Category Archives: Bees

End of Quarantine, Spring Re-Opening

Spring has now arrived with full force, and it matters not if human-kind has re-opened or not, the world of wildlife is ready for business. Oscar, the largest of the resident snapping turtles, returned to the lake in our back yard this week to spend the summer as he always has. He comes up the driveway in the muddy ditch line, then crosses the side yard and climbs up and over the bank around the water. It’s only by luck that we ever witness this silent quest, and in our 20+ years here, we’ve caught the crossing maybe three or four times. I believe the local goslings are perhaps now big enough to avoid becoming his dinner, but that remains to be seen. The parental geese still are keeping the young ones off the water for the most part, so perhaps all eight young (five from one nest, three from another) will survive the season.

Some who read this column will remember that our last hen went missing in December as we were visiting family in Virginia. Winter is not a good time to start chickens, but the moment the quarantine hit, I ordered more hens. Nothing like a pandemic to make you feel like you need your own supply of eggs. I know some people order chicks by the hundred, but I selected four hens of select breeds and paid extra for them to be sent at 6 weeks of age. I’ve named them Sassy (Buff Orpington), Lacey (Silver-lace Wyandot), Coco (Easter Egger), and Simone (Australorp). Frank has been working to increase the fortitude of our chicken pen against ground and sky predators. We also purchased a battery back-up for our automatic chicken door, having realized that there are enough power outages here to skew the timer on the door and cost chicken lives.

Our beehive caught us off guard this week, producing three swarms in three days. Two swarms gathered low in a raspberry thicket along the garden fence and were captured. The third swarm took to the air and very quickly moved across the field, around the barn, and off into the wilds of Bear Fork. Keeping bees is more challenging even than keeping chickens. Some predators and diseases can wipe out a hive in just a few hours, and the warm-cold-warm-cold tendencies of West Virginia early springs can be tough on a hive. We thought we had lost our last hive in March, but now we have three hives in place again.

We are starting the garden late this year, but I have peas and lettuce in pots on the porches and have been harvesting asparagus for a few weeks now. Once “serious” gardeners who worked from home, we now do the best we can in the spring and wish the garden luck. Our jobs prevent us from winning most of the battles against weeds and invasive insects, and typically by late July, we have lost the war. As long as we get to have a few tomato sandwiches, I’m happy. I notice the asparagus patch is thinner this year, and also that my patch of chives is thin this season as well. Perhaps the winter was too wet? Either way, I will attempt to place some new plants in each of the patches. We love asparagus, and I am accustomed to constantly harvesting fresh chives throughout the growing season.

A deer came through one night and nipped the buds off of most of my Asiatic lilies, my most prized and beautiful spring blossoms. I typically spray them with a mixture of dish soap and water a few times in the spring (along with my hostas) but I got sidetracked by other quarantine projects and was too late. I will have to be satisfied with the more fragrant blossoms of the peonies which will bloom soon, but the sweetness of their flowers draw ants, and I have to shake out the insects before bringing cut blossoms inside to place in a vase.

I am glad to have these diversions from national and worldwide current events. The chickens do not care if I’m wearing a mask, and the bees are not out to murder or infect anyone. Even seeing the snapping turtle, Oscar, as grouchy as he is, was like a reunion with an old friend. I can sit and watch the chicks for hours, mesmerized, like watching a fire, a lava lamp, or a fish tank. I’m so grateful to be in rural West Virginia, especially now. I feel protected from “the outside world” here, and the world outside my door offers entertainment, distractions, and opportunities for restoration and calm.

Next week, the world re-opens even more, to a new normal, a world that requires safety measures and sanitization. But today, this weekend with the sun shining warmly on my shoulders, it feels so good to get my hands in the soil, to scrub afterward to wash away poison ivy oil and not some infectious disease. I can almost feel my body absorbing Vitamin D from the sun, my immune system building a defense against the stressors of life. Somehow, I find myself believing that everything, at some point, will be all right.

In the Womb of Winter

A chickadee in the forsythia bush outside the window. Red cardinals flitting through the dark background of the side-yard pine tree. Snow fell earlier this week, but the ground was far too warm for any of it to accumulate. The temperature drop was enough to freeze the tips of the tulips that had emerged far too early though.

Without snow, mountain winters are brown. Hillsides strewn with dead, brown leaves, dark-brown tree trunks, beige fields, and muddy driveways. We have entered the womb of winter, and it is soft and soggy.

Twice a week, I work twelve hour days. I leave the house in the dark morning, and return in the dark of night. In winter, we can put in far more hours than the sun. I crave the sunlight, but these days those rays aren’t strong enough to warm the skin, and the frigid draft in the house today will simply be a light breeze come spring.

I am trying to teach myself an appreciation of this season, these winters without snow.  I don’t remember hating winter so much in my youth, but there was snow then, more consistently and more in accumulation. Winter was a season that varied yes, one that whitened with regularity, then slowly melted over several weeks. None of this “here today, gone tomorrow” disposable snow. Snow that doesn’t linger,  doesn’t stay a while.

I hear birdsong, in January, and though it is a blessing and a rare winter treat to hear something different than the cawing of the black winter crows, it is a song I know I truly should not be hearing.

I put out sugar water and wheat flour for our honey bees earlier this week in response to their search for pollenous food in a month when there is none.

It is not winter, but it is not spring.

It’s Swarming Season

When I decided to get chickens, Frank said, “Just remember, they’re your chickens.” But, he’s the one who gets up to let them out every morning.

When I decided we needed a cat, Frank said, “Remember, it’s an outside cat, and it’s your cat.” But, the cat wakes Frank up every morning to let her out.

When Frank decided to start keeping bees I said, “Okay, but remember, they’re your bees.”  I am sure you can tell where this is headed.


This is our original hive. We have had it four or five years now. We have lost four or five hives since then, either to the bees freezing in an early spring freeze or from colony collapse disorder.

The bottom two boxes on the hive are brood boxes. Inside are vertically hanging frames, with foundations that the bees build on. On top of those two boxes is what I call the queen screen, a screen that allows drones and worker bees into the upper boxes, but keeps the queen from traveling above the two lower boxes. Thus, the upper two boxes are filled with honey, not eggs or brood.


This hive holds the swarm we caught last year. These are all brood boxes. Because we were new at catching swarms, we weren’t ready, and when we caught the swarm, only had enough frames for the bottom box, and placed them and the branch they were on in the second box. Too slow to return to them, they had built their own comb system in the second box before we got the frames in, and so we just put the third box over that with frames and let them do their own thing in the middle.  When we feel this hive is strong enough (this is its second year), we will add a queen screen, and put boxes on top for honey collection.

(If you are wondering about the straps holding the hives down, that’s to keep the wind from blowing off the lids, toppling the hives and the local bears from easily tearing our hives apart.)

Most professional beekeepers will try to keep their hives from swarming, because it interrupts honey production, and disrupts the hive.  We don’t really follow that train of thought, because we have lost hives, and would like to replenish what we have lost. This year, we’ve made progress in doing so.


This is the hive that holds the swarm of bees that Frank’s mom and I captured two weekends ago while Frank was at work. The branch that they swarmed on was placed in the second box up, but within a day they had moved the queen into the lower box, and we were able to remove the branch and add frames to the second box. Both of these boxes will be brood boxes, and when the hive is strong enough the queen screen and another box will be added on top for honey.


This is the section of branch the bees were on in the tree, which we lowered into the second box of the hive. You can see the comb they built on the branch in one day while it was inside the hive.


This is swarm number two, yesterday, in the same tree, but much higher than the first swarm.  Frank climbed the tree, tied off the branch, cut the branch, then lowered the branch to me on the ladder below, which I helped guide to the ground. Frank then sawed the branch off on each side of the swarm while I held the branch, and we placed the branch inside the hive box waiting below.


This is the hive we placed the second swarm in. At this time, there are frames in the first and second box, but their branch is in the third box, and there are frames in the top box. We had planned to remove the branch  and yellow box today, but we had two more swarms to distract us.

The first of today’s swarms, I caught late in the process, and they were already on the move to their new location, which was uphill and through the woods. (They move up to 6 mph when swarming.) We wish them luck in their new home in the wild, where they will still serve as pollinators to our region.

The second swarm was launching when we returned, gathering in the maple tree in our yard. Frank climbed the tree, tied of the branch, cut it and lowered it to me on the ground. While I held the branch on each side of the swarm, he cut the branch ends off and we lowered the branch section and bees into the hive box.


This hive holds the swarm we caught today. The bottom box is filled with frames, and the second is partially filled with frames because we’re getting a little low on stock. The top box, at this time, holds the branch section we found them on.

By the way, that’s a swarm bucket on top of the hive.  At this point, it really has not served much purpose. I don’t know much about it. Frank’s the beekeeper around here.