Dead Bees: A Sad End to the Topbar Beekeeping Experiment

Yes, well, I’ve guessed for weeks that my bees were dead but I was too chicken to open up the hive to confirm my fears. Who wants to look at a pile of dead bees, after all? That’s very depressing. There’s enough depressing in this world. I suppose I shouldn’t take it personally, but, it’s hard not to.

Today I decided I had to stop procrastinating. It’ll be warm here in no time, and Africanized bees (known simply to local beekeepers as crabby, irritable bees) will be swarming and looking for new homes….and a vacant topbar hive would be a perfect location for a swarm on the lookout for new digs. I suppose if I had experience as a beekeeper I’d have no problems with Africanized bees; but, I’m new to this (as is clear, I just killed off my first colony). I’d be intimidated by a hive of crabby, moody bees.

So, here was the sad sight:

And this, the white gauzy stuff in the lower left-hand corner is evidence of wax moths:

I scraped the comb off the bars and put it in my compost pile. I really didn’t feel like putting the wax to some practical use, no use explaining. Dust to dust as they say.  I cleaned off the bars with some linseed soap:

Clearly, the record-breaking cold weather we’ve had didn’t help my bees (2 nights in a row at 15 degrees, and the daytime temperature in-between didn’t get above freezing). And I now know that I should’ve been feeding my bees through the winter. Since our winters are mild, it didn’t occur to me to do this; I thought they’d have enough food. Was I wrong!

Dogs, bees and yarn


It’s the end of a quiet Sunday here in Tucson.

Here’s Bearbear and Baxter as we work together on their sit-stays. We met with a really nice trainer, Mary Ann Coleman, who came to my house last week and helped us sort some things out; she great, reasonably priced, and she’s been doing work with dogs for decades. Baxter has been here a month and we’ve had to work out a few wrinkles. He’s a good dog, but introducing a new dog to the home means we all have to work on a few small details. For example, when I’m getting ready to take the dogs for a walk, I want them to both sit calmly and wait while I get my shoes on, not run around in a crazed frenzy. Now, they both have a good sit-stay while I get ready to take them for a walk.

I also checked on the bees today for the first time in 2 months; the size of the hive seems the same, and I guess I should just be happy they made in through the second-hottest summer on record.

Here’s the inside of the hive:

The entrance on the upper left-hand corner of the photo; the bees have built up comb on the bars on that side, but they still have plenty to grow on the right side:

I was worried about evidence I saw of wax moth larvae on the bottom of the hive; I sent a message to the fellow who built my hive, asking for advice about this:

And here’s a close up of 3 bars of comb in different stages of growth…

as well as some evidence of yucky moth stuff–the white glop there on the bottom. I’ll learn soon if I have to worry about this or not.

I also dyed some yarn today for my quilt:

Travel Prep: A Summary of Eccentric Last Minute Tasks

Most people getting ready for a vacation would occupy themselves with normal tasks. I like to tidy up the house and yard, and then I find myself involved with a variety of tasks involving either ending a project or starting one…so when I get back I have a clean house and something to get started with right away!

This morning, to add to my guilt about gutting my beehive yesterday, I found some newly hatched bees in the comb I removed; I took them out and put them by the hive entrance, but I don’t know if they made it in:

Then, for breakfast, some of the figs I picked the other day: yum. A fresh fig is sublime. I’ll give the uneaten ones to my mom before I leave; they can’t go to waste!

I wrapped up the door project the past few days. I have 3 exterior doors; and the one in the back of the house I’ve never been able to use, because it was a bad door. I won’t even post a photo of it because it was that bad. I finally had a pro replace it (same excellent guy who did my windows last winter), and he popped off the security door for me so I could paint it, first with a primer:

Then bright blue….and I was limited by the spray paint blues available, not many; first I used an exterior blue paint I brushed on, and then I tidied it up with a unifying coat of bright blue spray paint….

…to match the color I’d painted the solid door….

…and presto, he came by the other day to pop the steel door back on, and I now finally have a door that I can use. It’s been years. I’ll have to paint those steel bolts blue.

Then I just got the latest Jane Dunnewold book in the mail; I pre-ordered it so my copy is autographed, you can read more about Jane Dunnewold here:

The photos inside are so luscious, here’s a sample–the directions on how to make print-paste:

That got me starting a collage (which I’ll finish when I get back) of prickly pear cactus color copies, which I’ll use to make some laminated paper, a process I posted about a few weeks ago:

Then, to save money, I resurrected my very old (and very old-fashioned) oilskin raincoat I got in New Zealand almost 20 years ago; these things aren’t breathable, but they do keep you dry, and I figure even though it’s summer I should probably bring a rain coat to Newfoundland.

I didn’t realize that oilskin can be “reproofed”; that is, re-waxed, so it stays waterproof. I ordered some DuckBack reproofing wax online and got to work; this is how the coat looked prior to waxing….

…and this is a before and after look, the right side in this photo is the side I’d reproofed. I think you could just use melted paraffin wax for the same effect, but, I wanted a slightly nicer and less petroleum-based smell; DuckBack has lanolin and some other oils.

Now I just have to pack my carry on bag……

Top Bar Hive Collapsed Comb Freak Out

Earlier in the week I opened up my top bar bee hive to see how things were going; I’d given the bees more space in June, and I guess I anticipated seeing my colony growing in size, making comb with brood and honey.

Instead, I was horrified to see half of the comb on the bottom of the hive!! Last time I’d checked my hive, a small bit of comb had fallen; but I thought then it was just a small problem. Apparently not.

Here you can see the sad sight, with fresh white comb being built where some of the honey-filled comb was once suspended:

I closed things up and emailed Jaime DeZubeldia, who taught the top bar beehive workshop I attended in April, before taking any action: I felt very depressed at the sight, and figured it was best not to do anything until I had some good information. Jaime was really nice and emailed me back right away with some tips helpful in regard to the unique beekeeping conditions in the sonoran desert.

The point of top bar beekeeping is not to spend lots of money on beekeeping stuff. So, today I scraped out the heap of fallen comb with a kitchen spatula, being very careful not to squash any bees. I then put the comb on some cake racks, so that I could easily tip the rack into the hive and brush the bees inside with a big soft paintbrush (never used for paint); you can see my bread knife in the lower left corner, which also was useful:

I have a small colony; and a docile genetic strain: so, there weren’t enough bees to give me a hard time.  I think this is why I feel a lot more comfortable working with my bees now: there aren’t many of them! I’ve also learned that you just have to go slow, occasionally step back, and it helps to avoid breathing on them. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want someone leering over me and breathing on me. It would make me irritated.

Still, I’d hate to try and pull this stunt will ill-tempered bees.

Above is the saddest sight of the day: earlier in the week, when I opened the hive, I checked the brood-comb area and when I lifted up one of the bars I dislodged this bit of brood comb. So, today, I had to pull it out. I examined it carefully because I was worried the queen might be on it laying eggs. All the flat capped cells were bees-to-be; and in the lower left you can see 6 cells with white blob in them, these are bees in the larval stage, cut short by my meddling.

This is the middle-part of the hive, where the follower board separates the active hive from the inactive part. I moved the follower board closer to the hive entrance, to give the bees less space so they could hopefully keep it cooler more effectively; so whereas I optimistically expanded my hive 6 weeks ago, today I consolidated it. I put paper towels up against the sides, per a suggestion from Jaime, to reduce any warm air cross currents between the hive entrance and gaps in the follower board.  I scrubbed out some of the nectar from the collapsed comb that spilled into this empty chamber to avoid attracting ants. I put some bricks between the top bars and the hive cover when I finally closed up the hive, to give the hive more ventilation.

Here’s the results of my careful comb removal; I was surprised how easy it was to get the bees off of it.

I hope when I come back from my Newfoundland trip I’ll see things in better shape.

I’ll also no doubt post about making beeswax candles, or something of the sort, with the heap of comb above.

Today’s Bee View

I will admit that opening up a hive of bees is a bit nerve-wracking, even if it is a user-friendly Top Bar Hive that exposes you to fewer bees. Since I got my bees in May, I’ve been working on my amateur “technique”; with some practice, I’ve gotten better at moving slowly and calmly when I open up the hive, and as a result, there are hardly any bee fatalities. Squashing bees is a risk. And a squashed bee emits a pheromone that other bees smell and, appropriately, find alarming.And that just makes for a more escalated and less pleasant experience, for both bee and human.

Today when I looked at my bees I brought my camera. Last time I looked, 2 weeks ago, I found some greenish worm-looking things about 3/4 of an inch long, which I assumed were wax moth larvae: YUCK.  Most of them were in the unused portion of my hive. At that time, I noticed that I’d neglected to seal a few parts of the hive. Which would make it easy for a moth to get inside. So I sealed up those cracks, and today saw no evidence of anything that shouldn’t be there. Thankfully. I hope I’m not wrong and that my bees will be strong enough to put the kibosh on any wax moth intrusions.

Then, I didn’t bring my camera because I didn’t think I could feel comfortable taking photos as I worked; but, as it turns out, it’s not that hard.

This is the inside of the hive, as it looked this morning:

All the bars to the left of the opening are full of comb, except for a few empty bars I put in to help expand the hive further to the right. You can see on the very first bar to the left that the bees are starting to build a new row of comb; it’s the small white shape, and soon it will be built all the way down to the bottom of the hive.

But, to my dismay I noticed that this was new comb being built to….replace the honey-saturated comb that fell to the bottom of the hive!!

Looking more closely above, you can see the thin strip of beeswax along the bar, indicating the place from where comb once was suspended.

And, above, you can see all the comb on the bottom. Here’s a close-up of that fallen comb, with the properly suspended comb on the left:

I carefully removed the fallen comb and brushed the bees (with a soft paint brush) back into the hive. I think there are a few small bits of comb left in there, but this is most of it:

Maybe it fell because it’s so hot; supposedly new comb doesn’t have time to “mature” and is more likely to fall when full of the weight of honey and/or brood. I dunno. I’m going to look into it, though, and get some answers! Hopefully there’s something I can do to keep this from happening in the future.

My Bees Are Here

The last few weeks have been very busy for me, what with my belly dance recital (see following post) and too many migraines (the terrible wind events we’ve been having around here haven’t helped) and even food poisoning (because I violated my dietary Prime Directive: Thou Shall Not Eat at Potlucks).

But even though I haven’t posted, there’s been lot’s going on.

Last week, I purchased a top bar beehive from the fellow who taught the Top Bar Beekeeping Workshop I attended last month. I’d looked at various plans and instructions for building a TBH (top bar hive). I don’t do well following plans and schematics, though;  the simple-appearing measurements and instructions just fail to compute, and I get very frustrated. And then I get really irritated, because what seems so logical on paper is something I’m unable to bring to any tangible form with the use of lumber and power tools.  So rather than put myself in a position where I’d likely need a psychiatric evaluation (because that’s how crazy I’d get)  I just ordered a locally-made hive, at a very reasonable price.

Before the bees came, I tidied up the corner of the yard where the hive was going to go; and I painted 2 old workbenches I had, 1 for my new hive:

Here’s what my top bar hive looked like the day of delivery:

I made a simple cover for the hive and painted it white, because the sun hits this corner of the yard for half of the day:

And, here is my 3-pound box of bees; they arrived last Wednesday by UPS overnight delivery. I picked them up at the UPS office early in the morning and left them in my kitchen while I was at work. Last Wednesday was the first hot day of the year (97 degrees) and I’m sure the bees were happier indoors where it was cool.

It didn’t occur to me, beginner that I am, that there would be bee-poop and that it would there would be a pile of it on my stove-top once I took the box outside after work. Yes, there were thousands of bees in that box, and they were quite noisy.

I installed the bees later that day. I followed the instructions, and nothing went they way I thought it was supposed to; it was a complete Murphy’s Law experience complicated by a migraine and food poisoning, neither of which I got from the bees.  Despite some minor snafus in getting the bees in the hive, a full 36 hours later they no longer needed to be fed sugar water and had completed making 2 bars of comb. And today, they’re still in the hive; they haven’t left for better digs elsewhere. When I’m able to actually inspect the hive and take a photo at the same time, I’ll post more photos here. Right now I’m still getting the hang of opening up the hive slowly and moving slowly when around the bees.

Top Bar Beekeeping Workshop: Very Cool!

It’s very challenging to be a renaissance-type person in an era of highly focused specialization; I’m a bit of a throwback. I guess I’m just curious about the world in general. So, today, in the spirit of exploration I attended a small workshop about Top Bar Beekeeping which I learned about through the Sonoran Permaculture Guild. The location was way out west of Tucson, in a very tranquil and beautiful part of the Sonoran Desert.

It seems like a good time to think about how to be a good steward for bees. This has to be the worst time ever to be a honeybee; from a bee’s point of view, colony collapse disorder has be equivalent to the apocalypse.

Aside from altruistic motives–which are real–I will admit to being interested in bees because I want a source of honey. I spend a small fortune every month on local raw honey. Plus, crafty as I am, I can just see myself making candles.

Here’s one of the 2 top bar hives we looked at today:

The bars are arranged in a row on top, and when you pull one out, presto: bees busy building their apiarium empire. I had a chance to hold this bar of bees; it’s heavier than it looks:

Here’s a close up; I was really impressed at how possible it is to have a very gentle interaction with bees:

I really liked this workshop and highly recommend it! The folks who taught the class build and sell top bar hives. I know it’s allegedly easy to build one yourself; but I don’t seem to do to well with power saws and planes and angles. I get a bit flummoxed by it all and even the simplest schematic is impossible for me to decipher. So if I can find some bees this late in the season, maybe I’ll just buy a handmade top bar hive from the folks I met today. It’s certainly for a good cause; plus, it’s always a good practice to support small business. More later.