Autumn (Again!) in the Apiary–2019

This is a LOOOOONG post, so grab some coffee/tea, put your feet up, and dive in! I learned so very much this summer season in my bee garden! Let me take you on a little trip around my yard, and tell you how each hive has fared this year. First, I began in the spring with one hive loss. It was Gobnait, my little log hive, and the fault was mine. She was in too damp an area in the yard, and I failed to notice that.

When colonies fail, I feel sad, but when they fail on my account, I feel wretched and guilty. Such losses encourage me to slow down, take more observation time, and never assume I know what is going on–always good practice in life as well as in bees.

I began the spring with five colonies–four in skeps, one in my wall. Two of the colonies were struggling: Valentine, my wall hive was down to a small handful of bees. And Faith colony was very small from what I could determine by looking at the bees coming and going in early March. Let’s start with Valentine:

Yes, she was looking quite empty inside and out in early spring. I had watched through the plexiglas panel in my bedroom wall as she quietly shrunk all winter. After winter Solstice, I hoped to see some evidence that her queen remained, but there were no eggs or larvae. The weeks passed, and by mid-February, with little to no activity in the hive, and a small patch of bees and honey remaining, I figured I had lost her.

I was making mental plans to introduce a new swarm to her to bring her back to life, checking in on her every few days and wringing my hands. Then, in mid-March, I went out of town for a few days. When I came back, I pulled aside the quilt drape away from the plexiglas that covered Valentine from the inside and…SHOCK! The hive was top to bottom, sealed brood!

Because of the light film of proplis covering the plexiglas on the inside, I had not been able to see eggs and small larvae, but I could certainly see the shimmering faces of the sealed brood combs. Valentine was back in full swing, and–of course–her honey stores lasted til the very day when the fruit trees launched into bloom. Valentine had timed everything with exquisite perfection. She knew just when to start brooding up, and just how long her honey stores would last. All my anxiety had been for nothing (as it usually is)!

Valentine went on to send out three lovely swarms in June. After the last, the hive went quiet. I’d been hearing piping queens in my room each day and night since the Mother swarm had taken flight. Now all was still. On a whim, I peeked into the hive one evening during the silence, and watched in shock as a throng of bees chased a peeping virgin queen up and around the hive, attempting to kill her. She was one of the queens left behind after the last daughter swarm. We read that the “new queen” dispatches the remaining virgins, but that was not what I saw. It was the bees who were on a mission to destroy.

Quickly, I dropped the curtain. I know this is how it is with bees, but I could not watch. The following morning, I found four beautiful dark virgin queens dead outside the hive. I collected them into a small box, feeling sad and sobered. I wondered who the reigning queen of the hive might be. Two weeks later, I saw her moving in stately fashion across the brood combs, refilling each empty cell with a carefully deposited egg. She was gorgeous, big, and bright orange, just as her mother had been.

And what of Valentine’s Mother Swarm? Well, she is now ensconced in Genesis hive:

Genesis was my first skep, and she is a biggy–64 liters large. I keep my skeps at around 32 liters, so you can imagine the interior of Genesis. I did not want so large a hive, and also Genesis had been woven only 1-1/2 inches thick instead of the full 2 inches I now weave. What to do? Well, my Sun Hive bottom basket was empty, and I never intended to put the Sun Hive back into use, so I crammed the bottom basket up into the interior of Genesis. She is now a double-thick skep!

Valentine’s old queen and her sisters set to making a new fresh nest, and within a month, had Genesis 2/3rds full of fresh, bone-white combs. Today, in mid-Autumn, the hive is thickly honey-scented as the bees complete their last foraging in the ivy flowers before winter’s rest.

Because Valentine swarmed in late June, I fed Genesis for many weeks from a ball jar afixed to the side of their log-floor eco-box. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to be able to keep that swarm. They could just as easily have swarmed far away and high up, and I would have waved a hearty, sad goodbye to them. When you have a hive in your bedroom, you get really attached to them!

The most generous hive this past summer was Hope:

Hope perches above her eco-floor.

Bless her huge heart: she swarmed five times this summer, one after the other after the other. I was also blessed to be able to gather her Mother Swarm, and she is now living in the Charity skep. Hope swarmed to my neighbor’s fence, then to her butterfly bush. Then to her bird feeder. Then she headed for my vine maple, and again a couple days later back to the butterfly bush.

My neighbor was so excited about this “bee thing” that she rushed out and purchased one of our groups wooden habitat boxes, that mimic a log hive of much less weight. So, now Amanda and Lee have Hope in their yard, too! Several other friends and neighbors have Hope in their yards now! Her generosity enabled me to be equally generous with my bee-wanting friends.

I was happy to see Hope so full of fruitful abandon, but I was a bit concerned, too. In my bee garden, hives that swarm so many times often swarm themselves out and do not recover. Sadly, this was the case with Hope. After her final Daughter Swarm, I watched her closely looking for signs that she had successfully mated a new queen. When I saw that the bees were no longer bringing in pollen, I knew that I would lose her. She survived until late summer, when her few remaining bees were robbed out and wax moths took over the hive.

But, in truth, I still have Hope. She now lives with her old queen in Charity hive. And they have quite a summer story of their own to tell:

Because Hope’s Mother Swarm was so early in April, I was wondering if she would build up and begin sending her own swarms in June. I’ve had this happen many times–the Mother goes on to greater abundance and more swarms fly forth. My concern about this is really nothing other than sheer selfishness: Should Charity swarm, her old queen (the queen who had been Hope) would leave, and I would be so sad to lose this familiar and amazing queen. I had no more skeps to fill, so this swarm would need to go to friends.

Sure enough, right around the time of Valentine’s June swarms, Charity started sending out a large beard of bees. In my wooden hives, a beard can mean a swarm or it can just be a beard responding to heat inside the hive. But with the skeps in my yard, a big beard means a swarm.

For days I watched this mass of bees clustered on the back of the hive, thousands strong. “Any day…” I kept saying to myself. But, curiously, “any day” never came. Nor did the beard disperse. Charity was so packed tight with bees, the swarm bees could not move back in. So, in an activity I’ve never seen, the Charity swarm got very busy propolizing the outside of the hive. Her bees would forage during the day, then return to sleep outside the hive.

I have all my hives under cover, so I knew they were protected from the elements, but Charity got very defensive. While I used to be able to sit beside her for long periods of happy observation, she’d send guards from the swarm bees out to sting me if I visited for more than a few minutes. The bee understood their vulnerability, and I was happy to give them the privacy they desired.

In late September, the weather started getting colder. Bee numbers began dropping in all the hives as foragers were lost in the field, and less bees where being born to cover the losses. Day by day, Charity’s swarm bees began moving into the hive. I know this because there were no piles of dead bees outside the hive on the ground. By the first week in October, Charity was all of one hive. And the outside of the log and the skep have blocks of beautiful red propolis spread around all the edges!

Meanwhile, at the far end of the yard, next to Genesis, Faith hive was entering the spring very slowly…

As March lengthened, I saw only a tiny amount of activity in Faith hive, but when I put my ear to her side, I heard a full roaring of bees. This remained an utter conundrum for me until–on a sunny, warmish day–I tipped her back to have a look inside. Bees poured out in large numbers like prisoners released, and indeed, prisoners they were!

The previous August, against my better judgement, I had tipped Faith up to show her interior to a group of students. As I was placing the hive back down, I saw a comb begin to fail. No matter, I told myself. She’s got plenty of time to fix this before winter. What I did not see was that the comb had fallen against the comb next to it, causing a cascade of four full combs which flopped agains the side of the hive, blocking a large part of the opening, and imprisoning a large cluster of bees behind it.

Fortunately, it seems the prisoner bees had enough honey to get them through the winter, but boy, were they mad! Many many bees buzzed in protest around my head as I mumbled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” I raced back into the house to grab a veil (I rarely work with bee gear on) because I needed to cut back those collapsed combs and give them their space back, and I knew they were not going to be pleased.

I clipped the four combs off short, as they were all empty. I peeked back inside of Faith a few weeks later to find many beautiful new white combs, and very calm, gentle bees. I believe now that they must have been cussing me all winter long, and I’m grateful for their forgiveness. Here in the middle of Autumn, Faith is flourishing.

My remaining skep, Feather, has gone through this whole growing season as she has done for the past for years–without a single kurfluffle.

Year in, year out, Feather is a wonder of organization and productivity. She will rarely let me sit near her, chasing me off after less than a minute. “I’m busy!!” she says, “Outta my way!” I respect that, and watch her from many feet away. She swarmed three times, always to the massive maple tree in the yard behind mine, each swarm gathering at the very top of the tree far above my reach. Where she goes, nobody knows. I hope she’s found suitable nest for herself, and sends her good drones our way.

As the garden begins welcoming the colors of fall, I reflect back on all I’ve learned this year with bees in skeps.

My biggest takeaway is that bees in these hives behave differently. They build up differently, and each seems to wait til September before really setting in winter stores. In these small, naturally insulated hives, they need only a fraction of the honey stores of bees in wooden boxes. They also come out of winter strong and boisterous, so strong they almost intimidate me.

After a good few years experimenting with bees in a wide variety of hive boxes, I know that I’ve found my “home” with skeps. I love the look of them, the making of them, and the way my bees thrive in them. I don’t manage them as they would be in a typical skep apiary where honey is gathered and bees drummed into fresh skeps, or combined with weak colonies. I just let them all on hollow log rounds or eco-floor boxes, and let them be. All my observation these days comes from watching them at their entryways, listening to their song, and noting how the bees come and go: with strong determination (meaning all is well), or puttering about on the landing board with little direction (meaning there is a problem they are working on).

This year, I am going to try, for the first time, to affix a quart ball jar to the top of the skeps that have holes crafted into their tops, and see if this might be a way to take a small amount of honey for the family. I’ll let you know how that goes!

And…take note that I’ve added a page to this blog on beginning your own skep!


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