Monday, December 23, 2013

Putting the Bees to Bed

It's a good thing we live in North Carolina, and that we're having an especially mild winter. By the end of December, the bees would normally be done for the year, clustering within their hive for warmth, living off their stores of honey. But this past week, the temperatures have been in the upper 70s during the day, the low 60s at night. The bees have been active, flying in and out of the hive, foraging for food and water. And so we decided to open them up one last time, to see if they had enough to eat, if they'd filled the honey super, if we needed to treat them for pests. We picked a warm, sunny day, waited until late afternoon, then put on our Tyvek paint suits (a poor man's bee suit) and lit the smoker. 

Even after two years of beekeeping, I still get nervous when we open the hive. I usually take the photos and let Nathan do the actual inspecting, but this time I decided to be brave and lifted a few frames out myself. I didn't drop the frame, and I didn't get stung. Mabye I should be brave more often. 

The lower hive body was full of honey as well as a fair amount of bees, which was reassuring. Nathan saw some brood, too, though we expected the numbers to be lower than in, say, the middle of July, when the hive's population is at its highest. The bees seemed like they were in a good mood, for which we were grateful. 

Most of the bees were hanging out in the middle hive body. Tons of capped cells, lots of honey, some brood. And so many bees! No matter how many times we open the hive, I am always mesmerized by the sight of all those bees. I often sit near the entrance of the hive and watch them fly in and out, but the experience of opening the lid, going inside, and lifting out a frame is different. It feels intimate, as if we're witnessing something that's supposed to stay in the dark. 

We finished our inspection by checking out the honey super, which we had placed on top of the hive bodies sometime in mid-August. We'd put a queen excluder between the super and the hive body, which meant the queen couldn't lay any eggs in the very top part of the hive. We'd hoped that the bees would fill the super with excess honey, and that we'd be able to harvest it for ourselves, but I think we put it on too late in the season, as it was basically empty. We removed it, so that the bees would have less space to keep warm during the cold months. Maybe next year. We also replaced the hive beetle traps, filled with mineral oil, as they're a fairly dependable pest in these parts. We saw a few in the hive, but not too many. Hopefully it will stay that way. 

Even though we've yet to get honey from our bees, I'm beginning to feel a bit more like an actual beekeeper. I learn something new every time we open the hive, even if it's just how to keep my breathing slow and steady, my hands strong and certain, as I lift a frame out of the hive. We won't be opening the hive again until spring - we were lucky for the chance to work them this late in the year. I'll miss seeing their late afternoon cloud when everyone's coming home at once (I like to call this "rush hour") but I know it's what they need to do, and I will do my best to remain patient. 

See you in the spring, bees! Until then, stay fat and warm.