As I mentioned previously, the stronger colony has represented its own significant chapter in the beekeeping saga. Happily, it’s still gamely carrying on no matter what idiot mistakes I make.
And my first idiot mistake was a doozy, at least from my perspective. I had gone out early one morning to check their sugar water feeder and, since the weather was starting to warm up, I decided I might as well expand their “bee bowl” before they got too cramped.
According to The Thinking Beekeeper by Christy Hemenway, which has been my favorite reference in this beekeeping endeavor, the “bee bowl” is the empty area into which the bees are initially poured and where they will build their first comb. Generally, it should be ten bars wide, but Paul had made it five due to the cold weather. I was worried that they’d fill up the small space too quickly, so I got the bright idea of making it a couple of bars wider as long as I was out there. Since I hadn’t planned to work in the bee space, I hadn’t put on my bee veil. “What the heck?” I thought. “It’s early, it’s too cool for the bees to fly, and this colony has been surprisingly docile so far. It will just take me a second…”
My bad. Although most of the bees buzzed around bemusedly when I moved the bars, one kamikaze immediately flew up and stung me in the cheek. I quickly moved the bars, and I realized that there had been comb hanging from the queen cage, but it was now on the floor of the hive. I pulled the queen cage (which had been stapled to one of the top bars) out, moved bars to increase the bee bowl, and closed the hive as gently as I could despite the dawning awareness of the extent of my stupidity.
I went inside and pulled the stinger out, but enough venom had gone in that by the next day, half of my face was grotesquely swollen. I looked like a simultaneous “before” and “after” picture for a weight-loss ad. I was too embarrassed to have the attendees at the area’s monthly beekeeper meeting witness my shame, so coward that I am, I skipped it and, like the Phantom of the Opera, hid in the shadows trying to hide my deformity.
I was also worrying about that comb on the hive floor. Would the bees try to raise brood in it? Would I have to re-open the hive and possibly destroy the first generation of larvae in trying to re-hang it? I couldn’t just let it lie there, though, could I?
Fortunately, when Paul and I did another hive inspection last week, the bees were working on two new combs they’d built from the top bars. The comb on the floor had a little pollen in it but was generally empty. (I must note that we used the smoker this time and that, while Paul didn’t wear a bee veil since Sage had conscripted the second one, I’d learned my lesson and had one on.)
The two new combs were narrow—about half the width of the top bars—and a little thick, so we pulled them apart and put empty bars between them. I didn’t move the bees off them since the fallen comb was the primary mission, but I’m pretty sure there was some worker brood.
We used a large spatula to pry the fallen comb up and remove it. Paul took the comb and an extra top bar to his shop, melted the wax at the end with a blow torch, and used it to attach the comb to the bar. We let it dry for an hour or so, and then it seemed sturdy enough to place back into the hive.
We successfully slipped it in to the hive, and the bees have been on their own ever since. I figure I should wait at least a week before I attempt to inspect the hive again. In the meantime, though, the bees are happily foraging on the spectacularly blooming wild plum trees near our house. The trees are gorgeous, but unfortunately, I can’t document them because my camera has finally given up the ghost. (Extra unfortunately, it did so right after the comb repair Paul was so justifiably proud of. I had pictures of him posing with his handiwork, but they’re lost in a hopelessly scrambled memory card now.)
One final mystery: After I’d removed the queen cage from the strong hive, I’d thrown it in Paul’s man garage, where my box of bee things is stored, and run to pull the stinger out of my face. I didn’t bother checking it, but a couple of days later, Paul casually mentioned, “Your queen is dead.”
“What?!” I exclaimed, horrified.
“I was looking at the queen cage,” he explained, “And there’s a marked queen in there.”
Sure enough, there was indeed a sad little bee corpse with a green dot.
“But that’s the queen from the STRONG colony!” I said.
He’d assumed it was from the clearly queenless colony in the window hive. The strong hive, though, was happily sending out foragers and making “busy as a bee” seem less like a cliché. How could THAT one be queenless?
My only working theory at this point was that there was a rogue queen loose in the package and that her supporters assassinated the caged queen and her entourage. (Bee politics really put human ones into perspective. At least they don’t have the moral high ground on THIS front…)
It’s just as well, though. I like the idea that my next generation of bees will be scions of a plucky rogue.