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.
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.
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.