In Which I Have Failed with Bees, twice.

Last May, I bought an up and running new hive from a beekeeper in Healdsburg. I picked out a hive, put it in my car, and drove home. After setting it up in the back corner of the property, in a location that sees the first morning light, and undoing the tape closing up the entrance, I announced I was an officially a keeper of bees.

bringing home my hive

Every time I checked the hive, I never really knew what the hell I was doing. For some reason, I thought it would come naturally to me, but it never did. I was perpetually unsure of myself, I didn’t know how to handle the frames or what I was looking for. I fumbled through all summer inspections, so I was quick to enroll when the JC offered their natural bee keeping class in the fall. I learned a lot, and felt more informed. I was finally confident in knowing what I was looking for and feeling better about how to work with the hive.

chickens and bees

honey and pollen

But then I got a gut feeling things weren’t going well. I had major robbing from other bees and relentless yellow jackets that would attack bees in mid air as they tried to leave the hive. If a bee hit the ground, they were done for it, torn apart by 3 or 4 yellow jackets. I reduced the entrance as small as I could, and avoided opening up the hive. As Autumn wrapped up, I worried there wasn’t enough honey stores to get them through the winter and was noticing lots of dead bees on the ground around my hive. On my final inspection to prep the hive for winter, I observed that there was in fact enough honey and pollen stores, but there were no eggs, no larva, and no capped cells with baby bees brooding inside. There was also very very few bees.

an empty hive
an empty hive

No brood or eggs meant my queen was dead or gone, and without the queen, the hive will suffer. If that had happened in the spring, I could have tried to replace her, or the hive would have hatched a new one, but because it was already almost winter, that wouldn’t happen. Even if she was still around, the current population I saw wasn’t large enough to tend to brood over the winter anyways.

I had to accept that very sad fact that my hive was essentially dead.

I’ll never know exactly what happened. The queen could have been killed by yellowjackets or I could have smashed her during one of my clumsy inspections. I found an almost built queen cell so I knew the hive was trying to recover. Perhaps because I brought them home so late in the spring they never had a chance to really establish. Maybe a neighbor sprayed a bunch of pesticides and my bees died of poisoning. It could be they were just weak and couldn’t deal with the multiple year drought. Or a billion other reasons.

queen cell

So I broke down my hive and wanted to cry. I had failed at my first attempt of keeping bees. Everyone told me not to take it personally, almost everyone fails their first year. I also heard of seasoned bee-keeper after bee-keeper losing their hives this winter. I decided to wait, and not get a new hive this year, and instead spend the year learning more and establishing more flowers in the garden to feed the bees.

breaking down the hive

But last week, as I was walking out the door to work, my neighbor came over and told me there were bees swarming near my bottle brush. Swarming is a natural happening, and is a group of bees, including a queen, looking for a new home. It’s amazing to see, and you can often catch them and rehome to your own hive.

{side note- I just figured out that I can embed youtube videos!}

At this particular time, I couldn’t do anything as I was headed to work. When I got home it was dark, and after much searching, discovered they were still clustered- high up in the bottle brush. There was no way to easily get to them, so Matt helped me clear out a ton of branches and managed to wedge the ladder in the right spot so I could climb up and observe closer. Since there was a hive’s worth, for free, in my tree, I was suddenly determined to capture them and keep bees again.

cluster

In theory, catching a swarm can be easy. Simply cut the branch they are on, or hit on the object to knock the mass of bees off into a container. However, these lovely bees were clustered AROUND the main trunk, making it impossible for me to just knock off. It was dark and I had no plan. I temporarily admitted defeat, and went over to a bee-keeping neighbor for advice. She suggested that I use one of her frames that still had honey in it, and hold it near the swarm in attempts to lure them on it, thus making it easier to remove from the tree.

So the next morning, I got up at the ass crack of dawn, put on my bee suit and, armed with the frame of comb and honey, climbed back into the tree. A few bees were interested and moved over to the frame, but not the whole cluster. So I propped the frame in the branches, took a deep breath of courage, and brushed as much of the cluster as I could into a bucket with my hand. I got about half of them, and the bees seemed content in the bucket, so I likely had the queen. From there, I dumped them into a hive box that I had set up under the tree.

{i love how you can hear the chickens AND the bees}

swarm captured

I should have stopped there. I’m pretty sure I had the queen, as worker bees were sticking around and waving their butts around, which is how they signal the other bees to come join them. But no, I had to push nature and instead of letting the bees do what they instinctively knew what to do, thought I could/needed/should get the other bees still remaining in the tree. So I brushed the remaining bees in the tree onto the frame of honey.  From there, I couldn’t figure out how to get the bees off and into the hive box, so I leaned it against the hive. I thought they would join the queen in the hive. Instead the bees came OUT of the box, and started to cluster on the ground and frame.

ground swarm

Fuck. I now had an empty hive box and a cluster of bees in the grass. I called in sick to work (thankfully, my boss is AMAZING and understands how important bees are) and I relocated the now empty hive box to its permanent location, in prep to receive the cluster. I scooped up as many of the clustering bees as I could into a cardboard file box, then left the box next to remaining cluster. I thought I was making progress- it seemed other bees were moving into the box, making me think I had the queen. So I moved the contents of the box into my hive. I figured the remaining bees clustered on the ground would come join the queen, in my hive. End of story, happily ever after, right?

bee box

Except I don’t think I got the queen, and she was still clustered in the grass. The bees started to leave the hive IMMEDIATELY, trying to get back to their queen. I tried to scoop up the remaining cluster and left the box back on the ground, hoping the rest would go inside.

I did a few errands, and when I came back, they were all gone. The bees in the hive were gone. The bees in the box were gone. The bees on the ground were gone. Gone Gone Gone. I’m sure they regrouped, the queen said “F this place, lets go”, and they swarmed off somewhere else. I hope they made it to a safe home. Its hard out there for a bee swarm, exposed to the elements and with many people not understanding and often intentionally killing them. I would have given them a good home, but obviously, I still need to learn more. I have now failed with bees twice. Here’s to hoping the 3rd times the charm!

flying bees

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9 thoughts on “In Which I Have Failed with Bees, twice.

  1. At least you were equipped to try! Equipped with the desire, the tools, and the time. When the experience comes, you’ll be set and third time will be the charm.

  2. Oh no! I was rooting for you all the way through your post. Bees can be very opinionated, and they always seem to have one more trick up their collective sleeve than the beekeeper.

    Have you reached out to your Sonoma County Beekeepers Association? Here in San Mateo County, the beekeepers guild does an awesome job of supporting and mentoring new beekeepers. You might even be able to get an experienced beekeeper to come out and do a hive inspection with you, or even give you a swarm from one of their hives. Having someone right there with you to talk you through and think out loud with can be extremely helpful. And, this is the perfect time of year to get some bees into your hive! Don’t give up! In the last week, I’ve split three of our hives that were bursting at the seams and a fourth has swarmed.

    Tis the season for a third attempt!

    1. Thanks for the hello and the encouragement! I have heard great things about the Beekeepers Association, just never made it to their meetings yet!

  3. I bought a swarm last year but I don’t think the queen made it into the box that was delivered, and like you, had a dead hive by September. I too felt a sense of failure, like a bad parent. I ordered a new hive this year from Western Farms so keep your fingers crossed! So far so good. Have you considered joining the Sonoma County Bee keepers Assn?

    1. I’ve been wanting to make it to their meetings, but haven’t been able to fit it in the schedule! Beekind in Sebastopol and April Lance in HBG are also great bee sources. Good luck with your new batch!

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