JULIA BAYLY

Taking insulation off hive too early proved deadly for bees

Posted May 17, 2012, at 11:55 a.m.

There is sad news to report from Rusty Metal Farm. In spite of concerted preseason and ongoing efforts, the Rusty Metal Bees did not survive the winter.

A moment of silence would not be inappropriate at this time.

I tried, with Aristaios — the Greek God of honey and beekeeping — as my witness, I tried. It was with the best of intentions and presumed well-laid plans that I prepared for the fall of 2011 and winter of 2012 for my single colony of Russian honeybees.

Ever see photos of St. Petersburg or Moscow in February? How more winter-hardy can you get?

Certainly, there was every room for confidence.

But if life has taught me anything, it is this — there is a fine line dividing “confidence” from “hubris.”

I was committed to my colony of honeybees, despite the fact that during the summer half the hive took off for parts unknown and took a lion’s share of the honey stores with them.

The remaining bees — whether through a lottery selection, a lost round of “rock-paper-scissors” or having drawn the short straw — were left to face the oncoming winter months on short rations, meaning there was no surplus honey to harvest for human consumption.

So, under the tutelage of my beekeeper friend Carl, I began helping them out.

This is why starting in late September, in addition to preparing my own meals, I was cooking for close to 50,000 extra mouths.

Every other day or so — all winter long — they got a fresh supply of a simple sugar syrup solution delivered in glass jars equipped with special lids through which the bees could access the sweet liquid.

To ensure the bees remained warm and the sugar syrup did not freeze, some winterizing also was in order.

I added a special Styrofoam cover and encased the entire hive in insulation ensuring they would be snug as, well, bugs in rugs. Assuming they had rugs, of course.

Snow also is a great natural insulator, and once it began falling in northern Maine, I let it build up on three sides of the hive.

After every storm I was out there shoveling a path to the hive and making sure the front entrance and air holes were clear of snow and ice.

During those times I’d also take a moment to put my ear to the hive and listen to the low hum coming from within, and know all was well.

Even during the coldest of Maine winters, there are periods of warm-ups when temperatures rise from sub zero to more bee-friendly above-freezing degrees.

On those days members of the colony could be seen buzzing outside the hive engaged in a variety of winter chores including much needed outdoor bathroom breaks, removing deceased bees and simply catching some fresh air.

For some bees, their flight plans exceeded their abilities and it was not uncommon to see bees on the snow some distance from the hive, where they had fallen too chilled to continue.

The first time last winter I witnessed this phenomena I spent more than an hour picking up live bees and gently placing them back on the hive’s lower shelf by its entrance.

I’m really not sure how many I rescued before the futility of the operation set in. After that, nature took its course with bees that, like Icarus, decided to fly too far and too high for their own good.

Slowly, the snow began to recede as days grew longer and warmer. Then, in March, we got a tremendous warm spell and spring seemed a genuine reality, not just something we imagine all winter.

The bees were eating more and more of the sugar syrup and activity within and around the hive was increasing with the temperatures.

About that time I was told it was safe to remove the insulation from the healthy hive and let natural solar heat do its thing.

So, early one morning, hoping to accomplish the chore before the bees were really awake and active, I went out to the hive armed with all the tools needed to unwinterize their abode.

That task was done with relative ease, but the next step was a bit trickier — a manmade beehive is made up of multiple boxes called “supers” in which up to a dozen frames are hung side by side on which the bees construct and fill their honeycombs.

Some supers are used for food storage while others are for producing and rearing young brood, or “baby bees.”

Smack dab in the center of all this is the queen bee, protected by legions of worker and guard bees.

For the hive to operate at maximum efficiency, every spring beekeepers rotate these supers, which means temporarily dismantling an active hive.

Ever see 50,000 bees really irked? Try a little hive remodeling and watch out.

And it’s not like I was not careful. I waited until the weather was warm, I laid out pieces of wood on which to place the supers and I had extra sugar syrup at the ready for a treat.

With only five supers on the hive, what could go wrong?

Turned out, plenty.

After several months of being left largely alone, the residents were not all that happy to see me.

Luckily I was dressed in full-on bee gear so when they came angrily buzzing out en-masse, I was relatively safe.

Very, very carefully, while surrounded by buzzing bees, I lifted each super and placed it gently on the ground.

Then, equally carefully I began replacing them in reverse order.

All was going pretty well until I stepped back, slipped and tripped over one of the supers.

Now I had a hive of severely ticked off bees on my hands — and on my head, arms, chest, back and legs.

As quickly and carefully as possible, I got the hive back together, no longer caring about which super went where and then beat a hasty retreat back to the house.

Things calmed down and all seemed fine for a week or so, until one day I noticed no activity around the hive.

I gave it a few more days and went to check.

Maybe it had been too early to remove the insulation, maybe the temperatures were not as optimum as I had thought on the rotation day but whatever the reason, there was no sound, no happy humming coming from inside the hive.

It was an eventuality I’d prepared for. After all, when my late husband and I kept bees decades ago, we never did successfully overwinter a hive.

Still, I was surprised how hard I took the massive die-off and I was in bee mourning for longer than I’d like to admit.

According to a recent article in the BDN, conditions are ripe this spring for an explosion in the population of the mite responsible for killing off numerous Maine bee colonies last year.

Given that honeybees in the state play a major role in pollination of crops such as blueberries, potatoes, strawberries and apples crucial to Maine’s orchards, farms, markets and home gardens, beekeepers take their hobbies quite seriously.

According to the Maine Sate Beekeepers Association, there are currently 800 beekeepers in Maine managing 10,000 hives with an economic impact to the state’s agriculture industry of between $100 million and $150 million annually.

So important is the honeybee to Maine agriculture that in 1975 it was named the state insect, no small feat in a state known more for blackflies and mosquitoes.

All this to say that, in a few weeks another colony of Russian bees will move to Rusty Metal Farm and the whole process will start all over again.

Then again, it may be easier to just buy 50,000 tickets and send them all to Florida for the winter.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by e-mail at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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