Bee-hind the Honey
Tom Sonday began beekeeping in 2006, with a couple of hives. His interest wasn’t in honey, but in helping his gardens grow. (He’d learned in Master Gardener Class that bees were helpful.) Tom was also very interested in bees (among many, many other things), and wanted to help with the world’s disappearing bee problem.
No honey was harvested that first year.
He added a hive or two in spring of 2007, and his original hives (now second-year hives) were poised to produce. But, Tom only harvested eight plastic bears of honey that fall, in part because of declining health, but mainly because he just let the bees “bee.”
Tom was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer on Valentine’s Day, 2008. A perforated bowel hospitalized him for several weeks in March-April of ’08, where he was seemingly more concerned about getting prepared for his arriving-mid-April bees than fighting for his life … although his focus on the bees may have been what propelled him successfully through many close calls.
While in the hospital, Tom became a bee spokesperson. He gave away two of his precious eight bears — one to incredible oncologist Dr. Marcia Liepman, and a second to a transport worker who met him while taking him for a scan, who later stopped in frequently to cheer him on and ask about bees. On the floor where he resided for a month, he became known as “the bee man.”
When people would ask how bees knew which hive was theirs, he explained that his bees wore little t-shirts matching their hive, and with his name on it because he owned them. On the day he was discharged from the hospital, (Tom and Charlotte’s 27th wedding anniversary), she presented him with business cards, featuring the newly developed “Tom’s Bees” logo.
Upon returning home, Tom supervised Rose and Charlotte in the construction of new hives for the forthcoming bees, and the care and feeding of existing hives. Charlotte readily admits she was FAR from thrilled with this assignment, but the bees meant so much to Tom, and he was physically unable to care for them, so she jumped in … aided by Rose, who was actually interested.
It only took a couple stings (or actually, the rush of dealing with a quarter-million stinging insects) before Charlotte was fascinated. Through a summer of learning and watching, the five hives flourished, yielding close to 100 bears of honey. And this honey was truly bee-loved; it signified the bond between Charlotte and Tom over their now shared hobby, and the marvel of inter-species communication.
Most of Tom’s hives survived the winter of 2007, which he attributed to his wrapping them in insulated tar paper. Based on that success, each hive entered the winter of ‘08 wrapped from head-to-toe in heavy tar paper, with straw bales surrounding them as windbreaks.
Much to our horror, all five hives perished from too much moisture, as we discovered that spring. (The hives are located in a low-lying area. Our well-researched theory is that they just couldn’t combat the high humidity we’d sealed up inside with them for the winter.)
We began 2009 with eight new sets of bees. They got off to a great start as they had ready-to-use honeycomb (some of it filled) from their five predecessor hives. Tom had “surrendered” care of his bees to Charlotte by — he advised, but mainly just enjoyed watching her enjoy them.
However, when one of the hives swarmed in July of 2009, he absolutely shared in Rose and Charlotte’s enthusiasm, and helped with the capture. (Click here for more about this exciting event.) Unfortunately, a swarm in July generally just means two weak hives instead of an additional hive. After failing to produce sufficient honey to get it through the winter, we combined it with another hive early fall.
Much honey was harvested in July and August. The bees produced nearly 400 bears of honey — unheard of for first year hives.
Primary beekeeper Tom Sonday died August 28. We shrouded all the hives with bee-shirts; shrouds on the hives are an old beekeeper custom. Honey was offered at Tom’s visitation and throughout the fall for a suggested contribution to his charities; all honey found new homes and raised several thousand for charity.
Reflective, sad but appreciative for all our blessings, we put eight hives of bees “to bed” for the winter after a record honey crop. Nervous about the moisture issue of ‘08-’09, we drilled holes in the upper deep chambers for ventilation, stacked newspapers under the cover for additional absorption, used just a couple of straw bales to block the wind, and left the tar paper wraps in the garage.
While doing this, we were dismayed to discover that two hives were already near death. We could detect no signs of disease, infestation, etc., and think it was just perhaps that they were too weak entering the chill of late fall. They perished as winter hit; there wasn’t anything that could be done.
So — six hives. We crossed our fingers.
As the first snows fell, we diligently cleared the bees’ doorways, and were delighted to find dead bees outside now and then. Delighted — yes — because it meant there were bees in there actively clearing out the natural attrition.
By mid-December though, only three hives were kicking out their elderly. On an unseasonably warm day in January, we checked the hives where we’d seen no activity. They were dead. In examining the hives in the warmth of the house later, we surmise it was the same moisture problem.
Three hives left. Our fingers are crossed that they survive! We ordered 10 more sets of bees and planned to install them in hives set up far away from the swampy, low-lying area of the yard. A good decision, as it turned out, because upon further inspection, we realized all the hives were now dead. A few were victims of mice or other pesky critters chewing through the bottom board, raiding the honey, and leaving the hives exposed to the cold. The last was our fault.
It was with anxiety and excitement – but without Tom – that we set up our thirteen hives in 2010. Given our poor track record, we decided in 2010 that we’d shoot to overwinter all of our hives! (Or, at least one of them.) Check out the Bee Blog to see how we’re doing!