The Year of Bad Beekeeping

I’ve been doing small-scale urban beekeeping for six years now.  I started with a package of bees and a brand new top-bar hive I built myself and kept that line of bees going through multiple splits and swarms for five years. I usually have two hives going, and occasionally three.  There have been a few bumps along the road, but overall I’ve felt pretty successful.  That was until the end of last year when I lost one hive to yellow jackets.  I had taken a couple of splits from the hive to start a hive for a co-worker.  The hive then went ahead and swarmed late in the summer, after already being weakened from a split.  This left the hive to weak to defend itself and yellow jackets finished it off.   That was too bad, but I understood what had happened and still had a good very strong hive going into the winter.  I went ahead and ordered a nuc for the spring, just in case, and because I wanted to see how Russian bees compared to the Beeweaver bees I’d started out with.


Unfortunately, mice got into my remaining hive, built a nest and did a lot of damage.   I discovered this in February and got the nest out of there.  The hive wasn’t in the greatest shape, but it had a queen and a little brood. It was too cold for me to thoroughly clean out the hive and fix things, so I just let it be.  A couple of weeks later when we had a warm spell and I went to finish cleaning up the hive only to find the mice had returned and wiped out the remaining bees.  I kicked myself, because I could have taken more steps to mouse-proof the hive and hadn’t.  For the first time in 5 years, I was without any bees. I did have the Russian Nuc coming in the spring, and a beekeeper friend of mine had hives that were ready swarm early, so he gave me a split off one of his hives and I was back in business.


I had been using Kenyan top-bar hives since I started.  Last year I experimented with a Tanzanian top-bar Hive.  That hive performed really well and was strong going into winter, but it was the one wiped out by mice in February.  So having no existing colonies I decided to give the standard Langstroth hives a try. These are the standard boxes which are the most commonly used hives here in the US. I’d always avoided them, but I thought it would be good to have the experience of working them.  And if I ended up liking them, it would make things a lot easier could I just buy standard gear and not have to custom build things like I did with the top-bar hives. It also meant I’d have an easier time hiving the nuc I was getting.  So I setup two Langstroth hives.  The split from my friend's hive went into one and the Russian nuc went to the other.   I quickly found I did not like working these hives.  Lifting the boxes was difficult.  They got quite heavy and were glued together with wax and propolis.  Removing frames of comb was also difficult and I always felt like I was crushing a lot of bees in the process.  The Russian nuc never really took off.  The queen didn’t produce much brood and the hive didn’t grow much.   The split from my friend’s hive however took off, quickly filling the hive to capacity, and I think it even swarmed.


Unfortunately, a problem that has been a minor annoyance turned into a huge problem.  Small hive beetles infected both hives. I’ve always had problems with these, though they’ve never gotten completely out of hand like they did this time. Last month the Russian hive was overcome.  The maggots (larva) were everywhere and had destroyed the brood nest.  I managed to get the queen and the remaining bees out and into a small nuc, hoping they might survive, but they didn’t make it.  The queen was either killed or left.   I ordered a new queen to try and requeen it, but the weather was really hot and the queen died before ever being released from her cage. and the remaining bees quickly dwindled away.


So now I was back down to one hive that seemed to be doing well.  However, it too was suffering from a hive beetle infestation that expanded far more quickly than I would have believed possible.   I found the maggots throughout the hive, and every frame I pulled out saw hundreds of beetles being dislodged.  


I think this is a shortcoming of the Langstroth hive. All the wooden frames provide far too many places for these beetles to hide. The populations of beetles never reached these levels in my top-bar hives where there are far fewer places that bees can’t reach.  There were still a lot of bees in the hive, though no brood. The brood nest had been ravaged by the beetle larva.  I found the queen, not even on comb but on the wall of the hive. So I got her into an empty top-bar hive and shook out most of the other bees into it. They seem to be clustering in there and hopefully will start building. It’s a bit late in the summer for them to start from scratch, but I’ll feed them as much as I can hope they recover.


I threw out all the comb, which included a lot of honey.  I hated to do so, but it had been slimed by the maggots and I just wanted to get rid of it all. I wish I had a way to burn this mess, but being in the city that wasn’t practical. So I bagged it all up and put in a trash bin, which turned out to be a not great idea. The scent of all this comb and honey attracted the bees and good sized swarm developed around the trash bin .  I was alerted to this when someone came to read the electrical meter and was unable to get anywhere near it because of the mass of bees buzzing around the nearby trash bin.  I moved the trash bin away from that area and burned some damp leaves to produce a loud of smoke which helped disperse the remaining bees.  I removed all the bags of comb and double bagged them, then washed out the trash bin and rinsed all the bags hoping to remove any scent that would attract bees. I don’t think it was completely successful, so I still may have a problem disposing of this stuff as I’m guessing the garbage men probably won’t want to pick up a bin full of bees.  


This last year has seen a number of failures and missteps on my part. It leaves me with one colony, that is not in the best condition and may or may not make it. That’s kind of the nature of the game with beekeeping though.  There are a lot of threats to hives these days.  Some of the problems may just be the luck of the draw, and some were caused by inexperience or lack of prompt action on my part.  I’m not giving up yet, but I am definitely returning to Kenyan top-bar hives for my beekeeping from here on out.  I think they do a better job of controlling beetle infestations and are simply easier to inspect and maintain. Some of my problems this year may have been from damage I inflicted while trying to do inspections, or waiting too long to do an inspection because I had difficulty manipulating the frames which let problems get out of hand.  Hopefully my current hive will survive, but if not, I will order new bees for next year and start again.