It feels like August was just yesterday, with throngs of tourists packing the main arcade at Pike Place and bees getting ready for a long break in available forage. And then it was all of a sudden October and I had only done two rounds, maybe three on a few locations, of 2 to 1 thick sugar syrup feed to fatten up food reserves for all our hives. And now it's mid December, and I've let myself continue to prioritize other tasks, projects, and worries over my baby bees.
I think, though, that I tend to be really hard on myself, always driving to do everything to its fullest and to the far reaches of my best try...and I haven't been feeling like a very good beekeeper this fall. I have been feeling neglectful and preoccupied with traveling and parties and bottling honey and well, a little more me time than I've been allowed in the past year.
So last week the weather had it's first sustained cold snap. Cool, clear days and frosty freeze nights for a week. It was beautiful and good for business (humans, like bees, come out of their hives when it's sunny!), but it gave me quite a pause to consider whether or not my bees would be ok. Then the rains started, and have delivered a deluge of, well, typical december proportions. You see, if you don't feed your bees a little extra sugar syrup and pollen in the fall, the colony won't be stimulated to continue raising brood. If the colony isn't very big going into fall, it won't survive winter. When you open the lid of a beehive in the cold months, all the bees cluster together around a few frames up top of the hive. Ideally you'd like to see a basketball sized cluster, indicating a healthy queen and a well organized unit. A softball sized cluster has far less chance of making it through the long, cold months because they simply cannot produce enough heat to stay warm. SO by not feeding through the entire fall, I feared I had made a mortal mistake with many of my hives. Mind you, they all had plenty of honey reserves going into winter...I had made sure of that back in august.
Another reason I just haven't been the best caretaker this year is that I split my time between two places, 110 miles apart. It's hard to just pop in and see beehives when they are 4 miles from the Canadian border and I live in Ballard. I keep dreaming of a rural location where I can have my bees, bottling, waxery, office, and kitchen all in one! Also the store has been tremendously busy and I'm still head of production. This means I'm up in Nooksack bottling honey once a week, but not checking hives.
Anyway, I went up this week and forced myself to stay for 3 days straight. On the first two, the weather was dark and wet and super depressing, so Olga and I committed to bottling as much honey as we could. We emptied two barrels of honey and got the store stocked for (hopefully) the remainder of the holiday season. On the last day, I woke up early and the sun was already up!
olga met me in the field and we proceeded to go through the apiary with bated breath. One after the other, we discovered the hives to be very much alive, very full of bees and honey, and very active for such a cool day! I had never been so happy to see defensive behavior from guard bees! All through this season, I have collected any honey that has either sat out without a lid, or from broken jars at the market, or maybe just was too unfiltered and messy. This honey is what we feed back to the bees in their feeder frames this time of year, because it's safer than feeding liquid sugar (which could ferment and make the bees sick because they don't process it fast enough due to it being so cold out). We also add dry sugar to the hive just above the cluster. By adding a sheet of newspaper on top of the main hive body, then covering it with an empty super and filling that super with dry sugar, this acts as insulation for the hive. The sugar draws moisture out of the hive and hardens up into a big candy block over the next month or so. The bees can chew through the newspaper and have a little snack if they like as well. I know, sugar is weird and I should stay away from it. But it helps the bees this time of year and I liken it to giving your kids McDonalds. If your kids were going to starve to death over the winter, wouldn't you give them mcdonalds? Yes, you would!
I decided to start using old dead-outs as weights after the hives were filled with sugar. I don't want to worry about the lids flying off during the notorious frasier valley wind gusts in whatcom county. The bees won't have access to the tops of their hives until they chew through the sugar, and they usually have to reseal the lids with propolis after i get in there and mess around. Olga, being the hardworking, intuitive, and fearless helper that she is, went and found river rocks to weigh down the hives she had been working on. Her idea was not only cuter than mine, but much more efficient. So you can see my handy work and hers if you happen to be walking down the dike road along the nooksack river!
I'd like to take a quick moment and just say a little something about finding good help. I was, for more than a decade, the highest selling salesperson in my old job. I said yes to everything, worked tirelessly for little pay and even less thanks, and took pride in a hard days work. I have found as now a wage provider, or for lack of a better term, the boss, to be notsomuch shocked as I am disappointed that not everyone works to the same level of dedication that I did, or do. My dad taught me, and still reminds me, to always do more than what's expected. Do more than what you're told to do and good things will come. A perfect example of this kind of work ethic is my friend Olga.
I met Olga when she and I both worked for the greenhouse tulip season on Alm Hill Gardens. I sold at the markets and she worked the fields. She stands about 5 ft tall and must weigh in around 85 lbs, but can carry her own weight across a muddy field day in and day out without complaint. If faced with an unknown task, Olga dives in, prepared to prove that she is capable. She is quiet and reserved, not letting many see behind her serious and focused exterior. I saw in her a work ethic beyond any other young white people on the farm, and when she one day admitted to having a fascination with bees and honey, I knew I had to poach her from the farm and make her my helper! I haven't been able to provide full time work, just here and there bottling and basic beehive maintenance for her to kind of learn the ropes. I can give her very little instruction and she picks it up and runs it without question. I am not a natural teacher, and i actually hate having to explain the process and history of things so much so that I end up just opting to do it myself. With Olga, there is never a feeling that I should do it for her. She is capable and kind, and so so organized. For example, when I take the empty frames out of supers so that we can use them for sugaring the bees, I toss the frames willy-nilly in a pile to deal with later on. When olga empties a super of its frames, she lays them out in perfectly stacked piles. I already told you about her river rock weights, which she quietly and without instruction just chose to innovate. She is a gem and I am motivated to keep her on the team as long as I can!As the sun set on yesterday, I felt happy and relieved and excited for the future. I will have that rural workshop of my dreams someday, and you'd better believe I will have Olga there, working harder and smarter than me.