It is May 21st, and Worth and I drive out to the Ranch. There is activity in both hives. We take the lid off the AWOL hive. There are bees inside – not many, but enough. I do not want to disturb them any further. I see some of the worker bees carrying pollen into the hive. We are encouraged as this could be a sign that the queen is indeed alive. We did not do a hive inspection partly because I wanted to cling on to the hope that the queen was alive and well. We would find out soon enough if the queen was dead. Our hives are weak and at this point I hope they will create enough stores to make it through the winter. We top up the feeders in both hives with sugar water and leave.
Bees carrying pollen back to the hive… not exactly through the right entrance.
Adding sugar water.
Worth and I attended our second Edmonton and District Beekeepers Association monthly meeting on May 18th at the Legion in NE Edmonton. Numerous beekeepers as well as individuals interested in beekeeping turned up. Guest speaker, Troy Donovan talked about flow hive technology and showed us an actual hive with working components. We also had a chance to sample some honey crafted by the bee’s that live atop the roof at Grant MacEwan University. In other news, members were made aware that they have access to the Association‘s microscope for the purpose of examining their bees.
It was a night of tossing and turning, and as I consider myself to be a reasonably able person, I felt as if I had failed miserably. To make matters worse, I had a funeral to go to. After many tears and a hearty country meal amongst friends and neighbours, Mom and I finally got back to the Ranch around 4pm to take a peek at the bees. I lifted the lid on the AWOL hive and saw that there was activity, so I was not completely downtrodden. However, I was skeptical and still did not know if the queen was alive or if the other bees had killed her. At this point, my best chance was to leave the hives and not disturb them anymore.
Early morning walk at the farm
On May 10th, Skylar drove to the Bee Maid Coop to exchange the dead queen for a live one. Forty-eight hours after Worth and I installed the bees, I returned to the Ranch with Mom on bear-spray duty. I put my bee suit on and headed over to the queen-less hive to install the new queen. Things seemed a bit odd and eerily quiet. I lifted the lid on the hive and not a single bee was in sight! I lifted the lid on the second hive and saw that the little monsters had moved next door. I was gutted and did not know what to do. After a few moments of panic, I scrolled through the emails on my phone and found an instructor’s (from the Basic Beekeeping course) number in an email. Now, I would not recommend trying to operate a cell phone with bee gloves on. After several attempts to ring Craig, he rang me back. I pulled my glove off at the risk of getting stung to answer the phone. No doubt Craig gets calls from panicked beekeepers more often than not. Feeling immensely embarrassed, I took a few deep breaths and explained my dilemma. Craig calmly suggested that if I wished to save the queen, then the hive would have to be split. I gulped. For less than a novice beekeeper, this was a huge ask. I heard stories about inexperienced beekeepers maiming and, or killing the queen while handling the frames. I did not want to be one of “them.”
As Craig gently communicated what needed to happen, I became somewhat calmer and, with huge resistance, summoned the courage to begin splitting the hive. First, I changed the direction of the hive entrance, so that it was now facing north instead of south. As Craig explained, this would increase the likelihood of the bees returning to (from foraging) and remaining in their new hive. Next, I removed five of the empty frames and took the lid off the hive that was abuzz with activity. To be honest, I can’t really remember how many frames I took out as I was too stressed to think that clearly. Craig suggested that I find the queen to ensure that I did not move her over to the second hive. I thought, oh fudge, would I be able to identify the queen even if I saw her? I chose the outer most frames where the queen was unlikely to be. Frame in hand, with not so happy kamikaze bees diving into me, I searched for the queen. Satisfied that she was not present, I placed the frame in the vacant hive and repeated the process a few more times. I breathed a sigh of relief; everything was going smoothly. It was time to put the new queen in. Using my small beekeeping gloves that are entirely too big, I fumbled around with the cage and… inadvertently opened it. A gong show was unfolding before my eyes. The cage was supposed to remain unopened in the hive until the colony had at least 24 hours to get used to the queen otherwise they might kill her.
Should I close the cage? But then I thought, what if I break her leg or worse, squish her? I quickly placed the cage on the bottom of the hive… she was still inside… so maybe that was OK?? All I had to do now was to grab the last empty frame. Just as I was about to put the frame back in the hive, I saw it… the cage was empty; she did not waste any time getting out. I felt sick.
The bees arrived from New Zealand on May 8th and I booked off work early to get to the Spruce Grove Alberta Honey Producers Coop in time to pick them up. I also purchased some pollen patties and apivar strips from the staff that were patient and kind enough to answer all of my questions. The apivar strips are necessary to kill varroa mites. As we had learned from Dr. Nasr, the mite population needs to be less than 1% going into Winter; and Spring is a good time to get rid of them.
Bee Packages from New Zealand
I could not put off the inevitable anymore and drove around the back to collect our two packages. I was excited and worried – we now had the responsibility to get these wee critters to their new home two hours away. I kept the temperature cool and played music by Jens Oettrich (Abschied von einem Freund is particularly nice). The bees probably didn’t notice, but I began to relax and the collective hum of 17,000 bees inside my car no longer seemed so daunting. When I arrived back at my home in Edmonton, Worth was home from work and ready to hit the road. My daughter, Skylar who will be going into her 4th year in Human Ecology at the University of Alberta had a solution of sugar-water prepared to spray on the plastic cage in hopes that the bees would be somewhat happier. Our dog, Rusty looked on with great interest and then disillusion when he was not invited to make the trip to the Ranch with us. After all, he too (like the bees) was born in New Zealand and made the long journey to Canada with us in July 2013 after we lost our home and endured over 11,000 earthquakes and aftershocks in Christchurch. A series of events we will never forget and be immeasurably grateful that we were not killed or injured as did many that we knew.
Rusty is a Swedish Vallhund – he looks like a Corgie that got tangled up with a coyote.
When Worth and I arrived at the family farm, we prepared a solution of 1:1 sugar-water (for the feeders) and added a tiny amount of apple cider vinegar to prevent the mixture from spoiling. Off we went to the Ranch to install the bees. The day before, I visited my GP and got a prescription for an EpiPen just to err on the side of caution. The area is remote and if either Worth or I were to suffer a severe allergic reaction, it would be over before we could get help. It was interesting to learn that multiple bee stings can cause a severe drop in blood pressure and in the worst case, circulatory collapse.
We arrived at the Ranch around 8pm. With gleaming white bee suits on, we carefully opened the gate and turned off the electric fence. Worth removed the frames from the hives and I sprayed them with the sugar solution that Skylar prepared earlier. We also filled the frame feeders with sugar solution and placed a pollen patty on the top of the frames. It was now time to install the bees!! Worth slammed the end of the tube against the ground just as was described in our bee class and in a YouTube tutorial. He quickly removed the plastic cage and then retrieved the queen. Then he shook the bees out into the hive, replaced the center frames and positioned the caged queen on top. We repeated the process for the second package. Only, this time the queen was dead in her cage. We were crushed.
Installing the Bees
Dead Queen – OMG!
The following weekend was bright, sunny and a great deal warmer. Not leaving anything to chance, we take Dad’s tractor. This time the metal rods go quickly and easily into the ground as Worth pushes them in with the bucket. While they didn’t exactly go in straight as the ground was still frozen, we at least had the makings of a workable fence. It was impossible to put the ground rod in; and since we were running out of time, Worth thought that our best bet was to wire the fence in a sequence of one hot and the other not, with a total of six wires.
With all the metal rods in the ground it was time to string the wire up and attach the electrical components. We are using a Gallagher electric fencer with solar panel and upon testing with a voltage meter we are consistently getting 9.6 KV on all sides. Thick fur can act as an insulator and we do not want to take any chances of bears breaching the perimeter. Worth has installed a trail cam on a nearby tree just to see who is visiting.
It is April 30th and I am worried. There is still snow on the ground and Worth and I need to put an electric fence up before the bees arrive in about two weeks. We are weekend, want-to-be beekeepers and our time is limited by work commitments and distance to our site. We head off to the Ranch. There is even more snow here and, afraid that we won’t make it in to our bee site without getting stuck, we walk our materials in.
On April 20th, Worth and I attended our first Edmonton & District Beekeepers Association meeting. It was held at Dr. Medhat Nasr’s (Provincial Apiculturist) conference room north of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. The meeting was well attended and very informative. We were rather gob-smacked to have direct access to scientists who are on the coal face of pest research and surveillance. We listened carefully and with great interest to the information and research that was presented. There were a number of pests that we would need to be mindful of. We also learned about the new Bee Health App that we could download for free from the Apple App Store or Google play. This is a handy reference tool to “detect, diagnose, manage and treat honey bee diseases and pests.” I see that Dr. Nasr’s email is also listed and I would not hesitate to send him a photo to ask if he would identify a potential abnormality, or disconcerting invader that could potentially wreak havoc within the hive.
During the last couple of weeks in April, I did a bit of research to identify the components we would need for a solar-powered, electric fence. Worth worked on figuring out how to wire the fence to make it electric. One missing item meant a thirty-minute drive to the nearest town. After a couple of phone calls with Bonnie at the UFA in Leduc, an electric fencing package (including a solar Gallagher B200 fencer, metal posts, ground rods, handles, wire, clamps and clips) was ready for us. When we arrived at the UFA, I was quite surprised to find that Bonnie looked somewhat familiar. As it turns out, we had been classmates at the University of Alberta and graduated together in 1990 (BSc. Ag). The trip to Leduc cost around $1300 but I was confident that we purchased quality materials that would not let us down. All we needed now was a battery ($147) to hold the charge created by the solar panel.
Worth and I went over to the Alberta Honey Producers Coop in Spruce Grove (the Bee Maid store). We bought some basic hive equipment, bee suits, gloves, as well as a few other items. Fortunately we already had another hive back at the farm. The bill came to just over $800. This was beginning to be an expensive hobby.