This is how this story ends:  Today I got down to the apiary and with help from my neighbor (who turns out to be a talented beekeeper), opened the three bee boxes comprising one colony, to see if my girls have survived winter (so far).  And they have!  Each box was well-populated and robust, which lifted my heart – I mean, I felt fairly sure that some bees survived November- December-January, but I was expecting a smaller population. 

Let’s flashback to fall. Before my sister Vicki (Bee Apprentice, First Class) and I tucked the bees in for winter, we checked them for varroa mite one last time in preparation for long months of cold, wind, rain, and dearth…meaning, no nectar flow to speak of.  

Vicki Lee Coleman, Bee Apprentice, First Class, shown here in May of 2023

What should have been a fairly straight forward, one-day job, suddenly became two – I had to abandon the work because I was stung on the one-inch of bare wrist peeking out between my protective sleeves and my simple nitrile gloves. The bee-threat pheromone left behind by the first stinging bee attracted more and more bees to my wrist. Soon, they were lifting off the frames in concert, 5 or 6 at a time, like little fighter jets taking off from an aircraft carrier, all zeroing in on my poor right wrist. After about 8-10 stings in that one little area, I gave up.  Yes, it’s ridiculous to take bee stings personally, but I did. I kept thinking, “Hey, I’m your ally. I’m here to HELP. Why are you attacking me?”

When you are stung, even when it’s multiple stings on a sensitive area like the face, beekeepers offer some sympathy to one another, but not much. Mostly, they shrug. Cost of doing business. You’re building your immunity to bee venom.  Some even claim that they don’t feel healthy and right in their bodies until they receive that first dose of bee venom for the season. If you want sympathy for your sting, you need to turn to people who have never handled bees. They will be aghast and properly horrified.

Anyway, after nursing hurt feelings and my hot and swollen wrist, we went in for another try. This time I wore the hot, leather elbow gloves that come standard with beekeeping suits. Gloves are cumbersome, and these are especially so. (If you’re imagining Gypsy Rose Lee elbow gloves…no. These are big bulky things.) Gloves make the hands insensitive, and the handling of frames becomes all herky jerky, which upsets the bees. They like a gentle touch, and it’s easier to feel what you’re doing bare-handed, and most serious beekeepers work without gloves.

I wear gloves.

We discovered that the mite load was just at the border between OK and not-OK: the test showed that 3 percent of bees were likely to have a mite sucking the life out of them, transmitting a virus absolutely lethal to bees. Varroa mite is the leading cause of hive death worldwide.  It is necessary, therefore, to check and treat the bees for varroa before closing up colonies for winter. 

But before I could place the Formic Pro into the boxes to arrest (or at least slow) the mites, I had to move boxes around, combining two colonies into one, because I was pretty sure one of the colonies was without a queen.

Our apiary is configured like this:  two colonies, consisting of two bee boxes each, for a total of 4 bee boxes.  Each colony of two boxes has its own queen.  Or, should have.

For this story, ignore that bright little box up top. That is a honey super, and I had to remove those later in the season. But here you can see the 2×2 colonies.

One of the 2×2 colonies seemed weak (the blue base); there was no evidence of reproduction to confidently point to…I saw no eggs, no larvae, and brood cells were few and scattered. I did not spot the queen. A colony can survive a while without a queen, but eventually, the hive will dwindle and die.  

(Aside: I love any opportunity I get to use the word “dwindle”. As fun as it is to write, it’s even better to say. Try it.)

The second 2×2 colony (purple base) seemed a little stronger, but again, I saw little that definitively proved that there was a queen in residence, doing her thing: no eggs, no larvae, no queen strutting around on the frames…brood cells were there, but not as robust as we’d like to see. Mysterious. Worrisome.

I was advised by trusted bee gurus that if I was good and truly convinced that one of the colonies was without a queen, then I needed to reduce the apiary from two colonies to one, with the one queen presiding over the whole family.  This meant going from four boxes, configured 2×2, to three boxes, configured 1×3: a tower of three boxes, stacked.  

To reduce two colonies to one, first I had to completely empty one of the boxes from the weaker 2×2 colony.  This involved shaking bees off of frames so that they landed on the ground in front of the colony I wanted them to join.  Because the homing instinct is so strong, with those powerful bee pheromones and all of that, the bees did not want to abandon the frame they have been living on.  I would shake them off, they would fly around in distress, and then come right back.  It took a while to clear each frame completely of bees, all while wearing big leather elbow gloves.

During the shaking and clearing process, hundreds of bees were flying all around me, buzzing their outrage at being so rudely evicted, and walking around on the ground near their prospective new colony.  It was all quite nerve wracking.  I didn’t want to step on any bees, but it was impossible to avoid.

Once cleared, I put the empty frames into an unoccupied box in the back of my car, and shut the door to the scout bees who were looking to return to their home.

So now, the apiary was down to one comparatively healthy 2×2 colony, and one single box with thousands of bees, but no discernible evidence of a queen in residence.  I searched those remaining frames for the queen, but did not see her.  (Spotting the queen is difficult; I’ve done it, but it’s always pure luck.  No luck this time though. You can look at this online and see if you are good at spotting the queen.)

No queen in this shot…right? She will look like a SUV among a bunch of Honda Civics.

The trusted bee gurus also advised that before joining the communities together, that we should place a sheet of newspaper between the boxes before putting that single box on top of the 2×2; once placed, to slit the paper in a few spots, (like venting a pie before putting it into the oven).  This way, the bees won’t immediately start fighting each other; instead, they will buzz and chew and vibrate the paper and in the process, marry up.  By the time they bust through the paper and are encountering one another face-to-face, they are a family again.

I have not mentioned that by late summer and into fall, the frames are full of honey.  This honey is survival honey – humans must not harvest this if they want their bees to make it through winter. Honey makes the boxes hella heavy. I use eight-frame boxes instead of the standard ten-frame, precisely because I’m weaker than I used to be, and hefting those bee boxes around…well, one frame full of honey weighs about 6-8 pounds, so a eight-frame bee box stocked for winter weighs nearly 50 pounds.  

Putting that remaining box housing thousands of bees onto the top of the healthy 2×2 colony to create one 3×1 colony was scary because I was unsure of myself as a beekeeper. If two queens end up in the same colony, it will be a bitter death match — and who wants to be responsible for the death of a queen?  True, I did not see her, and the brood was scattered and sparse, but that does not necessarily mean she’s NOT THERE somewhere on one of those busy frames.

My sister and I strained to hoist that third 45# box up onto the 2×2 colony.  It was a struggle! We were on the verge of disaster the entire time, and we totally rumpled the protective sheet of newspaper in the process.  By the time we wrestled that third box into position, and everything was settled and stable into a 1X3 colony, I felt defeated.  Had I just placed two queens under the same roof? Did the scrunched up newspaper create enough access for the bees to murder each other? Did I adequately treat for varroa mite before sealing up the colony for winter? 

All winter, I stared at that tall colony and wondered what was going on in there.  Sometimes, on sunny days, I would put my ear up to the side of the hive to listen for the low hum of bees at work. I kept supplementing their honey stores with 2:1 sugar syrup, and every couple of days, a quart would be consumed. (By the way, I think this might have been the wrong thing to do, but I did it.  I’m going to look into this later.)

And you know how this all turned out! It was so good seeing all the bees this morning.  Had I known my neighbor better (we just met this morning and I didn’t want to scare him), I would have hugged him for sheer happiness.

Since this morning though, the weather has changed, and it’s become cold and windy again; we are expecting rain.

The bees survived the first part of winter, but here comes Part II.