My mother-in-law is visiting for the weekend.
She got to visit the apiary and participate in a hive inspection.
I think she may have had some fun.
My mother-in-law is visiting for the weekend.
She got to visit the apiary and participate in a hive inspection.
I think she may have had some fun.
Beekeeping books all agree: Queenlessness is BAD. Terrible. Very very extra bad and problematic.
Beekeeping books also pretty much all say that if you have a hive that goes queenless, it:
Well, all the way back on March 26 I split Rosemary hive and created Sage. I was pretty sure (yeah, oops. I know,) that I left plenty of eggs in Sage hive for them to make a new queen from.
Apparently I didn’t, because when I went in to inspect a week later, there was no eggs and no open brood. No biggie – even if they had made themselves a new queen as expected, no chance that she would have been hatched, mated, and laying eggs that fast.
But today I looked again. It’s been a month. Sage hive has:
So much for how a queenless hive is “supposed” to act. Still, though, it is a problem. Without a queen the colony will be dead in a few weeks.
We went into Thyme hive, which we knew for a fact was queenright, took out a frame with brood and eggs in it, and gave it to Sage. Theoretically they will choose one of the eggs and make themselves a queen with that. If I can find a local queen for sale in the next few days, though, I will just introduce her and then I won’t have to worry so much about them developing laying workers. Or, y’know, just dying outright.
For the benefit of beekeepers who replace their queens every year or every two years, there is an international color code to designate what year the queen was born. For years ending in the digit zero or five, that color is blue. (If I had a marked queen that was born this year, her mark would be white to indicate that she is from a year ending in one or six.)
Back in January, after Bee School, the instructor invited a local commercial beek named Jerry to come down and talk to the students about purchasing nucs1 from him. She told us beforehand that his bees come highly recommended from all of her highly knowledgeable contacts, and that everyone she knew who had bought from Jerry in the past had been highly satisfied. She was planning to order two nucs from him herself.
On that recommendation, I went ahead and ordered a nuc from him. I was not, at that point, sure whether I was going to be able to split Rosemary this year. I wanted some “insurance” to make sure I was going into the honey flow with at least two colonies up and running. Well, that turned out to be unnecessary, but three is also a nice number, right?
We went up to Jerry’s place in Farmville today to pick up the bees for the re-boot of Thyme hive. We took a complete hive (screened bottom board, eight frame hive body box, outer cover, three frames) up to Jerry’s place. He installed the five frames he had set aside for me right into my hive body. Then we wrapped a cargo strap around the whole colony, put in an entrance reducer, and covered it with duct tape. Yay! Duct tape! Works for everything!
It felt a little odd to have a live bee colony sitting in the boot of my MINI Cooper for the two-hour ride home, but I guess it was no stranger than when we brought the two original packages home last year.
We got back to the PeaceThyme yard, the Hubs carried the colony out for me, and I opened it up to put a feeder on for them. As soon as I pulled that outer cover off, hundreds of workers came out to see what was going on and where they heck they were! It took some time, but I got the feeder and cover back in place. The Hubs has promised to make me another robber screen as soon as he has a spare minute.
1) Nuc = nucleus hive. One of the ways in which bees can be purchased. Usually includes five fully drawn frames comprising stored honey/nectar, brood, nurse bees, eggs, and a laying queen. “Nucs” are usually housed in special hive boxes that are five frames wide, instead of the usual eight or ten.
In case you weren’t sure.
The North Carolina State Beekeeper’s Association administers a comprehensive and robust Master Beekeeper Program, allowing interested beekeepers a chance to document steadily increasing levels of study, experience, and public service.
The first level of this progression is the “Certified Beekeeper” level. It requires four months of beekeeping experience, passing a 50-question written exam, and passing a practical exam which consists of a hive manipulation/inspection under the supervision of an already certified beekeeper.
I passed my written exam back at the Association’s Spring Meeting in February. Now that it is consistently warm enough for hive manipulations, I asked our local bee school teacher and Master Beekeeper, Tia, to come out and administer my practical. She agreed.
Next week, a Master Beekeeper and Bee School teacher from my local club is coming to administer my practical examination, so I can become a North Carolina Beekeepers Association Certified Beekeeper. Because of this, I had not planned on going in to the hives at all this weekend. But then I remembered – since I put in that green drone frame, I really need to be at least opening it up and looking every two weeks. If I wait three weeks, and they do have a bunch of capped drones, I’m pretty much inviting the varroa mite population to expand even faster. Not what we are trying to accomplish here, right?
So, that was the plan. Quick peek, pull the drone frame, see if there is capped brood to remove, close it back up, easy day.
The best laid plans, y’know.
At this point the hubs set down his camera and started helping me, because it was just suddenly a really great time to have four hands!
We basically did what I think most beekeepers call a “walk-away split.”
in the old location. I *hope* that I left them some eggs, too, but as noted above – I can’t see eggs on cloudy days. I am reasonably confident that I left them what they need to make a new queen.
This is now designated as “Sage” hive.
We looked and looked and we finally found Queen Rosemary. She was in the very top box. The almost-empty box that I put on two weeks ago. If they had not been so crowded, this box would have probably been all food storage. But since they were crowded, she had, in human terms, gone into the pantry to lay eggs because there was not enough room left in the nursery.
Then we moved:
to a new box on a new bottom board, then put a feeder on top of it to keep them going until some of the newly-moved nurse bees graduate to “forager” status. According to the experts, all of the “old” foragers should wind up staying with the original location, so the hive in the new spot may need some feeding support for a little bit until they are ready to go and fetch their own meals.
If this works the way the books and the experts say it should, in a day or two the colony in the original location will realize that they are queenless and then behave exactly as if they had swarmed, raise up a new queen, and proceed with other honey flow/springtime operations just as they planned. If I did it right, they won’t feel like they need to swarm because they should feel like they already did.
Went in this afternoon to see how Rosemary is doing. Turns out, she’s doing pretty great.
And the drones have started to drone around. Found some drone brood, but a LOT of hatched drones tromping about.
We also saw all the usual things we like to look for this time of year: open brood, closed brood, eggs, room for expansion, new wax being drawn. Some of that new wax was drawn messy and out of place. Chalk it up to excess enthusiasm.
Did I mention EGGS!
This hive is so strong I will probably be going in to inspect at least every two weeks, just to watch for any hint they might get crowded and want to swarm. So watch this space for updates!
We finished up the North Carolina State Beekeeper’s Association (NCSBA) spring meeting yesterday in New Bern. I learned more in those three days than I have any chance of ever remembering, but at least I took copious notes.
Nancy Ruppert, state inspector for the Sandhills region, led a workshop on “Late Winter/Early Spring Management” and reminded me that the most likely time for a colony to starve is right now. There is pollen available to them, but no nectar – and the queen is (or should be) laying eggs like a madwoman, beginning to build up colony strength for the spring honey flow. So the bees are flying, nursing, doing a ton of work, but they don’t have enough carbohydrates (nectar/honey) to do it with. Nancy’s specific simile was “they should be eating like teenage boys.” Wow. I’ve had teenage boys. That’s some serious stuff right there.
Okay, I’m convinced. I was going to wait until the end of March or beginning of April to start regular inspections – I mean, it could still freeze, or even snow, so it’s not like winter is “over” yet. But between Nancy and Master Beekeeper Tia, I was persuaded to go have a look now. Big agenda items – give them the food that they need to get through this buildup, and make sure they have enough room so they don’t feel pressured to swarm.
I also got to test out my new hive stand that the Hubs built for me last week.
Conventional wisdom (a.k.a. most beekeeping books and most experienced beekeepers) warn that it is dangerous to store drawn wax comb, because of wax moths.
Those sources are absolutely correct.
Backstory: Since the last time I posted, we lost Thyme hive. It’s a bit of a long, depressing story, but the end of it is that Thyme was weakened by the events documented here, and then they were robbed by yellow jackets, and then they absconded. “Absconded” is bee-speak for “We have had it, we are out of here!” When conditions in a hive become too difficult, they pack up everything they can carry and just – leave. We saw the robbing on Sunday evening, put an entrance reducer on it, and by the time Hubs got home from work on Monday afternoon, Thyme hive was gone. Nothing left but a few stray yellow jackets and some badly damaged comb. We closed up the entrance with duct tape so the yellow jackets couldn’t get out, and plopped the whole hive into the freezer to kill ’em.
After two days in the deep freeze, we pulled it out and assessed it. All the frames that were drawn out wide or not straight, I went ahead and cut the wax out right away and rendered it down. But I saved out ten frames that were nice and straight, so that I could intersperse them with empty frames next year and encourage the girls to draw their new wax nice and straight.
While I was inspecting them, I did see some weird white worms in one or two of the cells.
And right there, y’all, is where my judgment EPIC FAIL began. I thought that those weird little worms might be wax moth larvae. I mean, like I said, Thyme had been weakened already, and wax moths do attack weakened hives. But they were not moving. They looked dead. I pulled them out, and then didn’t worry about them any more. I assumed that the two days in the deep freeze had killed them.
I left a hive box full of frames sitting on my dining room table for almost a month and a half, because procrastination is my superpower. They looked fine. And then, in an attempt to make the dining room table available for stuff – like dining, perhaps – I put it into a lockable plastic storage tub and stored it in a little-used room of our home.
Q: What are conditions like inside a storage tub?
A: Warm, dark, with little to no ventilation.
Q: What kind of conditions do wax moths like best?
A: Dark, warm, poorly ventilated spaces. ¹
All y’all see where this is going, right?
It took less than two weeks.
It’s been a busy few weeks here at PeaceThyme. We just got back from a week in Georgia – one of our adult sons just graduated from Army basic training at Ft. Benning, so we went down to see the ceremony and to visit. Bonus points, we got to see one of the Daughters-in-Law and our ludicrously cute grandson in the bargain.
Before we went, we did go in and check out the hives. I was a bit concerned about Rosemary. Back when the bee inspector was here, he pointed out a queen cell on one of the frames. So we wanted to see if they had superseded yet, and how that was going for them.
Well, at that time – two weeks ago – it seemed to be going okay. We saw a lot of open brood, but no capped brood. That means that the queen had been laying for about a week, but had NOT been laying before that. We also saw the queen. Or at least, we saw a queen.
And we saw several queen cells, all opened. So it looked to us as though she had hatched out, mated, and was just beginning to do her baby-laying job.
So – that was two weeks ago. We also added another box to Rosemary hive. So today I wanted to go in and see if they were drawing into that third box yet.
They were. And they have lots of nectar and honey stored, which is great. Not much pollen. But a lot of queens. Seriously. A lot. More royalty than a British tabloid. Including a regicide-in-progress.
First, we took the top box off and saw this on the frames of the middle box:
That is a queen being “balled.” It’s a form of execution used for invading wasps/hornets, old or poorly performing queens, or newly introduced stranger queens that the hive does not accept. A pile of bees huddles around the queen, so closely that she overheats and dies. The pictures don’t do it justice – it was much more dramatic than this. There was initially about four times as many worker bees piled around her, before we cleared some of them out to see her exiled Highness.
Then, I started pulling frames out of that same middle box, and on the second frame I pulled we saw her:
And then, we went to pull off the middle box – and the hubs spotted a queen on the outside of the hive. Just walking around on the box, alone. Now, this may well have been the one whose execution we interrupted. That’s my best guess. But who knows. The hubs didn’t get a picture of her, because his hands were full with catching her and putting her back into the hive.
Then, in the bottom box … yet another.
The queen in the bottom box was on the opposite side of the broodnest from the one upstairs. I don’t fully understand what is happening in this hive, but here are the possibilities as I understand them:
So either way, aside from having way too many queens (which is almost certainly a temporary situation) the hives look healthy and productive.
If you’re interested, here is some more information from Walt Wright about how bee colonies replace their queens via supersedure and/or swarming.
*** Disclaimer *** I have no idea if this brilliant idea will work out as planned or not. I read various things that various beekeepers recommend on various beekeeper forums and in various bee books, and I thought to myself, “Self, I wonder if a lot of those various things couldn’t be accomplished with just one piece of gear?” To which my self replied, “Hmmmm … ”
*** Disclaimer Part II *** I may very well have seen this exact design developed by someone else somewhere in the virtual world and flat-out stolen it. I am not 100% comfortable claiming that this design is fully original. In fact, if anyone has seen this tchotchke before, or knows where my subconscious may have picked it up from, tell me in the comments and I will make sure whoever deserves credit gets it!
After the big “robbing / virus / whatever that was” kerfuffle at Thyme Hive, we put entrance reducers on both of the colonies set to their very smallest entrance. The next day, the hubs made robber screens for them. When we installed the robber screens, the girls had a very hard time finding their way back in. Okay, granted, that is the point of robber screens – to make entry very very difficult. The idea is that the bees who actually live there will be persistent and eventually find their way in, but the strangers who are just there to steal won’t.
Well, the girls from my colonies had more trouble finding their way in than I was comfortable with. After two days, there was at least a pound of bees clustered underneath the bottom screened board on each hive. Just – hanging there. They were close to their cluster, but they couldn’t seem to get in. So I took the robber screens off and put the entrance reducers back in. But there were still a bunch of “lost” girls hanging off the bottom screen. I brushed them off a few times, and some went in the entrance – but some didn’t. They went right back onto the bottom of the screen board. Even terribly smart animals can get confused when humans come along and fiddle about with their environment.
It does seem that the entrance reducers helped. There are still quite a few dead bees out front of Thyme, but we haven’t seen any fights in several days. But with the smallest entrance installed, there was a lot of traffic backing up on the landing board, and it’s been in the 90s all week so there was also a lot of bearding in the hottest part of the day. (Bearding is what you call it when the hive gets so hot inside that a whole bunch of bees come out and just sit on the outside of the box. Like Southerners sitting on the front porch drinking sweet tea. A lot of Southerners.)
So I decided the time had come for this build, to increase ventilation – especially in case I need to close off the screened bottom board for a while. I sketched this design (hold your criticism, I never claimed to be a draftsman!) for the hubs, and he built me two of these things. Actually, I just made this “drawing” (such as it is) in Skitch for blog purposes. What I gave him was even rougher, done in ink with a fountain pen on the back of an old insurance billing document. But he got the idea, anyways. He has become accustomed to my unconventional ways of communicating ideas. Good man.
My intent (we’ll see) is for these doohickies to serve as a combination of:
Upper Entrance: Some beekeepers swear by top entrances. It increases ventilation and allow excess heat and moisture to escape, and there is some speculation that honey and pollen storage is enhanced by making it easier for the foragers to get to the food storage area without having to fight traffic all through the brood frames.
Extra Ventilation: Air movement is always good. In the summer the reasons are obvious, but even in winter airflow is pretty important to bees. They have at least one thing in common with me – they can tolerate coldness, but they cannot tolerate damp coldness. Cold water condensing on the roof of the hive and then dripping down onto the bees while they are trying to stay warm is a very, very bad thing. The 1″ holes drilled through the box should keep air moving along and give both heat and moisture a nice easy way out.
Quilt Box: A quilt box is commonly used on a Warré style hive, but there are some reasonable arguments for using them on a Langstroth as well. They absorb even more of the moisture in the wintertime, further reducing the aforementioned cold-water drippage, and they buffer extremes in temperature. So when winter comes along, I plan to fill up the top of this box with wood shavings.
Spacer for Winter Feedings: If the bees don’t have enough honey saved up by the time the cold weather hits to get them all the way through the winter, I will need to give them either fondant or sugar emergency feedings. Both of those feed solutions go right on top of the frames, so normally you have to put a shallow super on to make space for the food. A normal inner cover doesn’t leave enough room to put anything on the top frames. With that 1″ of space below the screen, there will be plenty of room for food without a whole super’s worth of extra dead air space to try and heat.
Sifter for Powdered Sugar Dusting: Some beekeepers dust their bees with powdered sugar to control varroa mites. So far, most (but not all) of the available data indicates that this doesn’t work well enough to rely on, at least not without taking other measures to go with it. However, Randy Oliver at Scientific Beekeeping does advocate what he calls “whole-colony mite drop accelerated by sugar dust” as an effective way to monitor mite levels. Well, that’s a mouthful!
In simple, un-sciency terms, whenever I need to know what my mite levels are, I can use the screened box to apply powdered sugar to the hive like Don Kuchenmeister, the “Fat Bee Man,” does in this short video. The sugar will cause many of the mites who are on adult bees to lose their footing and fall off, and even more to be groomed off as the bees work to clean the sugar off of each other. Then, after 24 hours, I can look at my bottom sticky board under the screen and count mites. I should get a clearer picture of the real mite situation this way than if I just count how many mites fell off naturally, without the sugar to “help” them down.
So, this is what the boxes looked like when we went live with them earlier today: