Checking in on the Bees

Although we keep bees, we have (mostly) allowed them to keep themselves this season.  We had a few extra hours on Saturday and decided it was about time to take a quick peek and see how they were faring.

Below is the hive in our back yard.  We added an extra super the last time we inspected and left the feeder on the top in case they are in need of water.  Last year when it got so hot, the girls chose our neighbor’s pool as their water source (not the best idea for anyone!), so we want to do our best to avoid those complications this year.

Our Hive

I had my trusty camera, so Wayne did all the heavy lifting (good excuse, huh?).  First things first, we removed the cover and located just a few (hundred) ants.  Ugh.  We’ll have to work on that a bit.  Next we remove the feeder to find the girls buzzing around and none too happy to see us.  I firmly believe the less you inspect, the less tolerant of inspections the bees become.

Here’s where the fun begins.  Wayne commented that he was hearing the girls rather loudly.  That’s not surprising if they are aggravated, but something about the way Wayne said it made me pause.  Two beats later, Wayne goes running (literally) across the garden in his bee suit (yep….our neighbors were outside…of course), through the garden gate, directly to the hose.  He turned it on, took the nozzle, aimed it at his face, and pressed.  He was left wet and gasping a bit.  After making sure he was okay, I almost collapsed giggling.  Other beekeepers will likely know what happened.  For those who have not been in a bee suit I’ll explain: there are zippers.  A collection of them.  If you forget one or two (like the handy ones around your hood), bees get in and often get ever so slightly frustrated when they can’t get back out.  Wayne had been collecting “friends” inside his hood while we were out there.  They were becoming less friendly the more time they spent with him.

Thankfully Wayne’s quick (and comic) reaction meant that he ended the experience with only one sting, and it’s in his beard. So, although it is painful, it’s not noticeable at all.  After double checking for bees in his suit (and finding one other rather aggravated bee), we carefully zipped him up and returned to the inspection.  My guess is that he’ll double check zippers next time.

Super

The first super from the top was FULL of honey.  Totally and completely.  It’s great news as it means the girls are thriving and collecting; however, it means that they are likely honey bound.  We’ll need to either harvest, or add an additional super.  Otherwise they may start storing honey in the brood chamber and there will be no where for the queen to lay.

Honey

Speaking of which, here’s one frame from the brood section.  The capped cells all contain developing brood.  The pattern is a bit strange.  You would normally see the whole middle filled in – almost in a football shape.  Wayne suggested that maybe those were newly hatched and/or the queen is making her way there now.  Who knows.

Brood

We didn’t pull out any additional frames as the girls were rather grumpy and had been open a while because our of detour   to the hose.  Wayne will be poking around again on Monday to add a super if nothing else.

As Wayne closed up the hive, I wandered around the garden a bit.  It is a total mess right now and needs weeding and training of the vines that are trying to take over.  Our bee balm is one plant that I’m glad is getting a bit out of control.  Not sure what it is that I adore so much, but I just find them gorgeous, and (bonus) the hummingbirds love them too.

Bee Balm

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First Spring Inspection & Sad News

Hives in Morganton

It’s been a long time coming, but last week Wayne finally had time to head out to our land and check on the bees.  The hive stand & hives as he found them are above.  One obstacle hurdled.  There has been some bear activity around our land over the last few years and I was a bit afraid of leaving the hives with no one living on the property and no bear fence.  I was half expecting to find the hives demolished – either from a bear, a raccoon, or some other small animal who felt it was worth the trouble.  It seems we did okay though.

As soon as he arrived, he noticed activity from the hive on the right.  Nothing much at all from the one on the left.  Not a great sign.

He started the inspection with the hive on the right and was excited to see this when the box was opened:

Activity in the Hives

Any activity was a good sign overall.  And after pulling out a frame or two:

Brood Frames

Not too shabby.  The pattern looks decent although they haven’t filled out much of the frame yet.  I don’t believe that’s a swarm cell at the bottom – maybe just funky shaped comb? Wayne did mention that quite a few cells were in between frames and that he broke open several by accident when pulling the boxes apart.  He even thought he got a quick peek at the queen as she was running across one of the frames.

The other hive was the polar opposite.  I mentioned a lack of activity and Wayne was disheartened (but not surprised) to open the box and find this:

Cluster

A tell-tale sign that the bees starved.  The cluster is in tact, but all dead.  He said the frames had bees and he was a bit confused at first but realized they were in their standard starvation stance – heads down in the cells, searching for honey.  The bottom of the box at the screened bottom board looked like this:

Bottom of the Hive

I’ve been reading lots of accounts of starvation on various beekeeper blogs around the world over the last two weeks.  I know it is something that beekeepers just have to learn to deal with periodically, but I’m thankful I wasn’t there to find it.  I guarantee it would have brought me to tears.  It’s been a week now since he went and even looking at these pictures is incredibly hard.  I keep playing the “if only” game: if we’d only fed them one more time….if we’d only been out earlier to inspect the hive…etc, etc.  I know it is pointless.  It won’t change fact that we lost the hive and all we can do is try to be more diligent moving forward with the two we have remaining.

In better news (because I couldn’t stand to end on that note), Wayne did have a chance to visit with the hive in our backyard today and all looks well.  He saw the queen, saw lots of brood and honey, and added a super to give them lots of room to fill.

Here’s to hoping for a successful beekeeping year ahead!

Bee update: Inspection and Harvest in One

It was supposed to rain early Sunday afternoon, so before lunch we headed out to inspect the hive in the backyard.  I didn’t want to disturb the girls too much, but I wanted to get a general feeling for how they were doing and (if we were so lucky) to grab a frame or two of honey depending on what they had stored.

The Hive

The girls were in a good mood when we opened the box in spite of the continued ant infestation and the presence of a few small hive beetles.  We pulled out some frames from the top super and found them about split – half capped honey, half uncapped.

Capped Frame of Honey

We picked three frames that were fully capped and put them aside for harvesting.  We replaced the three frames with empty frame of foundation.

Frames for Harvesting

We moved down a bit into the second super and it looked very similar to the one above with one exception – one frame appeared to contain brood on one side and honey on the other.  The capped cells may be drones as they were slightly raised.

Brood in the Honey Super

I have no clue as to why the queen would wander up this far, but it was slightly concerning, so we moved that super over and checked the brood chamber.  The top box in the brood chamber was as to be expected.  The brood patterns were fantastic – her royal majesty is filling up almost every cell on each frame.  We didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at all.

Brood Pattern

For kicks, we moved that box and pulled out a few frames in the bottom chamber.  Well, to my surprise, there are frames that haven’t even been drawn out yet!

Undrawn Foundation in Brood Chamber

I’m a bit confused by this and not quite sure how to handle it.  Maybe we added extra boxes to soon?  I suggested to Wayne that she may be working in the second box and feeling full, so she moved up?  Just in case, we grabbed three empty frames from the bottom box and switched them out with full frames from the second brood box.  I’m hoping the switch will encourage them to fill out the empty frames and give our fertile queen plenty of laying room.

We closed up quickly. The girls were patient, but not that patient and they were beginning to ping off our hoods.  We brushed the bees off the honey frames the best we could and carried them onto the deck.  We double checked each frame and found a few wayward bees before carrying the frames inside.

Wayne took a nap while I ventured into honey harvesting again.  It was the same process we described in this post; however, I was distressed to find out that hooked wire foundation is much more difficult to get off a frame.  Following Wayne’s suggestion, I ended up cutting the comb off the frame and leaving the wires intact.

I paid more attention this time and noticed that we again had two very different looking combs.  One was a deep dark color while the other was a light amber color.  I was still unsure as to whether that was two different types of honey, or just darker comb, so I endeavored to harvest them separately.

Dark Comb/Honey

Here’s the end result:

Honey Harvest

You can see that one honey looks slightly lighter than the other, but definitely not the color difference it appeared to be when we harvested it.  The comb, on the other hand, is remarkably different.  I plan to put the wax in two batches out in the solar wax melter next week when the rain here is supposed to stop and the sun returns.  I’ll try to take pictures after it has been cleaned and melted down to show how wildly different the colors are.

In the process of moving the frames inside, we had spilled a small amount of honey on the deck railing  (lesson learned: use a tupperware container or something with a bottom when carrying frames of honey).  The sugary sweetness was drawing quite a crowd of bees.

Deck Railing

Since the bees had already invaded our deck, I added a bucket with the empty frames (post harvest) for the bees to clean up as well.  At some point in the process Sparky decided that he was rather fond of honey and didn’t let the large quantity of bees stop him from getting his share.  He literally stood and licked the frames clean around the bees.

Sparky Fighting for his Share

He was out there for a good while before I heard a yelp and he came flying through the dog door.  Apparently one (or many) of the bees decided they had shared enough.

The harvest result this time?  16 8.5-ounce hex jars or 8.5 pounds of loveliness.  I imagine this will be the last time we harvest this year, so we plan to enjoy it.

Bee update: Her majesty makes an appearance

Part of our big plans for the weekend included a much-needed trip to the land to inspect the new hives.   It was a beautiful day although rather warm and I wasn’t looking forward to a long stretch in a very hot bee suit.  It was also threatening to storm.  As we got out of the car we could hear thunder rolling, so we knew we might have some slightly unhappy bees.

Here are the hives when we arrived.  All appears well from the exterior.

Bee Hives

The blue hive (on the right) had quite a few bees hanging around on the entrance.

Blue Hive

On the other hand, the brown hive (on the left) didn’t appear as populated.

Bee HiveWe started by opening the blue hive.  We removed the top super being more interested in the state of the brood box on the bottom.

Brood Chamber

After pulling out a couple frames, it became clear that the hive is doing well.  The brood frames had good, consistent patterns.

Brood FrameThis frame clearly shows the pattern you normally expect.  It’s a football-shaped brood pattern surrounded on the exterior by pollen and honey.   The frame does appear a bit spotty (see the empty ring around the middle brood?), but the queen could have been working on it as we pulled it out.

Brood FrameOnce satisfied with the state of the brood box we moved on to the super Wayne added when he dropped the hive off.  We immediately found a problem:

Foundation Problem

This is what the frame should have looked like:

Wired FoundationSo, we’ve once again proved that unwired foundation is not an option for North Carolina.  Even in Morganton it is just too hot for the foundation to remain upright long enough for the bees to work on it.   We pulled out any foundation that was laying down and left the bees empty frames.  In the meantime, I’ve ordered more wired foundation and when it arrives we’ll switch out the frames that they haven’t touched.  I’m hoping this doesn’t mean they’ll miss the bulk of the honey flow.  They need to store as much as possible in order to survive the winter.

We closed up the blue hive and moved onto the brown hive.  As soon as Wayne lifted the top we we both recoiled.  Ugh.  Ants galore.  It was worse than the infestation we found at the house hive.  We had to take a brief interlude while Wayne pulled off his bee suit and removed the hundreds of ants who felt like his veil was an appropriate place for them to choose as their new home.

You can see how the bees have started to close off the screen opening to keep the ants from entering the hive.

Ants on the TopcoverFor lack of a better option, we doused the top cover with water and then rubbed it on the grass to relocate the ants.

Like before, we pulled off the top super and opened the brood box.  Because of the slight delay due to the ants, I pulled frames and Wayne took pictures.   I was surprised to see that they are storing honey in the brood chamber.  This frame was toward the end, so I wasn’t too terribly disturbed by it.

Honey stored in the Brood Box

I then pulled out a frame toward the middle hoping to see brood only and I wasn’t disappointed.  To my surprise, I also caught a glimpse of her majesty!  She is bright and beautiful.  You can see her below just below and to the left of my hive tool (click on the picture for larger view).

The Queen BeeHere’s a slightly closer shot as she scooted around the frame trying to get out of the light.

The Queen BeeAfter we got a few photos of her, I carefully put back that frame, anxious to get it in place without hurting her.  I did pull out another frame or two just to take a look.

Brood Frame

Slightly strange – it appears that the queen is laying brood faster than the bees are able to draw out the frames.  As you can see here, the right side of the frame is just foundation and the remainder is filled.

Brood in Undrawn Foundation

The super in this hive appeared quite similar to the other with quite a bit of melting wax.  Neither have stored much honey or pollen probably due to lack of room.  We’ll have to remedy that as soon as the wired foundation arrives.

We added an extra super to each box all the same.  If they decide to get ahead of themselves and start hanging foundation from the empty frames they will have lots of room in which to do it.
Bee Hives when we FinishedBefore we left Wayne took a minute and used his scythe to try to mow a bit around the hives.  This will hopefully prevent additional ant problems.

Mowing around the hives

Over the next week or so we plan to lay down a weed barrier and either mulch or gravel to keep the grass from taking over the hives.   We were very glad to see the girls are doing well.

I’m finding it a bit hard to talk about and keep track of the hives since they have never been officially named.  I was considering choosing constellations and assigning one to each hive.  Any thoughts/comments are appreciated.

Bee update: Hive Inspection

We promised ourselves we would do a complete inspection today.  Because of our schedules today, we didn’t get the opportunity to open the hive until late in the evening (6pm).  We try not to open the hives so late for several reasons.  First, most of the bees will be in the hive that late in the day and second, they will be aggravated.  All that said, I’m glad we did it.  I was able to shoot a video and after spending about 20 minutes trying to remember how to transfer to the computer, the end result is below.

I started with a quick external inspection just to make sure everything appeared to be okay at first glance.  You can see tons of activity at the front of the hive.  We then removed all the supers and inspected a few frames from each starting from the bottom and working our way up.   We are quiet at the beginning (not much to say), but do start yapping part of the way through.  We like to talk to one another while we’re inspecting.  It makes for a better learning experience (for me at least).

A few notes:

1 – We didn’t mention it in the video, but you can see another queen cell on one of the brood frames.  I took a picture:

Queen Cell

Since they just re-queened, I don’t understand the queen cells unless they were already feeling crowded again?  Maybe it’s left over from earlier when they re-queened?

2 – We did not see the queen.  That doesn’t worry me at all since they are many, many signs of her activity within the hive.

3 – Although I tried to zoom in, I’m not sure I showed the larvae well during the video.  Here’s a picture that’s quite a bit clearer.  If you click on it, you’ll be able to see various stages of uncapped brood.  As I mentioned, I’m still not complety sure I can pick out eggs, but I may try it the next (sunny) day we inspect.

Bee Larva

4 – After adding the super, we opened the nuc.  If I had thought through it in advance, I would have borrowed a frame or two of brood and moved it into the nuc.  We would have needed to search diligently for the queen to make sure we didn’t move her and then allowed the bees to grow their own queen.  Since I didn’t have the forethought to plan, we instead took the frames of honey and very small number of bees from the nuc and moved it into the larger hive.   Basically, the split failed and we added it back into the main hive.  I left the empty nuc by the hive entrance to allow the left over bees to wander over at their leisure.  At some point we may attempt a split again.

So, here’s how we ended the day:

Dismantled Nuc

So, we’re back down to one hive again – at least temporarily.  We have two hives that should be ready for pickup any day now.

Bee update: maiden flight?

We had a few minutes today before leaving for Spring Daze in Cary so we decided to do a quick hive inspection.  As soon as we opened the nuc, I knew something was wrong.  The buzz from the hive was different than usual, and the girls seemed quite agitated.  Inside we found frames of honey, but absolutely no brood.

Frame from hive with no brood

Unfortunately, the large hive was the same.  The bees who are normally so gentle and friendly were actually flying up at us without significant provocation and inside we found this:

Honey and pollen, but no brood.

Since I couldn’t steal a brood frame to move into the nuc, we closed both boxes up and unsuited.  I started trying to figure out the dates in my head and played a lovely game of bee math.  Assuming my numbers are correct, here’s what I decided:

Queen piping – April 20th (I’m assuming that the queen had not yet emerged)

Emergence – 1 – 2 days later – April 2oth – 21st

Egg laying – 12-17 days – May 2nd – May 7th

That allows time for the maiden flight and for her to return and have a day or two to begin laying.  From what I read, we basically checked the large box too early.  Most beekeepers will wait at least 15 days after emergence to look for activity.   So, I’m not panicking.  Yet.

The nuc, on the other hand, is obviously queenless.  If a queen were to have returned, she should have started laying already.   We’ll likely add those bees back into the big hive the next time we open it up.

I’m regretting our lack of diligence in early spring.  Lesson learned.  Again.

And then there was one…and then there were two again

I recently got a message from a friend who was looking for a hive.  Since he had given us our original hive (which we still have), we offered it back but warned that we found the bees to be quite aggressive.   They weren’t bothered too much by that, so we set a date for Friday night for pickup (this has to be done after dark to ensure the most number of bees in the hive).

At 7:30p, Wayne was sitting in his jacket and hood on the front porch waiting for them to arrive.  Although I was quite amused by this, I’m not sure our neighbors found it as funny.  We had two slow-down drive-bys – slightly strange considering we live almost at the end of a cul-de-sac.   David arrived around 8pm and they set to it.  I didn’t join them, but Wayne tells me that the stings started almost immediately and it took a while to get the bee-laden box through the garden and into the truck.  Even then, from in the house (and in the dark), I could see unhappy bees swarming around the box.

Although I constantly had trouble with the bees David picked up, they were still my first hive and they were strong little suckers and got through two winters without too much extra help from us.  I’m glad to know they are heading to a good home.

So, this morning, we woke up to this:

A quick video of the same hive:

It is clearly a strong hive, but does look a bit lonely on the hive stand.

Since we had a bit of sunny weather, Wayne and I decided to do our long overdue inspection of the blue hive.  I’ve been avoiding it a bit, mainly because the aggressive hive was always causing trouble for me.  We opened the blue hive and I was immediately sorry that we hadn’t done it sooner.  The bees were hanging out all the way to the top of the box.

From what I understand, not adding a super early enough in the spring is a common newbie mistake.  I was horrified to see that I had done it not only once, but two years in a row.   As we pulled out frames, I could tell that the queen was strong; however, there was little honey (all brood).  Instead of the usual brood surrounded by a small amount of honey or pollen, we found this:


There were NO empty frames.  At all.  The hive was horribly overcrowded.   A couple frames in, I asked Wayne to pause as I noticed queen cells off the bottom of the frame.  Two in fact, both open.

And then there were more.  Many more, most of which we appear to have torn in the process of pulling out frames.

Looking down into the super below from the top, we saw clusters of bees obviously attending to something.  I was fascinated by it and took a video.  Its actually rather nice as you can see and hear what the inside of the hive sounds like.

(As a side note, Wayne’s comment is SO true.  We adore these bees and can’t wait to get our two new colonies which should be ready for pickup in a month or so.)

And then we saw what they were doing.

Queen Cells - open

Wow.  I had never seen a queen pupa.  It’s pretty amazing.  She’s huge compared to the other bees and startlingly white.   Since there is no question that the queen is alive and laying, the hive is overcrowded, and all the cells are on the bottom of the frames; theses are clearly swarm cells, not supercedure cells.

We closed up the hive as they were starting to be bothered by our presence and returned inside.  We were a bit stuck on how to proceed.   I went through this panic last year and from what I read, it is a bit too late at this point.  All the same, doing nothing seemed like a very poor option.  After a bit of debate, we decided to take the nuc we had in the garage and try to put it to good use.   So, we grabbed the equipment and put our bee suits back on and went out for round two.  This time, we were fighting against a storm which was just starting to darked the sky.

For the first time, we removed the top super completely to get into (what should have been) the brood chamber below.  Wow.

I was overwhelmed to see the number of queens they had been rearing and quite saddened to see that we had clearly killed a large number of them.  I did get this picture from the top of one frame.  I need to do more reading about queens as I’m ashamed to say I just don’t know much.  I did notice how much the eyes have darkened on this one compared to a few others.  Maybe this signifies a different place in the life cycle?

We pulled out a few frames that were completely packed with brood, checked them carefully for a queen, and moved them into the nuc.  One of these had a queen cell on the top of the frame.

We also moved a frame of honey we found and added a few empty frames to round out the five frames.  We put an empty nuc box on top to prevent any additional damage to the queen cells and closed up that box.  We then added empty frames with foundation into the hive where we had removed frames and added a super to the top.

So, we started this morning with a lonely but clearly strong hive, and ended like this:

Not what I expected to come out of today at all.  I’m going to cross my fingers that if our hive swarms (which I imagine it will), they will choose to head into the woods or the field behind us and not into the neighborhood somewhere.  I’m going to watch them carefully and plan for another inspection in the next week or two.