Saturday, August 1, 2015

Bees please

In the wake of our dead queen bee a few weeks ago, you may have wondered about the status of the new queen.

The day after picking her up, I inserted the queen (in her cage) into the weak hive; then a few days later replaced the cork plug with a mini-marshmallow; then a day after that, confirmed the queen had been released. So far so good.

But the next suggested step made me nervous. I was supposed to transfer two frames of brood from the strong hive into the weak hive to give it a boost. I didn't want to screw this up, so I begged the assistance of a local professional beekeeper named Mike, who kindly came out to walk me through the process.

Mike opted not to smoke the hives. Smoking sends the queen scurrying for cover, he told me, so when we need to look for the queen, it's best not to smoke.

We opened the weak hive and made a grim discovery: there was no new activity in the hive. No eggs, no larvae, and few bees. Crud. The new queen was dead.

Mike didn't seem fazed, however. He opened up the strong hive...

...and was pleased to see it was busy as could bee. Er, be. In fact, Mike said he'd seldom seen such a busy, healthy hive.

I expected Mike to spend maybe half an hour, tops, examining our hives and walking me through various things. I was under the impression that, once you open a hive, you do what you need to do quickly, then close it up again. But Mike was not to be hurried. He took each and every frame out and examined it closely. He was the soul of patience and spent an hour and a half showing me many wonderful things.

(I wasn't able to take pictures of everything because I kept getting honey on my camera, so pardon the lack of full visual documentation.)

One of the frames had some burr comb on it. He scraped it off and told me if I kept the frames snugged closer together ("bee space"), they wouldn't build burr. Duh, I should have known that.

Here are brood cells full of eggs (the little white dots at the bottom of each cell).

Here's a drone (the center bee by himself). He's larger than the workers, and has huge eyes that "meet" at the top of his head (supposedly to better watch for a virgin queen on her maiden flight).

We saw -- wonder of wonders -- several baby bees pushing their way out of their cells... essentially we saw them being born. How I wished I could have photographed them!

He showed me the difference between capped brood and capped honey: brood is brown, honey is yellow. Here's what capped honey looks like (yellow):

Here's what capped brood looks like (brown):

Here are larvae, being attended.

Mike checked for the presence of varroa mites. The easiest way was to gently tear open a drone cell and expose the pupa. Mites are brown, pupae are paper-white, so the contrast is easy to see. There were no signs of varroa mites, thankfully.

I asked whether I should remove the dead pupa, and Mike said to leave it for the bees, who would consume it (protein!).

It was about this point that I got my first bee sting -- right on the cheek. I had my face pressed against the veil as I closely examined the pupa, and a bee got me right through the veil. No biggee, I scraped out the stinger and it hardly hurt.

What Mike was looking for, with his diligent examination of every frame, was the queen. At last he spotted her -- the long, black, elegant bee just left of center.

Here's a better photo. The queen is lower right.

As we watched, the queen nonchalantly went from cell to cell, lowering her abdomen and laying eggs. Mike was impressed and said it was a rare thing to catch a queen in the actual act of laying. He concluded we had a very healthy queen.

About this point I had too much honey on my camera to take any more photos, so here's where the pictures end. But Mike recommended we join the hives, stacking the dying hive on top of the thriving hive. When I asked about how to prevent the bees from fighting, he sent me into the house to get some newspaper. We laid a sheet of newspaper across the top of the frames and carefully lifted the dying hive and laid it on top the newspapers, making the hive stacked fairly high. The bees would chew through the paper within a few days, Mike said, and by then they would be familiar with each other and not fight. This would also give more room to the hives.

Mike also suggested keeping supers stacked on the hives in abundance, even if lower frames aren't completely full, so the bees never feel crowded (which may trigger swarming). He also said don't be afraid to stack supers lower in the hive, not just at top, so the queen has plenty of empty cells to lay eggs.

Mike recommended we keep feeding the bees sugar syrup in light of the dry summer we're having. We buttoned up the now highly-stacked hive, stripped off our bee suits, and we gave him some ground beef in thanks for his help. What a terrific fellow.

Two days after Mike's visit, I took my trip to Portland. Don fed the bees in my absence. Yesterday, we both suited up, took some fresh syrup, smoked the hives, and did a thorough examination.

The newspaper was completely gone. The hive stacked on top, which formerly housed the dying colony, had many frames with lots of cells and even some honey, indicating healthy activity. We opted to add a super on top, though we later realized we should have put it lower down to make things roomier. Conclusion: the now-combined hive is thriving, absolutely thriving.

We plan to feed more syrup again tomorrow, and we'll shuffle the super to a lower position at that time. But for now, we're both very pleased with how the combined hive is doing.

We'll do everything we can to keep the strong hive alive through the winter, and in spring we'll start another new colony in the empty hive.

Live and learn. That's what I'm finding out about bees.


  1. ask the bee keeper how to store the empty hive,
    leaving it as is will cause mice et alia to move in.
    this advice is from my vast experience form----attending a beekeeping class!

  2. All good advice he gave you. I would be a bit wary though of giving the bees too much extra space as it gives vermin and pests room to invade if the bees are not numerous enough to guard it.

    I know all the books say to get into the hive, look quick and get out but to really check everything out takes a lot of time.

    To store an empty hive I remove all the frames and place any with drawn comb that I cannot immediately transfer to another hive into a rubbermaid tote. I then freeze the tote in a chest freezer for a few days to kill off any lingering parasites rotating if there is more than one tote, then stacking them together still in the totes. That keeps most everything out of them except ants. I then make it a point to re-use any drawn comb frames I have available as soon as possible in another hive. Saves the bees from having to draw new comb.

  3. Great photos and explanations. What amazing little creatures.

    As interesting as this is, though, I doubt that I could ever get into beekeeping. I'm not afraid of running into the occasional bee out in the garden, but a opening a hive like this? Yikes. Makes me shudder. You couldn't pay me enough to do that. Well, I suppose you could pay enough. Say $50,000. Yeah, I would do it for $50,000.

    Kidding aside - I'm so glad there are people who aren't afraid of beekeeping. Mankind needs these critters...And the food they produce. Nice post. Really nice.

    Just Me

  4. and here i was going to mention that Pioneer Preppy is an excellent resource for bee knowledge - he's the bee King! but he's already here and beat me to it. it is great to have people like Mike to be able to come out and do hands on training with you - but it's also great to know that you have an excellent online resource in Pioneer Preppy! congrats with your new bigger hive!

  5. I'm loving this!

    You're a natural!


  6. fazed, not phased.

  7. Very cool! Did he have any ideas as to why the one hive was having such problems? Or is it just one of "those things"?

    Unfortunately I've confirmed that getting stung screws with my arthritis. I spent 3 days last week on a max dose of benadryl just to have use of my right hand after getting stung on the lower arm. Which is making me even more reluctant to get bees, as much as I really want my own honey makers! I guess we'll have to see......

    (apparently a growing treatment for arthritis is to get stung on purpose, I won't be doing that!)

  8. Wow I wish I lived in a rural area to keep bees. Do you think GMO corn is causing CCD? Just wondering what your opinion was on that.

  9. I'm in my second year of beekeeping and my hive has now swarmed twice. I have caught both 'swarms' but now my original hive is weak. (I think I picked a place that gets too warm originally, which is causing the swarming) I would like to add it back to one of the swarmed hives, so I might try this method.
    Can you post a picture of what your hive looks like now that you added the 2 colonies together?