So, You Want to Be a Beekeeper? Prepare to Occasionally Feel Very Stupid

If you read my last post, including updates, you will see I was quite wrong about several things.

  • Although I knew drones were bigger than workers, the large eyes of the bee in the “stand-off” photos convinced me it was a drone, despite it not having a blunt body and being the same size as the other bee.
  • When we tested for Foulbrood and the test was negative, I assumed (always a mistake), our bees were in the clear. Wrong again. They have Parasitical Mite Syndrome, which means their chances of making it to spring are slim indeed.

And yet, as one reader commented about the Yellow Jackets, we can’t give up until the bees do. As long as they are alive, we will continue to do everything we can to give every chance possible to survive.

What this means in practical terms is pretty much following the winter strategy we had already decided on.

  1. Feed them as much as they want to take.
  2. Treat them again for Varroa (this time with a vaporizer).
  3. Winterize their hive with insulation and a wrap.

If they don’t survive, our next bees will benefit from this year’s bees’ work by starting with drawn comb instead of foundation and having honey, rather than sugar water, as food if they need it.

So, lessons learned:

  1. Beekeeping has a steep learning curve. There is much to know, and I don’t think anyone can become an expert in a day (if ever).
  2. Sometimes, you just have to do what you can and trust your bees to know what’s best for them.
  3. If you are the sort of person who wants to feel smart and be right all the time, beekeeping is probably not for you.
  4. Some hives thrive despite ignorance and lack of care.
  5. Other hives fail no matter how much care and thought they are given.
  6. Use drone frames early, and make sure you take them out before the drones (and Varroa) emerge.
  7. Treat for Varroa. Just assume your hives have them. They do.
  8. When you put out dry pollen for your bees, every bee in a five mile radius will come to call.
  9. Everyone has different ideas about how to do things. Some of these strategies may work for you. Some won’t.
  10. Because every hive is different.
  11. In no way does the above truth excuse you from learning as much as you can.




Cautiously, Infinitesimally, Almost Imperceptibly Hopeful (for About a Day)

As you read this, please be sure to read the updates to get a true picture of what’s happening in our hive.

If there were a scale called “Chances Our Bees Will Survive the Winter,” it might look like this:

Bees will certainly die.                  Bees might not die.                 Bees will certainly live.

Following the Yellow Jacket raid two weeks ago, I would have put our girls at about 1.5.
After this week’s hive inspection, however, I think they’re closer to a 3, perhaps even a 3.5.

They have some brood. It’s spotty, but I think that may be normal with winter approaching. I know the queen slows down on laying eggs this time of year so there are less mouths to feed during winter. And we have baby bees hatching and some larvae. We also spotted the queen, which is always reassuring. IMG_2864
The caps on the cells aren’t as nice as earlier in the season, which was a bit worrying, so we checked for American Foulbrood (AFB) this week. The larvae in the caps we opened weren’t discolored and didn’t “rope out,” so we don’t have to burn all our equipment.

Yes, AFB is that bad. Its spores can live up to 70 years on equipment, and it’s lethal. (Click the link, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs will tell you all about the disease.)

So, no burning necessary. That’s a relief.

Update: Sassafras Bee Farm very kindly sent me an email with some bad news. Our bees almost certainly have Parasitic Mite Syndrome (PMS). Here’s a link to some information on this syndrome, with lots of pictures that look exactly like our hive.

This week, there’s also been a great deal of wrestling going on in front of the hive, with bees dragging other bees out of the hive and dropping them on the ground, sometimes even flying away with them (to drop them elsewhere, I guess).
At first, we thought the hive was being raided … again, and our bees were protecting the hive — another worry. But our girls weren’t stinging the bees they tossed out.

It reminded me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, “I’m not dead yet!”

If you haven’t seen it, click the link above for the clip.
I’ll wait.

Funny, eh?

I can be a little dense, but eventually I realized what was happening. The worker bees were getting rid of the drones. They didn’t need to sting the evicted bees because drones don’t have a stinger and can’t sting back.

As you may know, drones don’t do much except fly to a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) and hang around, hoping to mate with a queen. (I’ve linked to Honeybee Suite here, partly for the description of DCAs and partly because I liked the comments.) There’s at least one DCA in England that is documented as having been in the same place for centuries.

Here’s a blog post from a guy who went in search of one that was written about in the late 1700s.

He found it too. Pretty amazing, if you ask me!

The mating process breaks a drone in two.
At least they go out with a bang. (Sorry!)

Since drones take up valuable resources with no immediate benefits to their hive, a hive won’t create male bees until it can support them.

But who makes that decision?

Not the queen.  Her job is laying eggs, and she does so according to the size of the cell — fertilized for workers in smaller cells, unfertilized for drones in larger cells.

Not the drones. We’ve established that they’re only good for one thing. (And I’m not, repeat not, drawing conclusions about any other species based on bees!)

So who decides the size of the cells? The worker bees.
And don’t they deserve that privilege? They’re called workers for a reason, and it’s a simple one. They do all the work.

Okay, okay, the queen labors too. Spending your life laying eggs and then being made to swarm or being killed by a usurper is work too. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and all that.

But, I digress.

Back to the workers. Guess what? They also chose when to create queen cells and raise new queens when they deem it time to swarm or replace the old queen.

Talk about the power of the sisterhood!

The boys? Not so much power. If a drone doesn’t mate by the time fall comes around, he’s kicked to the curb. His sisters quit feeding him, making him weak, and all that much easier to wrestle out of his home.

Judging by the state of the wings of some of the drones we saw on the ground, I think the girls may chew the wings of their bros, as well.

Yeah. It’s a rough life for a bee. Workers work themselves to death. Drones mate and die or get kicked from their hive and die. Queens lay eggs their whole life, and then are killed or forced to swarm (and then die later).

So, let’s change the subject and look at some pictures.

IMG_2886The Engineer took this picture of a showdown. I’m pretty sure it’s a worker making sure a drone doesn’t come back in the hive. Drones are usually bigger than worker bees, which isn’t the case here, but their eyes are also much bigger. This is more obvious in the picture below. The blog, Gerry’s Bees, has a nice picture showing the usual differences. Update: Sassafras Bee kindly pointed out that the big-eyed bee is NOT a drone, but a worker with Deformed Wing Virus. IMG_2885
In the seven days since our last inspection, the bees also produced a lot more honey. IMG_2879
It’s so beautiful; I couldn’t stop taking picturesIMG_2881
This last picture is of the honey they’ve made on one of the drone foundations we put in last month to try to help with the Varroa infestation. The queen laid a few drones on it, but the next time we checked the hive, our bees were saving nectar in both drone frames. We left them in, and now they are full of honey.

Notice on the bottom of the picture there are bees hanging off one another in sort of a cluster. They frequently do this between frames as we remove the frames to inspect, clinging to each other in a living bee chain until the distance becomes so great they are forced to let go. The phenomenon is called “festooning,” and here’s a great photo of what it looks like (from Honeybee Suite).

The Engineer and I have been working too, learning what we can do to aid our girls in getting through winter. Yesterday, we attended an all-day class on “The Hardest Season.” We came away with a much longer “to-do list” than we went in with.

And now, I’m cautiously, infinitesimally, almost imperceptibly hopeful we can help — or at very least, not hinder — their chances of survival.

On a scale of one to ten, I’d give us a 4, mostly for effort. 🙂

Update: While I’d still give us a 4 for effort, I’m not sure anything we do will save our hive. We may be starting fresh in spring. Feeling down about this, and there’s nothing slight, cautious, or infinitesimal about the emotion.






The end of a bee. This poor thing has flown until she can fly to more and will soon die.


Yesterday, we inserted the Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS).

Using them meant removing the entrance reducer, so we worried about the vile and predatory Yellow Jackets who have plagued us and our hive. Of course, we were also concerned about the possible side-effects of the MAQS (dead bees, rejected queen).

However, if we didn’t treat the hive, the Varroa would continue to proliferate, debilitating our bees so they probably wouldn’t last the winter. If they somehow managed to survive the cold, the viruses carried by the mites would weaken them enough that they wouldn’t thrive next year.

There were no good choices.

This morning, when we went to have a look at the hive, we found this. IMG_2845

The little white things — that I initially thought were bits of paper from the strips — are larvae.

As I slowly absorbed that fact, with all its implications, a Yellow Jacket flew past the bees milling on the front porch and straight into the hive.

As if she owned it. As if it had been her who had raised and cared for those larvae, fed the queen, foraged for pollen and nectar, and fanned that nectar until the water evaporated to 18%, and it became honey. As if it were she — and not our hard-working girls — who had given everything for the hive.

The view from beneath the hive was equally dire. Bees milled around scattered larvae and another Yellow Jacket sauntered around like our hive was a buffet for her and her sisters.

I felt sick.

There was no clear course of action, nothing we could do without consequence. If we put the reducer back on, it would limit the space the bees needed to defend, but also limit the air circulation they need for the MAQS treatment. If we left it off, the Yellow Jackets would decimate what was left of the hive.

The Engineer made the call, not that it really mattered. The fumes will get them or the Yellow Jackets will. The chance of our bees recovering from a catastrophe of such magnitude at this time of the year is so small as to be almost non-existent.

Still, when the required seven days of treatment are over, and we can once again feed them, we’ll do so. Assuming there are any bees left to feed.

Even if there are, it’s almost certainly too late for them to raise another brood to take the hive through the winter.

My thoughts jump ahead — to next year, and what we can do differently. We’ll buy a package so we can start earlier, put the drone boards in immediately, treat the hive in the spring for Varroa, move it to the sunnier location that opened up when some trees fell this year.

Next year, we will do better.

For now though, I am heartbroken.