Monday, April 20, 2009

hive updates.

Both of our hives at Mariposa Grove (mostly) failed over the winter. The observation hive failed first, and for the clearest reason.

Starting in about August of last year (2008), it seemed like the undertaker bees were having difficulty disposing of the dead bee bodies. We could see them dragging the dead bees all over the glass, and not knowing where to go. Since I saw that the foragers clearly knew where the entrance/exit was, the behavior of the undertakers was pretty perplexing. Undertaker bees are (so i read online) young bees who have not yet graduated to foraging. Not being foragers yet, they don't really know where the front door is, and apparently the way they find the bee graveyard is by following the light. And durn it, they will keep following the same light over and over again until they add themselves to the pile of dead bees accumulating at the bottom of the hive. Apparently, some bees (the older forager bees) can learn where the entrance is, even if there's a window into the hive, but the undertaker bees don't seem to yet have that learning capability. Odd, I thought.

I tried a few different things to help this out. First, there was already a shade structure built so that the glass was shaded, but that didn't seem to be enough. So we went back to putting the foam pad over the glass to see if they'd then clear the bodies out while they weren't being observed.

The foam pad had the disadvantage of making the observation of the hive pretty non-functional. Whenever the pad was removed, the bees would freak out, and swarm over to the glass, apparently thinking that a wall of the hive had suddenly been removed. I didn't like seeing them freak out like that. It kinda ruined the observing. I didn't want to be able to see the bees in a state of freaking out, I wanted to be able to see the bees when they were working normally. On top of that, I didn't really notice a dramatic improvement in the body-disposal problem, so the foam-pad cover was a pretty big failure.

Then I drilled another entrance, below the main entrance, so that they'd have an exit that was level with the floor. That didn't work either. Still more dead bodies accumulating. We don't go in the hives very often, so this accumulation was worrisome.

At this point, the observation hive became a victim of the global financial meltdown. I was in the process of trying to get a loan from WaMu, and the global financial system was slowly killing me. In the end, we were in escrow for a year minus a week, and I lived in a state of fear/paralysis/loathing. In September I retreated to hibernate until it was all over (turned out to be mid-February 2009).

In the mean time, the bees in the observation hive weren't doing too well. There were way too many ineffective undertaker bees dragging dead bees around and not disposing of them properly. Those useless undertakers should have been doing something else with their time. I'm sure this was weakening the hive substantially (and probably causing bee sicknesses?).

I couldn't deal with it at the time, so I just hoped someone else might. Unfortunately, in community living there is sometimes undefined responsibility for the commons. Especially when the problems are tricky, or there's varying amounts of territoriality/expertise involved.

In any case, I emerged briefly in December to check on the bees, drilled another hole in the hive near where the pile of bee-bodies seemed to accumulate most (the southern end of the window - which was too near the observing window for my original intentions) and that seemed to fix the problem. The undertakers were able to figure it out at that point. Yay!

But too little too late. At that point, the hive was substantially weakened, with a small remaining population. It didn't survive the winter. I tried moving some resources from our other hive to the observation hive, but it didn't take. We were down to one hive.

The second hive seemed to be doing fine through most of the winter, with a reduced population, but that's normal. But for an unknown reason, in February, the hive's population started to severely decline. Most of our rain for the season came in a very short period and that seemed to correspond to the hive failure. In any case, the one-year-old queen didn't respond to the coming spring by ramping up the population. There's some question as to whether or not there was indeed a queen in there at all (none seen, with a tiny bee population), but suffice it to say that we were on the lookout for more swarms.

Luckily, within the space of a single week, there were 4 available swarms, with three right next door. So both our hives are now full of bees again, and I've got a lot more experience catching swarms.

As for the hives, the observation hive was re-oriented, with the shaded window now facing north. I had hoped that the new orientation would fix the undertaking problem, so I closed the hole nearest the glass. No such luck. undertakers still couldn't figure it out, and within a week there was an accumulation of bodies. Uncorking that hole has once again fixed that problem. To keep the bees away from the observers, I put an additional screen up to keep them separate. I'll post some shots or video soon maybe.

I went into the hives again yesterday, and there's a lot of brood in each hive. Good.

A couple of notes: the non-observation hive seems to get built in a much more compact way than the observation hive with the side-entrance. Seems to be a good argument for keeping the entrance on the end. Also, this time they seem to have built fairly well on Bob's top-bars. I don't know why they had problems before. There were two places on the new topbars where they weren't building it exactly straight. One where there was a popsicle stick, the other with the wax foundation. Otherwise, no problems.

I'm still of the belief that my increasingly bad reactions to stings last summer had to do with a temporary buildup in my system rather than a developing alergy. I was stung once in late fall with a very minor reaction. No stings yet this spring, and I've only worn a hood once (yesterday going into the hives). None of the 4 swarms I helped catch stung anybody, but jess got stung once yesterday.

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