Things are not as dead as they appear

I didn't take pictures of the bees in the basement--I wasn't in the mood to document my shame--but here are the hives in the greenhouse.

I didn’t take pictures of the bees in the basement–I wasn’t in the mood to document my shame–but here are the hives in the greenhouse.

I mentioned in the previous post that my bee dreams, like the plans of Robert Burns’s mouse, were going agley. Some of this “agleyness” was due to circumstances beyond my control. For one thing, although I’d selected the last possible delivery date in the hope that the weather would have warmed by then, the week following their April 25 arrival was marked by freakishly chilly and rainy weather. A day or two wouldn’t have been so bad, but the bees were too cold to leave their clusters and find the sugar water feeders. I could see the cluster in the hive that Paul built—he’d installed an observation window—and I could see big clumps of bees peeling off their cluster and falling to the floor, leaving the end of the queen cage visible. We still had several more days with highs in the forties—too cold for bees to fly—and I figured the queen would freeze to death if her colony kept failing.

There were great piles of motionless bees in front of that hive and on the floor; many had never made it from the package into the hive, and others had been poured into the hive but never made it to the cluster. But I read about chill comas in bees, so I decided to see if some of them might still be alive. I took a pair of dead-seeming bees from the package, put them in a jar, and brought them into the house overnight. The experiment confirmed that things aren’t always as dead as they appear: the next morning, one was still unequivocally dead, but the other was wandering dazedly around the jar.

My heart leapt—there was hope! I figured if many of the bees were still alive, they could be warmed up and become active enough to reach the feeder, so they might be saved. (I’d read that bees can stay in chill comas up to 50 hours before dying, but there were still at least four days of cold weather in the forecast.)

I shared my theory with my husband Paul, who heroically purchased heat-exuding light bulbs and placed them in each hive. I checked on the window hive as soon as he’d told me what he’d done, and sure enough, the mound of bees on the floor was moving. My husband was Bee Jesus! I ran back in, full of excitement and praise for another in his series of miracles. (See My Divine Husband if you’d care to read about his cake candle miracle.)

Unfortunately, my Bee Jesus was a little too divine. When I checked again, the bees were flying frantically around their hive, and the queen was abandoned to the withering heat and light. I quickly unplugged the bulbs and realized I needed a literal Plan Bee.

My plan for saving my bees was, unfortunately, incredibly ill-advised. Realizing this, I failed to mention to Paul as he left for work that I was planning to bring the window hive into the basement. We have an unfinished room that houses the furnace. I figured if I plugged all the exit holes and brought the hive indoors, the bees could feed inside the hive until it was warm enough to put them back outside. I would leave the board covering the mesh bottom slightly open for ventilation.

As soon as Paul left for work (I had a feeling he would NOT be a fan of bees in the basement, so my plan had remained classified), I trundled the hive through the basement door. Unfortunately, my trundling was abruptly halted when the hive wedged in the doorway. No matter how hard I tugged, it was stuck; I could budge it not at all.

To make matters worse, the top bars had fallen off the hive and exposed the bees, who were beginning to revive in the basement’s warmth. Faced with a firmly wedged hive and an increasingly agitated mass of bees, I placed a frantic phone call to my husband, who proved himself a hero on multiple fronts.

Front 1: He yanked the hive through the door with a mighty tug, freeing it but shattering the observation window in the process.

Front 2: He calmly placed the shutter over the window, replaced the top bars and roof, and placed the hive into its temporary basement home.

Front 3: He refrained from all the commentary he was so richly entitled to.

Mission accomplished, he returned to his work and left me to get ready for mine, which I did with a sense of relief.

The relief was diminished, though, when I returned home and found bees flying frantically all over the furnace room. Fortunately, I’d had the sense (generally sorely lacking) sense to shut the door leading to the rest of the house, so they were confined to the unfinished area. Even so , I felt some profound beekeeper guilt over the frantically spiraling bees, and entering the room was not a feat to be undertaken casually.

In the meantime, cold and brutal winds were continuing to buffet the second hive, and I was getting increasingly anxious about that one as well. An experienced beekeeper had told me to put a baggie of sugar with slits in it directly over the cluster, moisten it lightly, and move the bars slightly apart so the bees could crawl up and get to it. I did, and it seemed to help. Even so, the cold was continuing unabated, and I worried.

Then my ever-resourceful husband moved both hives into our miniature greenhouse, where they sojourned for several days. The bees from the second hive were soon exploring their new home, but the bees from the window hive remained virtually motionless. A few of them gathered in sullen little clusters on the roof, heads together, apparently grumbling in Bee Language, but they made no effort to explore or build comb. I had a bad feeling about their fate.

When the weather finally became, if not seasonably warm, at least more tolerable, we moved the beehives to their original location in the fenced chicken pen. The stronger colony quickly adapted to its new situation, but the weaker one died off quietly. Every time I peered through the window, the few bees that were left were mostly clinging despondently to the wall, with only a few wandering aimlessly up and down.

I was sad for this downtrodden little colony that I’d tried so desperately to save, but it’s probably for the best; Paul realized he’d used mesh that was too wide when he built it, allowing the bees to wander into hive compartments and possibly build comb where they shouldn’t, so he’s going to have to replace it. He’d already replaced the window when quite a few of the bees were still in the hive, but the mesh-replacement operation would have been extremely difficult with a full colony occupying the premises.

I’d known when I’d first gotten bees that I had to be prepared to lose some or all of them; the bee books’ pages and pages dedicated to bee diseases, predators, and potentially fatal beekeeper errors are not for the faint of heart. Even so, I hadn’t expected to lose one so soon. Fortunately, the stronger colony seems like a band of survivors, and their perpetual activity will, I hope, keep me occupied the rest of the summer .

This is the hive with the observation window that Paul built. After having been in the greenhouse for a couple of days, it's covered with bee poo, as are pretty much all of my gardening tools. Now THAT was an issue I hadn't anticipated...

This is the hive with the observation window that Paul built. After having been in the greenhouse for a couple of days, it’s covered with bee poo, as are pretty much all of my gardening tools. Now THAT was an issue I hadn’t anticipated…



  1. You are giving your readers quite an education. This is Bee-yond Bodacious! Who knew bees could be retrieved from comas. Or that you conjured a Plan Bee. Also, I want to know more about your husband’s cake candle miracle.

    Of course, I will have to forward this post to son Joel, the Beekeeper. Keep the stories coming, Rebecca.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, not to mention your bee puns! I hope all is well with you and your beekeeper son!

  3. After one Queen abdicated, he has found another one to wear the crown, or so I think. Thanks for your interest in urban beekeeper son.

  4. I suppose if one can say, “The King is dead! Long live the King!” the same goes for queens…It’s good to know he found another one to carry on the royal traditions!

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