Breaking the Bee Rules

I'm trying something a bit different in the apiary this year. I am throwing conventional wisdom out the window, and going with my gut. Most beekeepers will tell you that when you buy a new package of bees (that is, a box of worker bees with a newly mated queen, ready to be placed in a hive to begin a new colony) that you MUST feed those bees. At first glance, this makes sense. After all, the new package has no stored honey to eat and we don't want them to starve. So to get them off to a good start, we mix up a sugar syrup which they will happily consume. 

But my experience has taught me a few things. First and foremost is this: the bees don't follow the rules. They have no idea what the books say, or what my local beekeeping club says, or what the internet says they are supposed to do. They just go about their business, leaving many of us confused when they don't do what we expect. And so I have tried to take all that conventional advice and temper it with a bit of "thinking like a bee". And that's what has led me here, breaking all of the bee rules. Or, at least the one that says that new bees need sugar syrup.

Three of our packages this year went into Langstroth hive equipment that had been used last year. We were able to put together deep brood boxes that were completely built out, including frames filled with honey and pollen. If we typically feed syrup to bees because they don't have stored food, then by simply giving them a nicely stocked pantry they shouldn't need to be fed. That seems intuitive enough. 

But what about our 4th package, going into a Warre hive? This was our very first hive of that style. We had no used frames, no honey to feed them. We were told - without a doubt - that these bees would need sugar syrup or they would die. And so I did as I was told. I installed an internal feeder in the upper box. I also had to set our new queen in that box, which meant that I had to leave access to the area so that the workers would feed her and eventually release her from the cage that she was shipped in. I had hoped that the bees would build in the lower box, so that they could easily reach the syrup. Well, that didn't exactly go as planned.

By the 3rd day, they had released the queen. And they had started building comb - but not on the top bars (a foundationless hive has only wooden bars across the top, not entire frames). No, they were building all over the jars of the feeder and just making a fabulous mess of things. I guess they didn't read that they were supposed to stay under the feeder. They weren't following the rules, so I put myself into bee mode and started to think. I realized that a swarm of bees could move into a hollow tree with no comb and zero stored food and survive. They don't move in on Monday, and then first thing Tuesday morning say, "Hey! There's no food here, let's go." Nope, they curb that instinct to abscond long enough to build comb, begin gathering nectar and pollen, and allow the queen to begin laying eggs. In fact, they won't swarm without a new queen in the making, so that alone should make them stay put for at least a little while. And so I thought they must have a similar reaction when being put into a new Warre hive. There is no comb, and no food, but perhaps that's okay as long as there is forage available and a healthy queen in place. (If we were in a week straight of solid rain and temperatures below 50F I might have reconsidered...) And so I took out the feeder and left the new colony alone to figure out what they were going to do.

It looks like they are doing just fine without me - and without a feeder. They are building from the top down, and the comb is being built straight down from the top bars, which is exactly what you want to see in this hive style. In only 6 days time they have already built at least 3 frames, and that's with only peek-a-boo sunshine. I can't wait to see what other rules this ladies intend to break!

Katy Penwell

of Milk and Honey, Lynnwood, WA 98087, USA