Another year, another heartache.

Unfortunately, one thing a beekeeper learns to weather is a season of heartache.  I know personally I (Elly) get so invested in my bees and have become over confident in my ability to overwinter bees that when I have a season that’s less than great, I feel it!  It’s not just the blow to my ego, but also the general sadness of losing animals under my care.  So are you a beginning beekeeper?  Please step into the hobby with the understanding that sometimes they thrive and sometimes there are losses! 

Going into the winter last year we had 2 hives at Whiting.  One hive thrived all summer, but their fall honey stores were lackluster.  The second hive struggled all season, experienced queen failure, built up slowly, was requeened when we captured a swarm mid-summer and combined the hives, and ultimately also stepped into fall with sparse honey reserved.

We chose to feed both hives in the fall, but they were eating as much as we were feeding, not storing, and it was obvious the honey stores just weren’t there for winter.  We cut our losses; both hives died over winter.  And this does sound reminiscent of last year as we also had poor survival and were chirping “taking your losses in the fall!”

And yes!  I am taking it hard!  There have been many seasons where ALL my bees make it through the winter.  Typically, I can overwinter most hives in my care and repopulate the deadouts from the surviving.  Not the case this year.  2022 was the year of disastrous beekeeping for me!  I faced struggles with queens and requeening, and a BEAR.  Yes, a BEAR visited my personal hives wreaking havoc, damaging equipment, and forcing multiple colonies to abscond.  And not just once, the bear visited three times.  Whiting bees just didn’t seem to take off last season.  And Debbie?  Her winter bee survival was record-setting poor for her hives too!

So how does a beekeeper not get disheartened?  We like to look at the big picture and see that most years, we are ahead of the curve with winter survival numbers.  In fact, Debbie has been beekeeping for 4-years, and this is the first year she’s been disappointed with winter survival.  She weathered bees through an epic flood in 2020 where her 2-hives bobbed like a buoy in the floodwater and they still came around to have a bumper crop of honey, a strong colony going into winter, strong spring build-up, and ultimately were a parent colony to numerous splits.  Most years, we feel encouraged that we kind of know what we are doing. 

But then…. 2022 happened. 😊

We regrouped.  We decided that a critical flaw to our hives at Whiting was their location.  They were in a fairly wooded area and we understand that more sun exposure and some warmth will help them.  They also were in an area where surrounding shrubs were limiting our ability to work the bees and we have relocated the apiary to a safe accessible, and sunnier location.

We also invested in some different genetics.  Yes, we still bought a package from Georgia to get installed right away.  But we also purchased a nuc from a new supplier and are hopeful for a good experience.  Debbie and I are taking a similar approach in our own apiaries too.  Friday we are driving downstate to pick up bees from a beekeeper whom we observed and listened to as a speaker.  We are hopeful the addition of more Michigan-mutt genes will add to the success of hives in our care.

Where are we now? 

April 23 – I picked up a package and we installed it at Whiting the following day.  Debbie went into the hive 3 days later, and found our queen still captive in the queen cage.  At that time Debbie released her.  Mother nature bumbled around with cold temperatures, snowflakes, freezing nights and disappointing spring for a couple weeks.  During that period, we kept tabs on the internal sugar water feeder, we also had given them frames of honey and pollen at the time of installation.

April 26 – A 5-frame nuc was purchased from a new supplier. We immediately placed the box on top of the hive setup.  But it was a stormy (snowy!) cold day.  In the days to follow I peeked in and confirmed the bees weren’t overpopulated in the space.  I also saw a mite strip (hop guard) in place, which is good data for us confirming treatment. 

The queen located in the newly installed package (Hive 1).

May 5 –  Tyler and I went back into both hives to check them. The package installed on April 23rd was thriving! The lack of many older capped brood, indicates that this queen didn’t take off laying quickly in the cold weather. We saw eggs throughout the hive and larvae that are beginning to grow.  Field bees were a-buzz bringing in a rainbow of pollen pellets. We saw the queen, a robust gal with dark bands.  The bees seemed to have a good demeanor, not too spicy!  The bees are still working to fill the first story, so we are going to continue to feed them sugar water for at least another week.

Then we inspected and installed the nuc into their hive.  They looked great!  That queen had laid up the frames like a chicken!  She was definitely ready for more space.  The capped brood had actively emerging adults.  A similar rainbow of pollen color was coming it, the forager bees were really working!  We saw the queen and watched her laying eggs.  She was a bit lighter in color; these bees also had good temperament.  I always feel it’s a good sign when the bees continue to work at time of inspection; maybe that is confirmation that we aren’t too disruptive?

The queen and capped brood in the nuc (Hive 2).

The last thing we have been doing to set ourselves up for success is preparing some trap hives.  See previous entries to understand more about our process!  This year we have 2 trap hives baited and placed on the grounds.  I think a decent rule of thumb is to have traps out when dandelions are blooming, although the swarm we caught in 2022 was in June.  We are ready, we are hopeful, and we are excited to have a fun year of beekeeping!

Eggs confirmed on the bottom of the cells within hive 2.