Monday, May 23, 2011


better than a singing telegram!
better than a singing telegram
Ahh. What a weekend.  After weeks of slimy weather, we had a weekend that was both mostly sunny AND mostly warm!  We hit some personal beekeeping milestones: we harvested the season's first honey from one of our country hives, we killed our first queen (not to make this light, we'll revisit our reasons for doing so later), and we received a package of six queen bees in the mail and then requeened or split several hives (tally's up to 19 now!!).

Because so many of our milestones included queens, let's focus there.  First off, we have a hive with a temperment that--we've slowly noticed--is terrible.  Her name is Doris. When you smoke them, half fly off to attack the smoke (the "normal reaction"* is to retreat between the frames and gorge on honey). When you gently blow on them, entreating them to disperse so you can see the comb beneath, they bristle and buzz and half fly off to attack the wind
our new hive labels
our new hive labels
(the "normal reaction"* is to simply disperse).  When they were a smaller hive, we'd noticed this spastic behavior, but it wasn't yet a problem.  Their enlarged size seems to have emboldened them more (or maybe they just have a larger population of guard bees, whose job is to protect the hive).  In any case, now that they are grown up (like the 6-hive-bodies-tall that they are right now), it takes longer to work them, which has proven a dangerous proposition.  Even though they are doing a bang up job of bringing in the nectar (we just harvested 5 frames of light-colored honey from them), we can't afford to have bees that nasty, so we've decided to requeen (as the queen is the mother of every bee in the colony).

To this end, we ordered several queens from a genetic line that is known for its gentleness, acclimation to Northern climes, and its cleanliness (this can help in the management of pests and pathogens).  That was the easy part.  The hard part was just FINDING Doris's queen.  When you must meticulously analyze each frame in a 6 body-tall hive (that's 60 frames) looking for one specific bee among tens of thousands of them, well, let's just say it takes a while.  Over the past few weeks, we'd been through every frame at least twice and hadn't seen her.  

the queen is dead
attending their dead queen
But this weekend, we were motivated.  We'd invested in a queen that was going in that hive. So, new queen in hand, we changed our strategy and both inspected each frame so there would be two sets of eyes checking for her.  Gratefully, this method unveiled her early... and Grant squished her on the spot.

It was an inglorious way to end a dynasty--really, one that we resented but also really really respected (many say that aggressive bees can be the better honey collectors and survivors).  We just didn't want to spend our lives with her.  It seemed dangerous to us to have bees that pose a threat to people in the area.  Even her drones would affect the genetics of other hives we'd keep out there.  No, she had to go.  Sorry, Doris.

We're not really sure how long it takes the bees to communicate to one another that they're queenless.  We do know that when you take a queen from the hive, the nearby bees know it and may start fanning (releasing a certain phermone from their nasanov gland) to indicate to her where her hive is (see the video below for a shot of some bees in another hive doing this).   After we killed Doris, we temporarily placed her on a board near the hive.  Several bees attended her.  We let them, thinking they could be the messengers.  After a while, we moved the queen to the car and found that bees continued to linger in the spot where she'd lain.

queen cage
We also know that a hive will not remain queenless for too long before they start the business of rearing a new queen.  We've read accounts from varying beekeepers citing that this can happen within an hour, or could be as long as a day.  Our experience last year was that a day was too long to wait before introducing a foreign queen. The bees were already committed to rearing their own and killed the queen we introduced.  We didn't have an hour to wait with Doris, so we crossed our fingers and inserted the new queen almost immediately.  Let's hope they like Quinn and decide to keep her.  Though,  to quote Winnie-the-Pooh, "you can never tell with bees."  The video below shows the first reaction of Doris's bees to their new queen in her cage.  We discuss this process a bit in an earlier post if you'd like some insight into what's actually happening here.

On a different note, we'll end on a treat that also involves queens.  While working one of our favorite hives (and also our first) this weekend, we caught sight of the queen in the process of laying eggs (this was the first time we'd witnessed this process) and got a brief video.  Enjoy.

*I will qualify "normal" as being normal to an Italian stock of bees that are the most popular in beekeeping due to their more docile personality.  Of course one should not really refer to genetic traits of one type of bee as 'normal' and genetic traits of another type of bee as 'abnormal', but we're allowing ourselves some liberties.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


nurseryIn under two months, the number of hives in our backyard has more than quadrupled. From 3 to 13 hives in five weeks...whew.  It is a lot of hives to host in town, and really, once they are full grown, it will be too much and we'll have to move several of them to other locations.

plus two In the short term, the populations are low and we like the convenience for monitoring their progress.  We've expanded in three different ways this year: bought packages, caught swarms, and made splits.  All of these methods begin humbly with small populations of bees trying to build up a new colony.  Specifically, these bees must first draw the wax into the honeycomb form they use for storing food and raising brood*.  For packages, where you introduce a population of bees to a foreign queen, it is particularly important to be able to monitor whether or not the queen has been accepted by the workers.

So while the populations are small and somewhat "needy" (note that we say this strictly from a management perspective), it is ok to keep 13 in a city plot. But that's why we've started calling our
three new hives
three new hives
backyard apiary a "nursery"--most of the hives we keep here will always be young and may need extra management.

But one potential problem of this high density approach is the bees' ability to distinguish their hive from the others.  Bees have quite a sophisticated sense of navigation, but it is also unusual in a natural setting for so many similar looking hives to be in such close proximity.  Because they recognize colors and shapes, one technique to help them find their home is to tack different shapes above each hive's entrance. I won't lie, it also
on a lighter note
branding helps us feel special
serves as a mnemonic device for the beekeepers as we try to keep Hyssop straight from BeeBee or Cay, or Jonquil or.....

Now, the little 5 branding...that's strictly for us :)

*Wax is secreted by glands on the underside of a honeybee's abdomen.   But it requires a lot of energy.  For every 1lb of wax secreted,  it takes approximately 6 lbs of honey.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Swarming

swarm catcher kit
our swarm catching box!
There's a lot to talk about this time of year. But we'll restrain ourselves for now and get this post started with some pretty exciting news.  We caught a swarm!  And not just extracted one like Grant did last week--where he propped a ladder up to a tree and shook a bunch of bees from a branch into a box (not to downplay how much fun that was...) No, this one came to us.

But first, let's talk a minute about what a swarm is.  It is the time of year where bees are wont to do this sort of thing, so as our neighbors, it is important that you understand it a bit.  Swarming is a natural part of bees' life cycle:  it's how they, as a colony, reproduce (it doesn't take long to realize that the real organism with honeybees is the colony, not the bee).  And just like any living thing, bees are strongly motivated to do so.  As a beekeeper, you want other hives to swarm (so you can harvest them) and you try your damnedest to prevent yours from doing so.  That's a lot of bees to gain or lose.

capped queen cell
capped queen cell
So this is the process.   The influx of pollen and nectar in the early spring flow gives the bees confidence that an offshoot colony could survive, so they go for it.   The queen pushes into overdrive egg-laying and the workers, when the time is right, rear a new queen.  Yup, the workers make a queen.  First, they build 'queen cups,' or slightly larger cells that extend beyond the normal profile of the comb.  When a queen lays an egg in this cup, the workers feed it royal jelly (which they make).  All larva receive some royal jelly as they develop, but queens receive continuous and copious amounts of it through their entire larval and pupating life.  It's what makes a queen a queen.

Several cells will get this treatment, as insurance.  The eggs destined to be queens hatch, eat the royal jelly as larvae, pupate, get sealed into their cell by the workers, and eat more royal jelly.  Despite the fact that the queen is a significantly larger bee, with a much longer lifespan, her adolescence lasts a significantly shorter time than either workers or drones (16ish days vs. 21ish days for workers and 24ish days for drones).  This is most assuredly because when a queen is needed, she's NEEDED; she's the sole egg-layer for the entire colony.  Yup, that royal jelly is really something.
a proper home
subbed a proper medium  hive body

Once one or a few queen cells are capped, theoretically, the old queen will swarm with a sizable chunk of the bees in the colony, leaving the first pupating queen to emerge as the new matriarch (the first one will sting the remaining cells, killing them; if two emerge simultaneously, they duke it out).  The old queen and the group of bees that leave with her...that's a swarm.  They are looking for a new home.  Because they don't have one yet, they have nothing to defend.  Without a home, they are docile.  This is important for folks to remember about swarms and  the nature of bees.  They don't want to sting you unless they really think you pose a threat to the colony.  The act of stinging kills the bee, so it is therefore an act of hive defense, not self defense.

swarm queen
we marked the swarm's queen
A swarm doesn't know where its new home will be when it leaves, so it will often camp out in a temporary location for a while (often in a tree).  Scout bees will shoot off and scope out prospective homes.  When one returns with a good location in mind, she'll signal the other bees via the waggle dance, and the swarm will move on it.  It is in this staging area where they are most desirable and easiest to gather.  This is the kind of swarm that Grant collected in the previous post from the upper boughs of a pine tree.

So, how does one catch a swarm without going through this 'harvesting' process? We set out a wooden box with frames and a little bit of lemongrass oil (the lemongrass oil is actually very similar to the scent produced by a bee's nasanov gland, which communicates a hive's location to other members of the colony).  Basically, we wanted to just the sort of habitat a bee would look for. A scout bee from a swarm found our box and convinced the colony that she'd found the best new home.

So now we have a new hive.  With local, survivor genetics from a proven queen.  And what a queen she is.  I think anyone can appreciate an abdomen like that!