What doesn’t kill your bees makes them stronger

There is a saying in beekeeping circles to “be a bee keeper, not a bee haver.” It expresses the notion that we should intervene with our bees when necessary to keep them alive, as a farmer typically does with any other livestock. The measurement of success for “keeping” your bees is for them to live through the winter and into spring. It is easy to have bees and then watch them die over the winter due to lack of food or varroa infestation; it is much harder to keep them healthy until the spring nectar flow begins. Be a bee keeper, not a bee haver.

I seem to be skirting the line between having and keeping bees lately.

180131a Mars Bees

Dead bees between the frames of Mars. ©Erik Brown

I mentioned in my last post that Callisto had perished, and that I did not expect Mars to survive. This turned out to be very true, as the prior picture illustrates. I was surprised by how many bees I found in the hive. No food anywhere, although there was sugar on top. The bees were in the middle of three boxes, and I think with our freezing temperatures they couldn’t reach the top and simply ran out of food.

Today I realized that I had a number of honey frames from Callisto, and perhaps I could put them in my remaining hives. I don’t why this didn’t occur to me before; the mark of an inexperience, I suppose.

So today I went out before the rain started to add some frames to my remaining Langstroth hive, Ganymede. From the remains of Callisto I found 8 frames with capped brood. It was just starting to rain when I found Ganymede a very quiet hive. Dead bees on the bottom board and no food in the hive. They were flying last month when it was warm, so this was rather disheartening and I only wish I had thought to add food earlier.

Fearing the worst, I opened up the back of my weakest top bar hive, Venus. As I moved through the frames back to front, there was nothing. No food, no buzz, no honey.

Finally near the front third I could hear the bees buzzing. I closed it up and placed two medium honey frames in the back of the hive (orthogonal to the bars). Had to break some comb away to set them on the floor, but food is more important than comb right now. We are due for rain tomorrow with 60+ F (15+ C) temperatures, so they can pull the honey if they need it.

I also opened the back of Titan and placed two medium honey combs inside. This hive has much bigger combs (about twice the size of Venus) and was stronger in December. I could hear the bees buzzing on the other side of the follower board.

So, that’s my update. My three Langstroth hives are now dead, and I tried to prop up my three top bar hives. I am fairly certain that my problems late last summer with varroa mites was a prime contributor to my current problems. Randy Oliver has been writing a great series in the American Bee Journal on varroa mites. His February article was especially good and will eventually appear on his site at scientificbeekeeping.com.

Last year at this time the crocus and maple were about to bloom; this year the cold weather lingers and the first flowers are likely weeks away. Hopefully the remaining bees will make it.

180127 Bee Store

In other news, we have a new local bee store selling beekeeping supplies and bee-themed clothing and other items. Visit their store at yourbeestore.com. ©Erik Brown

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

These words were the subject of a recent Idiomation post, where blogger Elyse Bruce traced the origin to an 1888 work by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Bruce also points to a 2017 report of the same name discussing a study showing this effect: short term bodily stress does in fact lead to long-term benefits.

When I saw the post last week, I immediately thought of Mars and my dead bees. Little did I know that Ganymede was also under stress. This experience will certainly make my bee-keeping stronger; hopefully my remaining hives will come out of winter a bit stronger as well.

May you prosper and find honey.

7 thoughts on “What doesn’t kill your bees makes them stronger

  1. Erik, Thanks for posting this. There is current some interest locally in exploring Thomas Seeley’s Darwinian beekeeping model. That’s well and good for those that can fully grasp the implications. I see it more as an experiment in Beehaving. I wish them well but will stay with Beekeeping which, I find, is more challenging and more rewarding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seeley’s model of using a 10-frame deep for the entire hive might work with Varroa resistant bees. I think you’d need to monitor mite loads and kill off any hive that became a mite bomb, otherwise it would overwhelm other hives. Folks seem to think all bees are created equal, and it just isn’t true. Most Italian bees would die a horrible death under Seeley’s model, as they just don’t have the temperament. As you say, you have to grasp the implications.

      My current view is that you are better off in most areas with a traditional beekeeping model. Learn the ropes first, and then once you understand the biology and your local seasons you can try other approaches. Clearly I am not there yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sad for you to hear this. You care about your bees and did your best for them. Just a thought – you mentioned three boxes in Mars – I’ve found in the past that bees can do well condensed into as small as space as possible overwinter, into one ten frame brood box even, or a brood box and a smaller super, providing that the box/boxes are packed full with honey on every frame and fondant on top. That way they have a smaller space to keep warm and it’s easier for them to reach the honey. Perhaps you have bigger colonies than I am used to though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, that is a good thought. I have 8-frame boxes, so the recommendation is normally to have three mediums (which I had), or one deep and one medium. I have used two in the past and found that I could not reverse brood boxes in the spring because the colony had brood in both boxes. So was trying to use three in hopes of reversing in a month or so. Of course, that didn’t work so well.

      I do think it would have been beneficial to consolidate on one of our warm days in the last couple months. Remove empty frames and perhaps a whole box just like you mentioned. If I had done this in Ganymede the cluster would have been closer to the sugar and perhaps they would have survived.

      It stopped raining late this afternoon and my three top bar hives were flying. The do seem to winter well for some reason. Cross your fingers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Emily. In theory, during the winter the bees move up in the hive to access stored honey stores. So by spring the bottom box tends to be rather empty. Reversing the brood boxes puts an empty brood box over the brood chamber both for storing honey and for the queen to lay in. This is supposed to discourage swarming.

        Without reversing, the bees may start to store honey in the bottom box. The workers fill up the bottom and then move up to the brood boxes, and the queen becomes honey bound. Without places to lay the hive swarms.

        Again, in theory, reversing works better than just adding honey supers to the colony. I was able to do it on one hive last year and it did indeed seem to help. Maybe next year.

        Liked by 1 person

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