Incredibly stupid things a beekeeper can do

The worst beekeeping mistakes come from putting off what you should have done yesterday. Somehow, problems inside a bee hive don’t get better by themselves. I keep thinking they will, but they don’t.

I normally remove my honey supers by June 30 because that is the start of our nectar dearth. Once the supers come off, the robbing screens go on so I can be ready for those pesky thieves in striped suits. It all works together.

Off to a late start

But this year, warm weather was late, spring was delayed, and nectar flows stretched into July. Although the unusual timing gave me a record harvest, I was late for everything that followed.

As of Monday, August 6, I still had a hive with honey supers in place. It’s the hive that’s hardest to get to, high on the hill, and whenever I see a chance to talk myself out of checking that hive, I gladly listen.

But yesterday, a month late, I finally trekked up the hill with a medium brood box to give the bees some space once the supers came off. I also took an escape board, a bucket of water and some rags. Since I’d be moving the honey supers during a dearth, I needed a way to clean up drips and spills. I had added a robbing screen a few days earlier, so I thought I was ready.

According to plan, almost

For awhile, everything went according to plan. I pried off the two supers—impossibly heavy—and checked them for brood. None found. Excellent. Then I took off the queen excluder and added the new medium, the escape board, and the two honey supers. I closed up the hive and planned to return in two days to remove the honey. I cleaned up a few honey drips, but the the job had been clean and neat.

I wasn’t planning to do anything to the hive next to it. Glen’s hive, as I call it, was created from a swarm that had moved into an empty brood box through the hole in an inner cover that was stored on top of it. Once I discovered the swarm, I tricked it out with a bottom board, a slatted rack, a robbing screen, and a lid.

The mistake I made was adding a nearly empty candy board that had come off another hive. My thought at the time was they were a small swarm with no stores, so they may as well have the candy if they wanted it (mistake part A). Besides, it saved me from having to cart the thing down the hill. Instead, I could take it off in a week or so (mistake part B).

A week becomes twelve

But now, three months later, I notice the candy board still in place and decide I’ll just remove it and take it down to the house. But when I try to open the hive, the telescoping lid won’t budge. I jam hive tools under all four sides, trying to get the thing to move one way or the other. I force it, swear at it, threaten it, but still it doesn’t move. I hit the underside of the lid with a rock to try to break whatever is holding it down. Finally, with all my accumulated strength, it reluctantly releases.

As I turn the heavy lid over, honey gushes everywhere. The lid and the once empty candy board beneath are filled with a warren of honeycomb, an artistry of semicircles, serpentine walls, and clever geometric designs. I have just ripped the top off the whole sculpture and honey is flowing down the side of the hive both inside and out, honey is pouring out of the lid, and glistening amber drops are glazing the hive stand. At my feet, a small pool collects and slowly dissolves into the forest floor. Words I didn’t know I knew taint the air.

Another trip to the house

Interspersed among the ruins are a thousand bees trying to salvage their warehouse. In fact, bees are everywhere and robbing is my worst fear. But the singular size of the mess convinces me I need another escape board to get the bees out of it. So I turn the lid back over the bees, mop up the spilled honey, and run down the dang hill to get another escape board.

When I return, I once again turn over the lid which releases more honey into the cosmos. I pry off the candy board which was firmly glued to a queen excluder which was similarly attached to the brood box below. I try to remember why the queen excluder is there, but I can’t.

I finally get the whole thing pulled apart and then reassembled, and I clean up the spilled honey, only to discover I forget to put in the escape board. So for the third freaking time, I remove the lid, spill the honey, heave the comb, and install the escape board. I spill more honey before I get the thing put back together. I’m totally frazzled as I clean up for the fourth time.

I know better than to leave empty space inside a beehive, especially a hive containing a fresh swarm that just can’t wait to demonstrate it’s artistic creativity. Of course I know better. What was I thinking?

All cleaned up again

But now everything would be fine. I would come back in two days, remove the honey, and things would get back to normal. I wiped down all the surfaces, collected my tools, and threw the rags in the bucket.

It was then I noticed a knot of bees on the ground behind Glen’s hive. It was right where the honey had splashed to the ground and now bees were stuck to it like maggots. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. I was hot, irritated, tired of cleaning up honey, and worried about robbers. Still, I was amazed that I hadn’t stepped on the hapless cluster.

Since I had about a gallon of water remaining, I decided to pour it over the spot to dissolve the honey into the ground. As I poured the water, the bees dispersed. At least, most of them.

When I was done pouring, there was one bee left, wet and shiny. Something about her, though, caught my eye. I leaned close for a better look. Holy crap! It was my queen.

A walk in the woods with royalty

Or, I should say, it was one of my queens. I was about to pop her freshly bathed little body back into Glen’s hive when I realized I didn’t actually know where she came from. She had probably been on the bottom side of a queen excluder, but I had taken one from each hive. What to do?

Since I couldn’t decide, I stalled. With her cupped in my hands, I walked down the forest trail all the way to the house, thinking about my alternatives. I could use her to requeen my ornery hive and leave the queenless hive to raise a new monarch, or I could guess where she belonged and take a chance. Least desirable was opening the hives and looking. I was inviting robbers already and I was sick of cleaning up honey.

By the time I got to the house I decided I was going to put her in Glen’s hive. That’s the one I kept re-opening, the one she had been closest to, and the one she most probably escaped from. But I decided to reintroduce her in a cage because she’d been out for nearly an hour. So I went into the kitchen for a drinking glass to invert over her while I hunted for an introduction cage. I placed her on the counter, but as I lowered the glass over her head, she flew.

A frantic search

I searched the floor, under the refrigerator, and in the dusty spots above the cupboards. I pulled apart the stove top, checked the sinks, and inspected under the dish drainer. I looked in the mixing bowls, under the stove hood, and between the wooden spoons. I crawled under the table, turned over the chairs, and peered into the blender.

I was about to enlarge my search to other parts of the house when my husband came bounding into the kitchen with the dog—the dog who snacks on bees for pleasure. I sounded like an idiot as I blurted out the whole story and continued to ransack the house. Finally, when I had no choice but to take a breath, my husband got a chance to speak. “Well,” he said calmly, “There’s a bee on your shoulder.”

Because he was convulsing with a full-body wag, I figured the dog must have seen her too. After that, I corralled the little witch beneath the drinking glass, found an introduction cage, cajoled her into it, and marched her back up the hill. When I got to the top, the first hive had calmed down from the morning invasion, but Glen’s hive had the loud distinctive roar of the newly queenless. At that point, I was 97.3% sure I had the right hive.

Waiting for the verdict

So for the fifth time that morning, I pulled off the lid and spilled honey everywhere. Piece by piece, I disassembled the hive until I got down to the brood boxes where I slotted the introduction cage between two frames. I watched the workers. They made no attempt to kill her, but instead tried to feed her, sticking their tongues through the wire mesh. In another day I should know for sure whether it worked or whether I’m down by one queen.

For now I can only wonder at my own ineptitude. Who knew what incredibly stupid things a beekeeper could do?

Honey Bee Suite

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