My first Bee Blog post was February 16, 2018. Has it been a year already? While I didn’t get my bees until mid-May, by this time last year I was already hip-deep in preparations for my new
obsession hobby. You know what they say: Time flies like an arrow. (Fruit flies like a banana. But honey bees do not.)
…Yeah. I’ll be here all week.
The bees and I have both been busy in February and March! Among other things, I decided to break a cardinal gardening rule and put some seeds in the ground in my small raised bed. I’m ‘fessing up now, so we all know who to blame when that April ice storm hits.
With temperatures bouncing around like a rubber ball (and a similar degree of thermal whiplash) I’m amazed at how well the bees have done. I constantly remind myself that “domesticated” is not quite the right term for whatever strange symbiosis we have with the honey bee. They know what they’re doing, and if I didn’t want them to make so much honey that they have enough to share with me, they could get along pretty well without all my poking around in their business. This is my constant reassurance to myself as I go into Beekeeping Year 2:
Me: “I don’t know what I’m doing! Oh, crap! I’m going to kill them all!”
Bees: “Don’t worry, crazy lady. We’ve got this.”
To be fair, this is the same conversation I have with daffodils (yes, the entire species) every year when they start poking their sprouts up in January: “No, daffodils, it is too early, don’t be fooled by our warm weather! Stay down! Stay down!” Daffodils: “Woman, we have been doing this for longer than you have been alive, so take deep breaths and be calm. We know what we’re doing.” And every year, they do. And every year, in January, we have the same conversation all over again anyway.
The other thing I have to remember is that beekeeping is actually agriculture — which means it’s highly regional, and there’s nothing wrong with my bees producing the first hatches of the year in mid-February (hint: they were) when beekeepers from Michigan are posting pictures of their hives literally buried in heaps of snow.
I finally did my first full(ish) hive inspection of the year — more than just opening up the lid to feed them another pollen patty — on March 12th. I saw evidence of a definite increase in population from the winter low point, and one big fat drone, but not a lot of drone cells yet. Drone cells look different from worker cells (see this excellent post by BackYardHive for what that looks like) and they are pretty easy to spot. Typically, the first appearance of drones and drone cells are a sign that spring is coming: There need to be lots of drones flying around to mate with new queens in the spring and summer!
This hive check was also the first time, after nearly a year of beekeeping, that I finally aggravated the bees enough that one of them tried to sting me. (It didn’t get through my glove.) I can’t blame her, because I completely disassembled their home while I switched out their hive stand for a larger arrangement, so that I would be ready to split the hive later in the spring. I also switched the position of the boxes, so that the bottom brood box (which was mostly empty comb, because the bees moved upward with the heat and the food supply throughout the winter) was now on top:
This is really the setup I should have had from the beginning. I made sure to leave enough working space that I can set a third 8-frame box on the stand next to the other two boxes, instead of putting things on the ground. … … And, yes. Those are two 2x4s nailed together to make 4x4x. Hey, it works. (Did you know that they can’t saw down a 4×4 to the correct length for you at the hardware store? I don’t own a table saw*. But I own a hammer.)
At the same time all this was happening, I’d also ordered materials for my second hive and gotten them painted, although I don’t know if I’ll have the time to add pretty stencils this year. I got everything done just in time, because on my next hive check on March 23rd, there were lots of drones and lots of bees, and my mentor confirmed it was time for a split! So with the help of a wonderful bee-happy friend, that’s what I did this past weekend.
The information out there on splits gets really complicated — I can say this with some authority since I have been frenetically reading about splits for a month and a half now — but to put it most simply, splits are good for two things:
- Making more hives, especially if you like the genetics of the bees you already have. Beekeepers that lose hives over the winter can also replace them by making splits.
- Preventing swarms. Swarms aren’t the end of the world, but they reduce the honey harvest and “feral” honey bees resulting from swarms may be more detrimental to native pollinators than kept bees. (Most of the nuance is lost in the linked summary article, which just focuses on detrimental effects of the honey bee overall, but the original journal article is locked behind a paywall.)
I split my hive for both of these reasons. Now I have two weak hives instead of one strong hive, but it’s early in the spring, so they have lots of time to rebuild before the first honey flow!
There are approximately a bazillion ways to split your hive. I read up on all of them, then abandoned all my complicated research and opted for the simplest variant of the simplest method around: A walk-away split. (I like vanilla ice cream, too. Why complicate a good thing?)
Walk-away splits are great if you like your queen’s genetics and aren’t in a huge hurry — because one of your hives is going to have to make itself a new queen, which takes a minute. I checked to make sure both of my brood boxes had lots of bees and brood in them, including eggs. (Good on me for having cleverly switched the boxes two weeks ago, so they were both full! I wish I could say I planned it that way.) I put one of the boxes on a new base. And I put a cover on top. Boom! Done. Walk away.
This works because one of the boxes has the queen in it (technical jargon: This is currently the queenright hive), and the other box has eggs (queenless hive). Right about now, the bees in the queenless hive are realizing that they’re missing something really important. If all goes well, they’ll respond by building some queen cells, and will raise several new queens from newly-hatched larvae. (Remember that worker eggs and queen eggs start out the same — it’s how they are raised that determines what they become. We think it’s because of diet, though we are still arguing about the specific mechanisms.) The first queen to emerge will kill her sisters (ah, nature!), go on a mating flight, encounter those drones that we know are flying around right now, and come back to start laying.
….Unless she gets squished along the way, of course.
Or eaten by something.
Or she’s injured and unable to return home, or she fails to locate drones and get mated, or, or, or….
There are risks to making a walk-away hive. But in about four weeks, I’ll check to see if I can find a newly mated queen and eggs in my new hive, and I’ll know whether or not it worked!
I did choose to complicate my walk-away split in one way: Because we were able to locate the queen, we made sure she was in the box that was moving (not the box that was staying). This is because bees know where they live. You know how when you move across town, you catch yourself driving back to your old house about a half-dozen times because you’re turning automatically where you’ve always turned? Well…. you can feel better about doing that. Bees do it, too. By putting the queen in the moving box, when she lost some of her foragers because they went back to the old home, it wouldn’t matter so much. She’s constantly laying eggs and raising new brood, and her house bees — the newborn bees that don’t forage yet — would be with her in the meantime. The queenless hive will have a couple of weeks without any new brood hatching, though.
Now I confess the part I messed up: I initially placed the queenright hive at the other end of the new hive stand. And the drift — movement of foragers back to the original hive — was awful. I saw bees leaving the new hive, but they only returned to the original site. I hadn’t expected the drift to be 100%, but with their original home right there I should have expected it. Probably that would be okay… right? The house bees aren’t foraging yet, and lots of new brood is hatching out all the time. But… but… we have some cold nights coming up, and I was really worried about losing a steady stream of bees from the hive with my only queen in it. Eek!
….So the day after my split, I went out and scooted the new hive over next to its sister. Now I see bees coming and going from both hives, and I feel much better about the whole thing. (La, la, la, nothing to see here! Pretend they were side-by-side all along!)
And now… we wait!
*It turns out this is a lie. I do, in fact, own a hand-me-down table saw that my father gave me. I found it when I got home from the hardware store with my cut-to-size 2x4s. But since I don’t know how to use a table saw (I mentioned once or twice or three dozen times that I’m not handy, right?) I’m still pretty happy with my solution.