I wrapped my hives just before Thanksgiving and one hive seems to have died rather quickly thereafter. I didn’t check for about a month after I wrapped the hives, because my mom passed away about the same time. By the time I checked, Apartment A was silent. The other two I can hear buzzing away inside, and I can find cappings on the bottom boards when I slide them out (meaning I see bits of wax that have been taken off honeycomb as bees eat their honey stores and otherwise mess around in there). I haven’t gone in yet to see why they died, but Apt. A swarmed at least twice during the summer; my guess right now is that they were too few to stay warm through the first cold snap. Until I can determine the cause of death, I am leaving the hive closed to all bee access; if they died of disease, I don’t want anyone to catch it.
Apartments B and C live on. I knew the girls in Apartment C were already at the top when I wrapped the hive, so I’ve been worried about their food supply. I was also never sure how bad the robbery was in the fall, so I wanted to feed both B and C before too long. I bought a couple of candy boards from Bee Pride last month and waited for a good day to put them in the hives.
Brian told me I should put the candy boards below rather than above the inner covers. The bees survive by clustering together in very cold weather, so you risk them not finding food if it is not in close proximity. Furthermore, whenever bees leave the cluster, they risk not being able to get back. When bees are very cold, at first they stop moving, and eventually they die; if they can get back to the cluster even as they get stiff, they can warm up and recover. So they don’t go wandering off looking for food, even within the hive, when it is very cold.
There was tar-paper stapled on the hives, though, so I had to figure out how to get inside without pulling everything apart. Brian suggested I slice the paper at the bottom of the inner cover and quickly slide in the candy boards. A candy board has a hole at the same place as the inner cover, which allows bees and dampness to escape at the top. In winter, damp will kill bees sooner than cold; moisture rises to the top of the hive on a warm day, and can drip back down, leaving the bees wet when the cold returns. I have placed a piece of homosote between the inner and upper covers to hold moisture; it keeps the water off the bees and provides them a place to get a drink too. So the trick was to get the food in between the top box and the inner cover with the least possible movement.
My job is crazy busy right now. I work for multiple projects at USM, each of which is supported by a different grant or government contract. I am the administrator for them, and since each is on a different calendar, managed by different supervisors and answering to different sponsors, there’s always at least one needing my immediate attention to keep it moving forward. The job that constitutes about a third of my salary is paid by the US EPA, and we have known for some time that we might lose funding because of pending federal budget cuts. Losing funding means a mid-year re-write of budgets reducing funds for things already underway (including our salaries and benefits, which make up over 80% of the budget). We got the word 2 weeks ago that we were being rescinded from $90 to $38 thousand in our fiscal year that began last October. You probably understand what I’m saying but may not be able to believe it; 5 months into the budget year, our budget was reduced to 42% of the original amount. What will happen to my benefits if I lose 30% of my paycheck? It’s not good, so the pressure to find new projects is intense.
Another one of my jobs is for a multi-year project that began when we were awarded a grant from 6 foundations. As we were in the first phase of the project, the sponsors told us they would probably keep funding us, but that we’d have to ask them through their individual grant applications, and they won’t be funding the full amount of the project as it moves forward. What this means is that before we can do the work they paid us to plan in Phase 1, we have to raise funds to do it. In the past month, we’ve submitted 5 grant applications and we have a fraction of the money we need. Applying for grants means working on overload with drop-dead deadlines.
The point is that I cannot take a day off from the office because the sun is shining and I need to get out to the apiary.
So I had a day that was warm enough when I had work I could do from home. I had no way of knowing when another warm enough day with no rain or snow would come, so it had to be that day. The problem was the wind was blowing like mad. It was not a good day to go into the hives, but I thought I’d better do it while I could.
In the meantime, my daughter needed me to drive her to the mechanic to pick up her car so she could get to work, and a person I needed to work with for a grant was in the office for about 2 more hours. I had a one-hour window to accomplish a task in the hives that would take maybe 20 minutes on a lovely summer day. But it was 40 degrees and there was a gale out there.
First, I couldn’t get the smoker to light. I probably should have tried to start it inside the greenhouse, but thinking of that as a fire hazard, I had taken my bucket of pine needles, my smoker and my lighter, and I was trying to start the smoker outside. A gust of wind knocked my veil into my face and blew the bucket of pine needles over, the pine needles immediately started flying away, and I frantically grabbed what I could and yelled with rage, as I tried to get them back in the bucket while the veil flapped around in front of my eyes. My husband came running outside to see if I was OK, and yelled across the wind that I was crazy to try to use the smoker. I decided he was right.
I tied my veil back in place, tight, and brought all my tools out, carefully placing them and the candy boards where I could easily reach them. I have ratchet straps on all my hives to keep them from blowing over or being knocked down by bears, and two of the ratchets don’t work well. One of the bad ratchets was on Apt. B and would not release the strap. I decided that a ratchet strap that won’t open when I need it to is not worth having, so I cut it. The outer cover came off easily and there was the homosote, a bit damp at the end where I thought it should be ventilated. I considered that this might not be good, but it wasn’t the day’s objective, so I moved on. I could see some activity around the auger hole and bottom entry, and knew I was alarming bees and had no smoke, but I told myself I would hurry and it would be OK. I estimated where the top cover edge should be and sliced the tar-paper and pried open the lid to find the top seething with bees. The last time I was in there, the girls were living near the bottom, but they have moved up to the top of the hive as they have eaten their meager winter stores. Oh well, I told myself, they’ll be sure to know the candy board is there when I’m done. And it was probably a good thing I was feeding them.
With reasonable dexterity, I slide the candy board between the inner cover and the top box, but I confess a few people got crushed by the lid and a few were left outside when I was done. I hoped they would be able to walk or fly back inside in spite of the strong wind; every bee that dies is that much less insulation to help the cluster survive the cold, and there is still a lot of winter ahead of us. I quickly put the outer cover back on and placed a number of rocks on the top because I couldn’t replace the strap.
On to Apt. C, where I knew for sure the bees live at the top front right corner of the hive. They were there in the fall and there was nowhere else they were likely to have gone. This time the ratchet released the strap and I was able to slip it off the top to remove the outer cover. More confident of where to cut, I sliced the tar-paper and pried open the inner cover. Sure enough, there appeared to be as many bees as ever up, waiting to attack me. I slid the candy board in with more confidence, just as a bee (probably from the hive I had already pissed off) stung my thigh. Having no smoke to blow on the spot to mask the alarm pheromone, I pulled my jeans away from my leg to remove the stinger and continued my task as quickly as I could without screwing up. I closed Apt. C, strapped it, collected my tools, and left.
All in all, it went well; I got done in the time I had, I put an ice pack on my leg, and I drove my daughter to Gorham. The bee sting wasn’t too serious because the stinger barely got through my jeans, and the bees got their food. I went back a couple of days later and put duct tape around the cracks I had created, to reduce wind coming into the hives (you can see the red tape below the 2 outer covers in the picture).You don’t want to break the propolis seal the bees have made inside their hive to cut the wind in the winter, because they can’t replace it once it’s cold. But nor do you want them to starve to death. If I hadn’t known that Apt. C was already at the top of the hive, I might have waited until the weather was a little warmer. I had intended to add the candy board in spring, when they are more likely to be out of food, but I have learned a couple of things since I wrapped my hives that influenced my decision to do it now. First, I had put sugar inside the inner cover, but I found out that the bees might not access it in the very cold because they won’t break cluster. Second, bees burn more calories in very cold weather – and it was an exceptionally cold January.
Balancing the options to make this decision was tough enough for me as a hobbyist. If I made an error that causes the bees to die this winter – for example, if my foray into the hives chilled the brood that was coming along to replace the aging workers, which might lead to the colony freezing to death because they’d be too few to keep warm - as sad as that is, it won’t hurt me or my family. I hope I didn’t do that, but it was a risk I took. I determined the benefits outweighed the risks and I opened the hives; you do the best you can with the knowledge you have.
In one of the projects I manage at work, we’re trying to develop a strategy to strengthen the local food economy in the state of Maine. We’re planning to do a massive grassroots outreach across the state to get input from as many players as we can reach. We hope to learn what they think we need to do and how to do it and to get them on board to help – large & small farmers, fishermen, grocery-store owners, migrant workers, distributors, farm-stand operators, cooks, food pantries, etc. – anybody working in a field that’s involved in the food system. Plus, of course, the customers who eat the food. We firmly believe that the state can improve its economy and food security by building a stronger local food system. This includes not just growing and catching, but processing, preparing, and packaging food products here in the state rather than sending raw materials out of state and buying them back, stripped of their quality, safety, and value, at a big super-store.
We presented our project to an agriculture group in Augusta last week, where we heard – not for the first time – that our plan is weak on food producer input. We agree. And some of the farmers seemed pretty ornery about the whole thing. We have been told there’s a feeling that well-meaning planners and researchers gather insights from people who are trying to make a living in the food sector, get paid to write a report about what they learn, and then not much comes out at the other end to help the people who donated their time, energy, and insights, and whom the report was meant to benefit. In a sense, these folks feel like they themselves are being harvested.
Every day I work with my bees I see in new ways how complicated it is to be a food producer. When your livelihood depends on unpredictable, constantly changing factors (many but not all weather-based), your life fits into your work, not the other way around. You need to be ready to change your activities at any moment, depending on what’s going on outside.
Sure, we all have to deal with unforeseen roadblocks that undermine our good planning. But if something causes an animal to die, you cannot simply modify tomorrow’s plan; you have a loss that you may not be able to recover from – not to mention the heartache of losing a live creature. You have to start over from scratch, and you might not be able to in time for the next season. For example, if all my hives die this winter, I may or may not be able to replace them in the spring, and even if I do, I’ll be starting with hives that will produce less, if any, honey next season, compared to the mature colonies I have right now. If this were my livelihood, that could be devastating.
Even when they have a harvest to sell, family farmers and fishermen earn a fraction of every dollar the consumer pays. What they earn barely keeps them in business from season to season, so when people talk to these folks about the food system, their highest priority is to increase their share of that food dollar. They are and should be very selective about when and with whom they give away their precious time; and they most certainly have none to spare during the growing & fishing season. We can’t just invite them to our meetings and expect them to show up; we must be respectful about how and when we ask.
If we can raise the boat for food producers, we can increase the incentive for people to go into the business, which should increase our local food supply. If we can increase the volume of raw food available, we can increase the ability of mills, canneries, and other food-related businesses to be successful in Maine. It all means providing opportunities for people to make a living and feed their families. It also means having a fresher, safer food supply that won’t run out if we have a severe storm or other interruption of cross-country travel. Do you know that there is only a 3-day supply of fresh food on our grocery store shelves?
Thus, I learn again and again from my bees how much we owe to the people who grow our food. The work is hard, the risks are enormous, and we depend on them.