating around the hive and tacking some black material on its south-facing aspect to help absorb heat from the low winter sun, we retreated to the city and crossed our fingers for the best.
Erin and I made a pilgrimage to the farm on a warm day in early February to do some orchard pruning, so we were quite curious to see if we could detect any activity in the hive – honey bees will sometimes use the opportunity of warm winter days to take brief “cleansing” flights.
No activity was evident as we approached, and though I was hesitant to lift the cover on the top of the hive and let out whatever heat the bees were generating, I did decide to peek at the candy board to see if the bees had found occasion to begin eating it. Squinting through the crack as I lifted the corner, I could see that the entire nougat was gone -- enitrely consumed -- an absolutely fatal indication at this time of the year.
We had left the re-queening too late back in August, it seems; while the new colony sized-up admirably in September, they simply didn't have enough heat left in the season to ripen the honey they would need to sustain themselves through 5 months of shivering. Perhaps the swarm that left in August had better luck holed up in a hollow tree somewhere, far from the doddering efforts of human intervention to help out.
But, we're not giving up on honey. Next year's bees are already on order, hopefully to be cared for by farmers, if not wiser, at least better informed.