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!

Encourage your friends and neighbors to garden organically! So many people don’t realize that backyard pesticides are harmful to bees. You can be the one to enlighten them! The girls will thank you.

Idealist Girl!

This spring I joined the ranks of the estimated 150,000 non-commercial beekeepers in the United States. Backyard beekeeping is quite the trendy hobby here in my neck of the woods, or urban forest as it were. Here in Wallingford, Seattle, I have already encountered four other beekeepers that live within walking distance. Within a few generations, our bees will probably all be cousins.

A lovely happenstance of backyard beekeeping in Seattle is that my neighbors all keep lovely gardens with plenty of plants flowering throughout spring and summer. Especially during nice warm spring seasons like this, my bees have plenty of forage from which to choose. I have always enjoyed walking through my neighborhood and admiring the lovely flowers, but I love it even more now that I am looking at them with a pollinator’s eye.

Soon I may find myself going door to door as a backyard beekeeping evangelist…

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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.

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!

At least 50 people were lined up outside Corky's house to pick up their packages of bees. It was so inspiring to be around that many backyard beekeepers, many of them beginning their first hives.

When a sunny spring day lands on Earth Day, what better way to celebrate than by setting up hives and installing bees? Since I couldn’t think of one, that’s just what I did! I now have two hives in the backyard.

The hive on the left I decided to call Themyscira, the legendary home of the Amazons (at least according to DC Comics), including one Diana of Themyscira aka Wonder Woman. Since these bees are wonder women to me, I figured Themyscira would be a good home to them. I’m calling the queen in this hive Diana, of course.

Diana of Themyscira, Queen of the Hive!

Themyscira is going to be a bit of an experimental hive. I am feeding it honey instead of sugar water and seeing what effect, if any, that has on the health of the hive. I bought honey from the local coop, so I don’t know the bees that produced it. This could prove to be problematic since it is possible that I have just imported disease spores and other maladies into the hive.

However, I feel weird about feeding sugar to bees as I just can’t see how it would be good for them. In humans, sugar can cause all manner of unhealthiness and microbial imbalance so I can’t see how it is healthy for bees. As I am learning, the hive needs to be strong in order to balance bacteria, fungus, virus and other microbes and remain strong. In humans, if the intestinal flora is out of balance, you can see thrush, infection and other disease. It seems intuitive to me that this would be the same in a hive.

When my children were infants, I chose to exclusively breastfeed them, since human milk is best for human babies whenever possible. In a hive, sugar water is like formula. Better than starving to death and good in emergencies, but whenever possible, honey, pollen and nectar are best. So, Themyscira is feeding on Northwest-produced honey that hopefully harbors no disease.

Queen Laura of Galactica

The hive on the right has been christened Galactica after our favorite sci-fi series in recent years. The Battlestar Galactica survived the Cylon attack because it wasn’t full of modern technology and relied on analog equipment. Since I am trying natural/biological beekeeping, I thought a nod to the Galactica would be appropriate. That queen will be called Laura (though Dave might prefer Model 5). As the “control hive” Galactica is getting sugar water.

At the Seattle Biological Beekeepers meeting a couple of weeks ago, I learned about a gentle package installation method which I tried yesterday. It went really well, though it was a slow process and probably would have had less success on a cold day.

The technique was simple: no smoker, no sprayer, no shaking. I made a ramp from the ground to the hive with a piece of scrap plywood.

Plywood ramp

Then, I slowly raised the sugar water can to remove the queen cage. The cage was covered in worker bees, which I gently brushed into the hive. Then I placed the queen cage on a center frame and duct-taped it into place.

Queen placed into the hive.

I carried the package to the ramp, rested it on the bottom of the ramp and removed the sugar water can. I brushed as many bees as I could into the hive from the bottom of the can. Then I placed the lid on top and set the sugar water can over the hole in the lid. I wet a cloth with honey water and painted a stripe of the honey water leading from the package to the entrance of the hive. Then I left the bees alone.

Bees wonder what the heck is going on.

At first there was a whole lot of flying around. The bees were clearly confused and disoriented. Finally a few bees followed the honey water trail to the hive entrance and disappeared into it. Once I saw that happen I went inside for lunch. I checked the bees every half hour or so. It was midday and warm, so lots of bees were still flying about. By two hours, more were starting to enter the hive. By three hours, there was a single-file line of bees marching from the package to the hive.

Bees march up the ramp into their new home.

By four hours everyone was inside and I removed the package.

The second package went a bit faster, probably because it was later in the day making the bees a bit more motivated to get inside for the night. By the two hour mark, they were all settled in except for one stubborn clump of bees that was still hanging out in the package. I saw at least a dozen bees on the outside of the package working on explaining the situation to those bees. They were gone this morning, so I am assuming the holdouts made it in before dark.

The installation process was really smooth, which gave me a spark of confidence as a new beekeeper. I’m sure that feeling won’t last long, but I was glad that the bees and I were able to start gently.

I am also glad for the little helper who materialized to assist with the second package installation. Within five minutes he had conquered his nervousness and was handling the package on his own. The littlest one made it plain that she is not about to be left out, so it looks like I will need a third bee jacket pronto!

Self portrait with bee gloves on. Needs a little work!


My bees are due to arrive in the next week and at this point I feel a bit like I did in my ninth month of pregnancy: Really ready to be done waiting, and scared to death about meeting my new babies. What if caring for these bees isn’t what if I expected? What if I kill them? What have I chosen? Luckily, I can always give the bees away if I prove an unfit caregiver, but it’s still a little nerve-wracking to be on this precipice. At least my ankles aren’t swollen!

To help prepare for my new arrivals, I attended a meeting of the Seattle Biological Beekeepers on Monday. This lovely group of beekeepers is dedicated to chemical- and pharmacological-free beekeeping, with the goal of developing locally adapted strains of bees that can withstand disease and infestation. It is an admirable goal though it seems heart-wrenching and expensive. Luckily, these beekeepers are helping me mentally prepare for colony losses in the early years. The local wisdom is that you lose many of your colonies in the first 2-3 years, but your colony losses diminish as the bees become more adapted to the region and more resilient because of the chemical-free approach. This approach fits well with my outlook on human health: that our bodies do best in healthy and low-stress environments that include access to nutritious foods, rest and supportive therapies.

Tuesday I had the good fortune to assist my friend Jamie in performing his first spring hive inspection. Jamie has two hives, and I was only able to observe one of his hives as we worked slowly so that I could learn.

Jamie opens the Blossom Bandits' Hive.

It was a super fun morning as I got practice wearing my new veil, using a smoker, and listening to the sound of the bees. Some of the things Jamie showed me were pretty dramatic, like how upset the bees get when you pop the frames to break the propolis.  He also demonstrated that bees respond really unhappily to carbon dioxide. If you puff air at them, as if you were letting out a sigh or cooling off a spoonful of soup, the bees rise up straight at your face.

Honey Comb

I was happy to get a bit acclimated to the hood, veil and gloves.  It does feel like a bit of a spacesuit and I found that my depth perception was muddled by the mesh. I received my veil as a Christmas present from my mom and I’m quite happy with it. The zipper and velcro system is set up in such a way that I can’t easily forget to seal all the parts, and it has a hat with a veil attached, not just a hood. The brim of the hat keeps the bees a good distance away from my face, which feels comforting when they are upset. Jamie has a hood-style veil and the bees were only about an inch from his face. I think that would have freaked me out.

Christmas morning 2011 - My new veil!

Jamie gave me several good tips about leveling my hives. I can tip them from back to front at a slight incline so as to let any moisture drain out of the hive. However, I want to make sure that they are level from side to side or else the bees will build the comb unevenly. Those tidbits were timely since the kids are on spring break this week and we will be getting the hives ready for action. Jamie also draws arrows on his frames so that he can orient them in the correct direction after inspecting. So I am now adding a sharpie to the collection of tools in my bee bucket.

Here are some shots of Jamie’s hives. I believe the one was inspected is called “Blossom Bandits.” We saw several drones emerging from their cells, eggs, larvae and honey stores. There were about a cup full of dead bees in the bottom of the hive but overall the bees looked vigorous (at least to my untrained eyes).

Brood cells with lots of drones.

Larvae cells and emerging drones.

My two packages of Carniolan bees are due to arrive from California later this month. Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been slowly and diligently applying paint to my new hives (which is taking FOREVER because it has been too damp for the paint to dry quickly and the garage is small, so I have to paint in small batches), I’ve had plenty of time to think about my bees and wonder what they are up to down in California. Hopefully, they are hatching, eating and enjoying some better weather than we have had!

I also got to wondering how professional beekeepers make bee packages. By exactly what means does one get three pounds of bees into a wood and mesh box? Here’s what I’ve learned:

Bee suppliers are usually located in warm regions. For the Pacific Northwest, this means California. As spring arrives earlier in southern states, the beekeepers there have more time to grow queens and divide hives. However, California, with its dry climate, does not have enough forage to support many hives of bees. So, while they can grow the bees, California beekeepers rely on beekeepers from other parts of the nation to raise them in areas with better pollen production.

Almond tree pollination, which typically runs from mid-February to mid-March, is big business in California. Commercial beekeepers from across the country ship their hives to California to overwinter and then be used for almond farm pollination in the spring. They are paid for loaning their hives for this purpose. California itself cannot support enough hives to pollinate all of the almond farms. About one million hives are trucked in each winter and head home after citrus pollinating season later in the spring.

So, now that it is April, the hives that will give rise to my packages have finished toiling in the almond orchards. The beekeepers will now be growing queens and encouraging the hives to multiply almost to the point of swarming. They will divide the hives (hopefully before swarming occurs) and set them to growing again. They may put queen excluders into the hives at this point to make it easier for them when bee packaging day arrives. Or, they may just have a team of beekeepers who find the queen in each hive when the big day arrives.

When it’s time to package the bees, beekeepers will bundle a queen and a few worker bees (as queens cannot feed themselves) into a little mini-package called a queen cage. The beekeepers will have built hundreds of larger bee packages out of wood and wire mesh, with a large hole cut out of the top for one for a can of sugar syrup to feed the bees while they are traveling to their new homes. With these things ready to go, they don their suits and get their smokers going. And while the process varies from beekeeper to beekeeper (of course!) here’s how they typically get the bees into the package.

Bee Package Components
Photo by H. Mark Delman

Team A goes to the hives with the smokers and calms the bees. If they don’t have queen excluders on the hives, then Team A also finds the queen. They pull out frames from the hive, laden with worker bees. Team B has the packages and a large metal contraption that looks like a giant pot with a metal duct growing out of its base, and a wide-mouthed funnel attached to the end of the duct. The wide-mouthed funnel fits into the sugar syrup can hole. Team A takes the frames and shakes them (pretty hard sometimes!) into the pot. The bees fall down the duct, through the funnel and into the package.

This process is repeated several times until the package has the right amount of bees in it. The right amount is determined in at least two ways. Some beekeeping outfits use scales. Others have a “fill line” on the packages. So, they add bees, shake the package so that all of the bees fall to the bottom, and then see if the package is full enough. Once the package is full, the queen cage is placed inside, a can of sugar syrup is inserted and wood is nailed over the hole to seal the package.

This video shows one beekeeper’s approach. I found it via the A-Bee Honey & Costanza Orchards. They included this sweet disclaimer on their website, “Please understand that the information presented may not reflect the same attitude and beliefs of A-Bee Honey or Costanza Orchards in the various management practices that are exhibited in these video presentations.” Which is to say, the beekeepers in this video are pretty rough with their bees and smash or vacuum up a number of them. Yikes!