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Archive for the ‘Biologicial/Natural Beekeeping’ Category

Anybody home?

Anybody home?

Through my lack of blogging for the past several months, I can deduce that I am significantly less anxious about beekeeping in year two than I was in year one! July finds both hives doing well and requiring little attention (for the moment), so I will attempt to recount the happenings of the winter and spring.

In November, we began construction on the back of our house, adding a room off the kitchen, which we designed to be sturdy enough to house the hives and some raised beds on the roof.  I had hunkered the hives down for winter with the quilt boxes that Dave and I had built, fully expecting to move them onto the roof in February or March, well before they were raising brood and while they were still happily nested into two boxes for overwintering.

However, this being a construction project, the anticipated 6-8 week project grew into a 6 month project. As spring wore on, a pit settled in my stomach as I wondered how on earth I was going to hoist my bee hives, now full of bees raising yet more bees, and actively leaving the hive in search of forage, up onto the roof. I enlisted our contractors for ideas. One brought out a beekeeping buddy, and the two of them discussed complicated strategies, including building temporary scaffolding; or two ladders placed side by side with the hives strapped to a board which they would shoulder as they scaled the ladder; a winch; one guy on the roof with a rope stabilizing the hives while two others shouldered the hives. All of these ideas made my anxious: the potential for dropping the hives and having angry bees stinging the contractors seemed great. I started to wonder if we should leave the bees on the round until winter. Of course, I was also chomping at the bit to landscape the backyard, so leaving the hives on the ground was undesirable.

Finally, the internet offered a solution. We found a heavy duty outdoor stairway which we could install for roof access, instead of using ladders. Once that was in place, I was able to hire a couple of local beekeepers to bundle and move the hives up the stairs one box at a time (and at the time they were at 3 and 4 boxes high). Corky and Brady, the beekeepers, showed up early so the weather would still be cool and the bees huddled inside the hive waiting to start a day of foraging. Dave and I cut plywood to the dimensions of the boxes. The beekeepers strapped these pieces of plywood to the tops and bottoms of each box, and carried them (they weighed 40ish pounds each), up the new stairs to their new home on the roof. After an hour and a half of heavy lifting, the hives were securely in their new home on the roof.

The next step was letting the bees know that their home had moved. As they were (mostly) happily in a closed dark box for the move, their natural response to the move would have been to leave the hive as if nothing had changed, forage, and return home – to the former location. To dissuade this behavior, we obstructed the landing board of each hive with branches. Many of them. The bees were forced to climb over and through these many branches before they could fly off. According to natural beekeeping guru Michael Bush, doing so would give a clue to the bees that they needed to stop and pay attention to their surroundings so that they could find their way back to the new hive location. Otherwise, I ran the risk of having all the forager bees return home to the old location. The branches were like a signal – hey something is different! Pay attention! It worked pretty well, with most of the forager bees returning to the rooftop at the end of the day. However, some of my bees did not get the memo, returning to the old hive location. So, for 3 days I left a small nuc box at the old site. Each evening, I would take the nuc box upstairs and shake the disoriented bees into the smaller hive. After 3 days, I gave up. Some of those bees just weren’t learning. Too bad for them. The remainder settled into life on the roof.

The hives are now located right outside Soren’s window, so I can peek at them frequently to see how things look on the landing board. I do this a lot. After a few weeks of watching the bees, I realized that Galactica hive (the smaller of the two) had fewer bees entering and exiting the hive than Themyscira. A LOT fewer. I had been inspecting the hives regularly, so I was pretty sure that I hadn’t missed a swarm. The queen had been laying in a pretty consistent manner. I opened up the hive and it felt empty. But there was the queen, laying away. I found several frames of broods. Foragers were returning to the hive. So what was wrong? I didn’t know, but some instinct told me to borrow brood from the hive next door to bolster Galactica.

These days I rarely make a hive-related move without consulting my bee group. I emailed the listserv to inquire about the wisdom of propping up my weaker hive with brood. The consensus was that I had nothing to lose (except, potentially, a couple frames of brood). The biggest debate was whether or not to move the nurse bees over with the brood or shake them off first. Given the emptiness of the hive, I opted to move the nurse bees over with the brood. I was concerned that there were too few adult bees in the hive to keep the bees properly warmed. The hive accepted the brood and nurse bees without problem, and after a few weeks seemed to be back on its feet. So what was the problem?

My current theory comes from fellow beek Patti who wondered if drift could be responsible. Drift occurs when the hives are close together and one queen is sending out stronger pheromones than the other. I suspect that Themyscira’s queen has always been the stronger of the two. In fact, that hive may have gotten off to a stronger start because bees from Galactica drifted to Themyscira when I was first setting up the hives. Luckily Galactica’s queen is a scrappy thing and keeps plugging away no matter the odds. Currently the landing boards on both hives show lots of activity. I’m due for an inspection this week, so I should have a better sense of how well the hive has recovered soon!

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The bee quilt I am hoping to make this week.

My friend Kat brought it to my attention the other day that I have been woefully neglectful of my bee blog. Largely, that’s because I haven’t had a lot of interaction with the girls lately. They have been busy doing their late summer thing and with the exception of putting fresh water out for them and peeking under the lid once in a while to see if I needed to add another box, I haven’t done much. Late summer is apparently the time of year in which bees are approximately as much work as a cat. Maybe even less. However, I am now getting into the “preparing for winter” groove. Especially since fall arrived rather suddenly on Tuesday.

About 2 weeks ago I did my fall inspection, which involved condensing the hives a bit to make them easier for the bees to keep warm during the cold months. Less space means less energy wasted on keeping the hive warm. And the less energy they waste, the less honey the bees will consume over the winter, thereby decreasing the odds that they will starve to death.

I made the choice not to harvest any honey except for what was in the burr comb (the bits of comb they built between the boxes that broke open when I did my inspection.  The honey is minty tasting and delicious!). My reason for not harvesting the honey is that I am trying to avoid supplemental feeding – that is, I do not want to give them sugar syrup. I would rather they eat their honey stores. Typically, beekeepers steal some honey from their bees in the fall and then feed them sugar or corn syrup to get them through winter if they eat their way through the remaining honey stores.

Of course, I can choose to do this because beekeeping is a hobby for me. I am not trying to make money at it, so I don’t need to sell my honey. And while I would certainly enjoy eating the honey, I am more interested in producing strong bees. I would like to do my part for combatting colony collapse disorder and for helping produce honeybees that can thrive in the Pacific Northwest, which is truly too damp for good honey-beekeeping. So, next year I am hoping that Gallactica Hive can join Themyscira hive in kicking its sugar addiction!

In case you’re interested in how the hives compared as of the fall inspection:

Themyscira Hive is my honey-fed hive. It is also the cranky bee hive. It stole workers from Gallactica early on, and so was always about one brood cycle ahead of the other hive. I also stopped using premade comb foundation in this hive sooner than I did in Gallactica, so the bees were able to regress, or to get smaller and closer to the size of feral bees. As of inspection time, they had one box of pollen, almost 3 complete boxes of honey, but only 2 frames of brood. While it is expected that the queen will be laying less this time of year, I am a little concerned about the small number of brood. Also there were very few drones. The bees are noticeably smaller than the ones in the hive next door.

Gallactica Hive chugged steadily along all season. The bees are so mellow you could practically pet them. I think perhaps this is because all of the adventurous, aggressive bees moved next door. The ones that stayed were laid back and not inclined to worry. While the hive never had the sheer numbers that Themyscira did, the queen has always been a strong layer. This hive had one box of pollen, 2 full boxes of honey, and 6 frames of brood. There were also many more drones about, mostly on the brood frames. I think they were helping keep the brood warm so that the workers could devote more of their time to foraging as the end of the season.

In the week ahead, I need to finish winterizing. I have found some plans for a “bee quilt” that Dave is going to help me make. The quilt basically helps absorb moisture from the hive during the winter and provides an additional layer of insulation for the bees. They will have to work pretty hard to stay warm, so I want to give them a hand!

Rumor has it that we are going to have a warmer, drier than normal winter here. I am not sure if that will be good news or bad news for my bees. When it’s warmer, they are more active and eat more. That’s bad. However, drier would mean fewer problems with maintaining the temperature of the hive (condensation in the hive can cause some serious heat loss) and it would decrease mold as well. That could be good! Only time will tell.

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Drone comb, which really does look like Kix!

A couple of weeks ago, I opened up my hive to find that the bees were making drones. Lots of them, exclusively on the brand new foundationless frames that I had put into the hive the week prior. There was worker brood on the frames with foundation, and I spotted my queen, so it wasn’t a problem with a laying worker. However, since I had been expecting lovely new comb and maybe even some honey, I was surprised to find this ugly comb riddled with kix-cereal type cells. It seriously made me start to itch.

To find out what my bees might be up to (hello…bees? I was feeding you until 10 days ago! Why are you wasting time making drones?) I emailed my beekeepers’ group. I lamented my bees’ choice of activities. Drones are a waste of resources! How could they? When are they going to start making some honey????

Several beekeepers offered their opinions about drones. Drones might not be a total waste of resources. They can help keep brood warm. They propagate bee genes. Bees like a 20ish percent population of drones, so maybe my hive has previously been under-droned. All good insights. But it was Patti who really set me straight, writing:

Hm, so you think the bees are making a big mistake? Why do you think that?

Indeed, why did I?

In my pre-child life, I was a midwife. I helped mothers bring new life into the world primarily through the wisdom handed down by generations of women giving birth and attending births, and confidence in the natural process.

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a midwife-mentor was to practice “sitting on my hands.” This was not an easy concept for me and was one that required me to majorly shift my thinking. I am not a naturally patient person. I like to help, manage, organize and myriad other “action words” in which a person with a busy brain might engage. However birth can take a long time and a good midwife does well to remember that sometimes all that is needed is tincture of time. It can be very tempting to try to hasten a birth by offering interventions. However, many of these interventions cause further interventions to be needed, and then instead of helping a mother follow her instincts and the natural flow of birth, you create a situation that needs medical intervention. Counterproductive to say the least.

Patti’s comment brought me back to that sage midwifery advice. Why did I think I knew better than the bees? If I had learned not to think that I knew better than a mother giving birth, why would I not extend that trust in the natural process to the hive?

In the past few months since I started caretaking my hives, I have been surprised at how much of what has been studied about honey bees and beekeeping practices has been done in support of industrial agriculture and commercial beekeeping. Commercial beekeeping uses medications, artificial feeding with tanker trucks of corn syrup, and bees as tools in large scale agricultural pollination with little thought given to their nutritional needs. Some beekeepers expect to lose their hives every year. They basically just work the bees to death and don’t give them the time or resources to prepare their hives for winter. From the sounds of it, not much attention is paid to the bees’ perspective. It is mostly about the convenience for the beekeeper and the farmers.

Which sounds a lot like what has happened to birth. Women delivering flat on their backs for the convenience of the doctor. Inductions and C-sections scheduled to fit someone’s calendar rather than with thought given to the needs of the baby. Drugs given to laboring women instead of support and encouragement. Interventions introduced well in advance of any indications that they are needed, and without trying natural solutions first.

I know full well that there are instances in which medical interventions are necessary for mothers and babies. They do save lives. But for most healthy women and their infants, these interventions are not needed. If 1 in 3 women actually required a C-section to give birth to a healthy baby, our species never would have made it this far.

Similarly, there may be cases in which medicating a hive is a good idea. I haven’t been there yet. And I know that I am definitely more willing to let a hive die and try again than I would be to sacrifice a mother or her baby to the “natural process.”

But it does seem to me, given that we are still dealing with Colony Collapse Disorder and worrying losses of honeybee hives, that it is high time to start thinking like midwives when it comes to our beekeeping practices. To think about what is normal, what is natural, and what is best for bees. To ask ourselves the hard questions about why we are following certain practices. To be willing to give an honest look at our assumptions.

To stop and be reminded of Patti’s question: So you think the bees are making a big mistake? Why do you think that?

It is humbling to be asked that, and humbling to realize my own hubris. That after one season of beekeeping (or even after 10!) that I might think I know better than my bees. As with the women I attended in labor, I could never know better. I can only be there to create an environment for the hive that functions as naturally as possible. To know enough about what is normal to recognize the problems. And to sit on my hands longer than feels comfortable so that my bees can have a fair shot at resolving the problems themselves.

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Lots going on in my hives this week. Monday I opened Themyscira hive to inspect for signs of swarming. This hive is the touchy hive and also the one that has been receiving honey for its supplemental food. After I was stung through three layers of clothing last week, including through my bee jacket, I emailed my beekeeping group asking for ideas about why this hive might be so irritable. I know that in part they were doing what good bees do, which is protecting their brood from intruders. I’m a mom, so I get that! However, while Gallactica gets upset when I mess with the brood, they have never responded the way that Themyscira did. Those were some angry bees.

An experienced beekeeper, Dave, suggested that Themyscira could be getting ready to swarm. Since the bees are from a new package, I haven’t really been expecting a swarm this year. Next year, yes! This year I figured they would be too busy settling in to decide to split into two smaller hives. However, since this hive is receiving honey they may not be acting as typical new bees act. Receiving honey that’s already made means that they don’t have to work as hard to build their colony. Which is part of the point of feeding them honey. I am trying to build a hive that is strong and not overly-burdened by having to start from scratch.

However, since it’s been such a mild spring with good foraging and since they have had access to plenty of supplemental honey, it’s possible that I have made life too nice for them. They might be thinking to themselves, “We have plenty of resources! Our queen is laying like crazy! We are going to be too crowded soon so it’s time to divide.”

What I know that they don’t know is that it’s likelier that they will overwinter if they remain one nice robust hive instead of heading into winter as two smaller hives. I also know that they can have all the space they want since I can keep adding boxes to the top of the hive. It’s possible I should have added another box already, which is what I needed to determine by inspecting this week.

I have been debating the timing of adding new boxes. While it hasn’t been terribly cold this spring, it has been wet and cool. The bees self-regulate the temperature of the hive by fanning their wings and huddling together or spreading out. In cool, wet weather, an empty box is a heat suck. Full boxes act as insulation and help the bees stay warm. Brood needs to be kept at a fairly constant temperature of 91-97 degrees (33-36 Celsius) in order to develop properly, so it’s important not to make accomplishing this too difficult for the hive, especially when they are new and don’t have a full set of workers to assist.

It was recommended to me that I add a new box when 80% of the frames had been drawn out. I had been anticipating needing to add a third box to Themyscira in the next week or two. I hadn’t expected that they might have already reached capacity and needed to be given a new box lest they decide to swarm. Hence the thorough inspection, which included looking for queen cells.

I found that the hive had built out 80-90% of their frames and that they were indeed considering swarming. I found at least eight queen cups, which are enlarged cells on the comb that can be used as the foundation for a queen cell. Queen brood cells are so large that the bees must build them specially, at the bottom of the frame or over the top of several worker-sized cells.

Queen cups at the bottom of a frame

All of my queen cups were located at the bottom of the frames. Apparently this is an indication that they are thinking of swarming. If bees are simply replacing their queen, or superseding, they will build the queen ells in the middle of the frame in place of several worker cells.

To try to keep them from swarming, I quickly added the third box and moved some of the brood frames around. I placed three brood frames into the new box to attract bees to that box and to get them working on drawing out the new comb. I also popped out foundation from those frames so that they will have to build the combs entirely from scratch rather than onto a template. It has been my intention to do this anyway, and the threat of swarming spurred me to action! In the box from which I removed the three brood frames, I gathered the remaining brood frames to the center of the box, flanked them with empty frames and kept the existing honey frames on the outside. This will hopefully trick the bees into thinking that there is plenty of room for brood and they won’t think about making new queens. They will be too hard at work drawing out the new comb and getting it ready for laying.

There is debate in the beekeeping community about whether or not to remove queen cups. Some say not to bother as the bees with just built new ones. Others recommend removing them to prevent the queen from laying in them and triggering a swarm cycle. I left them intact with the intention of snapping them off a couple of days later when I went into the hive again to see if my tricks were working. Interestingly, when I opened the hive again on Thursday, the bees had already removed most of the queen cups and repurposed that wax into worker comb. I think they got the message! They also weren’t as cranky. I think they were too busy. I am cautiously optimistic that I have averted the swarm, though I am watching them pretty closely for the next couple of weeks.

Fun find of the week:

Ceanothus, aka California lilac

Bees carrying purple pollen! My bees were really heavy with pollen this week and I enjoyed watching many of them doing the waggle dance to tell each other where the good stuff was. Most of them had lovely golden pollen sacks but one bee was carrying a load of purple pollen. It was beautiful! I suspect it was from a nearby ceanothus, or California lilac, which is blooming all over the neighborhood right now.

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I thoroughly inspected the Themyscira hive this week as I had only had a few minutes to peek at it the previous weekend. I got started on my beekeeping duties late in the day and by the time I opened the second hive it was getting too dark!

Themyscira hive is the one that’s been getting supplemental honey instead of sugar water. Begin new at this, and being that most beekeepers feed their bees sugar water, I haven’t found a ton of good information about how often and how much honey I should be feeding my bees. I asked Bob, an experienced beekeeper in my area, who first recommended that I quit feeding my bees honey because of the disease risks. He then resigned himself to answering my question with this tip:

If you continue feeding honey, you want to keep them on it until they get honey-bound. Basically, as long as the outside frames and upper corners of the inside frames have uncapped resources, you’re doing fine.

Here’s what I found upon inspection:

Top Box

9 frames drawn, working on the 10th

Only 2 frames with honey, the rest (8) with brood

Lots of burr comb between the two boxes with larva in it

Bottom box

1 frame completely undrawn

1 frame partially drawn with pollen

3 frames drawn with honey – mostly open cells

5 frames that have hatched brood. Larger capped cells (drones?) still there along the edges. Many of them. Some honey at the top. On these frames it looked like the bees were cleaning them out. I didn’t see eggs though I suppose they could have been there. It felt like a lot of open space.

Based on my inspection and our spate of warm weather (what a great spring for a first time beekeeper!) I think the bees have enough honey and I’m not going to feed them more unless something changes my opinion.

The cells on the right that look like Kix cereal are drone cells.

My friend Jamie reported to me that the burr comb with larvae in it at the bottom of the top box was probably drones. I am using foundation on my frames, which means that the bees are forced to draw out the cells to the size of the foundation. Jamie suggested that they want bigger cells for drones, so they are making those in the space at the bottom of the box. I felt terrible scraping all that combs and its larvae off. Jamie tried to reassure me by reminding me that since mites tend to like drones better, I might have helped preserve hive health by eliminating drone cells. However, I am now motivated to fix my frames with wire so that the next box can be foundationless.

I felt good about the amount of space my bees had, with most of the bottom frames having been vacated by hatching brood. It was quite exciting to see all those newly hatched cells and to realize how much my hive has grown in one month. The girls never fail to impress!

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I’ve been slightly obsessed about bee food lately, especially as I have chosen not to use pollen patties and to feed Themyscira real honey instead of sugar syrup. In the course of my musings, I have asked questions of all the beekeepers I know, read books and searched the internet for more information. Here are some of the things I have learned:

  • A hive under stress is more susceptible to disease. The stress of not having enough food, or of having to forage really hard for food, process it and care for the brood, would make bees very vulnerable to disease.
  • The hive itself has flora much like the digestive tract of the human body. If proper balance is not maintained, disease can flourish. This is a case for feeding them honey instead of sugar, so that they won’t risk a potential over growth of yeast.
  • Protein is especially important to bees in the spring when they are rearing brood. The brood needs protein (found in pollen) in order to grow. If the bees don’t have enough, they will feed the brood protein from their own bodies, which weakens them considerably.
  • City bees may have an advantage over rural bees. Bees need a diversity of pollen to supply them with all of the protein, vitamins and minerals that they need. They can’t get those things exclusively from one type of plant. So, bees that live near large mono-culture farms or bees that are used to pollinate a single crop (like almonds) for a long period of time may be weakened. Some apiarists supplement bees in these situations with pollen patties even though the bees are technically getting enough pollen. My city bees have the advantage of having many types of flowering plants and trees available within flying range of our home. Flowers bloom fairly continuously from April through August.
  • In response to my question, “Assuming we are trying to beekeep naturally, why do we even feed bees?” a wise and more experienced beekeeper reminded me that in the wild, only 20% of swarms survive. So, even if I were to assume that my new package of bees had the same characteristics as a swarm [which it doesn’t since package bees are all very young and haven’t been honey-loading], it would only have a one in five chance of making it.
  • Much of what we think we know about bee nutrition comes from commercial beekeepers, particularly beekeepers that are using their hives to pollinate crops. Commercial beekeepers have vastly different priorities than backyard beekeepers like me. I do not need my hives to be ready to pollinate the almond crops starting February 1.

I am planning to examine honey bee nutrition more in depth. I would like to compare what is known about honey bee nutrition with what is commonly used to supplement bees. My early research leads me to conclude that supplemental feeding has developed with the goals of creating enough brood for creating packaged bees and enough bees to pollinate early crops. I am curious what best practices would look like for urban backyard bees, particularly if one cares more about building a strong bee population than about harvesting much honey.

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Thursday I opened the hives for the first time since package installation. I needed to see if my queens had been released from their queen cages and I was curious to see how much of the supplemental food the bees had eaten. It was a bit rainy out and for some reason I couldn’t get motivated to start up the smoker, so I chose not to. Which worked out perfectly. The bees were busy drawing out comb, the light rain discouraged them from flying, and there wasn’t any propolis gluing the frames to the box yet, so it was a quick and easy job to inspect them.

Galactica, with bees building on four frames.

On a recommendation from Jamie, I am alternating which hive I open first. That way I won’t let nerves bias me against the first hive. Thursday it was Galactica’s turn to go first. I found that the bees were occupied drawing out comb on four frames. The queen had been released. About one-third of the sugar water had been consumed and a few bees were feeding. Despite my mesh baskets and floating corks, there were a few dead bees in the sugar water. These I dug out with a stick. I filled the sugar water feeder and closed up the hive.

Galactica's girls hard at work drawing out the comb.

Next I opened up Themyscira, which contained about twice the bees that Galactica had. At first I assumed that Themyscira must just be happier because it has the honey, so the bees weren’t all out foraging. However, the bees would be unlikely to do much foraging in the rain. A fellow beekeeper suggested that some of the bees from Galactica might have decided that they like Themysicra better and drifted over there to make themselves at home, much like the stray cats who adopt the nice next-door neighbor who puts out the good food.

Themyscira with bees building on all eight frames, and bees hitting the feeder hard!

Themyscira was full of activity. Tons of bees were at the feeder, and bees were drawing out comb on all eight frames. I spotted uncapped honey in some of the combs. The queen cage was empty. Although the honey was low, I didn’t fill it. They were doing so much work on eight frames already that I thought more honey might cause them to try to work too fast. When I inspect them again tomorrow I will see if I think they need more. I suspect they will be fine as we’ve had nice weather again this weekend.

Themyscira's girls drawing out comb. Look how many of them there are! Poor Galactica.

Today, two days later, I was considering opening up the hive again to see if I could spot eggs and to see what the balance of bees was like between T&G. I may move a frame of brood comb over to Galactica if its population stays small. However, unusual activity in the hive this afternoon made me decide to put off the inspection.

I first noticed the bees from the second story of my house. There was a whole lot of flying activity up that high. Given I have had these bees for six days, I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought to myself…Wow…that’s a lot of bees out. Why are they all flying around like that? Are they happy to see the sun? No, they must be hungry. [I have been secretly worrying about their hunger because I chose not to give them pollen patties, which sound akin to Twinkies for bees. Blech. But being new and not-mainstream, I keep second guessing myself.] I emailed my beekeepers group about the pollen patties. I went back to staring at the bees. Since these are brand new packages, I didn’t expect to see so many bees outside the hive all at once, but I attributed that to being hungry and needing to forage.

About 10 minutes later, I went outside with my kids and there was a tornado of bees around the left hive. I had just read another beekeeper’s email about swarming and I thought to myself that the bees might be swarming. Which of course makes no sense since they have plenty of room in their hive, but they were upset and there were tons of them. I decided to go investigate. There were bees everywhere, landing on every plant in the near vicinity, on the fence, on the ground, on the top of the hive. On the side wall of the hive there was a thick patch of bees, clustered together in 3×4 inch mass. There were bees entering and exiting the hive, but many of them were outside, acting upset or confused.

I went inside to don my suit, got distracted by the kids, and didn’t make it back out for fifteen minutes. And fifteen minutes later, the hives were normal again. I don’t know what occurred in that interval. I am planning to inspect them tomorrow to see if everything looks OK. From the outside, I saw bees laden with pollen entering both hives. The noise level was down. I could walk through the yard as normal. I don’t know what to make of it. Though perhaps I should consult the seismology website to see if we were having an earthquake or something!

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