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Where Old Honey Frames Go

January 11, 2010

January 26, 2009

Burn season in Orleans opened January 15th. I have called in my permit number three times already, a lucky thing so early in the season. Sizzling wax and blazing flames colored the first burns of the year. I tossed a few dozen wax beehive frames on a pile of brush that has been building for months, and then I added all the chunky stumps I could find. As I write there is a glow in the yard. (Shhhhhhh…)

Meanwhile, there are four very still beehives standing resolute on the hill beyond the goat house. One holds a swarm hived last summer that did not have adequate time to build up big numbers to survive the winter. The old saying goes, “A swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.” Our tenacious little gang is hanging in there, but the hard season for bees is still ahead. If they survive the deep freezes, they still may run out of stores and starve before spring’s warmth provides them with temperatures suitable for flying and something to forage in the wild. If the colony is particularly small and the weather particularly cold, the bees will actually starve to death rather than leave the protective cluster around the queen to retrieve food from the frames above them. That’s dedication.

I cautiously predict another of the hives to survive the winter and get ready to swarm early. When I last checked, the hive was packed with bees, in both deep supers (the large boxes that make up the lower levels of the hive.)  I thought about feeding them, but realized there was no space for syrup feeders. This colony will require timely management in the coming spring. Without more space for the bees to store honey and pollen and the queen to lay eggs, she will quickly decide to take off with all the “field bees,” or those who have graduated to jobs outside the hive. A swarming queen takes an estimated third of the bees with her when she leaves. More importantly, the virgin queen left behind will not be laying eggs for at least three weeks, putting production back substantially.

All of the “in-hive” beekeeping is over, or ahead, depending on how you look at it. Winter is the time to go over the lessons learned in the previous seasons and make plans for the next warm months. It is not only reflection that has to take place while the bees huddle around their queen. Frames that hold wax for the bees to build out into comb have to be assembled to be ready to throw onto the hives as soon as the weather stays warm. Drawn comb is framed wax that has already been labored over by the bees for a season and is the preferred stuff to drop into a hive. It saves the bees a lot of energy, as they can start storing honey and pollen and the queen can lay eggs in it right away, as opposed to having to first make the wax. Bees make wax from their heads, but that’s another story.

I am still taking inventory of the drawn comb suitable for use in the hives. I have been careful with the frames each season and have managed to avoid having to chuck a large number of them. But I made most of these frames in the winter of 2002. Time flies and hives die. The wood used is soft pine. They get moldy, chewed on, scraped by the beekeeper and irretrievably warped from being spun in the centrifuge of the big honey extractor. So they have to be disposed of, and the easiest means is burning.

The smoke of winter’s fire will soon be replaced by the smoke of summer’s beekeeping. To get into a hive, the beekeeper uses a smoker to fool the bees into thinking the forest is burning and they are next. They gorge on honey in preparation to escape, and thus become slow and too lazy to sting, or so the theory goes. Why they don’t actually split, I don’t know. I do know that if you move too fast over a beehive, the bees forget all those calories they consumed and attack you.

The alarm scent is one of the few pheromones bees produce that humans can smell. It smells like banana oil, and just after you take that in and marvel at it, the bees cover your veil and hands and crawl up your legs and arms and try to sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony. Only a queen can sting more than once. All the other honeybees that shoot their stinger at you die soon after. It is also interesting to note that drones, or male honeybees, can’t sting. They don’t do anything other than mate with the queen, after which they explode in mid-air and die. They are so useless in the hive, they actually have to be dug out of their cells at birth by the female bees. Any honeybee seen foraging in the field is a female.

The beekeeper uses the smoke judiciously; a little smoke at the entrance to push back the guard bees and a puff under the top cover to quiet the hive before opening it up to the light. But the smoker is always close at hand and ready should the bees get rowdy. The mysteries of the hive can lead to a neglected fire in the smoker, and getting to the pack of matches in a bee suit can be challenging. As the beekeeper moves, like a Tai Chi practitioner, slowly above and behind the hives, a gentle puffing of the smoker’s bellows becomes part of the quiet choreography.

At 20 degrees, with wind off the Cove from the Northeast, the bees are crowding tight in the center of the hives. The gorgeous scent of a healthy hive rising on warm air fanned by thousands of tiny wings beating in the open box below seems like a far-away fantasy. Soon, though, soon, we will grow very quiet and open the hives.

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