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Adventures In Beekeeping: The Worst Mistake I’ve Ever Made

November 14, 2016 | 37 Comments | Uncategorized
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I almost hedged my bets and titled this “The Worst Mistake I’ve Made Yet” but I genuinely hope this is the worst beekeeping mistake I’ll ever make, and if I ever make a bigger one, it’s probably time for me to stop keeping bees. So… I bet you can guess that this is the kind of story that doesn’t have a happy ending.

The short version goes like this: I made a stupid mistake last week, and in four days I lost 2 of my 3 hives.

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I’m still so angry at myself that it’s almost difficult to put what happened into words (or at least in actual words that aren’t just one long string of profanity.) If there’s a lesson I keep learning over and over it’s that two of the most critical success factors for any project on the farm are having enough time and the right materials, and in this case I didn’t have either.

Every weekend for the last month I’ve told myself I need to close up the hives for winter, but the weather has been nice and I continued to put it off until last week. While there are different schools of thought on this, the one I’ve read most often is that you shouldn’t open your hives if it’s below 50 degrees outside or too windy/raining etc. (since the bees are working to keep the hive at a toasty 80-degrees or more). After daylight savings ended last week, and I realized I’m not going to see the farm in the daylight again for the next eternity, I started obsessively checking both the weather and my calendar to find a time when I could remove the extra honey supers I didn’t take off in August, vent the inner covers, and put the mouse guards on the hive entrances… basically the same stuff I did last year around this time.

My general response to being faced with things I can’t control is to turn around and double-down on the things I can control. So, Wednesday of of last week, when I realized how many things I couldn’t control–how many people in my life I couldn’t take care of at that moment– I had an immediate urge to double-down on taking care of the farm. I got up early and cleaned the donkey stall, laid in new bedding (even though I’d just done that a few days earlier), put fresh straw in the chickens nesting boxes, and–determined to get everything set for winter– I found an hour before dark to close up the hives for winter.

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After I “closed up” my hives last year someone mentioned using Popsicle sticks to vent the inner-covers of the hives. Venting is important because the bees form a cluster around the queen and vibrate to generate heat and keep the hive warm (something you could see clearly in the thermal images of my two hives last winter.) They also generate moisture when they’re heating the hive, and if that moisture condenses on the top of the inner cover and then falls back on the cluster they won’t be able to keep themselves warm… so venting the hives is a critical part of closing them up for winter.

Last year I did not vent the inner cover of my hives because it never got above 40 degrees after I learned it was something I should do and I didn’t want to take the chance to open the hives up again, but I did drill holes in the upper boxes for ventilation and one of my hives did make it through the winter. The other didn’t, and that could have been because the outer cover blew off one day when it was in the 40’s out, or it could have been because the hive wasn’t strong enough to generate enough heat through winter, or it’s possible that not venting the inner covers led to too much moisture and they didn’t make it.

I wasn’t sure if venting was the issue, but I was determined to do everything “right” this time… however I also didn’t have any popsicle sticks laying around, and because I was rushing to do this in the last hour of daylight on what I convinced myself could be the last opportunity to get in the hives for the winter, I decided to just cut some spacers myself out of scrap shims I had laying around the shop to use to vent the inner covers.

THIS is the mistake I made, or at least the biggest one.

I didn’t have a great gauge of how thick a popsicle stick was, but I guessed the wood I cut was about twice the thickness. It certainly seemed smaller than the 3/8″ “bee space” that bees can move around in… so I did all of the other work to close up two of my hives and then I put these spacers under the inner covers and fit the lids over the top of them without ever really seeing how much of a gap was created.

And, until last night, that was the last time I saw the hives in daylight.

Early meetings and getting home well after dark kept me away from the farm for the next two days, and then frantic packing for a quick trip to Chicago Saturday morning left me with no time to inspect the farm like I should have, and by the time I got home last night, yellow jackets had worked their way in through that gap I created in the lids, killed most of the bees, and robbed the hives of their honey.

The heartbreak of that is still still sinking in.

If I’d been more focused, if I’d been more planful, if I’d given myself a little more time to think through the implications of what I was doing, if I just had the right materials on hand, shit, if I’d just figured out how to check the hives once or twice a day in the light after I made a fairly drastic change to them, if, if, if… Well.  In hindsight this was such a completely obvious and avoidable mistake. And the most difficult thing about life on the farm is that often when you make mistakes– even just cutting some scrap wood to the wrong thickness to act as a spacer– things die.

I know it’s important not to become paralyzed by that–to resist not making any decision because you fear you’re not making the right one. But it’s equally important to be thoughtful… to plan and research and give yourself the time and space to do things right. I haven’t found the right balance between those things yet, and even though I know you can’t learn without failing, man, it still sucks when it happens, especially when the price is this high.

This was a tough year for me and the bees, and I need to let this settle for a bit, but there’s still one hive going strong and I’m not giving up yet.

The Missing Chicken
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    Comments

  • Kimberly


    I have no balm to soothe your wounds, but I will say we are always hardest on ourselves. You will never make that mistake again, you learn and go on. I think that it would be a shame for you to give up on bees, even if your other hive does not make it through the winter or some other future unforeseeable accident occurs. You have a large heart and a great capacity to learn and succeed. You are in pain now, but it seems like a worthy pursuit to keep trying at.

  • Lise Sonne Rasmussen


    That must hurt – all you little helpers gone, but you are gaining so much experience and knowledge, that will help you in the future, so don’t give up on the bees, there is such a shortage of them.

  • Sarah


    :( I’m so sorry. What a disappointing and heart-breaking lesson.

  • Laura


    Beekeeping (like son many other things you are doing) is a tricky thing. Sometimes you just cruise along for months or years and everything goes great and you think “I have got this figured out” and then the shit hits the fan, so to speak. I have been in your shoes and lost a few hives as well. It’s sad and frustrating. I am sorry.

    • Kit


      Thank you. I know just based on how many wildly opposite opinions on what the “right” thing is to do for hives that you never have it down to a science, but man, is this a shitty way to learn what not to do.

  • Kelly


    You have such good intentions and do such good works that it’s hard to hear you be so hard on yourself. Sending hugs as I know it’s a true heart breaker.

  • Guerrina


    Kit, I am so sorry. Sometimes the best we can do is grieve and learn; you are in the midst of both. Raise a glass of wine to those gone and choose to forgive yourself. This was not intentional. This doesn’t make you a bad bee mom. May a blanket of peace surround you.

  • Reenie


    So sorry Kit. :( Dang it anyway.

    xo

  • JoDi


    I never thought I’d get emotional over the death of bees, but this makes me very sad! As much for you as for them, I think, because after reading your blog for so long now, I knew how hard you’d take the loss.

    The hardest lessons are the ones that stick with us the longest.

  • Nadine


    Crap. So sorry. But you did do everything you could. Really. I hope the remaining hive does well this winter.

  • joe


    To much focus on the boyfriend.Possibly less playtime and acting like your 13 and maybe more time on the REAL important things,like what might actually die on the farm.You waste a lot of opportunity and time. Like you say all the time, you do what the F you want when you want to.It doesn’t take that long at all,and to act like you can’t figure out the thickness of a popsicle stick when you act like you know everything else? To bad the bees don’t have martial arts or weapons to defend themselves since they can’t count on you.Sorry for NOT kissing your ass,kind of feel worse for the dead bees. Again.

    • Leslie


      Wow… is that for real?

    • Stefani


      You need to check yourself Joe. Uncalled for and ignorant response.

    • Kit


      Eh. I’m a fan of intelligent, informed discussion and disagreement, and while this definitely doesn’t qualify as that in any respect, I’ll let it stand because 1.) I don’t tell stories on the internet just to have my ass kissed (although I think what you see here is less “ass kissing” and more “a lot of people who are displaying empathy because they can relate to having fucked something up they care about before”, but why split hairs?) and, 2.) There’s a sound point here under some very misguided accusations.

      The point that I agree with is this: when you take on responsibility for things on the farm you have to own that responsibility, and if you can’t put the time or effort in (for whatever reason) and you screw it up, that’s on you. And that I very much agree with. I own that, and it’s exactly why I wrote this post… because I think it’s important to tell the stories where you go “Holy shit, I wasn’t prepared for this for X,Y,Z reasons, and here was the result. Here’s how I feel about that, and here’s how I’m going to move forward.”

      That being said… “Too much focus on the boyfriend” and somehow implying that I spend time acting like I’m 13 and that that’s why my bees died is literally the dumbest fucking thing I think anyone has ever written in the comment section of this website. I’ll give you credit for the underlying point you’re making– because I spend 50 hours a week working in consulting, and I commute 2 hours a day to get to that office, and I make time for the gym 3-4 days a week, and I’ve also made the choice to have a lot of different animals and equipment on this farm that require a lot of regular upkeep– and those are just the bare minimum things that are necessary to keep things moving forward here. That’s where almost all of my time goes, and it’s possible that I’ve taken on too many things to do all of them correctly. (Or, at least, without shit dying.)

      Because I did feel backed into a corner last week with the bees, and if I’d been more planful I wouldn’t have felt the need to make snap decisions about winterizing the hives. And I did research ventilating hives for winter, but not enough to realize the full implications of why a popsicle stick was the right space and not something larger. And I didn’t think through the implications of not being able to see the hives in daylight for two days after winterizing them (because I had to go to my day job). All of those were avoidable mistakes… and I don’t mind someone being disappointed in me or calling me out on them.

      But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here “Joe”. Like I said, I’ll accept disagreement, disappointment, and intelligent discussion, even if you feel the need to post it under an anonymous name, but I’ve still got your IP address, and spewing vitriol about things you know nothing about in my life won’t be tolerated here.

      • Steph


        Bravo.

        • Meg


          Holy fuck “joe”. Go you Kat! Idk man but I have an urban farm, smal wildlife rehab facility, and work a million hours a week, in MORE ANIMALS. It’s fucking time to winter prep and when it comes along it smacks you in the face like a ton of bricks. Last I checked farmer types like the sun. When she goes to bed so god damn early your stuck rushing to get shit done before the cold temps kick in. Not every year is the same and you can’t winterize when it’s 40* but yet the sun is still going to bed early..I’m talking chickens here. I can’t winterize till it’s in the high 30s consistently. Does that sneak up on you? Oh hell yes. I still demand a life off the fucking farm that’s not my job…if I didn’t I’d be a shit rehabber. It’s call compassion fatigue dude. If you become tunnel blind by the farm you’ll loose your shit.

          • Kit


            I think anyone says something completely out of left field (and completely wrong) my new response is just going to be: “Holy fuck Joe.” And leave it at that. lol.

            And so true on the balancing act of farm life. It’s really hard to understand until you’re trying to manage all of it… it’s difficult for me to convey without feeling like I’m complaining, so it’s nice when other people get it!

  • Julie


    A hard loss. You are not likely to repeat this, though, and even if you think through the mechanics and timing pieces – there is that element of mindfulness to consider that is every bit as real as the bees. Maybe you will take some time off from beekeeping or maybe you will create a new routine for next year, planning ahead. Whatever you decide is not because you beat yourself bruised and bloodied. You are writing the script as you go. Be gentle with yourself. Catch your breath and keep going, true to you.

  • katie


    i’m so sorry to read about this loss. it really sucks. john oliver just did a thing on his show where a bunch of people flipped off 2016 altogether and then he blew up a giant light up 2016 with a detonator. it was oddly cathartic. i’m sure you don’t spend much time watching tv but just thought i’d mention it.

    also, i’m floored by how much you accomplish daily/weekly/in general. so as much as you’re able to forgive yourself for not doing everything perfectly, i hope you can. everyone has their limits. i’m so glad you still have one hive to work with and i hope those bees will stay healthy and happy!

  • Robin


    Raising bees is hard. I know. I’m at the end of my 5th year and still don’t feel like I have a handle on it. When things go badly, I take the rap. When things go well, I feel like it’s dumb luck.

    The timing of full winterizing is tricky. Too early and they’re too warm or you miss that fall flow. Too late and if you look cross eyed at the hive, something will be robbing it out. Open it up to check on stuff and suddenly there’s a robbing frenzy. Robbing is a huge problem here and though I have yellow jackets, it’s other bees that do the worst and fastest damage here. [Could be feral, could be one of my own hives.] Always a challenge.

    • Kit


      Yes, especially this year (at least in Michigan) because the weather has been so out-of-season. I was trying to find the perfect time where the bees would be mostly clustered low in the hive so that I wouldn’t have to brush them off each frame when I removed the honey supers, but not so cold that they couldn’t heat the hive back up before nightfall (also preferably on a weekend… ha.)

      I’ve just use the “shake and brush” method to remove bees from frames when taking supers off, but I’m wondering if a fume board is better (less agitating)… it seems like another thing you could eff up rather easily and hurt a whole hive. Any suggestions?

      • Robin


        I am a firm believer in entrance reducers and robber screens. I brushed off when I did my harvest. First harvest in years and I got just over a gallon. I was thrilled. I do crush and strain. I put the wet left overs well away from the hives, but there was a frenzy for days. I use metal window screen or 1/4 inch hardware cloth for the reducers/screens. [4.5″ x 3″ piece. ish.] It’s bendable, so I can bend a tunnel for them to get out either side and then I can pinch that tunnel almost closed during a dearth. The screen is easier to manipulate. I use tall thumbtacks to attach to the hive front over the entrance. [bright colors are easier to find when you drop them!] I have the wood entrance reducers in all year long with only a small opening. I started using quilt boxes last year and actually got a hive through our variable winter. I put the quilt boxes on last weekend with some sugar bricks. Pinched the robber screens way down and was glad I did because every time I open a hive during a dearth, all hell breaks out. All 4 look OK so far, though I suspect that one of my own is causing at least some of the robbing trouble. It’s always an adventure. I am learning. This year I’ve learned that some bees are just too weak to save and I should let nature do its thing. But that’s a story for another time.

  • John Hollingsworth


    Build yourself a flamethrower.
    Find the yellowjackets.
    While they are having their honey party, burn them to a crisp.

  • Jay


    I’m so sorry for you and for your bees. I’m sorry for the fact that you have to juggle all your things, which you do admirably, but when one ball falls it’s most of the time the ball that hurts the most: living beings. And you think of all the should-have-dones because it really hurts to lose bees, but the thing is: you didn’t kill them on purpose!! You tried to take care of them. Big hug for the hurt, and I really hope you’ll continue your adventures as the world needs more bees, but certainly more bee keepers!

  • L


    Oh man. I feel like right now, life has a particularly good knack for kicking us when we’re down

  • Herb


    The obsession with venting is first and foremost to blame. Year-round I put a clear plastic sheet on the top superthen add a foam sheet in Winter followed by the telescoping cover, . Everyone is Europe is doing this, condensation is happening but not a factor. His hives must have been weakened by varroa, yellow jackets normally do not throw the bees out. If they could, why wouldn’t they come in through the front door?

    • Robin


      I have mixed feelings about venting, too. My first year, everyone was saying ‘Use screened bottom boards!’. So I did. Turns out, I couldn’t close them well enough in the winter to allow the bees to keep the box warm enough. As soon as I went to solid bottoms, things improved a lot. I do vent a bit above my quilt boxes in the winter because it’s common for us [southern Indiana] to get torrential rain for a couple of days, then down into single digits. The quilt boxes are full of cedar chips and that seemed to work great to pull moisture out of the chips.

      Of course, it may have nothing to do with me, or my quilt boxes and just luck that I finally got a great strain of bees. Who knows.

    • Kit


      Holy shit, this is exactly where feeling paralyzed about making a decision comes in… I’ve got one “untouched” hive left (fair amount of activity) on a screened bottom board. And I’ve got one more day (tomorrow) where it will be in the 60’s and then the forecast is 40 or below.

      Since I posted this I’ve been wondering if yellow jackets were the cause, or simply were taking advantage of already empty hives (I only ever saw a handful of them in the hives, but they were going in through the top cover so I assumed the bees couldn’t defend the hive properly with that much of an opening– the whole top, basically.) Perhaps there was too much ventilation and the hives just got too cold?

      This is the article I read, and the author is from my general area. She recommended not covering the screens on the bottom board, I did put in wind breaks but now I’m second-guessing that, but I’m definitely going with the quilt-box approach and very little (popsicle stick) ventilation then. At least until an hour from now when I change my mind again on what the “right” thing to do is…

      Thanks so much for all the thoughts!

      • Robin


        I know!! There are too many ‘right’ ways to keep bees – and then they die anyway. Sometimes.

        Honey Bee Suite argues just the opposite about venting with screened bottom boards. Her logic is, ‘Ladies, when you have a skirt on, the wind blows straight up it and you’re cold. Close it off somehow, like with a solid bottom’ The author of the Kelley article closed it off with a lot of haybales around the hives. Either way, closed off. [Haybales = mice, btw]

        Instead of popsicle sticks, use a penny in each corner.

        Personally, I feel that wind breaks are a good thing. I use them just far enough away to let the sun on the whole hive all winter with no shadow from the windbreak.

        Also, I turned the hives from east facing [the ‘right’ way] to south facing. They like it better.

        AND, I’ll be doing a fast tar paper wrap around them when it gets really cold. That can wait though.

  • Beth


    You’re my hero, and this – plus your response to “Joe” – makes me even more in awe of all you accomplish and the things you learn. I’m cheering for you and the remaining bees!

  • Nine Dark Moons


    Wow, that really sucks, Kit. Any loss is hard, especially your bees which you’ve worked and researched so much towards being the best bee mom you can be. Don’t beat yourself up too much, though, you’re still learning and we all make mistakes. i think any loss is harder right now due to current politics. it’s like salt in the wound.

  • Ginger


    Dear Joe,

    Read between your own lines whilst looking in the mirror. That’s the only thing useful of your post.

  • Linda Schombert


    HI Kit, don’t let some some disgruntled, jealous blowhard attack you or your life, you do an awesome job juggling formidable tasks while still maintaining a joyful attitude…we appreciate your honesty and look forward to the continuing saga of Black Feather Farm…miss you…looking forward to the next installment!

  • Julie


    What a sad story..Feeling sorry for you.

  • Jack Conway


    Sorry for your bee loss Kit, we are always learning whilst some never do ~ Ginger made a good note on that.

  • Chloe


    My heart is breaking :'(

  • Charles Chittum


    You made mistakes, but you probably helped this 76 year old new beekeeper more than you know. Thank You!

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