I can smell it. Can you?
It hits the olfactory senses the hardest in the morning when you step outside after a good night's sleep. You take a deep breath of that crisp morning air. Yep, there's no doubt about it.
The lovely lady known as Summer is waving goodbye. Old man Winter is right around the corner.
You can smell the change in the air.
The bees in our Hello Kitty hive seem to sense this as well. The seasons are a changing. Those wonderful sources of pollen are now a bit harder to find. The production of honey that will keep the hive going through winter is slowing down.
The bees can smell it alright. They're going to protect what they have inside that bright pink hive. The little buggers have gone from "quite indifferent" to our presence to downright nasty and aggressive.
I first noticed this change about two or three weeks ago when I was going about the normal routine of changing out the sugar water feeder. The hive has now settled down to a normal routine of going through one or two pints of sugar water per day. They never gave me trouble for the simple act of picking up an empy jar and returning with a full jar a few minutes later.
That was -- until the other day. When I completed the quite normal task of retrieving the empty pint jar I suddenly found myself in a cloud of angry buggers, angrily buzzing around my head. But that's not all.
One of them landed directly on my temple and stung me. I was shocked as I coughed and ran from the hive at the same time -- doing my best to avoid the bees who were flying after me. This had simply never happened before. I had been stung a couple of times for the act of removing burr comb buildup from inside the hive -- but that's normal. The bees thought we were destroying their home -- and reacted in a way that insects will react to intruders: defend the hive.
But in this case? I wasn't attacking. I was merely retrieving the sugar water jar from the feeder at the base of the hive as I'd done daily all summer long. They had never bothered me before. Why now?
The wife that is Venus -- of course -- did not believe me. She's like that you know. She didn't believe me until the very next day when she went out to retrieve the empty feeder and was suddenly caught in a swarm -- and then stung on the arm.
What in the H-E-Double Toothpicks was going on here? Our suddenly passive, likable bee buddies had turned on us. They were angry. They were aggressive. Walking anywhere within a six foot vicinity of the hive entrance suddenly invited an angry buzz of activity.
I guess you can call this the "next step" in the "education" we were receiving as "Newbie Beekeepers." Other beekeepers, like Howard Mann, explained that this aggressive behavior was, in fact, quite normal. Other beekeepers from across the country related similar stories.
As it turns out -- when pollen sources begin to dry up -- bees take up a defensive posture. They're guarding against ants who can smell the honey stores inside the hive. They're guarding against Robber Bees who are also seeking to raid that precious honey.
But that's not all that they're doing. When Venus and I switched to night feedings in an attempt to avoid the inevitable, angry swarms that followed (bees do not fly at night), we encountered this to your left: a mass of bees outside of the hive. They do this every night now.
My friends -- I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult it is now to approach a mass cluster of bees like this -- put your hands within inches of it -- and retrieve the sugar water feeder that is located at the base of the entrance. You can see it to your left -- can't you? That white piece of plastic with a hole in the middle? And -- at the bottom of that hole -- another cluster of bees?
The end of summer and pollen season isn't the only thing that a hive of bees can smell. They can also smell the fear of beekeepers Bill & Venus as they approach the hive nightly to change out the sugar-water feeder. But -- retrieving that empty bottle isn't the hardest part of the job. It really isn't.
No -- the hard part is returning that now-filled jar back to the feeder. Bees feel the slightest vibration. They know when the jar has been retrieved. And they can defintely feel it when the jar is placed back onto the feeder.
That -- my friends -- is the hardest part of the nightly job.
The moment that the sugar water feeder is turned upside down and begins to drip -- the bees in the well of the feeder suddenly erupt into a buzzing frenzy. The thousands of bees on the outside of the hive pick up on the same message -- and start buzzing as well. What had been a fairly quiet hive is now screaming with intensity. It's almost as if the bees in the feeder well are telling their brothers and sisters: "another vat of whiskey has arrived -- belly up to the bar."
And suddenly -- the bees are not only all over the feeder -- but on the jar itself. Understand this much: you've got less than a second or two to not only place that full jar of sugar water on the feeder -- but position it correctly and move away. If you dilly dally? Your hands will be covered with bees.
Can you see them on the jar in the photo to your right? That was taken just seconds after I'd put that full jar back on the feeder and stepped away. Some nights we place the jar on the feeder correctly -- but some nights we don't. And if that jar isn't placed on the feeder correctly? There are no "do overs." It stands where it stands.
There is no tried and true "Bible" for beekeeping. If you ask ten different beekeepers for the same advice, you're likely to get ten completely different answers. Some beekeepers feed the bees year-round. Others cut off sugar water feedings during the fall months. Still others don't feed bees at all -- preferring to let nature "take its course."
My hope is that our hive survives through the quickly approaching winter months so we can prepare for honey production in the spring. But -- one really never knows what will happen in this game. The clusters of bees in the front of the hive during our warm August and September evenings are proof positive that we have a strong hive now.
Will they survive? Venus and I have taken every precaution to protect and nurture them. There are no guarantees in the beekeeping business. While the signs are encouraging now, I've never forgotten the warning that 75% of all new hives fail in the first year.
In this business? Never Say Never.