Tag Archives: honey bees

Hive Inspection Gone Awry

Saturday’s hive inspection started innocently, as most of them do. The bees seemed busy, so I decided to open up the hives and make sure everyone’s ready for winter. The day was a little cool and gray, but not rainy or cold: good enough for a hive check in October.

The lady bees were busy bringing in bright pollen and many of them seemed to be bringing in heavy nectar loads, too. They fly a little bit drunk when they’re weighed down.


My guess is that this is goldenrod pollen.

I jiggered a 10-frame box to “fit” my 8-frame hive, which meant my bees built all kinds of burr comb that I had the displeasure of removing when I took off the box. (burr comb is comb that is inconvenient for the beekeeper – and it is usually the beekeeper’s fault).

I left the mashed up comb in an empty box nearby for the bees to lick clean. It would be more ideal to avoid burr comb entirely but, well, this is all a work in progress.

And then things took a turn for the worse. I cracked a box open and a cloud of bees flew out, directly into the unfortunate face of the resident photographer / my beloved wife, Krista. One bee stung her, and the isoamyl acetate started flowing. This chemical smells strangely like banana candy, and it calls all of the bees in the vicinity to join the attack. I’ve been in a cloud of isoamyl acetate myself, and it is a fairly horrifying experience to be the target of a lot of angry bees. It was Krista’s first experience with the banana smell, though. Her total number of stings since we installed the hives went from zero to seven in a matter of 60 seconds. I actually killed bees on purpose in my gallant efforts to rescue her. It was a first for both of us – Krista’s multiple stings, and my deliberate murder of bees.

I closed up the hive quickly, probably killing more bees in my haste, and went inside to check on Krista. It turns out that she inadvertently made a video of the bee attack. The video is a lot like a horror movie with all of the “Get them off of me!”s and slapping noises as I smacked the bees. As tempting as it is to upload it, we deemed it just too horrible. Fortunately, we discovered that Krista is barely allergic to bee stings. She said afterwards that the frightening cloud of bees trying to burrow to get into tender flesh was worse than the pain of the stings. I am very sympathetic to that sentiment; I feel exactly the same way.

This isn’t exactly normal behavior for a hive, so I guess we’re going to go back to using a smoker and consider upgrading our armor bee suits. Now, when someone asks if we get stung keeping bees, the answer is finally, Yes, every single one of us. The honey is sweeter for all the stings.

xoxo,
Jess

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Summer progresses: blackberries, bees & honey

The blackberries are blooming in my neighborhood. I’ve written about our blackberry issues in the past. They are invasive weeds with sharp thorns, certainly, but lovely ones.

The bees go crazy for them. There is a lot of freshly capped honey in the hives.

Later, we’ll extract the honey. Something like this:

In a few short weeks, we’ll pick the neighborhood blackberries, make jams, jellies, syrups and shrubs. I can’t wait!

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a little solstice indulgence

Since we recently took our first jar of honey from the bees, I decided we should make something a little extra special with some of that honey. What could be more special than homemade ice cream? And what better day to do this than yesterday, the longest day of the year (not to mention it got up to 79 degrees for us and our tomatoes).

While Jess and Levi were at work I prepared a simple mixture of four ingredients: organic cream, organic whole milk, honey from our backyard, and two vanilla beans.

Yes, we like to do some things old school around here. Ice and rock salt and man power.


Clementine helped oversee Levi’s work. He insisted he do all the cranking, which was fine by me.


And then she took a nap because it kind of takes forever to make ice cream.


We peeked inside 3 or 4 times before finding this.


Yes, it does taste as good as you imagine. Better, even.

I used this recipe.

And Jess is celebrating extra. Now that I’ve tasted the rewards of all the work we’ve put into the bees, I don’t want anything to go wrong so I’ve agreed we could fit another hive or two into the yard. I’m so proud of her for keeping these bees going through their first year, and now we have two busy hives pollinating the neighborhood and making our lives a little sweeter.

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Sweeter than Honeycomb

The other day I told you about what’s happening in our backyard beeyard. I wanted to share a photo of the bee candy I mentioned in that post & talk about sugar cakes a bit more.

To make sugar cakes, I boiled five entire pounds of sugar for a long time with a little bit of water, heated it to hard-ball stage (250F), cooled it down to 200 F and then poured the molten sugar lava into greased paper plates. Once it cools and hardens, you can peel the plate off and feed it to the bees, or store the extras in the paper plates. (This is not a precise recipe or method, and if you need to make sugar cakes, follow along with someone who knows what they are doing. For example, this) 5 lbs of sugar made 4 cakes of bee candy.

The girls are crazy for it. They love it more than the frames of honey that I selflessly did not steal from them last fall. They are eating it like, well, like candy. The bees ate 1/2 of the first cake pretty much immediately, so I pushed a second cake into the hive on President’s Day. Since it’s started snowing in Olympia, I haven’t had a chance to check and see their progress on the second candy cake, but I’m sure they will eat through it in no time. At this rate, we are going to go through a lot of sugar before the spring nectar flow starts. Hopefully once the weather is a little warmer, the bees can move around the hive more freely & rediscover their honey stores. On one of my favorite bee keeping blogs, Honey Bee Suite, Rusty wrote recently:

The best advice I can give is this: buy sugar wherever and when it is on sale. Some places sell it in 50-pound bags which are often cheaper but harder to handle. Most stores have sales from time to time. If you stay in beekeeping you will never run out of a need for sugar.

I wish I had stocked up on sugar when the stores were having holiday baking sales. Sometimes you don’t fully understand your future needs and maybe you live in a little house that’s short on cool, dry storage options, so you don’t like to hoard things you might not use like 50 lbs of sugar. Then, you end up paying extra for sugar later. Live & learn, eh? I love how the sugar candy looks like the surface of the moon. I love to see the bees tunnel through the cake of sugar; they seem so excited about it. And now our bees have a better chance of making it in this big, crazy world. Thanks, sugar cakes.

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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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left hanging

Sorry faithful blog readers! I got a little busy and left you hanging on the story of our bee swarm, and then a little blog snafu happened and Jess’ reflections on the swarm were posted first. My bad! But I still have lots of really cool photos to share.

So, you probably know the end result already, but we’ll continue where we left off. We had borrowed a handy swarm catching tool from a bee club friend. The next step was pretty straight forward. Place the bucket over the giant clump of bees, knock it around to make them fall into the bucket, and put the lid back on the bucket. Mentally prepare yourself for a whole lot of pictures:

Look how well Duane’s catcher worked here! She pulled the string, and zoom! The lid popped back on.

At this point Jess is pulling down the bucket and getting the lid all the way on. During that moment, she says to Levi and I something along the lines of, “Crap, I didn’t get very many!”

She had a totally different view of the whole event, and we both were like, “Umm, no! I’m pretty sure you have a TON of bees inside that bucket.”

No kidding, she really did. Good job, babe! We were expecting it to take more than one catch due to all of Jess’ prior research and some advice from Duane.

The next step is to dump the bees into the hive we borrowed. Jess set it all up with a few frames out of the middle to give them some space as they go in. I already got to see tens of thousands of bees getting dumped in a big clump once before, and it will never get old. It is just so incredible. And on swarm day, with all the excitement and adrenaline and the “did we catch the queen?” question mark made it all the more dramatic. There was a lot more mayhem with bees filling the air all around us.

Somehow the charger to our camera with video capability hasn’t been seen since we went to New York (oops). So I created you a handy animated .gif of the BEE DUMP. It may take a second to load:

And if you want to see some of those images in all their giant splendor visit the swarm Flickr set. There are a lot more photos there, so if you’re really interested you should check it out. I will still be adding more photos as there are some that ended up on Jess’ computer that I haven’t even seen yet. But only a couple more for this post.

Here’s what was left in the tree after our first catch. Yep, we did the whole process one more time.

Levi and Jess display the second catch. After that, we decided to let the stragglers find their way home. After all, the bees we had put in the hive appeared to be doing their job. We were pretty confident that the queen was inside even though we never saw her.

Not only were these guys staying put…

But they appeared to be doing the textbook “fanning” Jess had read about, wafting the queen’s phermones to lead the other bees to her.

And as soon as we got everything all settled and cleaned up IT PROMPTLY STARTED TO RAIN. I could not believe it. It wasn’t just sprinkling. It was a genuine chilly, drippy Washington rain. I was pretty sure that if things hadn’t fallen into place the way they so serendipitously had, our swarm would not have survived. Although, the next morning I did find a fist sized ball of bees still in the tree dripping dry, alive and well.

And just like that, we have two hives. The most amazing thing to me about this whole thing is that our bee swarm appears to be bigger than the original 3 lb. bee package we started out with in April! And our old hive is still full of bees. Levi checks it daily for the sounds of rattling and piping from new baby queens.

And one last funny thing: before we had the chance to return the swarm catcher to Duane, he called Jess and had to rush over to borrow it back because his bees were swarming too. During this whole process, we learned a saying:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.

We got the silver spoon! And only two stings to report so far. Jess was stung once during the bee dump and again when she checked on the new hive without gloves. They may be a little testy. Well, and that is not counting our Chihuahua, who still doesn’t quite seem to understand the concept of leaving the bees alone.

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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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