Feb. 15th, 2012

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While observing the hives on a mild afternoon in early January I realized that Lada was being robbed by her sisters from Brigid. Brigid's bees were all returning to the nest with pollen (even in January, wtf?) while the bees from Lada were coming and going with barren pollen baskets and and some acting nervous at approaching the entrance, indicative of robbing bees. My suspicion was confirmed after watching a couple foragers fly directly back to their own nest just a few feet away. The hive garbage drawer in the back had also been remarkably clear of mites for a couple of months, which I had thereto interpreted as nestduftwärmebindung working its magic, but also clear of the normal debris and cappings from honey cells as the cluster should surely be eating into their stores at this time of year. I rapped the side of the hive with a stick to excite the cluster and listened with my stethoscope for the low rumble of a thousand shivering bees but could not determine a locus for it from any side of the hive. I knocked harder trying to instigate the bees to rush out from the entrance and attack me which, much to my disappointment, didn't happen.

Although I'm loathe to open the hive for all but the most drastic of scenarios, my concern got the better of me and I removed the lid and quilt only to free a couple of the robbing culprits where I was hoping for a full frontal assault. No doubts, there was not a living bee in the nest and I decided then that I'd need to tear her down to minimize exposure of my last remaining colony to any possible residual pesticide or pests that might still inhabit the "ghost hive" that was Lada. I divided the hive bodies into manageable pairs and, as I expected the upper most pair was heavy with stores while the lower sections were considerably lighter. What was unusual was that I wasn't seeing the cluster of dead bees starved or frozen in an upper corner of the comb as I was accustomed to finding in the dead-outs of previous seasons. The colony had abandoned their entire summer stores and absconded completely. The separated sections of hive bodies each fit into large trash bags and were sealed closed with tape to prevent corruption by moths and ants and stored on the porch out in the cold until I could gather the meager materials I needed and make some in my schedule time to extract the honey.

The grid, serving as an array of top bars, is fixed over the upper-most hive body, first just by gravity and later by the bees with propolis. Just as I expected, the bees began drawing comb here and raised their first batches of brood as a fledgling (artificial) swarm. After the young bees vacated their cells they were cleaned out and back-filled with foraged nectar. Large folds of honey filled comb can be seen through the bars. (click through for larger views, and here for a close-up)

A view of the drawn comb in the bottom most hive body. Comb acts as a baffle for the currents of air entering the hive from the bottom entrance giving natural comb this beautiful undulating pattern. At this point the boxes are still firmly connected to each other by the internal attachment of comb which extends uninterrupted through the depth of the space created by stacked boxes. The sections are easily separated with a length of cheese wire.A view of the drawn comb in the bottom most hive body.

Using the longest serrated knives I could find at the local thrift, I separated the combs from the inside perimeter of the hive body to which they are secured by the bees when drawing comb. The spale, the length of oak rod that extends diagonally, is put in place before the swarm was introduced to provide support for the fragile comb as it's drawn. Although this design precludes regular internal inspections of the brood nest the bees in a conservation hive are not discouraged from making attachments to any and all surfaces within the hive. Much like the honey badger, honey bees don't give a shit, either!

Once all the attachments along sides of the box are severed the spale can be cut free and combs are removed individually. Pictured are brood combs from third hive body from the top. This comb is newer than the comb from the top two boxes and bore a cycle of brood but was never filled with nectar, likely having been drawn toward the end of the summer flow. A closeup of the abandoned brood comb reveals a few cells of capped brood and probably contains residual evidence of what might possibly have destroyed this colony. Although the sparse, patchy brood pattern suggests that this (packaged) queen was probably failing. In hindsight I should've kept the size of the hive at four medium boxes for the first season encouraged them to swarm rather than providing new empty framed boxes underneath.

After all combs are inspected all of the salvageable honey is collected in a capping tank where it's crushed by hand and allowed to drain through a double sieve in order to strain out the majority of the solid bits. Wax is reserved for the solar melter next summer.

The conservation hive is designed around the concept of the honeybee colony as a superorganism, where the hive itself acts as the exoskeleton. Colonies raised in this style of hive are free to progress without human interaction just as a feral colony would except with easy access for a bee keeper to increase his apiary by splitting strong colonies or to collect honey. Contrary to conventional woodenware, its smaller capacity maximizes the retention of nest heat and scent which bolsters natural colony immunity to pathogens but at the expense of large honey harvests. This hive yielded about 14 lbs. of raw honey that will serve to make a couple small batches of mead.

Bittersweet. . .


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