Starting to think about winter

I thought I’d be going into the winter with 2 over-wintered nucs that I could sell in the spring. I’ll still have bees I might sell in the spring, but not as nucs.

The first nuc I made last month is going strong. The second one I made when I pulled a bunch of bees out of Apt. B because it was so jam-packed with bees that I was afraid it would swarm. I couldn’t find the queen to give them, and I think it was too late in the season for them to re-queen. I gave them plenty of eggs and they made 3 or 4 supercedure cells, but they still don’t have any eggs after two weeks from when the queen cells opened. It may be that the queen was born, went off for her mating flight, and she may even have mated. The chances were getting slimmer in September, but I know there were drones in my Apt. B hive as recently as last weekend. However, for whatever reason, she did not come back and start to lay eggs, as far as I can tell.

That being the case, I’m going with Plan B. The two nucs are both strong, but there appears to be only one queen between them. So I’m going to combine them. Because I’ve been feeding everyone and the populations are so strong, both hives are full of honey and bees, and I have no extra 8-frame hive equipment. I’m combining them into my last bit of equipment: two 10-frame medium boxes.

Ready to combineToday I moved Nuc 1 into the box that was my queen castle. Combined with a regular screened bottom, it’s a regular box. The next nuc I’ll add as soon as I’ve finished staining the box it will go in.

The bees are still hungry as can be. Even right now, I can hear them all over the windows, smelling the syrup that I’m putting in bottles to feed them. They are eating a pint each hive every two or three days.

When I got out to Apiary 2 today, where I have my nucs and the nuc that grew into a hive, I saw a lot of activity that looked like robbing. Before inspecting to see if Nuc 2 had babies yet, I opened the top of my strongest hive in Apiary 1, so the bees in there would have to focus on defending their own food while I inspected. Inspection time had a lot of bees in the air, but nobody seemed to be under serious attack when I finished.

Since I think people are hungry and the strong hive might be preying on the weaker ones, I decided that I need to keep Apt. B on the defensive. I opened the auger hole to the food area and turned the inner cover up, so they’ll need to dedicate some people to long-term defense of their syrup. I hope it will keep them busy enough. When I went in to check for feeding on Thursday, I was amazed at how many bees were seething in the upper box where the syrup is. It was a rainy day, so the foragers were all home, but none of the other hives were nearly as full as Apt. B.

I put more syrup in all the hives after finishing up today. Since then, I’ve been hearing bees buzzing all around the kitchen window, where I was pouring syrup, and above the skylight where I’m currently sitting. I must smell sweet.

IPM board after 4 daysI put IPM boards in all my hives last week, and the mite counts are very low. Given that everyone appears to be in good shape for food and population and not a lot of mites, I have decided not to treat for mites this fall. Last fall, I timed it wrong and probably didn’t do much good anyway because of the temperature when I treated, and my bees survived anyway. This season, I think the artificial swarms and all the splitting I have done has done a nice job breaking the mites’ brood cycle and knocking them down. I have wanted to figure out how to keep bees with a minimum of chemicals, and I since I have 5 strong hives (or will, provided that combining the two nucs works), I think I’ll take the risk.

We won’t know for a long time if I’m right, and I might learn something at the Common Ground Fair next weekend that will make me change my mind, but that’s where I’m headed right now.



Apts E, B, and CI haven’t been able to thoroughly inspect all my hives since August 4th because of a dearth. Pollen has been good, but the nectar flow stopped a few weeks ago and has not returned. We have buckwheat coming up, the goldenrod ought to be blooming, and the bamboo is late because our neighbor cut it back in July. These things should produce nectar soon, and if the weather is right, my girls will hopefully get one more nectar flow to make more honey. But in the meantime, it’s bleak.

There was a recent article in the Portland paper, saying this has been a particularly bad nectar season. It has a lot to do with the timing of rain in conjunction with nectar flow; if it pours the whole time plants are producing nectar, the honeybees can’t get it. All around the state, hives are low on stores, and most beekeepers are feeding their bees. You feed syrup rather than honey  because it has less odor and sets off less robbing, but it doesn’t stop the robbing altogether. Bees’ instincts tell them to collect all the food they can get their little proboscises on.

When there is a nectar shortage like this, my honeybees attack each other every time I open a hive, so I can’t do a decent inspection. Last summer, the same thing happened at around the same time and I was not able to get back in to the hives to condense their food and brood for a comfortable winter. I offered them candy boards and they hardly needed them, so they apparently pack a lot more food supply in those honeycombs than I can see. But still, I want to get in there and make sure everyone’s in good shape before the cold sets in.

Battle at the entrance of Apartment E

I was watching a guy in a TV interview last week, who said that humans are the only animals that kill each other. It’s a nice talking point, but that guy needs to read some biology books. Bees kill each other for food. They roll around in combat and leave the dead on the doorstep. They make every effort to find a weak place in each others’ hives and break in. I would argue that we sentient beings should be capable of finding a better way to share sparse resources, but to suggest that we should be non-violent because other animals are is dead wrong.

I wish I could go out there and explain to them that I – their invisible hand – will make sure they don’t starve. But there’s no talking to these people; all they want to do is hoard food supplies.

I have closed up all the extra entrance holes and put robbing screens on all my hives at this point. When you add robbing screens, it’s like adding a portcullis to the castle gates; you slow down the enemy and give the inhabitants a smaller entrance to Robbing Screendefend. However, when you close all the holes, you reduce the hive’s ventilation; so you have to hope the screened bottoms, their own water cooling system, and cracks between the boxes will keep them cool. The way they cool the hive is to create a sort of air conditioning by fanning water that they put in the honeycomb. They collect a lot of water at the bird bath I set up on my deck.

I confess to fatigue with this bad behavior. I was having so much fun with my castle and my nuc, and I was going to put in a screen to collect propolis to make cold medicine for the winter. Instead, I’m out there putting wet sheets over all the hives to slow down intruders and I’m puzzling over what more I can do to reduce the violence. Maybe if I fed all five hives instead of the weaker three, they’d settle down. Last summer, I thought the intruders were from away, but this summer I think it’s my own bees attacking each other.

War dead

War dead

I am feeling a spiritual fatigue with conflict in general, really. Our human society is going through a dearth of sorts, and it seems to be contributing to our polarity rather than inspiring us to pull together. I don’t have any wise words to say on the subject, except that we have the critical thinking skills to understand that it’s in our own best interest to share. We don’t all have a giant invisible hand that’s going to bring us through the winter; but we do have enough honey. If the best hoarders were better at sharing, they might not have to feel like they need to be ready for battle all the time. Quick! Where’s a gigantic wet sheet to drop on the country?

2012-08-19 08.11.05


Still Sunday, July 21:

The swarm (Apt E), with beautiful Elizabeth who let me see her when I inspected, was doing so well that I added a second box. They were doing everything they were supposed to do: drawing comb and building up their population. I took one frame of honey and pollen from them, slowly shaking off the bees as I walked it over to the queen castle. I placed it in the middle of the 3 queen castle sections.

The queen in the hive that cast the swarm (Apt. B) was laying eggs in the top super (5 boxes up) and the crew had not made a lot of honey, which pissed me off. There was nectar and no brood in the 3rd or 4th boxes, and there were some capped cells in the 2nd box up. The bottom box was just about empty, so I  brought the box with brood down to the bottom, and did what I could to put babies and food where they belong. As instructed in class, I had added 2 supers after making the nuc; but they had not built up loads of honey the way they were supposed to do. As I tightened up the resources, I removed a box and gathered the 8 emptiest frames I could find to set them aside with it.

Caterina is in the bottom right quadrant.

Caterina is on the right, with no stripes and an extra long abdomen.

Apt. C was looking almost mundane, it was so normal. This is the hive that used to have a nasty temperament and I had given it the new Russian queen. Her name is Caterina (because I figure a queen I paid for deserves a name). I saw Caterina and she was laying eggs like a good queen should, which made me very happy. I did some rearranging and swapped out some empty frames with ones that had some nectar from Apt. B. I was still looking for a third frame with honey and pollen for the queen castle, but there wasn’t anything that seemed just right. I closed up shop at this point, and set aside the box I had removed from Apt. B, filled with frames that I thought were empty. I decided to leave for a while and contemplate where to get that last frame of food, once I’d written my notes and thought about who had resources to spare.

uncapped larvaSounds like a good day of beekeeping, right?

I went inside and had a beer as I recorded what I had done and uploaded the pictures I had taken. It was when I looked at the pictures that I realized what was wrong with the queen castle: it was backwards. I had stenciled a different colored bee on each side, with a colored shape to match the entry and help the bees know which was their own. It wasn’t a critical distinction. Whether or not the stencil and entry match is no matter to the bees, as long as they know which opening is home. But I was determined that the effort I had put into making my queen castle beautiful would not be lost. All the bees had come from the same hive, so I could turn the whole top around without worrying if there were bees left in the bottom that ended up with a different group; they didn’t know they were different groups yet.

This meant that the time to turn the box around was now. Somehow, I was thinking that the whole castle was weak because each 3-frame section was weak, and I didn’t relight my smoker. But let’s be honest. I wasn’t thinking. One beer had made me stupid.

So off I went, in my shorts, with my gloves and veil on. As I began to lift the castle, I realized that it doesn’t have handles like a regular box. And the stand it’s on has 2 arched metal tubes that are just where I wanted to put my hands to lift the box. Rather than lift the thing holding it front-to-back, where there was no stand in the way, out of habit I began to lift the sides. The lift was awkward so I decided to reconsider the plan. As I put the box down, I began to feel stinging on my thigh. I looked down and saw a circle of bees, about 4 inches in diameter, crowding above my knee.

I don’t recall the exact sequence of events from here. There were more stings and I dropped the box; bees were everywhere and I ran. As I ran, I looked down at my legs, and each had a circle of bees, trying to sting my thighs. I flapped at my legs in all the places I was feeling stings, back and front, running towards the house and swinging my hands wildly. I gave my shorts a good shake and final swipe, and ran into the house. There were still bees on me so I pulled my pants off and brought them to the doorway. I could have just thrown them out onto the deck, but I didn’t want to hurt bees, so I tried to turn them right-side-out and shake off the bees, while remaining inside the house myself. As if this would matter with the door open. Geoff was standing in the kitchen, watching me. “Why are you doing that?”

I said, “I don’t know!” dropped my pants on the porch, and shut the door. Geoff was getting the last few bees with a cup and piece of paper, and I found one more in the kitchen. By then, the stings were starting to smart and I crushed her.

At the beginning of the season, I talked to a person in my club about Adolph’s meat tenderizer, which is what I had been using on my stings. Adolph’s contains an enzyme that reduces a person’s reaction, but it’s hard to get just the right water mix so the paste will stay in place. She uses baking soda toothpaste, which is always ready. Since getting that advice, I have been carrying baking soda toothpaste and band aids, as well as a homeopathic remedy called Apis Mellifica, in my bee toolbox. Using the paste and the remedy immediately after being stung has worked well to keep stings from getting too bad. But the toothpaste isn’t quite as good as meat tenderizer, so I still use it for bad stings.

I was a tad worried that I had just received more bee stings at once than I had probably gotten in my whole life. One knee had taken 6 stings in an area about the size of my fist. I put meat tenderizer on that area, with a big gauze pad taped over it to keep the paste from rubbing off. Geoff used toothpaste to get all the other spots he could see, because I couldn’t see them all. He covered each spot with a band aid to keep the paste in place. I had about 2 dozen bee stings on my thighs.

The miracle of the whole thing is that the bees did not sting me on the skin anywhere, which meant that none of the stingers got caught in me, which meant that none of the stings were bad. The bees attacked only the dark blue cloth of my pants, not my light-colored T-shirt or my legs or arms.

There’s a belief that bees attack dark colors, which is why bee suits are white. I have been told this is an old wives’ tale – that studies have been done, etc., that if there’s anything to it, it’s that bees react to a dramatic change in color, such as the line where a shirt and pants meet, or clothes and skin. All I know is the bees only attacked my dark blue pants and nowhere else. By the same token, that’s the area that was in front of them when somebody opened their house all of a sudden.

… and in case you’re wondering, as soon as everything was settled, after covering all the stings and before I took antihistamine , I restarted my smoker, put on my full suit with a pair of rubber boots tucked inside, and went back out there to put things to rights. The castle is now in place, with the front side front, and at least one of the sections had bees coming and going from it four days after my fiasco.

The stings never bothered me much. For two days, I took 2 Benedryl at night and Apis Mellifica all day, and I renewed the meat tenderizer and toothpaste every morning. I iced when they felt uncomfortable the first day, and aside from that, I really didn’t have a problem. I honestly cannot believe it.

P.S. Remember the “empty” box I removed from Apt. C? I set it aside while I was doing all my other tricks. When I came back, it was covered with bees and they wouldn’t get off; apparently there was still nectar in there that I could neither see nor smell. I tried various methods of covering it to keep them off and eventually had to smoke them off and cover it with a robbing cloth for a day.empty super

It was a long day.

The Castle Move

July 21: Last Sunday, I thought it was going to be a quiet day of simple inspections. I was looking forward to being able to focus on the details, like how the brood is looking and how the supers are building up. In short, I was looking forward to feeling like I knew what I was doing…

IMGP5017I began inspections with my nuc, which has been growing like crazy. As soon as I opened it, I could hear a baby queen piping. Last summer, I first heard this sound when the hives were rebuilding after all the swarming.  At the time, I wasn’t  absolutely sure what it was, but this time I knew it. I found 3 supercedure cells, one of them clearly piping and the other two quiet. Although the ideal queens to raise are from swarm cells, I thought I should use the opportunity to experiment with my queen castle. Besides, there is space in the castle to raise 3 queens, and the nuc had raised 3 queens, each on her own frame as if they had planned it for me. So I got my castle, set it up next to the nuc, and put the 3 queens’ frames each in her own section. The castle is a modified 10-frame box with 3 sections that fit 3 frames each. In each section, you put a queen cell, a frame of food, a frame that has space for more food, and extra bees. I felt that the nuc was strong enough that it could afford to give up one of its food frames, and the population was so strong that I shook loads of bees into the castle. Then I put a frame of partially drawn comb in each section, and the food frame in one. I planned to get 2 more food frames from my other hives.

moving day 3 The nuc is now Apt. F. Even with the removal of all those bees, there remained 12 frames teaming with activity. I moved all its frames into a full 8-frame box and added a second box on top. I did not see a queen or brood, and the cells I saw were supercedures (they were growing in the midst of brood, not on the edges as swarm cells are supposed to be). But everything else about this hive indicated it had been getting ready to swarm. Bees don’t read the books, so you can’t always know why they do what they do. I had given them a virgin queen a month earlier and they had had eggs when she arrived. Could she have died on her mating flight? Might they have begun the supercedures while she was on her mating flight because they were hedging their bets? Or was she doing great and there was no brood because they were getting her ready to swarm?

I generally figure that if I’m not sure what’s going on queen-wise, I should assume the bees have the situation under control. Maybe I took all the new queens they were growing; maybe I missed one and she would do her thing; or maybe they had a queen they were preparing to swarm. When I inspect next week, I can put back one of the queens if it looks like they need her. I didn’t think the experiment could not going to do serious harm, one way or the other.

I discovered – once I filled the castle with bees – that the lid is inconveniently close to the edges of the stand I put it on, which makes it awkward to open and close. I already knew this but I forgot; I hadn’t prepared because I hadn’t anticipated using the castle. All in all, it looked a little off but I couldn’t figure out why and it was full bees, so I decided to leave well enough alone.

I went off to my original two hives and their swarm, thinking I should be able to find at least 2 frames with food in them for the queens.

My first Queen Castle.

backwards castle 2

Queen swapping. The final chapter?

There are nuances about Brian’s artificial swarming method that escaped me, or perhaps I should say there were some small details I missed. Called swarm cells.

On Sunday morning at 11, I was trying to fix the washing machine when I heard shrieking downstairs. “Barbi! Barbi! Barbara! Barbara! Come now! Come now! You have to come!” So I went downstairs. It’s not like he never does this. I figured if he’s well enough to yell like that and I can tell from his voice that he’s moving, he’s not hurt; he’s panicking about something. I got down the stairs and found him on the deck, screaming, “Swarm!” and pointing at the pear trees.

If you’re a beekeeper and you read what I did last week, you were probably expecting this.

Swarm coming in

When I put the queen back after splitting a strong hive during swarm season, I should have spent more time looking for swarm cells. Sure, I only found open ones, but I didn’t spend nearly enough time closely examining every frame. I was planning to look again this weekend – I really was – but I got tied up with the broken washing machine.

The swarm was still collecting itself in the tree when I first saw it. Geoff had seen the cloud of bees around the tree and not understood what it was at first. Last summer’s swarm had already settled into the pear tree when he found it, so this was pretty cool (though not as cool as if we’d seen the whole thing swooping around in flight). Our next door neighbor was mowing his lawn incredibly closely to the tree, with no idea what was going on above his head. Even over the lawn-mower, we could hear the loud buzzing.

When I collected my swarm last summer, I had no appreciation for how easy it was. I just pulled the bees from the tree they had landed in, about 4 feet up. Since then, I had heard someone describe how they got a swarm out of a tall tree, so I was prepared with an idea when I saw the bees settling about 12 feet up in a pear tree.Swarm in tree

What Mary and Jim did was tie off the branch above and below the hive, cut the branch off, and belay the branch carefully down to a box on the ground.

"The Wright Brothers"I wanted to use this method to bring the bees to the box, but Geoff was determined to bring the box to the bees by knocking them off the branch up high. He put together this monstrosity and tried to persuade me to try it, with a sheet slung inside to catch the bees. He called it “The Wright Brothers.” Please, click on the picture and look closely at this contraption, from top to bottom. Then click again for some close-ups.

I said no.

We couldn’t put a rope on the far end of this particular branch because there was nothing to swing it over, so we ran down to the hardware store to find a long something to hold it up from below. We bought an apple-picker with a telescoping pole, and cleared the branches below. Geoff went up the tree on a ladder from behind, from which he tied off the branch and then cut it. I stood below the swarm and supported the other end of the branch with the apple picker.

A lot of bittersweet kept the whole thing from coming down easily, but also kept it from falling suddenly. The bees were wrapped around more branches than the one we cut;  so as we yanked against the bittersweet, we were pulling the swarm apart in (marginally) controlled jerks. There was some veil-banging activity and a fair amount of angry buzzing.  When we got the branch to a level where I could reach the bees, I shook what I could and then pulled them off with my hands. This is not unusual with swarm-catching, and it’s kind of cool; you don’t often grab a handful of bees without having some concern to getting badly stung. They feel like warm, stringy little velcro balls.

The first few blobs of bees that I pulled down landed right in the box, but plenty more landed on the sheet. You use a white sheet below the box is so you can see the bees that miss the box. If you’re really lucky, you can see if one is the queen. I wasn’t that lucky. But with so many bees crawling around outside the box, I had a feeling the queen was there. Last summer, the swarm I caught did the same thing, and then started flying back to the tree they had been in. Two things I learned that time. The first is that if you put a frame of brood in the box where you’re collecting the swarm, you’ve got a better chance that they won’t just take off while you’re getting them in; they won’t abandon babies. The other is that you need a good tool for scooping bees up so you can get the queen in the box. The best thing is a piece of plastic embroidery screen; it is flexible enough that it won’t kill anyone and solid enough that you can control its shape. Last summer, I used a manilla folder, and bees kept getting trapped inside the fold.Caught!

I was on my hands and knees as I scooped bees into the box, and I might have put some weight on someone. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I got stung. There’s a myth that swarming bees can’t sting you. Yeah; no. They aren’t likely to, but if you lean enough on any bee, she can sting.

Well, so with a lot of help from Geoff, I caught my swarm. We left the people alone for a while, to settle into the box, and then I transferred them into a new hive. Mission accomplished!

Housed!Now I have three hives as well as a nuc to look after. Sh*t.

Swapping Queens part 2

It must have been two weeks ago today that I put the honey on top of the nuc. It seems like a million years ago. So imagine: 2 frames of unborn babies, a load of nurse bees, and a smattering of foragers protecting 5 frames swelling on both sides with honey. Dumb.

I came home from work and Geoff said, “The nuc looks like it’s doing great. There was a lot of activity over there all day,” and I thought, “A lot of activity? Sh*t.” It was still light out, so I went to see. Sure enough, dead bees on the front porch. Robbing. That poor nuc wasn’t nearly strong enough to protect all that honey!

The next morning before work, I went out and removed 4 of the 5 frames. They let me, because what else could they do? After that, they seemed fine. Another newbee crisis averted.

That weekend I went to Bee Pride and got a screened bottom board and inner cover. The weather had jumped to extraordinary temps, in the 90s, and I thought they must be cooking in that dark box with only one tiny entry and no ventilation. I bought enough pieces for two nucs, planning on painting one while installing the other temporarily, then swapping in the painted equipment, painting the next batch, and starting another nuc from Apt. C. Yeah, that was the plan.

When I inspected the nuc next, they were putting burr comb below the honey frame, which was shallow. Their frames are medium, so it was the natural thing for them to do; bees fill empty space in their hive with honeycomb. I took the honey frame and put it above an inner cover in another box with nothing else in it, and I added a second box below the inner cover with some drawn comb and foundation. I expect them to draw down the honey to the lower boxes.

I didn’t have time to paint the new pieces before installing them, but I expect them to be temporary. This nuc is doing well enough that I plan to put it in a hive before the summer is over. We’ll see.

The next thing I inspected that day was Apt. C. It still looked like it had a lot of people but didn’t have enough babies. Was I missing something? I had been ready to do another Artificial Swarm, but it didn’t appear to be time yet. No swarm cells I could find. I moved some frames around to make space for more brood and added a super, and moved on.

Supered B and C

As you may recall, I had taken Queen Elizabeth from Apt. B and put her in Nuc B. I was expecting to find swarm cells when I checked it the week after removing her, but what I found instead was open swarm cells and a few very fat larvae. At first, I panicked that someone was in there laying eggs, but then I did the math and realized these few larvae had been eggs 7 days ago when when I had taken the queen. No problem.

But there was a problem. I found a couple of supersedure cells, open and full of royal jelly but with no larvae I could see. Given the timing, they couldn’t have had eggs. So I squished the supercedure cells (I wanted a swarm queen, not an emergency one) and decided to give them more time. It was after this that I went to Bee Pride, where I talked to Brian about his method of Artificial Swarming. He puts the queen back in just soon enough for the colony to accept her, assuming they haven’t raised a swarm queen in the interim – at Day 12-14 from when you removed her. It occurred to me that I might have just the right conditions to return the queen; no replacement queen and a thriving nuc that could raise its own from an egg.

I inspected Apt. B at Day 14, and found sealed supercedure cells. That really bothered me, because there should not have been any eggs from which to raise them. I reasoned that I didn’t want those queens because emergency queens are not as good as swarm queens, so that decided it: I should put Elizabeth back in. I went to the nuc and looked and looked. It took me 2 passes through the bottom frames before I could find her, but I did, and I caught her in the cage.

Brian had said that you can just place the laying queen on the front stoop of a queenless hive and they will  let her walk right in. Elizabeth, however, was determined to escape her cage through the spring and would not go to the opening. I held the cage against the entry and she finally crawled in, upside-down along the top of the opening. There was no seething around her and she just disappeared inside, so I had to assume she was accepted. After I put her in at the bottom, I went to crush the supercedure cells, which I had identified in the two upper boxes. The first couple were goo, but then another seemed like I was killing a live bee. Oops. Then a couple more were goo, and another I immediately saw was another live bee, squirming in the wax and seemingly ready to be born. At this point, I couldn’t bring myself to knowingly kill a live queen. She was trapped head first in the part of the cell I had pulled off, stuck on my hive tool.

Elizabeth was going to kill any baby queens she found, so I decided to give this one a home in the nuc. I carried her across my yard and put her, wax and all, on the entry of the nuc. Bees came and checked her out, crawling on her and appearing to smell her. She put up her abdomen as if to give them a whiff of her queen-ness. They checked her out and crawled around on the wax. They probably could have chewed her out eventually, but I wanted to be sure she was OK. So I smoked the area to get them off her and picked her up. With my fingers, I pulled open the wax so she was loose, and placed her back on the entry. She backed out. The other bees walked around her, checking her out. She raised her abdomen again and they checked that out. Everyone was curious and peaceful. I wished I had my camera, but I didn’t want to miss anything.

I sat and watched as she crawled around a bit, and then gradually wandered into the hive. OMG! This was not my plan, to keep a supercedure queen, but she was old enough that she must have come from an egg, so she’d been properly nourished. Putting her in the nuc meant they’d be back to egg-laying much sooner than if they had had to replace Elizabeth from scratch, so I had accomplished something good by screwing up.

I had never seen a virgin queen before. She was just what they say – bigger than a worker but not nearly as big as a laying queen. Her abdomen was a tiny little tapered cone, light colored with a dark tip. Virgin queens are said to be skittish. I don’t know if I’d call this poor girl skittish so much as confused. She was probably born a day or so early and there she was, out in broad daylight and caught in her wax. She found herself being examined from the wrong end, by a bunch of strangers (OK, she didn’t know they were strangers. They were actually her sisters), and she had to walk herself back inside from being born in the open air.

To the left of the nuc is a queen castle that I have prepared for when I actually find some capped swarm cells.I was completely blown away.

Can you guess what happened the next week?


Queen swapping, part 1

Three weeks ago I was ready to do an artificial swarm, whether the bees were ready or not. I had actually been taught how to do this by two beekeepers I respect, and they had somewhat different versions – one of them making a stronger nuc, and the other having you return the queen to the parent hive in two weeks. I was a little torn which way to go, because I thought they both had good rationale for their methods. I didn’t need to decide about returning the queen yet, but I was still pondering how strong to make the nuc – that is, how many extra nurse bees to shake into it. I decided I’d see how it felt when I got there.

I didn’t expect Apt. C to be ready, because it hasn’t been thriving. I saw the queen early in May and I see new larvae whenever I visit, so I know she’s in there. She looked good and normal and the bees haven’t started any supersedure cells, so they are happy enough with her, but she’s not laying as many eggs as she ought to. My theory is that she’s a supersedure queen herself, perhaps raised from a larva that had begun to get worker food before they realized they needed a queen. A queen who has been grown that way doesn’t always produce like gangbusters, so I will have to think about what to do with her. Another day.

In the meantime, Apt. B was going strong, full of bees, and looking good. The week before I’d found a few empty swarm cells, so I knew they were thinking about swarming. None that I saw were capped, but they might be a week later.

I was going to do everything right. I had reviewed my class notes about swarming, drawn myself diagrams of how to arrange the nuc, and placed the nuc, frames, and the queen catcher nearby. I usually inspect the hive by starting at the top and working down, but I have been told this is wrong. You ought to take the boxes off and when you get to the bottom, you begin inspecting;  you inspect the rest as you put the boxes back on. I was ready to do this. I told myself that Step 1 was to find capped swarm cells so I could be sure the bees were ready for me to take their queen, and I disassembled the hive.

In the first box I inspected, I found the queen. I was so excited that I thought I’d just see what it’s like to catch her in the little clip-cage. I caught her pretty easily, and I set her on top of the boxes so the bees could still smell and touch her. But I swear, the bees immediately knew something wasn’t right. They started to get aggressive, and one or two guards kept flying at my veil. I had a short sleeved shirt on, and no gloves; I felt very exposed. I tried to keep inspecting, looking for capped swarm cells, but I decided that they had surely started some and it was time to make the nuc.

it's hard to see her, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances

Caged Queen: it’s hard to see her in the picture, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. She’s at the bottom of the clip, where you can see a tiny bit of orange tail exposed between the teeth.

I took out 2 frames with capped brood, according to the instructions, and shook in one frame of nurse bees. Erin says to shake in two frames and Brian says just one. Rather than think it through methodically, I just decided that it was time to stop pissing off the bees and I left it at that. I got a couple of frames with honey and pollen, I gently freed the queen inside, and I closed up the nuc. I inspected Apt. B most of the way up, but I tried to be quick about it. Then I added two honey supers; the theory is, content in  the knowledge that a new queen is on the way, but with fewer babies to feed, the bees can focus on bringing in massive amounts of honey for the next 2-3 weeks. Because I had seen no capped queen cells, I made a note to return soon and make sure there was one (and only one).

The aqua boxes are the supers on Apt. B.

The aqua boxes are the supers on Apt. B.

I carried the nuc over to a new apiary because its relative weakness makes it vulnerable to attack if it is right next to two full hives. You are supposed to feed the nuc after this operation, because its population is mostly bees who are too young to forage. I had the spacer to use a baggie feeder, but I have never liked baggie feeders, ever since my first one slid into the hive and dripped sugar water all over the bottom. So I left them with the frames of honey until I decided a feeding system.

I have been told that if you move a hive to new but close location, the forages might go out and return to their original location, never to find home again. One way to resolve that is to put a bushy branch in front of the hive, so foragers will re-orient before they leave.

I have been told that if you move a hive to a new but close location, the foragers might go out and return to their original location, never to find home again. One way to resolve that is to put a bushy branch in front of the hive, so foragers will re-orient before they leave.

The next day, I thought I would be clever and give the bees some extra honey from Winnie’s hive. That honey I had wanted to extract, but had realized it was treated and couldn’t be eaten by people. Honey from a treated hive is OK for bees to eat, and I reasoned it’s better than sugar water. So I filled a 2nd nuc box with 5 frames full of honey, popped that on top, and went to work.

If you’re a beekeeper, you know what’s coming next. But you won’t predict all of it, because I don’t think a lot of people are as good as I am at making up new ways to learn by screwing up.