Beekeeper’s woes

If you were wondering, it’s more the writing than the bees that have been neglected. This is a rather delayed hive report because of business travel and work–in other words, vocation interfering with avocation. Imagine that!

From 22 April 2019: I just finished putting empty supers on both hives. Unfortunately, I have to be out of town for about 5 days and I think that one hive will have swarmed by the time I get back.

The one that I anticipate swarming is being a problem. To put it bluntly, these girls in one of my hives are bitchy at the best of times, and by the end of my inspection today there’s so other way to describe them than royally PO’d.

I’ve tried two times before today and been resoundingly defeated. The first time I barely got the inner cover off before they started being quite angry. The second attempt had the same results. Immediate buzzing around the hive and particularly at my head. On both these occasions the weather was less than optimal and there had been mowing and other machinery noises fairly close to the hive so I was inclined to give the girls the benefit of doubt about meanness.

Today I started with the smaller hive and had no problems. I guess I might have said that they were a little nervous by the time I got down to the deep (brood box).

From there I approached the “big” (three supers and the deep). At least today I got the inner cover off before these girls got angry. I got stung more today than I’ve been stung before in my entire beekeeping career. Not only stung while working right at the hive but stung when some of them followed me to my front door–about 50 feet away from the hive. Not only did they follow me, but a few continued to hang around the door for about 15 or 20 minutes. So, after this experience I’m going to make a judgement that I’ve got a mean hive.

Despite the experience, I’m not giving up on the bees! I certainly won’t share the pictures of me after this foray into that one hive. Of course, when you have to go to a national conference, do a presentation, and appear in public, the bee stings were not in any place unobtrusive–how about scalp and hands–fortunately none directly on my face. Needless to say, there were lots of questions about why looked like I did.

(And yes, before you ask, I was using smoker, and a jacket and veil, and even gloves.)


Hive report: a beekeeper’s notebook

21 May 2018:  I’ve had a new beekeeping experience–dealing with a seriously angry bunch of bees. I do hope it will be a while before I have that experience again.

Yesterday  I planned to inspect Hive A (Dave’s Girls), but I didn’t take into account lawn mowing and trimming activities that had been going on around the hive. I had just removed the telescoping cover and the inner cover when I was in the midst of a serious attack–I now know what seriously PO’d bees sound like. After getting stung on my hands (only thin gloves on) I beat a very hasty retreat, but the girls were angry enough that they followed me–so I had to stand around in my bee jacket until they finally gave up and went home.


22 May 2018:  This morning  I went back to do what needed to be done. Things were good when I opened the hive–bees all over all of the frames just doing their thing and they let me look around and do my part of the housekeeping.  I’ve put in foundationless frames to see if the girls will cooperate with me for some cut-comb honey this season. Fingers crossed and waiting.

26 May 2018:  There’s obviously been a bit of a hiatus here–the weather has been rather erratic–intermittently cloudy, windy, with less traffic in and out of the hive than usual. I’ve learned (the hard way) that the girls are quite testy (even bitchy, maybe?) when the weather is good.  Of course, that also means that lots of them are out at work so there are fewer to deal with during the inspections–and that is definitely an advantage with a large colony.

I made the mistake of putting work hours before bee time! Silly me.  By the time I was ready to do inspections, the weather wasn’t cooperating–intermittently cloudy with threatening clouds and a little drizzle. Then another bit of sunshine. Then clouds again.  I wussed out and decided to wait until tomorrow morning. I mean, in this area I should know that thunderstorms are likely in the afternoon.

27 May 2018:  This morning I had my priorities straight: to the hives just of soon as I had adequate Sunday morning caffeination.  I started with the Georgia Girls (Hive B) since that was the big job. They had been cooperative, actually doing what I wanted them to do–most of the brood was now in the deep so I could reverse the medium and be back to deep-on-the-bottom then the medium, still with some brood, above. They still had room to store honey above the queen excluder so I didn’t give them any foundationless frames.

Hives C and D each got a quick peek under the cover to see how things were. Both obviously had a queen doing her thing. Hive D (a split with a queen cell from Hive A) had brood in the medium (and the deep), but needed more room for honey.  Add queen excluder and a super for honey–done!  And–just in time for it to start getting a bit more overcast and breezy.

Happiness for a beekeeper is knowing what the girls are doing!


Hive report: bees and cats!

The last week or so has been a bit hectic–indexing work, and beekeeping. The apiary has grown to four hives now–two from swarms cast by the two large (Dave’s bees and the Georgia Girls) hives. Now I have hives C and D. Hive C is from the swarm from the Georgia Girls. Hive D is from a swarm from Dave’s Bees. The purpose of my inspections of three hives today was to check to see that all were queenright even though looming deadlines for indexes have put a limit on the amount of time that I can spend with the bees on this Mother’s Day; so necessarily very quick question-oriented inspections.

brood box of hiveI had already found that Hive C was queenless. I started the procedure of requeening earlier in the week, but I did need to make sure that the queen had been released from her travel cage. Happily, the queen was out and about in the hive. However, the comb in that brood chamber is so exuberant and higgledy-piggledy that it was (in a reasonable amount of time, with sweat dripping from my eyelashes) impossible to see if there was brood. But, the queen is free so I’ll check again for brood in a while.

[Why did I have sweat dripping from my eyelashes? Well, it happens if you neglect to put on the sweatband under the veil. Needless to say, I went back and added that to my attire before moving on the Hive D.]

Hive D (I know, very unimaginative) was a swarm from Hive A and since I had not captured the queen, I had put a queen cell into the new hive. Today was to check and see if that colony was queenright. Still dripping sweat, I opened this hive to find that there was now capped brood, lots of capped brood in a very good pattern in that hive. Again, I settled for the quick answer without a detailed search to find and mark the queen as I need to move on to Hive A.

In Hive A, my concern for this quick inspection was to see if there was a functioning queen here, too.  The quick answer was a resounding yes! I found lots of capped brood in an excellent pattern–in the medium super above the brood box.  Again, I accepted that, but realize that there is another problem that I need to address immediately. I need to get some new frames for the bees to start for cut-comb honey since they are rapidly filling everything with honey and pollen. I admit that I didn’t even look in the brood box to see what was going on, but I suspect it’s being filled with honey and pollen, so I likely need to reverse the medium with brood and the deep at least for a while.IMG_7769

Ok–you wondering about the “bees and cats”!  Since this was the week that I had to tote Frankie, the cat, to the vet and deal with his foibles about the carrier and the car, cats, and their sometimes strange ways have been blatantly obvious.  After these quick inspections, I thought that bees shared some of the same characteristics: both bees and cats do what they damn well please, no matter what I think, or hope, they will do!

I definitely need some consultation with a very experienced beekeeper to try to sort out what these girls are doing and how I can best deal with it.  But from a beekeepers perspective, all is right with the world.


Hive report: Swarms from Hive A!

Shortly before I had to go out of town for my indexing convention, Hive A (Dave’s bees) decided to swarm (18 April 2018). I really appreciate the consideration–swarming before I’m out of town–and all the swarms have clustered low and close. But, you notice, I didn’t say that they were convenient or locations where they were easy to retrieve–just close and low.

I thought that these bees might just be “thinking” about swarming as they were coming out of the hive at a brisk pace, but not streaming out as with the other swarm. They clustered on the frame of the hive scales and down into the hollow of the cinder blocks on which the hive sat.

No way was I able to do a nice, neat collection. I got as many of the bees as possible–but I didn’t think I had the queen with the swarm although bees that I put into the 4th hive did stay there so I still don’t know if I captured the queen.

When I saw the brisk movement out of the hive I had put a jury-rigged swarm “trap” on the outside (cut from a plastic queen excluder in hopes of keeping the queen in), even knowing that a queen with the swarm would have slimmed down and might get through it. On inspection of the hive after collecting the bees as best as possible,  I could not find a queen so I suspect she was already out since there were some bees still clustered in this inaccessible place (I drew the line at actually moving the entire hive to get them). They stayed clustered in a way that certainly made me think the queen might well be there–out of my reach unless I took real risk of injuring her, even if I did find her.

In going through that split the day after, I did not find a queen and there were certainly many fewer bees to sort through. I decided to treat that swarm as if it did not have a queen and provided them with a closed queen cell from the ones found in the hive from which they swarmed. So–doin’t know what will happen, but it’s soon time to go take a look again.

Today (Tuesday, 01 May 2018) there was another swarm–I suspect a secondary swarm from Hive A. I captured it (another low and close, and almost convenient) but don’t have space to keep it, so I contacted the “swarm team” from our local beekeeper’s club to donate this one to someone who needed bees. (I did find it a good home.)  This swarm behaved like I had gotten the queen in the box–all the stray bees that I couldn’t capture followed the box (but since it was the second swarm I wonder if it had a virgin queen).

In retrospect, I wish I had checked that first swarm from Hive A again to see if there was a queen, or if the queen cell had been opened. If not, I wonder if I could have combined those two swarms for a stronger hive. Ah, hindsight is such a wonderful thing. Thinking about this in the comfort of my desk chair is entirely different from considering it while putting thousands of bees in a box.



Hive report: swarm season

440px-bee_swarmThis is the season for swarming.  There are some things you should know about swarms and what to do if you happen upon one.

Swarming is a natural thing that honey bees do. It’s reproduction on a colony level.  Only a healthy, strong colony can swarm. While we as beekeepers do everything we can to prevent swarming because it decreases the size of the colony and, thus, honey production, it does happen. One of my colonies just swarmed. I was fortunate enough to retrieve the swarm and they are now inhabiting the third hive in my apiary. So, my apiary has grown because the bees swarmed.  This is also good.

A swarm happens when the bees think that they need more room for the queen to lay eggs and to store honey. There is preparation within the colony for the swarm–after all, this is splitting the colony into two.

Each colony must have a queen–i.e. in bee-speak, be queenright. The queen who was with the colony is going to fly away with the swarm.  That would leave the colony remaining in the hive without a queen–and that would spell the death of the colony but before the swarm leaves, the worker bees have started rearing a new queen for themselves: they will build special “queen cups” into which the queen will lay eggs before she starts getting ready to lead the swarm out of the hive.  The workers remaining in the hive will feed those larvae in the queen cells appropriately so that they grow up to be queens.

Honeybee Democracy Cover ImageOnce these preparations are in progress, the queen will lead the swarm out of the hive, Once out of the hive, the bees will make a temporary stop somewhere not too far away while the process of selecting a new home goes on.  That’s when you see the bunches of bees in some truly strange places. There’s a complicated process going on with the swarm: scout bees are going out and looking for potential new homes. Scouts return and report, other scouts check out the possibilities, and finally, there is agreement on a suitable site.  At that point, the swarm leaves their temporary resting place and moves to the new home–with their queen, to establish a new colony and begin drawing comb for the queen to lay eggs in, and in which to store honey.  It’s a fascinating and complicated process, wonderfully described by Thomas Seeley in Honeybee Democracy. It’s a collective, democratic process by this swarm bees.

Things that you should know about swarms: first and most importantly, they are not dangerous. The honey bees making up the swarm are very docile. They have gorged on honey before leaving the hive so that they can survive the search for a new home. They don’t have a home to protect–they out looking for a new home. They are not going to attack. Extermination is not necessary (except in very rare circumstances). What you want to do is to contact your local beekeepers’ association–or a local beekeeper. Someone will come with appropriate gear and take the swarm away to a new home; they are highly prized as a way to get started in beekeeping or to increase the size of an apiary.

Should the swarm not be collected by a beekeeper who will provide a hive, or find a suitable cavity you will occasionally see comb built in the open air–not the best in terms of long-term survival.

Meanwhile, back in the hive of origin, the workers are busily raising new queens. Yes, the plural is intentional. Having a queen is necessary for the survival of the hive so the workers will raise several queens to be sure of success. However, a colony will have only a single queen–it’s not a shared job. The first of the queens to emerge from the queen cell is going to wipe out the other rivals–it can be brutal in the hive at times.  This hive will now have a virgin queen, who will leave the hive to mate (with multiple drones) in a drone congregation area, return to the hive, and begin her egg-laying duties.


My second hive (the GA girls) and now in the process of requeening the colony. I can only hope that the workers rear a good queen to replace the one that left with the swarm, and hope that she will be well-mated.  There are a lot of things that can interfere with this process–cold, rainy weather, a predator needing a meal while this virgin queen is on her mating flight, or getting splatted by a huge raindrop on her way home.

With fingers crossed, I’m hoping for a good, new queen for replacement. If the normal sequence of events doesn’t work, then it is possible to purchase a new queen from professional breeders but since this was a successfully overwintered, productive colony, I  would like to keep these genetics going by allowing them to produce their own new queen.

Now it’s more anxious, not likely patient, waiting for the new queen.




Hive report: Swarm!

Yesterday (28 March) it was finally warm enough for me to do a hive inspection at the same time that I could take off work. So I inspected Hive A (affectionately knows as Dave’s Bees). The population was very heavy, there was brood in the deep, and in two medium supers.  I didn’t see much nectar in the hive, but there was pollen.  Unfortunately, the girls got really PO’d part way through and I had to let them calm down. I think that was partly nectar dearth and the fact that it was cloudy and fairly windy. So that inspection was not one where I pulled every single frame. But I didn’t see swarm or supersedure cells, but I did add another medium super to give them some more room.

Then I went to Hive B (the GA girls) but they had been affected by the alarm pheromone from Hive A, and were PO’d from the first contact. So, being a wuss, I thought that since the weather forecast was for another warm day to follow (29 March) that I’d simply let the yard calm down a bit and do that inspection on the 29th.

The 29th turned out to be a lovely day except it was just bit windier than I like for an inspection but it was warm and sunny. So I toted another medium super out to the hive, along with my toolbox, and then went back to get the smoker. As I walked to within about 10 feet of the hive the Georgia girls (Hive B), I heard them–bees came pouring out of the hive. Swarm in progress, right before my eyes.

The last time one of my hives swarmed I was lucky–the queen landed on my shoulder so I got that swarm easily.  Luck was with me again today–the queen didn’t land on me, but in a short, squatty, multi-trunked bush that was infiltrated by a very thorny climbing rosebush, very close to the hive, and practically on the ground.

Bee brush and a dishpan in hand, I started the process of capturing my errant bees. With 20180316_114851.jpgthe aid of pruning shears, I got down to the cluster but they had picked a spot where the trunk had multiple branches and was sturdy enough not to shake very well, and of course, that’s where the bees settled down.

(Nope, no photos–I was way too busy working out my plan to get these creatures into their new home.)

It was obviously time for the bee-brushing technique: hold the pan under bees, and brush downward.  That got me a pretty good batch of bees so I carted them back to their new home that I had prepared for an occasion like this. Dump them in, look for queen; no queen seen. Back to the bush: a lot of the bees settled back in another cluster although a fair number were on the ground. So the routine became to shake and brush the bush, dump into the hive, shake, brush, dump, several more times. Finally, I was down to only a very small cluster of bees right on the main trunk of the bush and it seemed that the girls I had carted back to the new hive were staying there although some were still flying around the bush.

I decided to let them settle and try one more shake-and-brush, but first, I needed water. I gave it long enough for me to slake my thirst (it’s damn hot in a bee suit) and went back to the bush. There were no bees there–that little cluster had dispersed, but there were some still in the air between the bush and what was now Hive C and I saw some bees going into the hive! Maybe, just maybe, that means that I’ve got the queen in that hive.

I still haven’t looked into Hive B–got distracted by the swarm—but maybe tomorrow.

Now I have to decide if I purchase a queen or let them raise one of their own. Decisions, decisions, decisions….and the bees will do what they damn well please!  Just like cats, we only think we are in charge.





Hive report: OMG! Bees everywhere!

The weather finally warmed up just enough so that I could open the hives for a quick peek. Both hives have snarfed down most of the candy board though there is a little left around the edges. I’ve removed quilt boxes from both hives.

Both colonies have drawn comb where the candy board was.  There looks to be a lot of brood in both hives, although I didn’t pull individual frames because it was cool enough that I didn’t want the hive open long enough for that–didn’t want to risk chilling brood but I did rotate the supers enough for me to see into the second and into the brood box. Lots of bees all through the hive.

Now I’m feeling really pressured to be able to do a full inspection. Meanwhile, I’m setting up another hive to be ready to do a split if swarming seems imminent.





Hive report: waiting–not patiently!

Somehow work seems to get in the way of hobbies and sometimes even cooking–to a frustrating extent (you’ve noticed no recent posts, huh?). But one must work in order to cook, eat, and in order to support the creatures of the hive.

Although I did see bees on the quick January check when we had few rather unseasonably warm days in February and I saw bees flying in and out of the hive I was really, really happy. Both hives!

Now we have gone back to more seasonable weather for March but I’ve noticed despite rather cool (temperature currently 50°F), breezy (sometimes very windy) weather that the girls are in and out bearing a little pale greenish-white pollen–though their corbiculi are certainly not overflowing–in fact, they are downright skimpy. But there is traffic in and out despite the cool weather.

I’m a bit twitchy about what is really going on inside the hives since a friend has already had a swarm from one of his hives on the 6th of March–despite the cool weather.  I’ve had that very early swarm experience before and I don’t want to have it again so I need to prepare some woodenware to set up a new hive in case I need to do an urgent split, instead of having my bees wander off into the wild blue yonder!

Another thing that adds to my frustration of not knowing exactly what the girls are up to is that I’m in the midst of doing some equipment switches to change how I manage brood in my hives. As a “new-bee” I started with all medium eight-frame equipment. Last spring I switched to single deeps for my brood boxes since I just didn’t like how the medium frames split up the brood pattern.

All winter I’ve been debating whether I want to manage my colonies with one or two deep boxes for brood. After reading and talking to other beekeepers I have decided (almost) that I want two deeps for brood in my colonies. Now I’m trying to plan how that switch is going to take place. I somehow think that the girls are not going to make this a simple case of just putting another deep in place on the hive. I think planning a strategy would be a lot easier were I privy to what the girls are actually doing inside the hive.

But I’m a coward so I won’t open a hive in 50°F weather other than for just a quick peek to see if there still candy board for them to nosh on during our still-chilly and rainy weather.  I don’t want to take the chance of chilling brood. I only hope that they are not busily preparing to swarm since I saw a lot of bees in January.  So, I remain in ignorance, looking at a weather forecast that’s not going to let me find out much more for at least another week–highs in the 40s and rain at times.


Hive report: catching up

If you are wondering, the bees seem to be doing well. It’s not that they have been neglected–it’s just that work has kept me from writing about the bees–or much of anything for that matter–as you’ve noticed.

As I watch the snow blowing around in our recent unusual cold snap (which it seemed as if it would never end) I’ve been reviewing my notes in the Hive Tracks software that I use for record-keeping the successes and failures, and ideas for next year. I keep thinking of what’s going on in the hives at this time of the year and I \need to do my monthly readings from the hive scales to upload for the Bee Care hive studies. I have “candy boards” on both hives to supplement the honey stores from the summer if the bees need more food.

It was a relief to see bees flying from both hives yesterday and even a few toting some pollen–not much though.  Since the temperature was in the upper 60s I did have a quick peek into the upper super of honey and there were lots of bees. As we get ready for the next wave of cold weather to move through I’m glad to have supplemental food available and the quilt boxes on to help control moisture in the hive.


A question often asked (especially in wintertime and especially when we have weather extremes (at least for here) like this is about what is happening with the bees: do you start again next spring, do the bees hibernate or die?

20160628_101041One of the specializations of honeybees is that they are driven to store honey–that’s not true of many native bees, and it is something that has lead to “beekeeping. Some keep bees for honey production, some for pollination, and some of likely just because they are such fascinating creatures but no matter why this involves doing things to keep the bees healthy and well fed.

As beekeepers, we hope that we will be able to see the colonies successfully over the winter so that we won’t have to start again in the spring. That’s the hope of the beekeeper: we hope that there has been honey and pollen stored by the bees to use in the cold weather and if not, then we will supplement what the colony has been able to store as needed, mostly with granulated sugar (sucrose). Thus, keeping records of the weight of the hive and judging how much honey remains for consumption when there is no nectar brought into the hive is necessary.

The “work” for the bees in the winter time is taking care of the queen and a small amount of brood (developing bees)–in cold weather, that means keeping the hive warm. To accomplish this the worker bees (remember, all girls) “cluster” or “huddle” over the comb surrounding the queen. The honey in the comb is eaten to provide energy to “shiver” the wing muscles (without moving the membranous wings) to generate heat to keep the hive warm (around 93 to 95°F).

The queen stays in the center of this winter cluster–being fed and kept warm. The workers that surround her move from the outer edges of the cluster inward, and back again so that everyone stays warm enough to survive. (Think about the male Emporer penguins in “March of the Penguins.”)  The more active inner bees move outward and push colder bees that cannot move well inwards to warm up and eat.

sugar in mould for bees


As winter approaches, the bees do a number of things to get ready for winter, in addition to storing honey: metabolism changes and the winter bees (that live longer than summer working bees) store food reserves to become “fat winter” bees. Vitellogenin is stored in fat bodies in the abdomen of winter bees—and is triggered by the decline in available “brood food”–as winter comes on. This provides the protein necessary to start spring brood rearing as the days get longer. Our winter bee care means that we must see that there is enough food (honey) since the bees are active all winter within the hive.

We also try to make it easier for the bees to keep hive temperatures up by making sure ventilation is adequate, that moisture from the respiratory activity of the bees does not collect and drip back down on the cluster. (Think about having cold water splashed on you when you’re trying to keep warm.)  One of the things I use to stop excess moisture dripping onto the bees is a “quilt box”–a layer of cedar shaving that will catch the moisture that drips from the hive top. When it’s very humid, I have to check and sometimes replace shavings if they are really wet.

Because the bees do such a good job of keeping the hive warm, it also becomes a very cozy place for other critters (e.g. mice) to spend the winter. As beekeepers we take physical measures to make that impossible–make the entrances to the hives small– to keep pests out.

With those preparations done, we beekeepers overwinter ourselves by thinking about plans for the spring, fretting about the bees and trying to stay warm when the weather is extreme, enjoying some of the honey from our hives, and (like gardeners) anticipating the first bloom that will start our colonies growing again.




Hive report: bee attitude!

I’m willing to admit that all us females have a potential for bitchiness–expressed in various different ways. My girls in the hive seem to have a very explicit way of expressing theirs–and, no, I’m not talking about stinging. That’s a total last resort only when threatened and/or injured.  That’s defense, not attitude.

This is much more subtle. Despite my careful monitoring of the feeding jars, I let them get empty–completely empty–while on the hives. The bees are sucking down syrup at a great rate which does say something about nectar dearth. But they have registered their disapproval of my behavior.

When I removed the jars–quart jars with a lid that has small holes punched in them so that syrup is under a vacuum when the jars are turned upside down–I find that the girls had filled each and every one of the tiny holes in the lids with propolis. Every single little, tiny hole–completely shut!

Propolis has its uses–it’s antimicrobial, and bees seal small cracks in the hive with it and cover things that need to be “sealed”–like a mouse that is too big for them to carry out of the hive if the beekeeper, perhaps, forgot to put the mouse guard on the hive in the fall.

Getting propolis off of anything is not easy–it is very sticky so that dissolving it is really the only option. Rubbing alcohol is the best thing I’ve found–and the 91% rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) is much better than the usual 70% stuff, but it still required an awl to open each little hole individually and then a second scrub with alcohol.

I understood the message while I was out of town for the indexing convention–the jars were probably empty for several days, so I get the propolis. But this time they were only empty for a few hours–I get this message too, but I think I detect a faint bit of attitude here as well, but then I guess I could be feeling that way because I have been getting attitude from the cat as well today.

Anthropomorphize? Who, me?


. . .