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Mason bee at work.

I finally made some time to check on my mason bee cocoons a few weeks back. Mason bees are native stinger-less bees that live solitarily (not in a hive). They are great pollinators, and like most bees, need some support from the human community so that they can stay off the endangered species list. Back in the spring, I put out a bee house and some cocoons that I had purchased. The cocoons hatched readily.

For the next month, the kids and I watched the female bees return to the bee house to fill our cocoons tubes with mud and eggs. After letting them mature in the bee house for a few weeks, we moved the tubes indoors to prevent predators and parasites like birds and wasps from destroying our larvae. If we do this properly, the larvae will grow, metamorphose and hibernate until spring.

Opening the tubes reveals cocoons. So good so far!

The local bee guru who provided me with last year’s cocoons recommended opening the tubes and storing the cocoons someplace cold for winter. Opening the tubes gives you an insight into how many eggs were laid, how may male and female cocoons you have, and if there have been any problems.

Inside the first few tubes, things were looking great. A nice mix of male and female cocoons, properly formed.

The female (larger) and male (smaller) cocoons.

Then I opened a tube that had a dead worm-looking thing in it. I should have stopped there to figure out what I had in my tubes. Alas, I kept opening the tubes. I found more of the worms, and more normal cocoons. I left everything in a Tupperware, mixed together. Then, I emailed the bee guru, who responded,

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

Fossilized larvae among the mud.

Turns out that I didn’t have worms in my tubs, I had fossilized bee larvae, victims of a spore called “Foulbrood.” The good news is, it’s species specific, so my honey bees aren’t at risk. The bad news is, it’s a spore that gets everywhere. So, by mixing the dead larvae with the cocoons, I contaminated them. The bee guru recommended soaking the cocoons in a dilute bleach solution and hoping for the best, which I have done. I also have to sterilize the bee house with bleach and dump the leftover tubes instead of reusing them. So, once the holiday rush is over and I start dreaming of spring, I’ll bust out the bleach and get that little house cleaned up. Then we’ll see if any of those cocoons survived the bleach bath!

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.

Chart this one on the “stupid new beekeeper mistake” register: Never remove a frame of honey from your beehive and leave it sitting in an empty box near your hives. Not even if it’s 90 degrees outside and you are sweltering in your beekeeping suit. Not even if your cell phone alarm has just rung alerting you to the fact that you need to go pick up your daughter at camp. Not even if you promise yourself it will just be an hour until you get back to it.

Always make sure you have a plan for what you are going to do with that frame of honey as soon as you remove it from the hive. Even if you have forgotten to ask your beekeeping friends what to do beforehand. Even if the frame is covered in bees. Even if you think that they will just nicely return to the hive if you leave the frame sitting out near it.

Because that is so not going to happen.

Instead, you will return to your hive three hours later, not one. And then only because you are hearing lots of angry buzzing outside your open windows (it is 90 degrees, after all). And what you see will make you think of Walmart on Black Friday. Bees duking it out on the landing board as they try to race into your mostly empty box to be the first one to the honey frame. Several balls of bees rolling around on the top of the nearby hive, fighting over whose honey it is. Bees biting each other. Wrestling. Ganging up on bees that are trying to exit the box. Seriously, you would think they were selling $100 flatscreens to the first 50 bees into the box. It is insanity.

Apparently, that insanity has a name: Robbing behavior. It sometimes occurs in nature, when bees try to sneak or muscle their way into a different hive with the intention of stealing their honey. It can also be caused by stupid beekeepers who have heard of robbing behavior but are somehow unable to extrapolate that they can induce it by leaving a frame of honey sitting around with hopes that the bees will magically drift back to the hive and leave them with a full frame of bee-less honey.

Reality is a harsh mistress. One that demands that you suit up several times on said 90 degree day while trying various and assorted techniques, that you are making up, to get the bees to stop swarming the honey frames and to cease their fighting. You will be about as successful with your bees as you have been with your children, who now are home from their camps and cranky from the weather. And hunger. And some instinctive desire to drive you slowly crazy over the course of 10 weeks.

In your beesuit, in the hottest weather of summer, you will repeatedly relocate the honey frame. To a nuc box with a lid and an entrance reducer. To a different part of the yard. And yet another part of the yard. And another. In hopes that despite the fact that your yard has been described as “postage stamp” by professionals, you will find some hidden corner of it that will confuse the robber bees and let your original bees peacefully make their way back to the hive, as you intended in the first place.

When that fails, you will remove the landing board and cover the top of the box with a piece of plywood. Now, no one can go in or out until they have all calmed down. Time out bees.

Except that these are not ordinary bees, they are extra strong and determined bees! They push the plywood out of the way and continue their robbing behavior. They are starting to feel an awful lot like your children! So you do what any good mother would, you lock them in their room with an artful display of masking tape proficiency, hope they won’t be dead by morning and instead will have LEARNED THEIR LESSON, retreat back into the house and pour yourself a beer.

It is 90 degrees after all.

Angry balls of bees wrestle on the hive top.

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.

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.

6 queen cells on this frame.

Two more on this frame. They look empty at this moment.

My hive was really angry last week (Thursday…5 days ago) and also overflowing with bees. A fellow beek suggested it might be trying to swarm, which I was not expecting since it’s a new package, only installed 6 weeks ago. I inspected specifically for queen cells today and found 8. Eek! I have heard you can’t stop them from swarming once they get the idea in thier heads. Now what. Just wait for it? 

 

 

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!