Here in Saint Paul, we entered winter with three hives buzzing with activity. Our fourth hive was empty; the bees had likely swarmed earlier in the fall. No honey, no pollen, just wax crumbs in the bottom of the hive; they packed up all their belongings and left.
When we checked the hives in December, during a stretch of warmer days, we were surprised to find all the hives empty. Two of the three seemed to have suffered the same as the previous empty hive. With the exception of a few dead bees, wax pieces and pollen on the bottom board, the hives were empty. There was still some honey and pollen, but the bees were gone. The fourth hive had a very small cluster of dead bees in the middle. A small amount of honey and pollen remained. My guess, and it is just a guess, as a group, they just could not maintain an adequate temperature. Maybe there were not enough bees (perhaps varroa mites spiked in this hive and weakened the population).
For the last few winters, we have wrapped the hives in tar paper to act as a barrier to the wind as well as allowing for the ever-so-small warming effect from the sun. We had mixed success over the years. The use of tar paper for this winter was no different. However, with the hives being without bees early in the winter, meant that we would likely have to deal with mice in the hives.
Even with the hive entrances blocked off with scraps of tar paper or duct tape, mice can still get into a hive. The hives are ideal mouse-hangouts; slightly warm from the tar paper wrap and food in the form of honey and wax (it is a lipid, after all).
Over this past weekend, I decided to do some spring cleaning and rearranging of the hives. The hives could be completely torn down, wax scraped if need be, debris removed, components inspected – all without needing to wear a beesuit or be concerned with getting stung. The bee-free situation of the hives would also allow for something that I have been wanting to do for a while: better level the hives and physically arrange them differently.
It is difficult to tell from the photo (above) that the hives are actually located on the side of a hill. It is only a slight angle – less 15° – but the layout still has problems. Originally, I had dug into the hill to better level the hives, but with heavy rain last spring, the general cycle of forest-dross-buildup, as well as burrowing rodents below – the hive bases were buried on the uphill side and beginning to be excavated on the downhill side. We had shimmed up the downhill sides with sticks and left over cedar shakes (from siding the coop); it looked tacky and felt flimsy – like the hives would tip over if top-loaded with honey frames.
The first hive we opened was empty. No signs of mice; just the wax bits and a few dead bees on the bottom board. The second hive, however, was a bit different. The piece of tar paper that had been blocking off the top-box’s entrance hole had a hole through it. In pulling off the tar paper wrap, bits and pieces of what looked like shredded paper fell out. The smell of mouse-living hit my nose.
Lifting off the top deep box, I nearly fell over as a mouse jumped toward me – from the box to the ground. It made some mouse-noises as it ran between my legs and off into a nearby brush pile; I assume it was cursing me out in its native tongue.
The middle deep box was more or less completely packed with shredded paper and stunk of urea. I am not sure where the mouse or mice were getting the paper to shred; maybe our near by “open air” garage (the building had red squirrels living it throughout the winter). Frame by frame, I shook the paper and mouse-crap into a pail.
The mice had also eaten through several frames of honey and comb. Two frames had bottom bars that had been chewed through and two more frames of nectar that had not been turned into honey had mold on them. Theses frames went into the fire we had started in the fire pit a bit earlier in the day.
Only one of the hives had a mouse nest in it; all of the hives, however, had nests under their bases. More shredded paper, leaves and twine were all bundled up. Mice would jump out from under the hives as I picked up and moved the bottom boards. I would let out an explicative as if having a mouse jump at me was something unexpected at this point. That night, all I dreamt about were mice in the house or in our bed. Any creek or cracking sound in the house would send me fly up out of my sleep – It must be a mouse!
The next morning, with the hives torn down, and moved out of the bee yard, we set to work clearing out the buckthorn seedlings and other bits of flora that taken up residence over the last few years within the confines of the bee yard fencing. A quick run-around with the push-lawnmower and a quick raking made short work of the task. Maybe a sprinkling of rape seeds or clover in the areas where we will not be walking is in order.
Our neighbors to the south of us had given us a heap of wood pallets earlier in the fall; pallets make nice platforms for hives. Previous owners of our house, at one time, had left a piles of short concrete pillars (14″ long, 6″ in diameter) in the woods and near the “open air” garage; we have no idea what pillars were for, but we have used else where around the property – the fire pit, for example, is ringed with them. More pillars, deeper in the woods, would make for great pallet supports in the bee yard.
Having hauled half a dozen or so of these pillars into the bee yard, I set to work with a shovel, digging in to get the right depth to bury the concrete supports.
With the pallets in place, reassembling the hives was the easy part. They stacked together quickly. As I put them back to together, I noticed that we had a few winged visitors. Maybe a dozen bees – or simply the same few – land here or there on droplets of honey on the tops of frames. The question of whether these were actually our bees – a few of the bees that had packed up and left in the fall – popped into my head. Not shown in the photo (below), all the larger hive entrance holes had been covered with duct tape; we are hoping it keeps the mice out until we get bees installed.
We have had bees on order for while – from one supplier in Iowa of Russian bees, we have had our name on their order list since February of last year. We also put an order in in January with a place near Baldwin, Wisconsin; those bees will be available for pick in mid-April. We will also have to wash down the hive equipment prior to installing bees – I’ll want to make sure the urine from the mice is washed out; it will also give us a chance to jettison any frames that are showing signs of mold. This will happen in early April.