Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bees: What ever can go wrong...

Yesterday was one of those "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" days for me, as beekeeping is concerned*. Back in January, I decided I wanted to ensure that I would still have bees. With care, about 33% of hives die in the winter. Without treatment, losses are typically 50%. Figuring that I would be unlucky, I decided to purchase another package. I had to pick it up in Northern MA, right on the NH border. It was a haul, but it seemed worth it to get bees this early. After it stopped raining, it was a pleasant drive.

I was a little concerned about hiving the bees in the cold, but really didn't have a choice. When I got the bees home, I sprayed them with a little mist of water. They settled down a bit, but still seemed a little on edge. As dinner time approached, I drove over to my hive that I set up on Sunday. I went through the process of hiving the package, but unfortunately a bunch of things went wrong. First, it was a little cool, so the bees were testy. Shouldn't be a huge deal because they should be a passive swarm. Well, passive they were not. Even after a little spritz with water, they were buzzing loudly.

Second, as I said, it was cool so I still had on my dark green fleece over my t-shirt. This, of course violates the first rule of bee-appropriate clothing which is to wear white or light colors because dark colors upset them. Oh, and speaking of bad clothing choices, I had lose-fitting pants and ankle socks which provides a nice patch of bare skin to angry bees. After realizing my fleece mistake, I took it off, thereby allowing access to my t-shirt sleeves which also make nice hiding spots for angry bees.

So, at this point, other than angry bees and bad clothing choices, things weren't too terrible. Well, I forgot to knock the bees to the bottom of the package cage, so as soon as I lifted the cover, the (angry) bees all swarm up and into my face and hair. Oh, a little side note... I don't own a bee hat/veil. My first hive was so docile that I never needed one before. I got one of those bug nets from WalMart, but expecting passive bees, I left it at home.

So, to recap up to this point, thousands of angry bees flying in my face, hair, and everywhere all around me. I figure, I just need to get them in the hive, close it up and get out of here. Well, in the rush, the queen cage fell to the bottom of the hive, resting on the screened bottom board. Figuring, I'll just grab it with the hive tool when I get the rest of the bees dumped out, I continue. Well, that's when the stings started.

First, they were stuck in my hair and started stinging my scalp. Then, they moved onto my back and face. After a couple dozen or so, I abandon the idea of doing anything else other than getting away. I got a few more stings trying to get away, but nothing as bad as the first round. I did, however knock off my glasses trying to get an angry stinging bee out of my temple.

Once safely away, I try to come up with a plan to get the two missing frames back into the hive, secure the queen cage and close it up considering the fact that I now must reek of hive invader smells from all the stings. Of course, the most useful tool aside from a full bee suit would be my smoker which was also securely stored in my shed. I figure, if I'm careful, I can generate a good amount of smoke with newspaper and arborvitae leaves (fronds, needles?).

I return to the hive with smoke and a spray bottle of water with my shirt tucked in and my fleece over my head to keep the bees from stinging my scalp any more. I slowly move up to where I dropped my glasses and promptly step on them. Fortunately, I was able to bend them back into shape and get the lens back in place. So, as I approach the side of the hive, the bees resume their attack against everything moving. A half dozen or so attacked the burning newspaper in a kamikaze raid. The smoke seemed to confuse them more than settle them, which I guess is an improvement. At the very least, I was only getting the occasional sting.

If all went well, I should have been able to scoop out the queen cage, secure it and put the two missing frames back. That, however, would require something to go right. Well, I decided to go with unwired "cut comb" foundation. That way, I could just crush and strain the comb to extract the honey. The wired stuff I started my other hive with needed no addition support or securing. This stuff was so light and thin that it just collapsed with the weight of the bees. The queen cage was now under a sandwich of 3 lbs. of angry, defensive bees and 5 medium foundation sheets. And, since I can't catch a break, it wasn't just a regular sandwich. It was a multi-layered club sandwich of angry bees/foundation/angry bees/foundation/etc. I tried to salvage the install, but the bees were now picking their attack back up. I had to retreat several times.

I almost wish I had just left the hive as is and let these bees die. I managed to get several of the sheets of foundation out, but darkness was approaching. I figured it would be better to lose the queen and let the bees settle down. I couldn't even find the cage under all that mess. I pushed the three frames with intact foundation together, put the empty frames in as well, put the feeder and cover on and left with two more ankle stings and an armpit sting for good measure.

I decided there were two highly remote possibilities that the workers could get to the queen and keep her from freezing to death. I went back today (with smoker and netting and light colored clothes and better frames) to see if they had calmed down. They were, if anything, angrier than yesterday. I couldn't get within about 15 feet of the side of the hive without being dive-bombed. I didn't even manage to get close enough to see if there was any hope of salvaging things. In reality, I don't know if I even want to salvage them. I ended up with somewhere between two and three dozen stings. I know they will be replaced by the queen's offspring, if she is released, but she likely didn't even survive the night given that she would be outside the cluster and it was just above freezing last night. Still, given they behavior, I suspect these bees have been somewhat Africanized. If that's the case, a queen from the same area would likely be just as Africanized. I'm going to give them a couple more days to see if they calm down. If not, I'll suit up in bee-proof clothes and exterminate them. Worst case scenario, I'm going to try to make a split or capture a swarm if these bees don't survive the installation.

* - Also, my car thermostat stuck open, I stepped on my glasses, and burned myself in the sink.