A date with a dink
October 8, 2012
I drove up north Saturday evening to my beeyard near Terry Lake. This is my most isolated yard, a beautiful, tranquil spot, less convenient to get in to, but a great place to spend a little time once you're there.
The practical excuse was that I wanted to bring a dink home. The less practical reason was that it was the night of the full moon and I thought I might be able to catch the moon rising over the lip of the eastern plains at sunset, then wait until dark, load up the bees and head back for home.
Over the years I have been at this beeyard at almost all times of the day (and night) and all times of the season, it is filled with memories of people and times. Saturday evening was beautiful. Dark fingers of shadow etched their way east under an orange glow, then the moon peeked over the horizon to the northeast, big and pink in a faint haze.
Some of you are probably wondering what a dink is. It's a term I've used before, but let me explain for those of you who may have missed my earlier references. A dink is beekeeper lingo for a small colony of bees, usually one that is struggling and may not have very good prospects without some TLC from the beekeeper, the beekeeping equivalent of a runt. Big commercial outfits don't tolerate dinks for long, they usually get combined with another colony. Commercial beekeepers don't have time to fiddle with them.
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But even when I was running a large number of colonies I was reluctant to give up on a struggling colony and went out of my way to give them a hand and try to bring them around. Harlan used to chide me gently about this. While he was a good beekeeper he came from the old school, the purpose of beekeeping wasn't just to raise bees, but to produce honey, because that's what paid the bills. Toward that end he was much less likely to coddle struggling colonies, while I usually fell on the "soft hearted" side and saw the rejuvenation of weak colonies as a challenge to my skills as a beekeeper. "You sure raise good bees" was Harlan's usual comment, accompanied with a wry smile. The underlying message was "enough already, slap 'em together and maybe they'll actually produce something."
This dink was of my own creation, and I even got a raised eyebrow from my friend Cathryn, who has been spending some beekeeping time with me learning the craft. What became the dink was a thriving colony early in the season, but began to decline for no clear reason. When I inspected them in July they had no young brood and were tearing out the sealed brood, very unusual behavior. Two weeks later all of the sealed brood was gone and they were obviously queenless.
I had three choices.
I could do nothing, just let them dwindle and die. In the process they would develop a laying worker in a last ditch attempt at survival. The evolutionary advantage to this has always puzzled me because clearly it has no survival value. In the absence of a queen and the pheromones she produces a worker bee will begin to lay eggs after two or three weeks of queenlessness. While she can lay eggs, they are infertile, and in the bee world infertile eggs develop into drones, so ultimately the colony population will be mostly drones with a few aging workers and the laying worker.
Or, I could combine them with another colony and at least their worker population would be put to good use. That would be Harlan's way. I was a little reluctant to do that because I wasn't sure what had led to their problems in the first place and I didn't want to introduce that problem into a healthy colony.
The middle ground is to procrastinate a bit, a skill that I practice fairly well. The way to prevent the development of a laying worker is to give the colony a frame of brood. If that frame has eggs and young larvae the bees will begin raising a new queen and will usually draw out several queen cells. It will be six days before the selected larva has grown to full size, the queen cell is then sealed and it will be 11 days before a new queen emerges, then another week or two before she mates and begins laying eggs. Once she starts laying it will be three more weeks before new bees begin to emerge. That's a lot of lost time even for a strong colony. For a dink it can be terminal without some help.
The ailing colony still had a fairly good population of worker bees so I opted to give then a frame of brood. At the very least it would buy me some time and prevent the development of a laying worker. Cathryn looked at me askance. This is her second year and she is becoming a good beekeeper. She understands the value of a frame of brood, it is a resource. "Do you really want to do that?" she asked gently.
Well, I did it. And the next time I looked they had raised a queen, but she hadn't started laying yet. We were now well into August, fall was coming. I gave them a good frame of sealed brood to boost their population when it emerged. Cathryn happened to be along again and I got another questioning look, I was plunking brood, money really, into a little colony that probably wouldn't make it anyway.
Now it is the end of September. What do I do with the dink? If I leave it in the isolated beeyard it most likely won't get the attention it needs if it has any hope of surviving the winter. So I decided to bring it home, and there I was, alone on a Saturday night, watching the full moon rise as I waited for the last few fielders to come in so I could load the dink in the truck.
The dink now sits out back. Even with my careful attention they may not make it through the winter, but I'll give it a try. The reality is that I've probably wasted several hours, several frames of good brood, $10 dollars in gas and 30 miles on a truck that already has over 250 thousand miles, but if they make it maybe it will be a deposit in my karmic bank. I can see them from the back door.
I could do worse things with my time, and besides, it was a great moonrise. ❖