Monday, June 29, 2009

How bees find a new home

In light of my recent swarm, I came across this video of how bees go about finding a new home.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Inspection 6-27-09

This is the first inspection I've made since after the hive swarmed. I wasn't sure what I'd find, or what to expect. The picture above is when I opened up to the top brood box - not too many bees sitting on top (to be expected, since about 1/2 of them left a couple of days ago). My main purpose in the inspection was to look for the queen, or look for evidence of her work (i.e. newly laid eggs).

When I inspected each of the top frames, almost all of them had a queen cell on the bottom! Take a look at these:

Those little peanut-shaped things hanging down from the bottom of the frame are queen cells. They were closed up which means each of them has an incubating queen bee. I must have seen around 10 of them in all. By seeing them I now know that the swarm took off before the replacement queen was born. Here's what will happen next: in the next few weeks one of those queen cells will hatch a queen bee. Then she will proceed to kill off the other queen cells which may not yet have hatched (survival of the fittest). If 2 or more queens are born simultaneously, then they fight it out (one of the few times the queen bee will use her stinger).

Then she will take a mating flight and, after a couple of days of drunken debauchery (which results in the death of the male bees - bummer!), she will return and start laying eggs.

I also saw some frames of both capped and uncapped brood:

This is good, since that means at least for the next couple of weeks some new bees will be born. Also notice in the upper right corner some capped honey.

Speaking of honey, one of the things bees do before swarming is suck up a lot of the honey and take it with them (sort of like your high school student raiding the fridge before going to a party). I had a couple of frames with about 1/2 filled honey, and sure enough, a lot of that was missing. So that means more space for the bees remaining to re-fill with nectar.

Once again the bees were doing nothing with the top honey super, so I went ahead and took it off. Also, I think I'm going to start feeding the bees again, and I can't do that with a super on it. I have some Spearmint and Lemongrass Oil on order, and I'll add that to the sugar syrup (it stimulates the hive) later.

One of the problems hives suffer from is mites. They (literally) suck the life out of a bee larvae. Mites prefer drone cells because they are larger, and they stay capped more. So I added a special drone frame to the hive. You can click on the link to see how it is used. I've never seen any mites, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Thursday morning about 9:30AM, I noticed that more bees than usual were hanging on the outside of the hive, and doing a lot of flying. I thought it was because they had been stuck in the hive due to the inordinate amount of rain we've had lately.

Then around 10AM my son called me to the back porch, where I saw a sight which leaves beekeepers feeling very empty: my hive was swarming. There were tens of thousands of bees taking flight in my backyard. Here's a video I took of the swarm in progress:

The sound was phenomenal - it sounded like there was a turbo-prop airplane sitting in my backyard! There was nothing I could do but sit and watch it happen, and hope the swarm would land close so that I might be able to capture it.

Well, luck wasn't with me, as the swarm proceeded to fly high high in my backyard to my wooded area, and land in a tree about 200 feet in the air:

No way I was going to get close to that swarm to capture it! (The picture at the top of the post is when they were heading to the tree.) They stayed that way for a while, while the scout bees were out looking for a new home. I did get out my new Nuc and set it on a ladder on my desk, just in case the scout bees thought it would make a good home. No such luck - the next day the swarm was gone and my Nuc was empty.

I feel like a wayward child has left home - these bees, which I have nurtured over the past 2 1/2 months decided I wasn't good enough! There are only a few reasons bees swarm, and I though I had things covered: 1) too hot (I have a screen on the bottom and plenty of shade), 2) Too cramped (I put on a honey super to give them room), 3) An old queen (this is the queen's first year).

The only thing I can think of was that during this terrible period of rain, the bees spent a lot of time in the hive, and they felt too closed in and decided to swarm. Last Saturday during the hive inspection I did not look at each and every frame, so I probably missed some swarm queen cells.

Here's a video after the swarm, and these are the bees which are left over:

It is interesting that there were a lot of bees on the ground in front of the hive. I wonder how the hive decides which bees will leave and which will stay? They say that anywhere from 1/2 to 2/3 of the worker bees plus the existing queen leave during a swarm.

So this Saturday I'll inspect the hive and see how things are going. One of two things happened: either the bees made a new queen and she hatched before the swarm occurred, or they have a queen cell (or 2) in the works. If they have no queen nor a queen cell, I may have to buy a queen. But the bees aren't acting jumpy like they would if there were no queen (and swarms don't occur without a contingency).

With only about 1/2 to 1/3 of the workers left, plus a virgin queen who has to (maybe) be born and then mate before she can start laying, this event has set back my honey production a lot. It's already rare to get any surplus honey your first year, and this pretty much closed the book on it.

So somewhere nearby there is a new hive of bees... mine.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Maine Video

Here's a neat segment about a Maine Master Beekeeper. I guess after you reach "master" status you don't need a veil or bee jacket any more. I'm not there yet :-)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Father's Day

Look at my cool Father's Day gift!! My family loves me (and tolerates my hobby)!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Inspection 6-20-09

Whew! After 2 weeks of off and on rain (mostly ON) I finally got a chance this morning to inspect the hive. I was worried about the hive eating all the honey they collected since they couldn't go out during the rain. But looking at the hive, there was plenty of honey in the bottom 2 brood boxes. Interestingly, they haven't even touched the top super yet. I am hoping they haven't robbed the frames of the wax to use elsewhere; if they do, then they won't ever build any comb there (they aren't interested in the plastic foundation; it's only because of the coating of beeswax that they build comb).

There wasn't much progress in the hive since the last time I checked, but that may be due to the crappy weather. I did see the queen, so she is doing fine, but I also saw lots of empty brood comb where there should have been eggs. I am supposing that since the weather was bad, the queen decided to stop laying for a while. I did see a lot of capped and uncapped brood, so the decision was recent (7-8 days ago). I'm hoping with some good weather next week I will see some progress.

I know one thing - I'm definitely going to get a frame grabber, like this:

The frames are so sticky with propolis that I can't grab them easily with my fingers. If I keep trying, I may accidentally squish a bee or 2 and make them mad. Plus they are hard to get out.

Also, a week or so I ordered some youth sized bee veils. I had a couple of helpers with me!!

Here they are all tied up in their veils. The boys weren't going to spend too much time in the hive, so a hive suit is usually not necessary.

Michael helped me smoke the hive a little.

Jacob even wanted to hold a frame!

All was going well. I made sure that the bee veils were properly tied, so no bees could get in.

Unfortunately.... I didn't pay too much attention to the boys' choice of summer footwear:

So guess what happened to Jacob? Yep - got stung on the toe. Apparently one of the bees took a little offense to being stepped on. So he went screaming onto the deck tearing off his gloves. Luckily mom was there to help him. So Jacob has been officially initiated into the brotherhood of beekeepers!!

Thursday, June 18, 2009


The title (and picture above) pretty much tell the story of the last week and the next week - rain! There was a clear day last Saturday, but that's about it.

The bees don't go out and fly when it's raining. So they are all stuck in the hive, and they get cranky when that happens. Also, since they aren't out gathering pollen and nectar, they are consuming the honey they have stored in the hive (hey - a bee's gotta eat, you know?). So if you started out a couple of weeks ago with a good deal of honey, they can eat it down quite a bit. And if you didn't have enough, they could actually go hungry! I'm hoping that is not the case with my bees - I'd hate for them to starve. If the rain holds off for any significant period of time, they can send out the forragers.

I'm hoping for a break either Saturday or Sunday so I can go in and inspect the hive. It'll be interesting if I have any honey left in the brood area!!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Delayed Inspection

This last week has been miserable insofar as the weather has been concerned. It rained a lot early in the week, so the bees had to stay in. Then the weather turned nicer toward the end of the week, but Saturday night and Sunday had a lot of rain. Plus, the temperature has been a little chilly.

So I chose not to go in and inspect the hive yesterday. I could have done it early in the day, but I was at a Bee Club meeting (see yesterday's post).

So if the weather is nice, I may try to squeeze in an inspection during the week; otherwise it'll have to wait until next weekend. I don't think the bees will mind not having their home split open this week! :-)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Outdoor Bee Meeting

I belong to the Worcester County Beekeeper Association (which, by the way, is the country’s oldest association of hobbyist beekeepers, established in 1900 and has 400 members today) and during the summer months they have outdoor meetings. Today (Sat.) was a meeting held at one of the member's house to discuss keeping you hive at peak strength during the summer months. The person doing the demonstration was Ken Warchol, who is the Worcester County Bee Inspector, and goes by the nickname "the Bee Whisperer." He never wears any bee suits or veils, and almost never gets stung. That's him in the picture above. He is a legend in the region - here's a newspaper article talking about him. He knows everything there is to know about bees, as he has been keeping bees all his life.

The club member whose house we were at had 4 hives, and some of them have been through a lot including some problems. Ken opened up each hive and discussed how the bees are doing, and what to look for and how to fix the problems. The main problems currently with 3 of the 4 hives had to do with not feeding them enough. They hadn't brought in enough nectar to really thrive, and the queen won't lay eggs if she feels there isn't enough food. Not enough eggs = not enough workers, and it won't get better. So instead of worrying about getting honey, he should feed them to get them up to strength.

Here are some other pictures. Note how brave Ken is! In the 2nd he is pointing out the queen. The 4th picture is cute - it was a little boy in a bee suit, and his sleeves were taped up so no bees could get in!

The event also was a historical tour of the Shaker village in Harvard, MA - this person's property was one of the original Shaker settlements in New England. here are some pictures of the grounds. The falling-down stone building is a Shaker barn from the 1830's. The roof blew off in 1970, and it has been slowly disintegrating since then.

At one time about 70 members of the Shaker community lived in this communal house:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I Made a Nuc!

Today I made a Nuc!

In bee parlance, "Nuc" is short for "nucleus" and is basically a mini bee hive. A Nuc is used to incubate a new hive, so to speak. It holds 5 frames instead of the normal 10 (there are no frames in these pictures - I need to order some).

I recently got a new table saw, and this weekend went to get some wood to build it myself. There are plans on the internet for almost all of the wood needed for beekeepers. I was quite surprised it came out OK - there is a reason I did not go into the woodworking / cabinetry business. I couldn't cut a square angle to save my life! It probably took me 2x or 3x as long as someone with experience - I work with my brain mostly, and a little with a soldering iron.

I have been reading about the summertime being a prime time for a hive to swarm. When the hive decides, for reasons they don't yet understand 100%, that they've gotten too big or otherwise need to get smaller, the workers will start to create some new queen cells. A few days before the queen cells mature and are ready to hatch, the workers who will be leaving gorge themselves on honey, so that they will have some traveling food. Then the current queen will take about 2/3 of the bees and take off for a walk-about (or a fly-about). This is called a swarm.

The swarm usually stops a short way away in a big clump of bees, with the queen in the center. Sometimes they are on a tree (and up high). Sometimes in your BBQ grill. Or on a sign, a backyard swing, or fencepost. During that time, scout bees are off looking for a new place to leave. They scouts return and try to convince more bees to come and take a look. If enough scout bees like the new place, then the whole group takes off for the home.

It usually takes a day or so for the scout bees to find a new home. During that time, a beekeeper can "capture" the swarm (with the queen), and install them into a new hive, or in my case, a Nuc. I made my Nuc as a "just in case" for the situation where my hive swarms. I don't intend to start a second hive should I catch a swarm (don't want things to get too busy in my backyard), but I can put them in my Nuc and then see of anyone in the bee club I belong to would want them (there is usually someone who would want another hive).

Swarming is a natural thing (it's how hives propagate and multiply) but for a managed hive it is not desirable - you lose 2/3 of your workers, and you have a new queen who needs to mate before she can start laying eggs. It puts a big dent in your honey production, and if things don't pick up fast enough afterwards, the hive could be in jeopardy of not surviving the winter. As I mentioned, they aren't 100% sure what causes a hive to decide to swarm. But there are certain factors which contribute: 1) the hive has poor ventilation and overheats (in my hive, I have a screen on the bottom board and they have plenty of ventilation); 2) the hive runs out of space (with managed hives, beekeepers add new "supers" when the bees fill up frames, so there should always be plenty of space); 3) hives with old queens are more likely to swarm (my hive has a new queen, born this year, so it shouldn't be a problem).

A swarm of bees is quite a sight to behold, but the bees are the least aggressive when in a swarm (contrary to Hollywood's portrayals). Bees will sting if their home or their honey is threatened; a swarm has neither. Here's a video from YouTube of a couple of guys capturing a swarm. Notice they don't use any protective gear!

So I hope to never need it, but I have my Nuc just in case! Here are some more pictures. All I need to do is put a coat of paint on it and it's done.

Inspection 6-6-09

This last week has been very weird, weather-wise. It got pretty chilly during the early part of the week, and then we had some cold rain. Bees don't like the rain (although in the evening I saw some brave ones venturing out and in).

Last week I had put the extra honey super on top. Today when I inspected the hive, I saw just a few bees in that area, and I couldn't tell that they had done anything to the frames. The honey frames are entirely plastic molded with the honeycomb pattern (and coated with beeswax), as compared with wooden frames with the plastic honeycomb foundation. It is generally accepted that bees prefer 100% wax foundation, and have been known to refuse to work with the plastic foundation. The coating of wax helps. In the deeps, the bees build up was on the black foundation just fine, but seem to have ignored the honey frames thus far.

I remembered that I didn't "prime" the honey frames by spraying them with sugar water before I added them, so that could contribute to the bee's hands-off attitude. So today I took some sugar water and a basting brush and I "basted" the foundation with the sugar water. Hopefully that will encourage them to build some wax. There is a concoction called "Honey B Healthy" which contains some essential oils (primarily lemongrass oil) which encourages the bees to build wax. But I didn't have any of that to use, so I'll hope for the best. Another concern may be the queen excluder - it may be difficult for the bees to get up to the top level (although I saw about 40 bees in there today - that's not too many). Maybe with the sugar water they may be more inclined.

Now the lower levels were a different story - they were going strong! Take a look at the frame above. On the left (the white caps) is honey. Right next to that (uncapped) is nectar. Then on the right (yellow caps) is brood (or babies). That is the typical pattern for a working hive. There were still a couple of frames on the edges which didn't have much (if any) wax, but the bees like to concentrate on the center. You can't add the honey super too early or you will experience the "chimney effect" where the bees build wax only in the center parts of all of the levels, and don't fill out the edges.

Here's another interesting picture:

On the right edge that lump of white is honey comb, and the bees had built it up past the edge of the frame (the shot is looking pretty much down the edge of the frame, so you can see how it protrudes up). The next frame didn't have much honey comb, which is why the bees had room to add the height to the honey stores.

Overall I am pleased at the amount of honey I saw the bees storing. If they will only start using the upper super, they can get a good store for the winter. I also saw lots of eggs (but I didn't see the queen) so the number of bees keeps increasing. I keep forgetting that it is only early June, and they have all of June, July, August, and September to do work. Also, this is just the 8th week of me having the hive, and already they have progressed this far! So I think they will do well.

Something else to mention: while I was closing up the hive, there was this one bee who was relentless in giving me a hassle! She was flying into my face (covered by the veil good thing!). She also stuck with me as I went to the porch to take off my gear. Usually by the time I get to the porch, the bees have lost interest. But not this one! I thought she was gone, and after I took off the jacket and veil, she returned! So I made a hasty retreat around the house into the garage.
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