Inner Cover

Kim Flottum
Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

by- Kim Flottum

Young Harris. Mean Hive.

I went to the 25th anniversary meeting of the Young Harris/University of Georgia Bee Institute in May this year, held at Young Harris University. It’s organized every year by Paul Arnold who teaches at YH, and the Bee Lab staff from UGA in Athens. I’ve been there a few times previous, both to the Institute and at an EAS Conference held there some years back when Jennifer Berry was President. Young Harris has grown quite a bit since I was there last, and accommodating the 300 plus attendees was easy enough for them now.

There’s a new auditorium that can hold all those people and more, and there are new class rooms so there can be, and were, five or six simultaneous workshops going on at the same time, plus the bees-in-the-parking lot sessions too. Speakers were many and varied – Dewey Caron, Jim Tew, of course Keith Delaplane, Jeff Pettis (it was especially good to have some time with Jeff who’s been too research-busy lately), Ask Phil Craft was there and so was Our Southern Voice Jeff Harris. Bob Binnie, one of the good people speaking at our CASE FOR LOCAL HONEY event in October this year gave a great how-I-do-business talk (and who I was supposed to call afterwards and forgot – Sorry Bob, I’ll get back to you when I get off this darn plane), Jennifer Tsuruda from South Carolina was there, as was Bill Owens who’s moved up in his day job to the point of hardly ever getting to remove bees from houses anymore. So was Robert Brewer and Keith Fielder, the Georgia Extension guys who run the Welsh Honey Judging class and show, and Cindy Hodges, one of Atlanta’s urban beekeepers, John Skinner from Tennessee, and of course Jennifer Berry in the background, keeping all the wheels on track. There’s a multi-level Master Beekeeper class going on early in the week with several different exams taking place and a shrimp boil one evening with great live music and an ice cream social where all the Master class people get announced.

Though the vendor area is a bit cramped there were several there and they were busy, as usual. Kelley Bees (It’s still Walter T. to me, and Earl King was and always is right there too), Brushy Mountain (ask Candy about boiled peanuts the next time you see her), and though I didn’t know either the Dadant or Mann Lake people well enough to recall their names (sorry guys) they both seemed to know me and said hi. Veto Pharma (and Phil and that new bee/mite wash bottle I’m waiting impatiently for) had a table, and David Miller from Beetle Jail was there with a new mesh jacket we’ll be showing off next month, and Bob Cole and his book store (and honey and other bee things) was set up. Oxavap was showing off his many oxalic acid vaporizers and of course Rossman Apiaries was there with a little bit of almost everything they sell.

Rossman’s is a staple there (as are a few others, certainly), but Fred wasn’t there this time, and though his son-in-law Clint has ably taken over much of the travel work, I’d been hoping to have a chat with Fred since I haven’t had that opportunity in quite a while. So instead I chatted with Clint for a bit and talked him out of one of their hats and wore it for the rest of the week. All in all good people, a great place and a good time. Thank all y’all for the great meeting. And congratulations to The Bee Institute for 25 years of making better beekeepers. Oh, and thanks for the hat Clint.

A Spieth Road Story

We had one colony last year that was, bar none, the most defensive colony I’ve ever dealt with outside of Arizona. Really. We’d put three packages in at the same time, from the same supplier, all with (we thought) similar queens. They all went on a new hive stand that was closer to the house than the stand way towards the back of the lot, which gets way too much shade needs to be moved. Three packages, all the same, same supplier, same race, same, same.

It started when the first flush of brood from the package queen began to emerge. One day just as docile as last time just like all the rest. The next time – whoa! Get the gloves, get the suit NOW.

The package on the west end of the new stand was the one. Of the three, it grew by far the fastest. It made spring honey fast enough we needed to feed only three frames of left over honey when we dumped it on drawn comb. And they even made enough excellent early Summer honey to harvest, and we were heading for a second harvest of late Summer honey when we decided to do something.

And bees. They say it takes a lot of bees to make a lot of honey, and there were a Godawful lot of bees, but they also say it takes mean bees to make lots of honey (I’ll get back to that in a minute). The lots of bees thing was spot on though. This colony, housed in medium eight frame equipment (some of my friends think maybe it’s that eight frame stuff that makes them grumpy) just like all the rest of the boxes out there, had way more boxes than the other two on the same hive stand, and even more than the overwintered hives in the back. Seven, all the time with four full of brood, compared to maybe five at the most for the others with maybe three with mostly brood. I ran out of boxes early on, got some more, ran out again so harvested (well, actually my friend Buzz came over and we harvested and he took them home and extracted them for me. I have a deal with Buzz. He has a truck, a honey house, and he’s retired. I’m none of the above so he does the work and takes all the honey he wants for his efforts, thank you Buzz).

The mean bees thing has some truth to it, too, but probably not because of what you think. That old saying goes back to the days before African honey bees and Varroa. There was a time when beekeepers more often than not let colonies just requeen themselves because queens were not quite as available as they are now, and besides, they cost money. Beekeepers back then were cheap (fortunately that has changed), and it was cheaper and easier to let them do it rather than paying for a new one. So, local virgin queens more often than not were mating with drones from colonies that had come from queens that had mated with drones from long time local colonies . . . All of these queens and the drones were from colonies that had managed to figure out how to survive wherever it was they were. Selection was based strictly on survival, and Mother Nature was the selector.

There wasn’t a beekeeper getting in the middle making arbitrary selections based on color, on gentle, on production, on anything other than being alive next Spring. Of course production, winter population, resistance to pests and diseases, a queen’s productivity, a colony’s ability to read the seasons and utilize available resources when abundant and hunker down when not, and that same colony’s ability to defend itself from the Devil himself to keep close it’s hard work all played into the survival game. A colony had to do all of these to stay alive. And to keep staying alive it had to do all of them better this year than last, and even better next because Nature always bats last. So to survive those colonies of yesteryear were mean as tacks and made tons of honey.

So yes, it takes a lot of bees to make a lot of honey, and by gosh, mean bees do make lots of honey, too (most times). These bees, however, didn’t have the luxury of learning to survive for generations and generations. No, they came that way. First generation bullies.

But before we finally did something it got to the point where they’d meet us at the far edge of the garden, about 30 yards from the hive and bedevil you all the way to their hive and past if you were headed to the burn pile or the hives in the back. And they wouldn’t quit, and, because they were stinging your suit they kept coming and more and more kept coming and pretty soon you simply had to leave. Never mind opening the colony. Boiling out got it’s name from what happened when you took the top off that colony. It was incredible.

By the end of July they had set up patrols just outside the house near the side door we use, and they routinely circled the deck on search and destroy missions. They even waited in the driveway in the morning before we left and were still there when we got back greeting you when you opened the car door. Worse, they occasionally went across the road to visit a neighbor who didn’t mind, but, you know, maybe you could do something ‘cause I have to mow my lawn at night anymore and my wife can’t work in the garden at all.

As you can imagine, by now working that colony was impossible.

And yes, I had let it go too long. Way too long. Should have requeened that sucker the first time I noticed it. Yup. Should have. Didn’t. Now, out of control. Dangerous even. Time to do something.

So. Very early morning. Sun not quite up, most everybody still home and not out yet being mean. Door blocked. Five gallons of soapy water. Cover off, water in. Wait 10 minutes. Five more gallons. About a dozen bees left. All the rest just plain dead wet. Took the capped honey and rinsed it off and saved for another colony to use. Removed the rest of the boxes. Fed the uncapped honey, the brood and dead bees to the chickens who were more than delighted, soap and all. All told, 15 minutes. Done before breakfast.

What a waste. What a sad, miserable tragedy. Thousands of (yes, very mean, defensive) bees snuffed out because I let them go unimpeded. Simply replacing a queen a couple of months before this would have avoided all of this. The colony would have gone on, most likely like the average, though not stunningly productive colonies I had from the other packages. Alive and well, and with a little help from their friends into winter and beyond.

The lesson here is simple. Bees really do know what to do, and left to their own devices will manage just fine thank you, once they figure out how to live where ever it is they are, which takes some time and isn’t ever a gentle process. But once that happens those colonies that nature selects start throwing swarms that are fine tuned to live right where they are. And, given free rein, ever more of them would survive because they just keep getting better at being where they are.

Sadly, for the most part the colonies we have now aren’t geared to live where ever it is we put them and they quite readily die. They haven’t been Nature Selected. They’ve been Beekeeper Selected, and it’s pretty obvious we don’t do such a good job. And the bees we don’t manage just die too. They aren’t selected at all. They are just meat for Varroa, for virus, for weather, for starvation. So our bees aren’t mean, no sir. But unfortunately, most of our bees die too early, too often, from too many causes.

I don’t know. Mean and productive and alive, or gentle and dead. What do you think?

It’s July. Summer’s nearly over and it’s time to think of winter. Now. So keep your smoker lit, your hive tool handy and your veil tight. It’s tough out there.