The Last Hive

It’s been about a month since I made an epically bad decision that led to the loss of two of my three beehives, and I’m still angry about it. I’m not sure I ever won’t be angry about it. The truth is, after writing that post I realized that I’m not even sure why what I did (or didn’t do) killed those hives.

I definitely over-vented the hives, and I thought that led to yellow-jackets attacking them, though truthfully I never saw more than a handful of yellow jackets in or around the dead hives at a time (which is a bit strange, because they were still full of honey) and after reading more about it is possible that the yellow jackets weren’t the cause of the demise of those hives, but a few were simply taking advantage of the free honey after the fact. It’s also possible that over-venting the hives before the temps dropped into the 30’s for a few days just make it too cold for the bees to survive. Or maybe it’s because I had the hives open so close to sunset and the extra venting wasn’t the issue so much as the quick drop in temp before they could heat the hive back up? Some people suggested those two hives must have already been weakened from varroa mites for any of these things to affect the hive, which I don’t think is the case, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the weeks after the loss of those two hives it’s this: I just don’t fucking know. Anything. 

I mentioned in that last post that it’s so easy to become paralyzed by the fact that there are so many variables (and so many differing opinions on what’s “right”) but, when it comes to beekeeping and winterizing your hives, you don’t have the option not to act. You can see just a small example of this play out in the comments on that post, including suggestions like:

  1. “The obsession with venting is first and foremost to blame. Year-round I put a clear plastic sheet on the top super then add a foam sheet in Winter followed by the telescoping cover, . Everyone is Europe is doing this, condensation is happening but not a factor.”
  2. “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. (My remaining hive is on a screened bottom board, btw.)

Also, from the article I read (from a beekeeper in my area) prior to venting the two hives that died:

“I overreacted the first year I winterized my hives. That November I’d put in solid bottom boards, wrapped each hive tightly in black roofing paper, reduced the entrance to about an inch, put hay bales around each hive, and told the ladies I looked forward to seeing them in the spring. They were probably dead before Christmas. I had a few other things on my mind  and had never kept bees, and I totally missed the “need to vent part.” I have successfully overwintered since then, and I think ventilation was a key missing ingredient. Each year I’ve added more opportunities for air flow; each year my survival rate increases. I suspect there’s a correlation.”
Originally when I read that last article I thought “okay, the more venting the better!” which is why I didn’t worry as much about the thickness of the shims I used under the inner covers. Which was also obviously a big mistake. And I’m going to tell you that what plays out in the rest of this post– up to and including the part where I bleed from the hand for a fair portion of it–is a direct result of 1.) not having enough experience, 2.) being terrified of not thinking through all possible outcomes of my decisions and therefore overthinking all possible outcomes of my decisions, 3.) knowing I had to do something, but not ever feeling confident in what that something was.
The reason I knew I had to do something was that the Friday after all this happened with my other two hives the temps were foretasted to drop from the 60’s to the 20’s overnight and stay there for the rest of eternity (or at least until like May). The only thing I knew for certain was that I couldn’t just “leave the hive alone” because there was a super of honey on it above a queen excluder and the one thing everyone seems to agree on is don’t leave a super of honey on the hive above a queen-excluder in winter.
This would be my last chance to open the hive in appropriate temps and if I did the wrong thing to winterize it, that hive would die too. So… no pressure.
I took the afternoon off work (not something I do lightly) to give myself some time in the daylight to work on the hive, and, after reviewing the comments on my last post and a ton of other resources, I decided to build a “quilt box” for this hive– to provide insulation and moisture control– instead of venting the inner cover.
A quilt box is basically a 4″ (or sometimes 2″, or sometimes 6″, or any size in between) box filled with wood shavings and some type of ventilation. I used this post (and the comments on it) as my guide for building one.
Building the box itself was the only easy part about this. I used an empty shallow super as my template, ripped some scrap pine wood down to the correct size, and screwed it together…
Everything else required second (and triple) guessing everything I was doing. For example, in the post on how to build a quilt-box, the author originally uses heavy burlap on the bottom of the box, but then in the comments you see that the burlap eventually started to sag (and/or t-shirt material which the bees ate through and dropped shavings in the hive, and/or metal screening which some were concerned would collect moisture, and, and, and, and… it’s endless.)
In the first 30 minutes of building this box, I confidently decided to use 1/4″ wire mesh on the bottom.
14 seconds after that I realized it was a horrible idea because after reviewing the comments on that post, everyone was talking about using 1/8″ wire mesh which I did not have and could not get before dark, and who knows what kind of issues might occur if I use mesh with larger spacing.
37 seconds later I decided firmly on using window screen material which is less than 1/8″ and I do have on hand.
2 minutes later I deiced that was a horrible idea because no one mentioned using actual screen material and maybe bees can chew through it, or it will sag or the moisture won’t evaporate through the holes of the screen and will instead condense and fall on my bees and kill them.
43 seconds later I DRANK ALL THE BEER IN THE HOUSE because otherwise my head was going to effing explode.
After endless mental debate I went back to the 1/4″ wire mesh idea and decided to use a torn-up t-shirt on top of the mesh which at least addresses the “sagging fabric” issue, and the “1/4″ space might be to much issue” and, frankly, was the best I could fucking do with what I had on hand.
Of course, this opened up a whole lot of other questions…


Like do I attach the mesh to the bottom of the box? If so, will the gap created by the metal between the quilt box and the honey super it sit’s on top of create too much of a gap? Maybe.
So I decided to bend up the sizes of the mesh and attach it to the inside of the quilt box.
15 minutes (and countless bleeding cuts to my hands) later, I realized I couldn’t stretch the mesh tight enough this way and was worried about even the mesh sagging and touching the frames below it (which would be a problem if the bees need to get around those frames.)
So I swore a bunch, pulled the mesh off, went back to my original idea of tacking the mesh to the very bottom of the box because at least I could pull it tight that way… but it would create a space where air could get into the hive which, of course, I was worried about.
After attaching the mesh to the bottom of the box, I attempted to staple t-shirt material on top of the mesh and in the process managed to put a staple through my finger…


Which elicited exactly the number of swear words you would expect. Also, at this point I was two hours into building a box and running out of daylight…

Also, I hadn’t even started second–and triple, and quadruple–guessing myself about venting the quilt box, which, in the instructional post I read, was done with holes drilled in the side of the box and covered with wire mesh. (The idea is you have to let the wood chips dry out or they get moldy and also create problems for the bees.)


Of course, I panicked on all sorts of levels (too much venting? too many holes? should they be centered? is 1/4″ mesh enough? all the thoughts…) and I finally decided to do the same thing I did on the bottom of the box, 1/4″ mesh and then t-shirt material…


Here’s what the vents look like from the outside, except super blurry because I was still bleeding from the finger at this point and unable to take a proper iPhone picture…


It was maybe an hour before dark at this point, but still 60 degrees, so I felt okay about opening the hive to put the quilt box on.

Of course, I was not done second-guessing myself…


I keep a lot of pine shavings on hand because I use them as bedding for the donkeys and the chickens. I opened one cube of pine shavings, filled the box, started to worry that those pine shavings already had too much moisture in them (and all the problems that could cause!), emptied the box, opened a new, drier bag of shavings and filled the box up again.

FINALLY I took the box out to the hive and opened it up. There was a ton of activity in the hive and the bees seemed to be doing well but I’d read a lot about bees needing more food than usual with really warm temps in November (when there isn’t any pollen or nectar for them to forage for) so I made a game-time decision to remove the queen-excluder but leave the medium super full of honey (that normally I would remove) on the hive in case they need the extra food over the winter… it’s probably an additional 30 lbs of honey.


I also worried that the quilt box (being so light) might blow off in a strong wind, so I got some scrap wood and actually screwed it down the to box below it, which also helped eliminate some– but not all– of the gap created by attaching that 1/4″ mesh to the bottom of the quilt box.

I’ve had nightmares about that gap for weeks now.

I had also determined that my best course of action would be to remove the screen from my screened bottom board, and put the solid piece of plastic back in that also came with it, except the bees had sealed that thing in tight… so I settled for creating a wind-break on the open area of the bottom board.


(Still blurry because my finger was still bleeding.)

By this time it was basically dark, and overnight the temps dropped 40 degrees from the 60’s to well-below freezing, because this is Michigan, and that’s normal.

You can imagine, given my last experience winterizing the hives and how much I tried to think through every potential problem that could arise from what I was doing (and then changed course half a dozen times at each step), I basically expected that this was all a horrible mistake and all the bees were going to die.

It was in the 20’s for 48 hours, and I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and got the thermal camera out…


YES! This may just look like a blur of color (those purple lines are the top covers of the hives, for reference) but the yellow spot in the middle of the right means that the bees in that hive were still alive and generating heat!

It had been significantly colder for significantly longer than it had been when I lost the other two hives, which means the quilt box at least didn’t create any problems that resulted in the death of the hive, and at this point I will consider a win, although we still have a very long winter to get through.

If the amount of second guessing (and beyond) that I described in this post was as confusing and irritating and exhausting to read as it was to write, imagine what it was like being in my head for all of this…

So much of my life (and success) has come from diving head-first into things that it wasn’t immediately obvious I would succeed at. As a 22 year old girl, no one expected I could renovate a house (or build my own house addition)– I certainly didn’t have the skills or knowledge or tools at that point– but I always believed that I could figure it out. In fact, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t figure it out, and I looked at anyone who suggested otherwise like they’d lost their minds. Such is my confidence in my own abilities.

The farm, however, has added a new dimension to the challenges I take on… The stakes are higher. The cost of failure isn’t just time or money or another lesson-learned, but, occasionally, life.

Things that break on a house I can fix. Things I build incorrectly I can take apart and put back together again. But things I’ve tended throughout the years– trees, or grapevines, or chickens, or bees–well, the costs of my mistakes weigh more heavily here on the farm, and when I take these responsibilities on, I don’t take them on lightly. I don’t take them on assuming that I know everything, or that I’ll succeed without effort.

I very much want to be a good and knowledgeable beekeeper, which is challenging given all of the conflicting information out there and how difficult it is to determine if you’re doing the right thing. It was exhausting to re-live all the worry and second-guessing that went into building the quilt-box for this hive–and I don’t know that it makes a particularly good story to read–but for those of you that got through it, I thought it was important to show how difficult it can be to just move forward sometimes…

And yet, I think the important thing is that we do still move forward, even when it’s not obvious that we’ll succeed. It’s possible I’m just not cut out to be a beekeeper in the long run. I don’t know. It has, in fact, occurred to me that I might not be able to do this correctly… I might not be able to figure it out the way I’ve been able to figure out how to build houses. I used to think the secret to my success was that I “don’t believe in can’t” but now I wonder if it’s just as important to see clearly the possibility of your own failure– to fear what it will cost–and to have the courage to move forward anyway.

I don’t know yet if that will hold true for me and my bees… only time will tell.

20 Responses

  1. Wow, I really admire how you expressed your thought processes for all of the efforts to preserve your hive…so many options with no guaranteed success…you are a champ to keep on keeping on! We all are keeping our fingers crossed for you…I admire you for your enthusiasm and vitaity, don’t let the fuckers bring you down…sleep well, you’ve done your best, what else could anyone ask?

  2. This beekeeping thing IS confusing! Are there any experienced local keepers that could guide you through? (In the name of keeping them alive and not because you can’t figure it out.)

    1. Having one mentor would be awesome, but my location and commute make it very difficult for someone to actually come out to my farm and help me directly (although I could possibly pay someone to do the work when I’m not here, which is something I’ve considered.) I do follow and read articles by experienced people who are in my region and I ask a lot of questions via message-board and other media– things I can do in the middle of the night when it’s not appropriate to call someone else up and ask for advice–but as you can see, the difficult thing is interpreting all the different answers!

  3. In the event of the apocalypse, I pick you for my team leader! It does make me feel better about the world knowing there are people such as yourself.

  4. Is there a beekeeper in your neighborhood, who might be a source of information? In my state there is a beekeeper’s association.

    1. There’s a beekeepers club in the major town I’m closest to (about 30 mins away)… I’m on their email newsletter but unfortunately I work an hour away in the opposite direction and the meetings are at a time I can’t make them. It’s possible I could pay someone to come out and tend my hives when I’m not here, but incredibly difficult to get regular one-on-one meeting times with people given my location. The newsletters are very helpful, but much like all of the info I mentioned here… everyone does it a different way with varying results so you need to be able to sift through all the advice for what works for you.

    2. There has to be a way that you can use technology to communicate. Yes, you ask questions at weird hours, but what about using Glide or something? you can send the person video or text and they can reply when they watch the video, it doesn’t require real time communication, and you can SHOW them via video or whatever and they can do the same or text back. There has to be someone out there that’s willing to do something like that for the bees!

  5. I read every word you write which is something I can’t say about any of the million other blogs I follow. Keep telling your stories!

  6. I applaud you for all that you take on and then some! Sometimes there isnt a definitive way to accomplish our goal, because there are so many variables! Variables are what we learn from and what helps to enrich our lives. Dont beat yourself up, you are coloring your world!! Love your stories!!

  7. I’ve been reading for about a year and a half now but don’t comment. The care and thought and worry you put into your bees and their health and well-being made my heart hurt when it became clear there is absolutely no consensus as to what the appropriate course of action was. I will cross all of my limbs (and my eyes) that your bees have a comfortable winter and enough food and come out in the spring buzzing. I feel like I’m in the middle of a movie or a book at the heroes’ darkest moment and now have to wait (and wait and possibly wait some more) for the resolution. This is nerve wracking and I applaud you.

    1. Thank you so much for sending good vibes. (I do feel a bit like this is a dark moment– I always do this time of year–and your comment made me think of the dark point in all my favorite stories and then how they ended… definitely gives me hope!)

  8. Yay! You did your due diligence and made a decision and went with it. That’s all you can ask of yourself.

    I used window screen on the bottoms of my quilt boxes and lined them with denim from worn out jeans. Filled them with cedar shavings. I was worried about the gap between boxes, too, so we wrapped with some tar paper – just enough to block the wind between the boxes, and cut up around the entrances [bottom] for easy egress.

    It is HARD to do all this thinking, studying and work and still have things go pear shaped. And they might still. Hopefully they won’t. Even if,.. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.

    My favorite bee forum is Beemaster. [My username is Rurification]. Experts 24/7. You’ll get all kinds of advice and often it’s conflicting, but you’ll see the breadth of what your options are and something will click for you. Great people there.

  9. My grandpa once said that beekeeping is the most challenging and the most beautiful thing in the whole world. Unfortunately, I did not enough time to continue his work. I hope this will change soon. Thanks for this great article.

  10. Just curious, is it easier to keep bees in a warm climate? Or would there just be other issues to deal with?

  11. I had similar problem with ventilation of hives last winter ago. That is why I do not paint my hives anymore. Latex paint is the same as a plastic coating. The natural wood breaths. My top-bar hives have a large roof so the elements never touch the hive body, making it easy to have untreated wood. I also have screened bottoms, which I put a board over when it is really cold, but leave off most of the time.

    When all my bee buddies lost half of their hives last winter it became very clear from the condition of the inside of the hives that it was ultimately moisture that caused the losses.

  12. A toast to Kit’s Bees. May they stay warm and dry and prosper in the new year. Because we love them and wish them well.

    And to Kit’s fingers. May they stay unbloodied and in one piece so they can continue their remarkable, creative journey.

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I'm not interested in a mediocre life. I'm here to kick ass or die.