Sometimes it seems like honey bees are incidental to all the other creatures in my hives. Beyond mites and moths, I have flies, spiders, beetles, springtails, and shrews. Sometimes I see frogs, mason bees, slugs, or earthworms. But this week, it’s mice.
Beehives are warm and cozy shelters with plenty of food and entertainment, so it’s really no surprise to find a vast cross section of inhabitants. The mice are especially attracted to my top-bar hive. I opened it three times this week to find mice sitting atop sugar patties, licking their fingers and grinning at me. The traps I’ve set are always sprung, although I can’t tell who is doing the springing, mice or bees. And now that I’ve added pollen patties, both mice and bees have decided to raise families.
A swarm in July
I’m definitely a Langstroth beekeeper, but at one time I wanted a top-bar hive so I could learn about them and answer questions. I have just one, but it is the hive most likely to be surprising, and it’s always the one with mice.
It’s been seven years now since the hive stood empty in my front yard, devoid of bees. The colony I placed in there died the first season and I decided top-bar beekeeping was not for me. I dragged the hive beneath some low-hanging cedar branches so it was out of the way and forgot about it.
I forgot, that is, until one July day when may husband came running into the backyard. “Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”
There, condensing into a molten mass, were thousands of honey bees swarming around the empty hive and flowing into its dark interior. As I watched the bees file in, I remembered the saying, “A swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” Still, I was glad to have them.
Falling to ruin with the bees inside
Now seven years later, they still live there. Each spring I wonder if they will make it again and so far, so good. But because the hive has been full the whole time, and because I have only one top-bar hive, the structure itself is falling apart.
I keep thinking that when that hive goes empty, I will repair it. At this point, though, it needs more than repair. Some animal ripped out the hardware cloth underneath, and I replaced it with a board riddled with drilled holes. That was five or six years ago. Then the bees decided they no longer liked the opening, and instead they’ve carved a new one on the side, just below the roof. The hooks that once held the roof in place have pulled out because the wood is rotting, and the sliding varroa drawer no longer slides.
Breaking the rules
The hive and its colony break every rule of beekeeping. The hive is under heavy branches that drip with water all winter long. The space where it sits is gloomy and damp and never receives direct sun. In fact, it hasn’t seen the sun in five years. The openings are low, so the bees have to fly close to the ground before flying up, and they can only come and go in one direction because the foliage everywhere else is too thick.
I don’t do anything to the colony except add spring feed. Any book, any club, any beekeeper will explain that you cannot possibly keep bees this way, which is why I take everything with a grain of salt. Not one of my carefully tended Langstroth colonies comes close to this one in age or vitality.
I don’t make regular inspections either. Instead, I open it a couple times of year to take swarm cells or a few thousand workers or maybe some brood. At those times, I cut apart the top bars and look things over. Otherwise, they’re on their own, living by their own rules. They have it wired.
How long will the bees stay nice?
A little over a week ago, I cut some branches away and lifted the lid to deliver a pollen patty. In the “attic” above the top bars, the bees were on one side covering a sugar patty and milling about. The mice were on the other side. They had taken the paper plates that once held sugar cakes and shredded them into confetti and used them to build a nest. One mouse posed on a sugar cake like a hood ornament. Mice and bees seemed completely at ease with each other, something I found annoying. Why will they sting me but invite the mice to dinner?
I’ve set three traps three times but I’ve caught only one mouse so far. I don’t know how else to do it. I’ve flicked them out with a hive tool and plugged the obvious entrances, but without any help from the bees, the mice just come back. I keep thinking that as the colony expands, the bees will chase them away. It was in this very same hive that I found my first mouse skeleton. If I were a mouse, I’d think about that.
Honey Bee Suite