A beekeeper hopes for the best in spring

by Eric Hein

They all survived. My honeybee hives somehow managed to survive another winter. With all of the gloom and doom in the press about colony-collapse disorder, I had expected that at least one of my six hives would be pitifully empty or dead. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Each of the hives has a different story, similar to the lives of the people around my family. Some are strong and trouble-free, always producing an abundance of workers and honey. Others have an endless supply of problems, including faltering queens, swarming or dismal production. I’m never sure how each hive will fare -- not only through the winter months when they are snowed in, but also through the spring and summer -- the honey season.

The spring winds of New Mexico have been blowing all day, and humidity is hovering around 4 percent, bone-dry even by our high-desert standards. We’ve had no measurable precipitation for weeks. Compounding the moisture problems, our nighttime spring temperatures have led to a dismal spring bloom this year. The bees have had to fly miles in search of blossoming fruit trees. The neighbor’s trees are brownish and muted this year, not the usual pallet of showy pink, red and white blooms. I’m hopeful for spring rain or snow, but the pattern is reminiscent of previously dry years.

I manage two different styles of hives -- topbar and Langstroth, and each possesses qualities that I admire. I built my topbar hives with the low-tech tools of a handsaw and hammer. The wonderful part of topbars is that no special equipment is needed to make or manage them. But while they’re cheap and functional, they’re also constantly in need of inspection. As the workers build free-hanging comb from the two-inch wooden bars aligned on the top of the hive, I have to bend, twist and straighten the comb to keep the bees from attaching it to the sides of the hive or to the neighboring comb. Yet I don’t need a smoker to calm the bees, and working this hive is almost meditative. I gently lift one small bar at a time from the wooden hive without unsettling the rest of the bees. I work through my other two hives with similar ease.

The bees in my three Langstroth hives are doing well so far, although their temperament is different than the topbars. I’ve painfully learned through successive stings that Lang hives can be temperamental without smoke. I think this is because all 10 frames and their workers are exposed as I inspect the hive. Standing to the side of the first hive, I gently pump a few bellows of smoke into the front opening. The hive quickly comes to life and hums. Then the smoke filters its way through the comb and coaxes the girls and queen into submission. The top of the hive comes off easily and reveals row upon row of bees sizing me up. Sometimes, the drone of the bees is deafening. Luckily, that’s not the case today, and a few more bellows of smoke work like magic.

Langstroth is really the honey production hive. I ordered these hives from a large factory, where they were cut and machined: I only had to provide the glue lue and some nails and paint. I lift the deep wooden frames from the hive and watch the bees scurry about on the comb. Each frame was individually put together and filled with a pre-made sheet of wax on which the bees have built comb.

It’s been a few weeks since the first inspection of my hives, and the strongest Langstroth hive from last year has just taken a turn for the worse. The queen is still golden and looks strong as she walks across the comb with workers attending her every need, but her egg production has dropped from several thousand a day to hardly even hundreds. The normally full pattern of brood in the comb is now spotty. Sensing weakness, the hive around her has started producing a new queen cell on the adjacent comb. I wonder if the old queen realizes that her days are numbered.

The cycle of a new queen is starting. The old one will begin her day as usual, only to find a quick sting from the next generation, as she is overthrown and replaced. It reminds me that life continually hangs in the balance.

Eric Hein is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and tends his bees in Tijeras, New Mexico.

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