The Scilla Siberica popped up like a turkey timer to tell us the earth was ready. We have all the hive parts ready to go and now we’re just waiting to see if the afternoon temperatures this weekend make it possible to move some frames around without putting the bees at risk.
This past winter was difficult for both bees and beekeepers, as my small remaining pile of firewood can attest. We suffered through long stretches of deep, deep cold. It was hard on my mood, hard on the whiskey supply, and hard on the bees. Every beekeeper with whom I’ve spoken lost at least one of their hives in the same way – the colony was dead, huddled together in one spot, many bees with their heads stuck into empty cells, and a few inches away was an plentiful supply of untouched honey. If the cold had not lasted quite so long the cluster of bees could have expanded and moved to the precious honey, but it didn’t. Cause of death – starvation.
April is too early in the year to uncross my fingers or stop knocking on wood, but so far we haven’t had any bees die out on us here in the Bee-Loud Glade. Still, you won’t find me doing the nanny-nanny-boo-boo dance. Beekeepers with far more knowledge and skill than I have lost a lot of hives, so I’m giving all the credit to my hardy Russian bees and a whole lot of luck. Some people can’t fathom the fondness others of us develop for a colony of insects. I recommend reading Hannah Holmes’ treatment of the subject, and in it she mentions my friend Paul. His hive performed absolutely wonderfully last summer and by fall it had everything it needed to head into winter. Paul did all a human can do to help the bees and he lost the hive anyway. It was terribly sad.
This whole essay is starting off kind of sad. I recommend we take a five minute break and let XTC bring it around. (And don’t worry parents; I’m pretty sure your kids will miss all the double entendres.)
Spring, and the point of this story, is all about rebirth. And the art of keeping bees is all about helping the hive do what comes naturally to it. In nature, some hives survive the winter and others die out. As days start getting longer and winter starts coming to an end the surviving hive will stat to build up the population so by the time nectar is flowing abundantly they will be ready to send out a swarm and reproduce. If that swarm happens to find a hive that died out full of honey they’ll move in and be as happy as somebody who found a sweet, furnished condominium for free.
So last year when my hive was intent on swarming I took some of the bees and brood and created an artificial swarm in a nucleus colony, or nuc. Two of these nucs spent the winter side-by-side, sharing warmth. We hope to put one of these little four-frame colonies into Paul’s honey-filled hive this weekend if the weather allows. It’s the sort of bonanza a swarm might happen upon in the wild but we’re helping them into their new home about a month before they could do it naturally. The nuc already has a mated queen, while a hive that swarms naturally needs to wait until May or June around here for a new queen to mate. By June we expect Paul’s beautiful garden to be abuzz with happy Russian bees. With luck they will thrive to the point where they want to swarm and Paul will take his own artificial swarm and build it into his second hive. The neighbors around here much prefer if we handle the swarming rather than letting the bees send out big scary bunches of bees into their trees.
Watch this space if you would like to follow along with this adventure. We plan to take lots of photos while we install the nuc and post a little photo journal. On the same day we move one side of the nuc, we’ll move the other into its own full-sized hive and begin a natural cell, foundationless comb experiment. But that’s a story for another day.