Check your hives regularly!

Today’s article is a timely reminder to check your hives regularly – even when it’s over 35 degrees Celsius outside for 4 weeks in a row. Stick to your calendar of when to check and find a way to get it done or your procrastinating and the bees could make life hard.

Unfortunately I work my hives alone more often than not. As such, I have no photos of this experience but for any beekeeper out there, I’m sure you can imagine the kind of sticky situation I got myself into.

I have two Langstroth hives that are away from the main apiary. They are handmade and wooden. They are built to get eight frames in with very little gap or six frames jammed in next to an internal frame feeder. They don’t fit in the apiary and I knew we were moving in a matter of weeks when I purchased them. I placed them side-by-side, 3 full depth boxes on each, with bees only filling out 5 or 6 frames of the single brood box on each hive. I added an internal frame feeder to both hives and fed them to give them a boost as they had next to no honey stores. Easy. Wrong!

I went and checked them in two weeks time and noted one was definitely out performing the other. The out performing hive was bustling with bees and had already started building comb in the second box (the first honey super). I was impressed. I left the feeder in this box just in case a summer dearth reduced the hive’s honey stores to nothing and they needed another fed. That was my first mistake. The second hive was going about things slow and steady. There were two empty frames in the brood box and they hadn’t made it up to the honey super yet. Their stores were far smaller than the first hive. So I left the frame feeder in this hive as well.

Then summer really hit. We had a week of temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius followed by four days of temperatures of above 40 degrees (above 104 degrees Fahrenheit). This was followed by a cool change of another week of temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. It was the hottest January on record. I moved my course time forward where possible so we started as early as possible to beat the heat. I used the courses to check all the hives in the apiary and made a couple of quick dashes to my three nucs to ensure they were coping in the heat. I looked out at the two hives away from the apiary and told myself I would check them as soon as the weather cooled down a bit. This was my second mistake. As a beekeeper if a job needs doing you must do it now!

After four weeks of not checking on these two hives I decided I had to get out to them early the next day and give them a look through. The bees are placed on an area that it is really hard to get my fold-up table to. Usually I bring the table out to reduce the amount of bending and to work on/in boxes without having them on the floor. The temperature was due to reach 37 degrees and I was at the hives by 8 o’clock in the morning. The underperformer showed a small improvement. They bees had started drawing out a couple of frames in the first honey super (middle box) and had lots of honey, capped brood, larvae and eggs. All was well here. The over performing hive was heavy. I took the top box off and there were a few bees milling about on the frames but no wax. I could see into the first honey super (middle box) and was gob smacked. The six frames next to the frame feeder all looked like they were almost full of honey, most of it with a beautiful, white wax capping on it. Good times, or so I thought. I tried to take the frame feeder out and it was sealed in firm. The bees had propolised it to the frame next to it and the wall on the other side. What I learnt later was they had also attached wax between the feeder and frame as well. 

So after a lot of poking and prodding, some dripping honey and brute force I was able to remove the frame feeder. This exposed a 50 percent full frame of capped and uncapped honey though I couldn’t tell what honey was uncapped and what honey I had uncapped prying out the frame feeder. Things were seriously sticky already. I then tried to separate the frames to inspect the honey. Things went downhill quickly from here. All six frames were sealed together by a combination of capped and uncapped honey in pristine, white wax cells. Using my hive tool to slice through the honey filled wax I separated the first two frames. Wax fell off of the frame and honey poured down into the brood box below. I did the same for the next frame and had the same result. I decided I would try and remove the super from the hive and work the frames on the ground. Not a chance. The bees had built burr comb between the brood box, queen excluder and the honey super, completely sticking the two boxes together. With honey covered gloves I thought I had no choice but to continue. My third mistake!

Eventually I had pried all six frames apart. The result was a flood of honey and broken wax, some capped, some uncapped that sat on the bottom of the frames in the honey super. I was exasperated I was wasting so much honey and killing so many bees in my poor recovery attempt. There was honey and bees everywhere. The bees quickly started bearding on the front of the hive. I assumed they weren’t so keen on the honey raining down on them and quite literally flooding the bottom of the hive. I had to come up with a better plan.

I found my last empty hive that I had picked up a few days earlier (by sheer luck!), a new pair of gloves, an empty 4lt ice-cream tub and brought them over to the honey catastrophe site. I moved the existing hive a couple of metres and forced the two boxes apart. I placed the clean hive at the original site. I slowly transferred all of the frames from the brood box into the new hive, making sure to cut all burr comb from the bottom of the frames before transferring them across. I then set about squashing all the honey and wax that had broken off of the frames into the ice-cream container. Each frame from the honey super I picked up I checked for broken wax and once I had cleaned them up as good as possible I transferred the frame into the new hive. I filled the ice-cream container with wax and honey and needed to compact it all to ensure I could carry all of the wax and honey in one trip. 

I shook as many bees as possible into the new hive from the frames and sticky old boxes. The wax and honey was taken to my freezer to chill for 24 hours. After which it was strained and the wax rendered. The honey was placed in an airtight container and I will try using it as a rooting agent to propagate some plants in the new garden. The old hive was hosed down with water to remove the honey and minimise robbing and left in the sun to dry off. I’m still not sure as to the best way to store this hive over winter or whether I should even keep it. I will think about it and see how many ants it attracts in the coming days.

The bees remained bearded on the new hive for several hours. I was hoping they would return to the frames and save the brood, larvae and eggs. The queen and how lucky I am will largely determine whether they stay or abscond. I definitely killed many hundreds of bees today (and copped two stings for my troubles). If I haven’t killed the queen there is a chance she will head back into the hive. If I have killed her who know whether the colony will stay and try to raise a new queen or abscond and find anew home? Only time will tell.

At 8 o’clock at night I checked the hive and the bees were still bearding on the outside. As luck would have it we experienced a severe electrical storm during the night with multiple lightning strikes in close proximity to the apiary and plenty of rain. The bees were still feared on the front of the hive come sunrise. Some of them had started moving around (hopefully getting ready to head back into the hive).

I checked back in on the hive a couple of days later (when the temperature was reaching almost 40 degrees Celsius and was very pleased to see an enormous beard on the front of the hive. It appears for now I was able to save this colony.

I was extremely happy to see the bees bearding on this hive a few days after my honey misadventure.

Lessons of the days

  • Always make the time to check ALL of your hives.
  • Don’t leave internal feeders in place when you aren’t feeding your colonies.
  • Do not try to repair burr comb in a box on top of the hive. Always take it off of the hive and then work on it.
  • Learn from your mistakes and ensure you don’t repeat them!

Thanks for reading, enjoy your journey!

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