The Day the Village Died

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A week ago we became suspicious.  They had been flying here and there and buzzing in the trees fine a few weeks ago.  I meant to get into the hive on the next nice day.  The last really nice day may have been Easter and I didn’t do it.  What made us wonder about the health of the hive was the fact that there were so many dead bodies on the front porch of the hive that a few were having trouble getting in and out.  The icy wind kept howling and the temperature wasn’t quite right at all this past week so I just moved the door minimizer and used a stick to move some of the bodies out of the way.  I suppose we were too late at that moment.

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The air was cool yesterday morning as I gathered dandelion flowers.  Doug came out and resolved that he would look in the hive.  It seemed too cold but we had a dark feeling about it all anyway.  He suited up and opened the roof of the hive and began to pull off each slat.  Each empty slat.

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Each slat had an empty honey comb on it.  The closer he got the front we noticed the heavy combs were black.  Not sure what that means.  The combs were empty all the way to the front of the hive even though we had left them nearly twice as much as is recommended to get through winter (17+ frames after we decided to not get any honey).  Apparently not enough.

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It was a sobering sight to see six inches of dead bees across the bottom of the hive, piling out onto the front step of their village.  The nanny bees died where they stood, stuck to the comb surrounding the last small section of brood.  Died in place as if a great disaster in this medieval kingdom brought their lives to a stop in a just second’s time.

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The hive was so prolific for most of the winter that they must have eaten more than a smaller village would.  I should have checked earlier to see if I should supplement sugar water.  Perhaps I could have saved them if I had checked on Easter.

There is no place for procrastination on a homestead.  I should know this by now.  Whether it is checking a bee hive, getting the produce harvested and preserved, getting a free load of wood to the house before someone else takes it.  Homesteading is all about timing.  One can so easily miss the window of opportunity.  In the busy months of homesteading one ought to be prepared to be up until one in the morning canning, or drop everything to drive to Denver in a broken down truck to get precious wood, or be up at dawn watering the gardens.  This life runs our schedule for the next three seasons and this loss only reminds me to pay attention and focus on each task as it calls.

Next time I will not use the top bar hive.  I will buy a traditional Langstroth hive.  There are so many more colorful, comprehensive books on the subject, and many more bee keepers to ask.  Most folks didn’t know how to answer my questions because the top bar method is just not that popular.

Well, if life is all about learning, and a homestead is its own classroom then I have learned valuable lessons this week.  But at the expense of a beautiful village.

Tales of a Terrible Bee Keeper

I’m more of a cat person, really.  But as a farmer, I love pollinators.  Birds, butterflies, especially bees help to ensure that we will have crops.  I wanted to help them out in any way I could (and perhaps have a bit of honey for my tea) so I set up a hive.

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My friends were using top bar hives so I did too.  The problem is that one of those friends is now deceased and the other probably tired of my questions and problems.  No one else I know, bee keepers from all over, has any clue about top bar hives.  Books exclude them.  A general shh surrounds the subject.  This is a problem because as you know from reading my adventures I can surely make a mess of things if not shown properly how to do it in the first place.  Such was the occasion yesterday when a mini-size Revolutionary War occurred on the grasses of our new homestead where now lie dozens of dead bodies and a meager pot of beeswax.

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It started out with good intentions, Brett told us to go check the hive now that we had moved it.  Make sure the combs hadn’t fallen down, make sure the queen is alive, make sure…oh, I don’t remember what else.  They were busily working on their nineteenth frame.  Imagine that!  Such a good year for bees.  Originally we heard to save them ten frames to get through the winter but with the talk of an upcoming hard winter, fifteen became their larder.  Four for me.  Luckily, or not so luckily, one of the combs had indeed fallen down.  Doug went inside for a large pot and some tongs.  We realized how fragile the comb was as it continued to break into pieces which made it very difficult to get it into the pot, honey dripped everywhere, bees trapped in their own creation, the rest growing in increasing anger.  We moved the next frame and part of it broke off.  I panicked, sudden vision of all of the combs breaking under the force of our knife trying to see if everyone was alright and inevitably smothering the whole bunch.  We took out the frame we had just messed with, content to harvest two frames and leave the kingdom alone.  Not so easy.

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The entire outside of the frame was sticky and a hundred or so bees would not let go of the comb.  Meanwhile in the pot where the four pieces of comb and honey lay, another several dozen bees tried desperately to get the honey back out.  As we placed the other comb on top (or threw it, I can’t remember, the bees were really mad at us at this point) the bees on the bottom layer melted into the honey and buzzed to their death.  The bees would not leave the pot.  In the middle of the night we went out and tried to scoop them out, they fell here and there, died in their sticky grave, huddled together in a swarm.  They were not giving me one ounce of honey.  I had not read about any of this.  Books make things look so seamless.

What I ended up with.  I have the rest back to the bees.

What I ended up with. I gave the rest back to the bees.

I have bees because between the fight against genetically modified crops and mass use of chemical pesticides we have killed a vast amount of the bee population.  I care about their survival.  I care about my own Queen Victoria and her hive.  I care!  Yet for a few tablespoons of honey I inadvertently killed a hundred bees.  Was it worth it?  I think I must have done something wrong…

Note: After writing this, I spoke to a few different bee keepers that said, “That’s all the bees that died?  You did good!”  Uh.  I guess I know more than I think!

A Trip to a Medieval Village (our bee hive)

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There has been so much activity in the medieval kingdom (our bee hive that is) that I thought I better have my friend and mentor, Brett, come over and translate what is going on.  It has been four months since we first got our hive.

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After donning our suits and smoking the hive entrance to hide our intruding scents, we opened the roof.  Fifteen slats were being filled with comb, honey, and brood.

Doug and Brandon got some amazing pictures. You can actually see the pollen on the bees' legs here.

Doug and Brandon got some amazing pictures. You can actually see the pollen on the bees’ legs here.

The bees have capped the comb over the brood.  The flat clearer cells are worker bees and the puffier cells that are lower on the comb are drones.  The drones are the only boys in the hive.  They have one job, make out with the queen.  Come winter they shall be ousted from the kingdom.  All the workers are girls.  It is definitely a matriarchal society in this village.

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We also can see honey in the frames closest to the door.  We will save fifteen slats for the bees to get through winter.  Hopefully we can get a little wild herb honey for our winter tea.

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SAM_0052 Looks like the Queen is alive and well.  All hail the queen!