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Inside the Hive

So, Saturday I brought my observation hive to opening day of the Westfield Farmer's Market and, of course, my bees were an instant hit!

All day long, I fielded questions from people of all ages. "Are they real?", "What are they doing?", "Where's the queen?" Everyone, young and old alike, were drawn to "the girls." Early in the day, someone asked me why there was so much room in my hive. You see, I have a 4-frame observation hive. That means my hive is made to hold four full-size "deep" frames, two on top and two on the bottom. It has been custom-made with "bee specs" in mind. (Bees don't like too much open space.) However, this year, my observation hive contains four "honey super" frames, which are much smaller than the “deeps”. (Are you catching on to the beekeeping lingo, yet?)

Anyway, my husband, John, transferred these four smaller frames from a "nuc" box (tiny 5-frame hive) where they've been building up since early spring, into my observation hive on Friday night. “Why has this tiny colony of bees been living on these small frames in a little nuc box?” you ask. Well, that's because we almost lost them this winter. This hive just barely made it through one of the most brutally-cold Highland Lakes winters on record. Let me tell you their story…

Back in November, we completed our hive inspections/winterizations for the season. Every Fall, we leave two "deep" hive bodies and one "honey super", containing approximately 100+ pounds of honey, on each hive. The bees feed on this honey to get them through the winter. We inspected each hive: some were really strong (lots of bees); a few were weak (not too many); and most were somewhere in between. As a beekeeper, you resign yourself to some yearly losses. We do everything in our power to get each and every hive through the winter but, realistically, we know we may lose some.

This year, we suffered most of our losses right in our own backyard. That really hurts. Those few extended periods of sub-zero temperatures really took its toll in our Highland Lakes apiary. You see, in cold weather, bees will cluster around the queen and flex their wing muscles to keep the hive temperature around 92 degrees. They move around the hive, en masse, and take small breaks, a few at a time, to feed off the stored honey. Their main instinct is to save the queen and thus ensure the longevity of the colony. They will try to keep her warm at all costs, even if it means that they "starve out," rather than move. They focus all their energy on trying to maintain the hive temperature. If it's too cold, for too long, they just can't move for fear of breaking the cluster and freezing to death. This is particularly heartbreaking because a cluster that has "starved out" can be literally inches from a full frame of honey.

As we saw the same tragic story played out in hive after hive, we were becoming more and more disheartened. Most, but not all, of our stronger hives made it through okay. One particularly strong colony that died really stunned us. The few weak ones that died did not really come as much of a surprise. Some of the in-between hives lived, some died.

Finally, we got to the last hive. We knew it was weak going into the winter so, when we popped the lid, we weren't really surprised to see - nothing! Nope, no signs of life. But John, thorough beekeeper that he is, started pulling frame after frame. No bees. Nothing. Finally, he pulled the sixth or seventh frame and there we found a tiny, softball-sized cluster of bees. "Well, will you look at this," he said. "Nothing there, they'll never make it," said my husband, the eternal optimist. "Look, I see the queen!" said I. "You're right, it's just a handful of bees but, they've made it this far, we need to give them as much help as we can." He pulled out the frame they were clustered on as well as four more honey-filled frames and put them in a “nuc.”

A “nuc,” or nucleus hive, is a small 5-frame hive that we use to start a new colony or build up a weak one. It provides a smaller space for a weak hive to defend in late spring/summer and heat in winter/early spring. A nuc normally holds five full-size “deep” frames but, since we found this cluster up in the honey super and didn’t want to disturb them, we just transferred them, smaller frames and all. We placed some fondant and a pollen patty as food supplements since winter had not yet released its icy grip, and hoped for the best. A few weeks passed, the weather finally got warmer and the bees started to fly!

Periodically, we checked our nuc (along with everyone else, of course) and saw that they had started to pack in pollen. “Yippee!” Check again- “oh, boy, now they’re bringing in nectar!” This is a really good sign because bees use a combination of pollen and nectar, “bee bread,” to feed the baby bees. Check again- “we’ve got eggs!”

“How would you feel about it if I transferred this little colony into your observation hive?” John asked the other day. “So long as you think they won’t be hurt during transport, since they’re on those small frames,” I said. “Nope, those frames are stable. They won’t shift on you.” “Okay, then,” I agreed.

As I told my story to my audience on Saturday afternoon, I saw them look at “my girls” with newfound admiration. I loved hearing the admiring “oohs” and “aahs” of my guests. Oh, yeah, my hive “rocks!” It is growing by leaps and bounds. “Come back soon,” I tell my spellbound audience. “And watch this colony evolve through the next few months. The bees don’t like a lot of space. Watch them fill it up with comb!”

Yes, everywhere we go, my bees are the rock stars and I bask in their glory.

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