Small Town News


An extra chill in our hearts

The Oskaloosa Independent of Oskaloosa, Kansas

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The grass-free patch where the white painted bee hive box once stood feels like a tombstone. Feels like a hole in a mourning heart.

Honey bees no longer zoom back and forth collecting sweet droplets of nectar and pollen grains.

Looking back, the signs were quite clear early in the summer that the hive was not as strong as it should be. In June, when we added the honey "super" (a special story on the hive box for harvesting honey), the bees had not yet filled the two main hive bodies with waxy comb for incubating baby bees and storing honey. A few weeks later, when the bees should have had much of the super filled, no more comb had been built - neither in the super nor in the hive frames that had been empty earlier.

More seasoned beekeepers would have seen a red flag and heard warning bells. But we made excuses... maybe the nectar flow was weak... they didn't have the sustenance they needed. As much as I disliked feeding them refined sugar, we started brewing sugar water again.

The sugar water disappeared, but no more comb appeared. We sighed and did nothing more.

Just what does it take to get our attention, anyway? Wax moths.

A fun outing to show a granddaughter the inner workings of a bee hive turned into a search and destroy mission to root out wax moth larvae. These larvae eat tunnels through the wax combs, killing the brood (baby bees) and making a general mess of things.

The almost-6-year-old granddaughter, in her white bee suit and surrounded by a cloud of bees, was a paragon of beekeeper calm as she wielded the smoker for us as we took apart the hive frame by frame. She was ecstatic about the experience. We were discouraged.

We vowed to go back in a few days, a week at most, to check for more wax moth larvae.

But that week turned into two. Finally, we investigated the situation and found more wax-eating larvae. We were determined to be back in a few days.

Our lives are busy, though, and it was more than a week before we broke into the hive again.

By that time, the robbers were battling the resident bees in front of the hive box. We could tell "our girls" from the invaders by the different coloring.

Robbing is a common occurrence in the bee world. Why go from flower to flower collecting nectar, which you then have to evaporate by much flapping of the wings to make honey, when someone else has already done all that work?

But a strong hive can protect itself from robbers. A strong hive would not have tolerated wax moth larvae. Housekeeping bees would have evicted them.

A strong hive would have filled the honey super with comb and honey months ago.

Come to think of it, I doubt that a strong hive would have allowed wheel bugs to actually sit on the hive box and capture bees for dinner. See a pattern here?

Whether the queen was weak to begin with and did not lay many eggs or breed good bees, or whether we clumsily offed her during one of our peeks into the hive box, we'll never know. The hive seemed to have started strongly enough, then hit a plateau that it couldn't transcend.

A few days after we first noticed the battle raging at the hive box, none of our bees were left.

With heavy hearts we dismantled the hive box. By the weight of the frames, we could tell that the robbers had made off with much of the honey our girls had so diligently gathered. Some other hive is well set for the winter.

The frames full of wax comb went into the freezer to kill any remaining wax moth larvae. What we'll do with the small amount of honey that was left, we have yet to decide. Perhaps it can feed a new hive of bees next spring.

Yes, we will bring honeybees back to Cedar Springs Farm. Utter failure often frightens people away from future attempts.

But, like with my first experience performing in front of an audience (full of friends at my sister's birthday party, no less), I can say that I have already done the worst I can do. I am not afraid.

The coming winter offers an opportunity to learn more about beekeeping and to research natural, organic beekeeping methods, which may fit more neatly into our farming philosophy.

Maybe we'll do more than one hive, experimenting with different hive box designs and beekeeping methods. Two, even three hives now seems less scary, in fact, not scary at all.

Native bee species are more aggressive pollinators than honey bees, and fruit tree pollination is our first goal in beekeeping. So I'll look into how to encourage the natives.

We mourn the loss of "our girls." I miss the sound and flurry of the beehive.

We regret that our beekeeping skills were found so wanting.

But this is a new opportunity. In the garden, the passing of each season is a new opportunity.

As the October wind blows, chasing leaves from the trees and telling the plants that the growing season is done, I am keenly aware of the cycle of ebb and flow in the garden. Autumn and winter - the ebb - are like Nature holding her breath until it is time blow spring back into the world.

Next year, may that fragrant exhalation be filled with dancing bees.

Note: Drop Sandra a bee-line at gardenerscorner50@yahoo. com

Original Publication Date: October 15, 2009

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