Swarming Fun

A few weeks ago I just happened to be home from work in the middle of the day and looked out the window to find this (click through to watch on youtube for the full impact):

It was the very first time I saw a swarm and the whole experience was remarkable.  After watching it for what seemed like ages, their landing spot became clear.

See all the black dots on the blue sky?  All bees.  I promise.  Unfortunately, that landing spot was the top of a tree to one side of our yard that was not terribly stable.  We didn’t have a ladder that could even reach it.   I called a local beekeeper that I found online.  He stopped by that evening with a bee suit and a ladder and discussion ensued.

Swarm

I stayed on the deck for the intense part of this process as my last few stings required a trip to the doctor.   The local beek headed up the ladder like it was no big deal with a cardboard box and shook the bees off the tree so they dropped down into the box.

retrieval

The box was literally turned upright to put the bees into a hive body that we happened to have in the garage and the box was left close to the hive for any late arrivals who were determined to stay exactly where they were.

Because I was concerned that the swarm maybe missing a queen (she could still be in the tree, or could have been injured/killed during the retrieval), Wayne grabbed a few frames of brood from the big hive (the original source of this swarm) and moved it into the new hive.

Moving Frames

After the move, I was very concerned that we may have moved the queen from the big hive into the smaller one although Wayne didn’t think he saw her on any of the frames.  Only time will tell.

Moving Frames

We made sure the entrance reducer was set to the smallest option and then left it hoping that nature will work some magic.

Swarm Retrieval Complete

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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: 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.

Recent Inspections and a Surprising Revelation

Last weekend we (finally!) had time to inspect both hives.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m rather nervous about our taller hive.  The bees are just plain aggressive.  I hope that I’m exaggerating this feeling both in my head and in my posts, but I won’t know until I can talk another beekeeper into coming to inspect with me.  Which should have happened last weekend…but I got a bit waylaid (explanation below).

So, Wayne and I headed out all suited up.  Recently, rather than wearing my lovely bands around my jeans, I’ve taken to wearing my oh-so-pretty purple boots.  They come up almost to my knees and are a pretty sturdy rubber, so there’s no way a stinger could get through them (this is relevant…I promise).  Anyway…we suited up and headed out.  The goal was to make sure we still had signs of a queen, a good brood pattern, etc and to see what the hives had left for stores.  Basically, we wanted to determine if feeding was necessary.

As you can see, the activity is finally dying down slightly at the entrances to the hives. It’s not that the bees aren’t active, but the weather has started to cool down significantly at night and they are bearding less and less.

Opening the top of the first hive, we found a few of our lovely roach friends hanging about and (eek!) some small hive beetles.  I battled with them at the end of the last summer and it seems they are back with a vengeance.

Check out the number of them hanging out in the waterer.

They scuttled away from me as fast as they could go, but I managed to take a couple shots.

The top box was fairly unremarkable.

They do have some honey stores, but not much.  Most of what’s there isn’t even capped.

Here’s the fun part.  When we moved the honey super, the bees went nuts.  I mean crazy.  They were swirling around us, flying directly into our veils.  Interestingly, they kept flying at my camera.  It makes taking pictures a bit challenging when a bee is trying to sting your lens.  We stood really still and tried to give them a few minutes to relax.  I will warn that we’ve never used smoke.  I’ve never felt the need until recently, but I’m beginning to think it’s a requirement for this hive.

After they relaxed slightly we were able to pull out a couple brood frames and take a look.  The queen is clearly still strong and everything looks just fine.

Here’s the hive after we closed everything up:

Our second hive is our new one and is very, very calm.  It’s so strange to check them both in one visit – a weird juxtaposition.  I decided that I would do this inspection all on my own and left Wayne in charge of the camera.  The honey super was rather unremarkable.  There were a few frames that were not even drawn out.

As our previous post explains, the lack of drawn out frames is our fault.  We waited too long between inspections and didn’t realize that the unwired foundation I used had melted (yep…completely) leaving the bees with nothing to draw out and a mess in the bottom of the hive.

As we progressed into the brood chamber, the laying pattern kept getting stronger.  I did notice that they are storing quite a bit of honey beside the brood.  I’m not sure if this is related to honey super problem mentioned above?

We also did see various larvae stages, so all appeared to be just fine…and then I noticed this:

A closer view:

I want to say there were three or four of these cells on the frames.  As of the inspection, all were empty.  I’m hoping they were old or (maybe) unneeded.  As everything else in the hive appears to be fine, I decided not to worry.

While I was closing up this hive, I felt some strange on my knee and then the telltale sign of a sting.   It seems a bee wandered straight up my boot and got a bit pissed off when we found skin.  Against Wayne’s advice, I pulled up my pant leg (I know, I know) to try to retrieve the stinger, and then moved quickly into the house to make sure I got it all.  I put some homeopathic sting treatment on it as I’ve done in past and went on with my day.  That night I was trying to sleep and felt my leg throbbing so much, it kept waking me up.  By the morning, the pain was running into my toes.  I got dressed and went to work and mid morning checked my leg to find that the redness was in a large circle around the sting, running behind my leg a bit and down.  I ended up going to the doctor who told me she believes I’m developing an allergy to bees.  I calmly explained that it was not possible.  I am a beekeeper.  She shrugged and offered me a steroid and an antibiotic.  I hate steroids, so I avoided them, but by the time I got home from work the pain was pretty unbearable.  I took the steroid and within a few hours the swelling and redness dissapated.

So, I am a beekeeper with an allergy.  How unfortunate.  In retaliation, I’ve made sure my Epipen is still in date and ordered a full suit from Brushy Mountain.  I’m avoiding the bees altogether until I can ensure I’m fully protected.  As I’ve been stung several times (both before getting hives and since), this is definitely a curve ball I didn’t expect.

A (somewhat related) shameless plug: Although we did not get any honey this year, I did manage to harvest some lovely wax courtesy of our bees.  Wayne and I are now making handcrafted soaps and lip balms for sale.  Check out our website to find out more.  Our products are for sale on Etsy and through various farmers markets, fairs, and festivals.  Of course, you can also find us on facebook.

More Lessons Learned

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – beekeeping is just an ongoing series of lessons for me.

Wayne had some time the other day and decided to check on the middle hive.  He reported back that it was completely devoid of bees.  I would be devastated if I hadn’t been expecting it.  The hive was week from the get go and I’d been slowly watching the activity diminish every week.  The last time we inspected, the queen’s brood pattern was very spotty and there were almost no stores.

So, I asked Wayne to dismantle the hive when he had time and to leave it sitting out.  I figured it would have some wax moth problems since it’s been empty for a while and how right I was.  Check out the pictures below.

You could even see evidence of them in the supers.

Lesson #1 of my most recent experience is that when you have a weak hive, combine it.  I was anxious to give this hive a fighting chance and it clearly was not strong enough to do anything on it’s own.

In other news, we were able to inspect our newest hive on Saturday.  Here’s an image of the feeder which we’ve filled with water to give the bees lots to drink and (hopefully) keep them out of our neighbor’s pool.  We’ve having a bit of trouble with the floats, but it doesn’t appear that we’re loosing too many bees.  Lesson #2 is to never staple anything to the bottom of a feeder.  I thought the screen would help prevent any bees from drowning if it went up the sides of the interior or the box.  Although the wood seems like it would be thick enough, staples in the bottom cause it to leak.  Wet bees = very, very unhappy bees.  I’ll have to order a new feeder to replace this one.

Lesson #3 was located when we removed the feeder.  It’s a bit hard to see in this picture…

….but might be a bit easier to see in this one:

Basically the beautiful, clean, unwired foundation is no good in hot weather.  With temperatures recently hitting over 100 many days in a row, it seems all my lovely new foundation just melted.  The bees tried to building a little bit around it, but I imagine I severely impacted their ability to take advantage of the honey flow.  That’ll be the last time I order the unwired for us.

Here’s the top of the brood box.  We definitely have some good activity.  We inspected in less than ideal weather (it was getting ready to storm), but the bees were still quite calm.  It’s such a nice change from our other hive.

Lesson #4: White plastic foundation sucks too.  I thought it would be easier to manage in the brood boxes if the foundation was plastic, but honestly the bees don’t seem to care for it.  When given the option, they just seem to leave the frames empty and choose wax foundation instead.

In one piece good news coming out of the past couple days, this queen is definitely strong.  Check out her brood pattern on a couple of these frames.

Doing okay on this one….

And beautifully on these:

So, I’m quite happy with the status of this hive, but Lesson #5 is clearly don’t wait so long in between inspections.  We’ve been crazy busy and I honestly was afraid of chasing these bees off, so I’ve avoiding an inspection.  If I’d done one earlier, we could have corrected the melted foundation problem and they hive would likely have been able to draw out comb and start collecting stores.  Because of my lack of attention, I’ll likely need to feed them over the next several weeks to help them along.

We removed the two supers that had melted foundation and put on a brand new super with wired wax foundation.  I hope they’re happy.  Here’s how we left the hives so that the few bees still in the other supers would have a chance to clear out:

In the next two weeks we plan to complete a full inspection of the big hive.  The last time Wayne tried to get in there, he was stung almost immediately so I’m not looking forward to the prospect.  If they continue to be aggressive, I may need to research options including requeening.  I’ve tried to approach as much of beekeeping as naturally as I can, but I do not want to be in a position where I am frightened of our bees.  The calm hive is such a pleasure to work with and I’d like that same experience throughout our bee yard.

Lesson Learned

Today Wayne was kind enough to fix the inner cover for me to prevent robbing.  Basically, the war between the bees and the yellow jackets has continued leaving a feeling of panicked activity all around.  I pulled off the top cover once and found yellow jackets just hanging out in the top of the hive helping themselves to syrup and generally enjoying the day.   As a solution for now, we bought bug screen and Wayne cut a piece and covered the hole in the inner cover.  This way the yellow jackets can get inside the top cover, but can’t manage to reach the syrup.  Hopefully this will deter them.

We fed the bees after opening the hive – a 2:1 sugar/water mixture and I added a new product I bought through Brushy Mountain Bee Farm called Honey B Healthy.  It’s an herbal supplement that’s supposed to encourage the bees to feed.  I’m hoping this will push them to continue storing honey so they have ample stores for the winter.   We’re heading out of town for a week, so we filled the feeder completely, added the screen inner cover, and closed the hive.

Lesson learned?  Yellow Jackets are nasty suckers and given the opportunity, they will invade and wreck havoc on a happy hive.  They must be kept out at all costs.