On Bees: Our First Ever Hive Split [Attempt]

Posted on March 9, 2015

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Today has been good, in the best sense of the word. We participated in a seed and plant swap with a really cool group of people over in Clearwater at the Beacon Community Garden which is on the grounds of the Unitarian Universalist church off Nursery Rd. One of our favorite people ever, Jungle Jay, was there, gave a tour, and talked about all the great community work he does like it’s so run of the mill, when in reality he is one of the most generous and active people I know at turning random groups of people living in a close vicinity to each other into great communities doing positive things. He is a manifestation of what social service really means.

After this loveliness, we came home and put what little energy we had left from time in the sun and just generally having that lazy Sunday feeling into splitting our bee hive.

I feel like anyone reading this should have a brief history of our beekeeping skills, experience, and what got us into beekeeping in the first place, since it’s not really something that you’d imagine a girl who’s potentially earliest memory is being stung by an entire hive of underground bees at age 5 just jumps into for funsies.

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Icing the swollen eye, 2014

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The difference between a stung and non-stung eyeball

For starters, I don’t react well to stinging things. Mosquitos, cool. Ants, whatever. Wasps, yellowjackets, bees, and all their cousins, uncles, and distant relatives – I swell up a bit balloonishly. I had a wasp fly up my JNCO jeans in high school and sting me twice on the calf and my calf was swollen as large as my thigh for weeks afterward! Until mom took me to a Dr. and he said to get meat tenderizer to take the swelling down, I just thought I might have a club leg forever. Oh well. So, there’s the #1 piece of information about beekeeping which I learned even before ever considering this madness #1 unseasoned meat tenderizer for stings to remove swelling. The reason this works, by the way, is because meat tenderizer is made from an enzyme in pineapples that processes protein, and the venom of the bee that makes your leg, face, arm, whatever swell up is full of proteins. Pineapple breaks down protein, breaks down stuff making you look like Violet Beauregarde in the blueberry stages. I learned lesson #2 regard to stings later on when I was stung on the right eyebrow back in early 2014. #2 lavender essential oil takes away the sting of bee stings and also assists with swelling. I will, however, make the necessary note that lavender or any other essential oil should not be put too close to the eyes. On several occasions, I was trying to put it by my eye to help with swelling and got too close and my eye would begin to burn very badly. Use caution. I think that applies to most things with bees.

The first thing that made me consider bees as an option was reading the book Farm City by Novella Carpenter. This chick out in California pretty much made me believe in Urban Farming as a hard core alternative to our sad attempts at the time – that it could be so much more than a few ducks wandering around our sad dilapidated plants. She hung rabbits from tree limbs for slaughter time, lopped off ducks heads with garden shears in her bathtub, and unashamedly – though not without disaster – had the nerve to keep a pig within the city limits on the abandon lot near her house. A pig that bested ours by probably a few hundred pounds. She also had bees on her roof. There was a seed planted. And when our neighbor Mike, who is directly across from our backyard, began to talk about someone he knew who was a beekeeper, how much honey they got, and how he was thinking about doing it, I just though to myself, Well, he lives here. If he thinks he can do it here, why can’t I? So for my birthday that year, I asked for bees. The girl who can’t stand the stinging things, in the next step of farm crazy, asked to pay money in order to put hot clothes on in the summertime to look at not some, but thousands of the things that can sting her and make her blow up like a balloon. I am coping with adulthood in some of the weirdest ways, I think.

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Nate, Jay, and Steve moving the hive off the trailer for transport from Sarasota

Despite having had bees since October 2013, I still feel like we know relatively little about handling bees since our minimalist method of beekeeping actually means that we don’t handle them much at all. We have learned the downsides of this, primarily today when we went to do our split and encountered lots of burr comb (extra comb that connects frames in places you don’t want, useful but in the wrong place – essentially the weeds in the bee garden so to speak) and had a difficult time transferring frames to our new hive box. #3 Even if you prefer hands off beekeeping, check your hive every now and again just to make sure it will be somewhat manipulable when the time comes.

We believe that bees know more about how to be a bee and make honey than we do, or even potentially ever could, because – shocking, I know – we are not bees. So, to support that belief, despite using some creations of mankind that aid in beekeeping, we try to keep it real for their sake. Our bees sometimes give us the proverbial bee finger and don’t follow their frames. We could start giving them foundation to avoid this, but no beehive in nature starts with plastic or wax foundation, the bees build the foundation. Worker bees do what worker bees do, so we try to let them. #4 Bees produce cleaner wax free of pesticides used in commercial beekeeping and wires if you let them build it rather than insisting they use your man-made version. We do utilize frames as it would be almost impossible to not destroy many bees and the hive when splitting or harvesting honey, but that is a matter of killing less bees and maintaining a certain amount of their hive integrity.

Our approach to feeding bees is also very similar to our approach with foundation. What do bees eat? Well, baby bees eat honey. Just honey. That is why all the worker bees work so hard to make honey. They do it for the kids. Adult bees subsist on nectar and pollen from flowers, and the queen bee eats royal jelly, which the worker bees create from their diet of nectar and pollen, just like they create honey from the same things. I don’t understand all the science of how bees can turn nectar and pollen into any more than what it is, but let’s just think of bees as having their own internal baker and oven and they spit out miraculous bee baked concoctions of stuff, appropriate to their very specific audience of queen, self, or offspring. In winter, almost everyone eats honey or honey-turned royal jelly to make it through the lack of tons of nectar and pollen. In light of the very specific diet of bees, we think it pretty foolish to take not only things not originally in their diet, but things that are also supremely man-modified and absolutely doused in chemicals like corn or sugar cane and take a substance made from that and assume that just because it is sweet and honey is sweet, think that it makes an adequate substitution for the bees. Of course they’ll eat it. And of course they’ll live, but I could probably live off pop tarts for a very long time and I don’t think anyone would think it a good idea or think that I would be gaining anything of any real nutrition from it. I think it a real cop out and a very greedy way of “keeping bees” when we take so much of the food the bees made for themselves and replace it with a shoddy, nutrition-less alternative in order to just keep them alive until the next year when they can go find their own food. It makes perfect sense to me that many hives fail through the winter when they are robbed of their vitamins, minerals, and antibiotics to fight of any winter illness and are left to live off sugar water. Honey and sugar, definitely not the same. #5 Bees make the best food; let them eat it!

This brings us largely to now. We have harvested close to 11 gallons of honey from our single hive in less than 2 years. A good amount, but as much as people want to buy, it leaves not much for us to keep for our own uses (mead and honey soda anyone?) We have sufficient space and we know the neighborhood has sufficient flowering plants to support another hive, in fact their is a wild hive in an oak tree that borders our yard and a neighbors, so we decided it was time to make use of that. Equipment minus a bottom board and queen excluder (which I’m on the fence about using, but it does mean we can disturb them less – but that’s another debate altogether) was already in our extra stash from when we bought the established hive and all the extra boxes and frames from a man named Steve in Sarasota who keeps bees. I talked to Kelley of Kelley’s Bees out in Lakeland and he said that despite common recommendation, you don’t have to move your new hive 2 miles away from the old, but instead you simply move the old queen and older brood, and let her raise the new hive with the hatchlings and let the old hive raise a new queen.

Easier said than done.

Because we have let our bees largely do their own thing and because they have two large deep brood boxes in which the queen can do her own thing, we found that it was next to impossible to find the queen – pretty sure we didn’t, that it was close to just as impossible to remove frames from the top brood box – oh, that’s why there are bottoms on frames, and we both bemoaned the number of bee larvae and workers killed in the effort to raise up a new hive. We are, essentially, winging it and hoping that with the warm weather and strong blooming starting up recently, that despite our inability to find the queen and move her, that we moved enough brood and enough workers will stay with the new hive to raise a new queen and hive there. Risky, I’m sure, but at worst we lose a few frames of brood and the workers all migrate back to their old queen in the old hive. We checked not too long ago and saw action in the new hive, but only time will tell whether they decide to stick around and raise up a new leader for themselves or wander back to their old one. We plan to open the new one up next week and see about queen cells and generally check their progress. Check back next week (hopefully) for an update and send tiny bee prayers our way.

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Back, old hive. Front, new hopeful hive.

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Posted in: critters, garden