Thursday, February 09, 2023

The Collapse LXXXX: Spring Beekeeping

25 April 20XX+1

My Dear Lucilius:

Today was the day of opening the hives.

As I know we have discussed, perhaps years ago at this point, one of the most uncomfortable moments for me in beekeeping (and perhaps for any beekeeper) is opening the Winter hives for the first time. While one can get a sense of how the hive is doing by judging how much of the supplemental syrup is been eaten or the occasional good days where the bees take cleansing flights, the full understanding of how the hive has done over the past season can only take place by fully opening the hive.

That in itself offers potential risks: open too soon and the internal temperature of the hive and the “bee ball” that they workers make around the queen during Winter will dissipate and they may very well die; open too late and a problem resolvable two weeks earlier will be in the terminal stages.

Perhaps others are better at it than I. To me, it always strikes me as the highest risk activity of the year.

The weather has held together more or less enough to this point that I am reasonable confident that a sudden recurrence of Winter may not appear (although it has happened this late in the year before); more importantly, given the last year the criticality of the bees and their wax and honey and therefore their health is more important than ever. And so, bearing my full bee-keeping regalia and smoker in hand, I approached the hives.

The technique is always the same, no matter how I open it: slowly remove the telescoping overhive cover, then look into the feeding tray: Is it empty? Full? Full of dead bees, in which case there is a hole I need to patch? If that is okay, I drop in some smoke, and then use my hive tool (a rather fancy word for what appears to be a short crowbar) to pry the feeding deep away from the main hive deeps, freeing any of the propolis – the sticky substance that bees use to patch holes – that may be attaching it to the outer body. Setting that to the side and prying away the grate that acts to exclude the queen from the feeding tray, I put my frame hanger on the side of the hive body, smoke a little more, and look in.

The best sign – the sign I hear today – is the buzz of the hive. It is hard to eyeball the amount of bees, but they appear to be okay. I pull out some of frames -slowly, as to not crush any potential hangers-on – and look at them from side to side. Some of the bees twirl up as I do, agitated. I lay down a bit more smoke and continue my examination.

What I am looking for in the frames are a number of things. Damage to the individual cells by wax moths is a big element, as it not only indicates an infestation but also that the hive may not have been strong enough to resist the attack, thus meaning they are weaker and I may have to take other actions. Sealed comb or accessed comb mean the bees had sufficient food and were using it. The best sign – brood cells – would mean that the queen was laying within a week or so my opening the hive.

If I can get away with just opening the upper deep at this point I will; every time I manipulate the frames and the hive I run the risk of damaging the bees or even worse, the queen. I am fortunate this time in that in both cases, I can see brood cells. The queens are still alive, or at least recently.

I will carefully undo my progress – placing the frames back into the hive, placing the feeder on top and then refilling it one last time, and then placing the overhive lid on it all – and leave them be at this point. The excluder – that small part of wood at the base of the hive that restricts the entry of cold and invaders during Winter (and not just insects; mice will move in if given the chance) will be flipped over to the larger of the two entrances; if the weather continues to improve I may remove it completely in my next visit.

I was fortunate in that both of my hives have survived the Winter and appear healthy. A number of things play at my mind even as I remove my gear and tap out the smoker: queens are not eternal and will either the hive replace them or the colony will die. Mine are perhaps two years old; queens can go for five years but their productivity decreases every year. There are ways to effectively “create” your own queens by gathering queen cells and nurturing them; like many other things, I have a book on it but have never done it. And looking forward to Winter next year, likely I will run short of the syrup I use to feed them as I myself am low on sugar. This means either I pull less honey and leave more for the bees or trade for sugar – likely both.

My reward for a bee visit well done, as it always is, is to take some time with a cool beverage and chair and watch the bees as they enter and exit the hive. Bee society is orderly and controlled; I could watch them interact for hours and in years past, have done so.

It comforts me, Lucilius, to know that even if human society has broken down, other societies remain intact.

Your Obedient Servant, Seneca


  1. Excellent chapter. They're all good, but I especially like ones like this, that paint a picture of something practical. I tend to learn a lot of interesting things from reading good fiction!

    1. Thanks Leigh! This was done entirely from memory of when I had bees; I surely miss them. They would be the first sort of "livestock" I would get if I had the opportunity.

  2. Nylon125:15 AM

    Knowing next to nothing about bees save for honey! This post made for some careful reading TB, a solid addition to the Collapse saga.

    1. Nylon12 - Bees are endlessly fascinating creatures; I miss having them greatly. Besides honey, we derive beeswax (not only for candles, but for furniture wax, casting, salves, etc.), pollen, and propolis (a sticky brown substance the bees use to plug the holes, as indicating. Also good for humans plugging holes and used in such odd things as violin varnish). Plus all the good pollinating they do. I truly miss having them.

  3. I think I've mentioned it before but at one point, my parents had around 140 colonies of bees. We often bought new queens for older hives. They came in a small wooden box with a hole that was plugged with "candy" on one end. We would search through the hive with the old non-productive queen and kill her and then set the new queen in a box inside. By the time the candy was eaten, they were familiar with her scent and she could set up shop.

    1. Ed, I think you have as well. The method you speak of is one that is commercially used for sure (In lieu of the candy, marshmallows will also work). In a more or less grid down situation, I would imagine one would have to find ways to mimic the actual hive replacement.

  4. I read through all the chapters; very enjoyable. Question: what does Seneca do with the rabbits? Pets? Protein? If it was mentioned I missed it.


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