Yesterday, I started to describe my rather lousy year as a beekeeper. It began with an intentionally weak queenless hive. I picked it up at my daughter’s farm and brought it into my back yard, here in the city of Calgary.
The former home of the hive and its new home are both in western Canada but there was a big change for the bees. Not only were they moving from a big strong colony into a little 5-frame nuc, they were also leaving the bucolic wide-open prairies and settling into the big city in the Rocky Mountain foothills.
There’s lots of opportunity for hardworking ambitious bees in a bustling city like Calgary, but danger also lurks – as we found out later in the summer. However, I hoped that our clovers and wildflowers and nice sheltered yard would keep the bees happy.
My idea was to maintain a bonsai-esque hive – an intentionally small colony, in the model of a Japanese bonsai tree. I’d prune it back whenever necessary so I wouldn’t have to deal with 50,000 bees inside a heavy, towering skyscraper-hive. Instead, I expected to have a nice, pleasant, small colony in the yard for my family to enjoy.
I hadn’t thought of the connection to “bonsai” until a reader of this blog pointed out that my small-hive experiment reminded him of that ancient Asian arbortorial craft. The reader even suggested a name for the colony: Hachi, which is Japanese for bee.
Shortly after I brought the hive to town, I asked readers of this blog to help us name him/her/it. In addition to Hachi, you came up with some good suggestions, including Phoenix which was recommended because my bee endeavours were rebirthing in a way reminiscent of the ancient bird. Another idea was to name the nuc after a favourite rock or volcano, thus linking the hive to my geophysics profession. (My choices would have been Bridgmanite and Eyjafjallajökull, respectively.) But I opted to leave the hive unnamed, waiting for its personality to develop before adding a permanent nomenclature. I’m glad that we waited.
Here’s the rub. After teaching bunches of students that the only way to successfully keep bees is to keep strong colonies, I renounced my own good advice and tried to keep a weak hive. Strong hives imply healthy bees, good queens, appropriate locations, a fully-functioning, healthy hive ecology. A weak hive offers less honey to mess with, no heavy boxes to lift, and fewer stinging bees. But I found out that a weak hive is harder to manage than a strong one.
This little queenless hive started off as expected. I brought in the nuc in late June so I expected to see a new queen and fertile eggs about a month later. The bees were surprisingly gentle (not always the case with a queenless hive) and the bees began raising queen cells. Here’s what those cells looked like just after they were sealed. Tomorrow we’ll see what happened to the new queens – the aftermath of their fight for dominance and the royal crown.