One More Update (or Rambling Rant)

Our honey bee hives now reside on an organic farm in St. Philip’s, Newfoundland, about a 25-minute drive from where we live in St. John’s. Here they are on the edge of a cornfield:

Here’s a closer less old timey view:

The hive second from the right isn’t a hive. It’s a stack of spare parts and frames with a hive top feeder and swarm trap from Jeff on top. We really should get around to levelling those hives (they look crooked because they are crooked), but we’ve had so much to deal with since May, a little crooked comb in a couple hives is the least of our concerns. We’ll fix it next weekend.

A recap of the past two months for those who haven’t been paying attention (and I don’t blame you): We had to deal with two swarms (two that we know of), one in the city in our backyard that got away and another on the farm that we managed to hive. We had to deal with the fire department (and a fire truck in front of our house) after some unhappy neighbours in the city complained about killer bees. We had to keep said neighbours at bay for two weeks so some queens in mating nucs in our yard could have a chance to mate, filling the air with even more bees. We had to move the hives twice. We had to take swarm prevention measures at least three or four times, maybe five or six (I honestly lost count). We had to requeen a colony that had a failing queen. We had to make two splits just to knock back two colonies that were growing out of control. I was working 14-hour days for half of the past eight weeks, which gave me little time or energy for anything but sleep. We had to arrange to borrow a car once a week to tend to the bees on the farm, so instead of taking our time and really soaking up all the joy and wonder of beekeeping, we had to plough through many 5-6 hour marathon beekeeping sessions, whether the conditions were ideal for beekeeping or not.

The last big procedure we had to perform was the requeening of three hives. That was around July 9th. We checked on the new queens five days later. One queen was laying well, no problems. Another queen was still stuck in her cage (see the above photo). That’s nearly a week-long interruption of the brood cycle, which is not great. We released her from the cage without incident. The third mated queen was accepted by the colony but was barely laying. By the looks of her, she must have been stuck in her cage like the other queen and had probably just been released. So…

We have to tear the hives apart again next weekend to see how well the newly-released queens are laying. If they’re laying well, then great. If they’re not, well, too bad, because I don’t think I have it in me to do anything more for these bees.

The colonies living in our four original hives (we now have eight hives after splits and swarms) — they seem to be doing well, somehow. Those bees have gone through almost every kind of stress imaginable in the past two months. I don’t know how they’re not completely dead or decimated by now. And all four colonies are filling up honey supers. I doubt we’ll get a huge honey harvest from them any time soon, because I think they’re still recovering from everything that’s happened in the past two months. But the fact that we’re getting any honey from them is impressive. If all goes well (though I’m not counting on it), I’ll be posting photos and videos of our first significant honey harvest by this time next week. Or maybe the week after that.

In other news, the hive on the left is a colony started from a swarm a month ago. (The hive on the right is the split whose new queen was stuck in her cage for a week.) We think it’s actually from a colony that swarmed twice — the first time in the city, the second time on the farm. What that means is that the colony is entirely natural. The queen was produced naturally in the hive — not artificially grafted from eggs — and mated naturally with the drones from our other colonies after swarming. That might not seem like a big deal, but I’m more pleased with that outcome than anything else we’ve accomplished with the bees so far. As doubtful as it may seem, I don’t enjoy the manipulation that’s involved in most conventional beekeeping practices. I kind of hate it. Yet I can’t completely buy into the so-called natural beekeeping approach because it seems irresponsible to just “let the bees be bees” and fend for themselves. Finding the middle ground has been a challenge for me. I want to understand the behaviour of the bees, but I don’t want to use that understanding to exploit the hell out of them every chance I get. I’m still working on that middle ground.

For instance, as much as I like biting into honey right off the comb, I think it’s equally rewarding to watch small colonies grow and do well, colonies like this one that we set up in the woods about a week ago. I miss not having these small hives on our property in the city. Much of the satisfaction in keeping bees comes from being able to sit back and watch them. It’s relaxing too. As relieved as I am to have the bees on the farm in St. Philip’s, I don’t think I can go another season without having at least one hive close by. I’ll have to hide them from neighbours and vandals, but I have to find a way to keep a hive or two on our property in the city by next spring. I hate to get all hippy dippy on you, but it sucks not being able to see the bees every day. Driving out once a week to do necessary check-ups is not the same. Hanging with the bees, watching them come and go, having them land on me and rest with a load of pollen or walk around on my hands — that stuff is incredible. That’s what makes it all worthwhile for me, not the artifice of beekeeping.

Anyway, that’s what I mean by working on that middle ground. I haven’t found it yet. Our plan for next week is to do a quick check of the new queens, maybe steal some honey from the bees, and then I’d be happy not to touch them for another month (except to harvest some honey). I’m sick of digging into the hives and the bees are probably sick of it to. So say we all.

3 thoughts on “One More Update (or Rambling Rant)

  1. I agree about letting the bees produce their own queens, Emma and I prefer to do this too. I sympathise with your loss of time hanging out with the girls as our bees are in an out apiary too.

  2. Some aspects of the “let the bees be bees” attitude appeals to me. Watching a colony after-swarm (in the country) with a virgin queen and then seeing that queen mate successfully — I love that. But in a place like NL, grafting queens and requeening every year is probably the smartest way to keep colonies strong and to reduce swarming.

    When I have more time (i.e., a normal 9-to-5 job) and more resources (i.e, more money), I’ll probably focus more on queen rearing and other more involved aspects of beekeeping. I’m sure I’ll find it satisfying on some level. But generally, the less I have to mess with the bees, the happier I am. I love watching the bees more than keeping them, per se.

  3. We are fortunate to live in the country, so our bees are in our back yard, and we can watch them whenever we want. Maybe you could try a top-bar hive or something like that – they don’t look like conventional hives, so might be easier to keep a low profile.

    We also seek the middle ground – we like the care-taking aspects, so we treat our bees more like pets than honey machines. We try to filter out the advice that’s more about wringing production out of them, and pay attention to just helping them along when they need it.

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