I have recently been trying to make a more conscious practice of gratitude. Anyone who follows this page knows that I have a lot to be grateful for in my life, so practicing gratitude is something I should certainly have no trouble with. However, I have to confess that as today dawned, which was the day we were scheduled to pick up our honey bee packages for the season, I was feeling decidedly ungrateful toward Mother Nature for dishing out what amounts to winter weather: high 20s (Fahrenheit, in case you’re reading this from the civilized world where temps are measured in Celsius), and a combination of freezing rain, ice pellets, and snow, depending on Mother’s whim, all day long. This is not great weather for bees who recently made the trip via motor vehicle from the sunny South. This is not what I wanted. I wanted weather at least in the 40s and a nice rising barometer. But no. This is what I got, so onward we went.
Before I go any further, let me clarify “we.” Congratulations are in order to my husband, Bill, who recently completed his beginner beekeeping class with the wonderful Master Beekeeper, Carol Cottrill. She was also my teacher for both beginner and intermediate beekeeping, and thankfully we also have two additional mentors in Master Beekeeper Vanessa Rogers of Backwoods Bee Farm (where we get our bees and equipment) and Eric Davis, who is currently serving as the membership coordinator for the Maine State Beekeepers Association.
So, today was Bill’s first day installing package bees in to our hives. Our three hives from last year did not survive the winter. The reasons for this are many, but the overarching reason is that I did not adequately keep their varroa mite load down. Last year was my second year as a beekeeper, and I was doing well. I’d even caught a swarm (my own, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit) to create a third hive, which was incredibly strong mid summer. However, after the illness and loss of my Welsh Corgi, Tru, I had a tough time keeping up with a lot of my responsibilities. I was not as vigilant with the hives as I needed to be. I had been beekeeping alone for two seasons, because my husband was deathly afraid of bees. I never even seriously considered asking him to assist me with them, so strong was his aversion. This is why the Parris House hives are built with all eight frame, medium boxes, to keep the weight of each box under control so that I can lift them alone, even when they’re full of honey and fairly high in the air. An eight frame medium box full of honey can easily weigh forty or fifty pounds.
Imagine my surprise when Bill showed an interest in helping me with the bees this season. Maybe surprise is too mild a word. I was shocked. However, I gladly went along with the idea and here we are.
Bill is a person who can look at a field of clover and pick out all the ones with four leaves. This may sound like a skill unrelated to beekeeping until you consider that spotting the queen among tens of thousands of other bees is a thing you need to be able to do. He’s also really in to science and biology, and understands systems and the kinds of interrelationships you might find at work in a hive. Perhaps best of all, he doesn’t stress or worry easily, or overthink situations. I possess none of these qualities; not a single one. For this reason, I think he’s destined to be a better beekeeper than I am. The stress and worry thing on my part was on full display as the weather continued its winter-esque rampage, never letting up, including by the time we were ready to put the package bees in the hive.
It was never my plan to hive the bees myself this year. As the new beekeeper this was an experience Bill had to have himself. Once you do it, you don’t forget how. It’s just that under normal spring circumstances, midway through April in Maine, you’ve got a day at least in the 40s F and if a few of the bees don’t make it in to the hives, they will buzz around a bit, “smell” their queen, and eventually make their way in. This is not the case when Mother Nature is being a sadist. In these temperatures, with ice falling from the sky, the few bees we did not manage to get in to the hives simply fell to the ground, went dormant, and quickly died. Both previous seasons I’ve hived bees I had an overwhelming sense of joy, as I did when I caught my swarm last June and popped it down in to its new home. This year I watched with sadness and contempt for the weather as we immediately lost twenty to thirty bees (an extremely small number, but still…) who fell to the sides of the hives and died on the snow below. You don’t want to stand there watching bees die on installation day.
At any rate, we survived and so did most of the bees. In the spirit of gratitude, I am going to list the positives. Bill did an exemplary job of installing these bee packages. He knew exactly what to do, put the queen cages in without a hitch, got the overwhelming majority of the bees safely in to the hives, and perhaps most extraordinarily, was not consumed by anxiety by the harsh conditions. (I will not sleep well tonight knowing that the weather is so inhospitable for our hives. He’ll sleep just fine.) Neither of us had ever used ball jar feeders for bees before, having always baggie fed. However, we were advised by one of our mentors to use jars until the weather improves, and Bill was able to make that adaptation without any fuss as well. There is no forage in our part of Maine right now. It’s just…still winter here.
I am also grateful that our bees are going in to hives that already have drawn comb, some honey frames on the box ends, and “sticky” frames available that still have traces of honey from last year’s extraction. This is as opposed to a never-before-used hive where they have to start from scratch in building their home. Maybe the thing I’m most grateful for is that the weather will be improving slightly over the next week or so. Hopefully the queens will release nicely and start doing their jobs, and the building up of the hives will begin.
I’m going to go out on a limb here with the positive thinking and be grateful for the honey these hives will provide later in the season.
Here are some pics of the installation process. You can see how bad the weather is.
This is a brief video of Bill shaking the bees in to Hippy Dippy. I have more of a pouring technique, but hey, we’re both relatively new to this. You can hear him at the end saying, “They’re not happy.” I’m not sure any of us were happy.
Note: It is a solid truth that if you ask five beekeepers a single question you will get ten different answers. So it is entirely possible that if you are a beekeeper reading this, you may decide there were other possible methods for achieving the goal today. I’m sure that’s true. This being only our third season, we take the advice of our experienced mentors and our own growing intuition and knowledge and do what we think is best at any given time.
That’s the news from the Parris House bee yard. Barring disaster, I’ll have updates as the beekeeping season continues.
Pray for spring and happy hooking. – Beth
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. – The Rolling Stones