Tag Archives: beehive

Queen Pest, our Serene Consort

The bees are tucked in for the winter, taking the occasional cleansing flight when the weather breaks. My biggest concern is the moisture in the hive. Days of rain turn into weeks of rain, and then the damp settles in, bringing mold, fungus, and their ilk. Bees can handle a good deal of cold weather, but the moisture is terrible. It’s enough to make me move to California.

Last weekend, I had a scare with the hive, though. I thought there were small hive beetles taking over! SHB have not been seen in Washington yet, but it seems like a matter of time since they can hitchhike with migratory bees. Anyway, I read up on SHB and looked at a few hundred gross beetle photos. I was just being paranoid. The beetles I found are nothing like SHB. These are beetles and they are on a hive, but they are larger than SHB and they look completely different.

Our beetles:

Small Hive Beetle:

I spotted a few varroa mites in the varroa drawer of the hive. I haven’t seen any adult mites in months on these bees, so that was a nasty surprise. It’s not an ideal time to treat the bees or do much in the hive, so I’m going to be patient for now, and plan to be super proactive about the mites when the weather is more favorable. My beekeeping goal for the year is to successfully overwinter my hive. That’s my main focus. I didn’t take any honey from the bees in the fall, so hopefully they will have plenty of food to see them through to the first spring blossoms. Please send good, hopeful, strong, healthy thoughts for the ladies!

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The Swarm hive

It’s finally summer around these parts, and our time is our scarcest resource with so much going on around our farmlette, but I’m finally writing about our crazy bees. Yes, we have a garden too, but it is always taking backseat to the bees, as plants are substantially more patient than bees.

We really need to name the bee hives. It’s getting confusing to talk about them. The old queen is in the new hive, the old hive is going to have a new queen (hopefully). The situation does not lend itself to simple conversation at cocktail parties when people ask, “And how are the bees?” Anyway, this is a quick update on the swarm hive, which has the original queen that we bought in April.

The hive has eggs and brood in beautiful rainbow patterns, and a few frames of honey and brood. This website describes the rainbow pattern clearly:

It is typical for a frame to have a rainbow shape of stored nectar, pollen and brood. Usually the brood will be toward the lower part of the rainbow, and next to the brood will be pollen, then the nectar will be stored on the outer or upper part of the rainbow shape.

Last week, I added a second medium 10-frame box about a week ago, and they have started drawing it out. This week, I baited the upper box by moving one of the deep frames from the lower box today in hopes that more bee presence will speed up the building. I had to leave an empty space in the lower box so the bigger frame could hang down. I hope they move into the second box before they take advantage of the extra space in the lower box and build wild and crazy burr and brace comb.

Here’s an interesting shot of eggs on black plastic foundation. We use wax foundation usually, but the hive I borrowed from my fellow beekeeper, Duane, came with some black plastic foundation. I have to say, it does make for very easy egg spotting! It’s tough to imagine this tiny white thread becoming a honeybee, but it almost certainly will.

And this is an awesome photo that Levi took of the marked queen that came with our package of bees. This clinched it with all certainty that the swarm was most definitely from our hive — not that we really had any doubt, but you know. It was nice to see her again. She is certainly a lovely bug.

So, that’s the status of this swarm about three weeks after it was issued from the garden hive and ended up in the Italian plum tree. We’re supposed to have an awfully hot week, so hopefully these ladies can start making up for a lot of the lost weeks of rainy weather.

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sting count

It’s hive inspection day here on the farm. Two hives to inspect, and we have some stings to report. I had a feeling somebody would get stung today, and I was right. Here is the tally of all the stings since we got our bees:

Jess: 3
Clementine: 2 (that we know of)
Levi: 1
Cash: 1
Krista: 0

Both of my boys were stung today.

First Cash. He’s always following us, no matter where we go. I snapped this while he was hovering. And all of a sudden he started running around our big yard in circles, shaking his head vigorously. Try to imagine the sound of Italian Greyhound ears flapping wildly. It was quite a feat to even catch him. I had to hand off the camera to Levi so I could pin him down and get the bee off of him. I was kind of surprised to find the stinger, because this is the loudest dog on earth and all he could muster was a tiny whimper. He has no swelling or redness whatsoever. Go figure.

While I was tending to Cash, Levi snapped a lot of great pictures of the queen. They found her in the new hive!

Levi and I didn’t get to watch too much of the inspection of the older hive because before too long a bee suddenly flew into Levi’s face. He didn’t say much either. I heard him blowing on his face and saw him hunched over, and quickly jumped into action when I saw a bee crawling up his nose. It was too late, though, it left a stinger behind in his lip.

He’s got a nice, fat lip. I’m pretty sure based on the amount of swelling that he is most definitely NOT allergic to bee stings. Now to purchase those veils. To our credit, we tried to buy them locally this past week and they were all out.

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Reflections on the swarm

Everyone has asked us lots questions about how and why and where and how often bees swarm. Is it good or bad? So I thought I would try to discuss some of these, with the implied, permanent caveat that many people have many opinions and that a lot of this is either hotly debated or widely disagreed upon in the beekeeping community.

what’s a swarm?

A swarm is not the angry cloud of bees that comes out of the hive and attacks that you see in the movies and cartoons. That is just a bunch of angry bees. A true swarm of bees is tens of thousands of bees following their queen (who is usually in the middle of the bee ball). They usually fly a short distance and settle into a tree or a fence. They are loud! Thousands of bees flying at once. It sounds like the hum of a freeway, although some people say it sounds like a freight train. Well, it sounds like a freight train if you are standing in the swirling middle of it, but you probably won’t be! Honey bee swarms are pretty gentle. They have no hive, stores or brood to protect. They are drawn to the queen, but they are not protective of her. They gorge themselves on honey before they leave the parent hive, so it’s physically very difficult for them to bend around to sting. Keep calm! No running and flailing your arms about!

If you think you see a swarm, try to identify them. Make sure they are honey bees (not wasps or yellow jackets or anything else), and find a local beekeeper to come capture them. I recommend creative googling like “your city/county” + “honey bee removal.” Bees need your help, and they are valuable – don’t call an exterminator or spray them with poison. If you live in Washington, click here. If you live in Olympia, call me.

thanks to the Washington State Beekeepers Association for this illustration

why the heck would they swarm??

Bees swarm to reproduce. Yes, they raise brood to replace individual bees, but this is about reproduction of the hive. Imagine that the cells in the body are analogous to individual bees. The hive is analogous to the body. Your body is creating new cells all the time to replace the old ones, but that doesn’t create a new person (well, not yet. maybe in the future with some better cloning technology). Just thinking about it reminds me of how awesome bees are.

Some of the main reasons bees decide to swarm:

1. Overcrowding
This can be either because there is not enough space, because there is too much honey or pollen in the brood nest and the queen is feeling’ cramped, because you don’t have enough boxes on the hive, because you have a queen excluder the bees don’t want to cross, because spring build up and nectar flow can catch you by surprise and a hive with a lot of room can become way too confined very quickly. Basically, the hive is constricted with no room for brood, honey or pollen, they think “we must be so successful!!” and they decide to split into two.

2. Low Approval Ratings for the Queen
Like any other despot, the queen has to keep enough of the people happy enough of the time to stay in power. Yes, we use a lot of political metaphors to talk about our bees, mostly because it’s an area of interest to our kid, and he makes it relevant. In any case, an aging or weak queen doesn’t produce enough pheromones to appease her subjects. They call for a coup d’état by creating supercedure cells. Or maybe she was mated badly and lays poorly. Coup d’etat. Or maybe she was injured when a hapless beekeeper bumped her. Coup d’etat.

3. Bad Weather followed by Good Weather
This is sort of related to Reason #1. Bad weather means the foragers can’t get out enough, and the hive feels extra-crowded. Have I complained about the weather this spring? It’s been terrible – cold, gray, rainy. Not very springlike. Occasionally, we’d have a good day or two. Swarming bees take advantage of temporary nice weather to bid au revoir.

our swarm

It’s possible that our hive was overcrowded, but upon checking the original hive, I discovered there are still a few frames with comb drawn on them and no honey, pollen or brood. They may have been a little confined, but there was still room to lay eggs and store nectar. It’s impossible to know exactly why they swarmed. I keep asking them, but they don’t answer me. The most likely answer I can come up with is the erratic, unreliable, crappy weather (Reason #3).

is swarming good or bad?

It depends. From the bees’ perspective, swarming is good and necessary. It’s how we get more/better bees!

In an urban setting in particular, it’s best to try to keep swarms to a minimum. A lot of people are afraid of bees, did you know that? Yeah. They are.

From the perspective of the beekeeper: we have two hives now, instead of one. I didn’t have to buy two packages of bees. That’s good. On the other hand, both colonies may not be strong enough to survive the winter on their own. The queen of the new hive has a long way to go before she’s a successful monarch, and if that doesn’t go well, we might have a restless, angry, queenless hive on our hands. Her breeding will result in unknowable genetics. We might not like the bees that we get. Swarming weakens the parent hive, since half their workforce is literally taking off at once. In short, we have to wait and see before we decide if this swarm was a good or bad event. If I have two hives in May 2011, then we’ll declare it a reasonably successful event.

Fortunately, it’s only June and I still have hope that we will have a summer. If so, both hives might be able to build up their numbers by winter. If not, I may need to kill one queen and re-combine the hives. But let’s not put that cart before the hypothetical horse, shall we.

The most important thing is, whether good or bad for you as a beekeeper, swarming is instinctual.

You may remember, I saw queen cups in the hive when we last inspected it on Memorial Day, but I had resolved not to worry about it. (read about it here) I don’t think there is anything I could have done to change the course of events. Bees have their own unknowable instincts. Once they have made up their minds to swarm, it is almost impossible to stop them. You might as well tell the rain to stop. (Actually, can you stop the rain? Please?) Old-school beekeeping methodology is to cut every queen cell you see. Nowadays, the advice is the exact opposite. Cutting queen cells is more likely to leave the hive queenless than stop a swarm. Everything I read and hear encourages beekeepers to manage, not control the hive. So, we’ll keep doing our best to be good stewards of the bees.

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the swarm saga continues

We left off with Jess and tens of thousands of bees going crazy in the backyard. I (in my sleeveless shirt) had hightailed it to the front yard to continue to mow the lawn and take a wait-and-see approach. It was only about ten minutes later that I saw Jess’ head in her beekeeping hat and veil pop up over the fence. “Come here! Come here! It’s safe now!”

The bees had mellowed out significantly and were in that nice, neat clump up in the tree.

In all the excitement, Jess somehow stepped the wrong way and managed to sprain her ankle. In case you forgot, she had already sprained her wrist the day before. So here she was, in terrible pain, not able to do much for herself, and our worst fears about the health of our beehive were coming true. She had peeked into the hive and confirmed there were capped off swarm cells. No doubt about it, the bees were swarming. Tears ensued.

I did my best to comfort her with an ice pack, Ibuprofen, and a pep talk. It could be worse. Maybe there is something we can do, and if not there are still bees in our hive and hopefully a new queen will survive. It will be okay. Call a bee club buddy! She has a beekeeping mentor and everything. And through a strange series of events, Jess knew just who to call first.

I happen to be a 911 dispatcher. And it just so happens that a lot of honey bees are swarming these days. Go figure. When my friend at work couldn’t get ahold of anyone recently to catch a swarm, he mentioned to the supervisor that we keep bees and could probably hassle somebody for an updated list. And that is exactly what Jess did. So she met this nice guy Duane whose job it was to compile a new list of people interested in catching swarms. And Duane had also just given a demonstration at the monthly meeting of a contraption he had built to catch swarms.

So I brought Jess a phone and she called Duane. And he answered. And he told us to come right over to borrow his fancy swarm catching bucket contraption! This was something of a miracle. Jess was in no shape to drive, and the clock was ticking until I had to go to work. We managed to jet out to his workshop in the most idyllic setting (land, bees, cows, kids, a garden and a gorgeous dog) to borrow the tool. If he wasn’t otherwise engaged, he would have even come over to help us. In our experience, all the people that are a part of the Olympia Beekeepers Association are this generous and helpful.

Also, Duane asked us enough of the right questions to determine that even if we managed to catch our swarm, we didn’t have anywhere to put them. He then LENT US A SPARE BEEHIVE. Amazing, right? So we went home with a borrowed hive:

And a contraption built out of a Home Depot all-purpose bucket:

Pretty genius really. The thing was very well constructed and easy to understand. He had replaced the bottom of the bucket with wood and a metal piece in the middle to attach a long metal pole. There were several poles you could attach to keep extending the reach further, enabling you to reach a hive otherwise out of reach. Luckily for us, ours had settled in a pretty convenient location.

The lid of the bucket had the center cut out and a mesh vent in its place. And the really smart part is the lid is attached by rope. Once you knock the bees into the bucket, you yank the rope and it pulls the lid back on top to close the bees in.

After a some quick instructions, we loaded up my car and raced home just in time for me to run to my meeting. Somewhere along the way we came up with a plan. Jess would hobble around trying to get things set up, go pick up Levi who was due to be back from the water park, and we would all cross our fingers that the bees wouldn’t go anywhere for the next two hours.

Stay tuned for more. In the meantime you can watch this cool video of a different contraption that makes catching a swarm look easy-peasy.

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ominous queen cups

This photo is what I believe to be a queen cup. We found it 5/22/10 and I marked the location on the frame where we saw it. But since it isn’t a full queen cell, and there doesn’t seem to be an egg in it, I tried not to think about it. For memorial day, levi & i did a hive inspection. The queen cup was still there, still not filled. But there were actually about five queen cups in the hive this week. Here’s a photo of the same queen cup so you can see how totally not-a-queen-cell this is. It’s not progressing at all.

I am really really a beginner beekeeper, and I can’t explain much about the queen cups, except some basic things. Bees build a queen cup when they want a new queen – whether because their queen is lacking or old or poorly mated, or because the hive is too crowded and they are ready to reproduce the hive. Queen cups can become queen cells if there’s an egg in them. Queen cells give rise to queen bees, and there can only be one queen in the hive. If they don’t like their queen and they raise a new one to replace her, it’s called supercedure. If they are getting ready to split into two colonies, it’s a swarm. If she’s dead and they need a new one, it’s called an emergency. Queen cells in the middle of a frame mean supercedure. Queen cups along the bottom of a frame mean swarm. Our hive has queen cups in both positions! There – that’s the extent of my knowledge of queen cups. I am still in “research mode” about what this means about our beehive. So far as I can tell, all the sound advice points to letting them do their thing. Queen cups could mean anything, or nothing at all. They could be following the Girl Scout motto (Be Prepared). The best advice is — Trust the bees. (This is becoming my mantra.)

We saw our queen on memorial day. She looks to be in good health, and there were definitely fresh eggs in the brood nest. It’s hard not to take it personally – How could they want to replace her! I haven’t even settled on her name! Why don’t they like the hive? Maybe I waited too long to put on the second hive body and they got too crowded? But they hadn’t built out the first one yet, so that theory doesn’t make sense. But really, they are wild animals with their own instincts and urges. Here’s a photo of the queen on memorial day. She looks good, right?

They definitely don’t have the critical mass to split into two colonies, yet, so hopefully they won’t try it. I need to get a bait hive set out, in case they do try to swarm. A bait hive would increase my chances of retaining them. If they split, I think the chance of either colony making it through the winter is very low.

Intensive, creative google’ing is producing sub-par information. We didn’t cover this in my beekeeper class yet, and the mountain of beekeeping books piled next to my bed seem to have less than a paragraph about queen cups. I need to call my bee mentor and beg for insight. This beekeeping hobby is an uncertain, confusing, mysterious, humbling experience.

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Bee Pals

I spotted these ladies sitting on the front porch shooting the breeze. Are they stealing kisses? Are they whispering gossip? Are they complaining about their sore wings, or the weather, or those lousy, lazy drones? This is Bee TV in full effect. We watch their coming and going’s like it’s the series finale of Lost.

Oh sure. There are other things we could be doing, but nothing we’d rather be doing.

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