I was poking around in the beehives the other day and was able to get a few cool pics. Mainly, I wanted to check on the new packages of bees I got awhile back. I just took the opportunity to look in on all of the bees as a beekeeper typically does in Spring.
Some beekeepers rarely see their queens, but I think that is usually due to inexperience and sometimes laziness. I don’t always find my queen but I always look for evidence she is healthy (that is, I look for freshly laid eggs). I can find her any time I want though. All beekeepers should spend the time to figure out how to scan frames of bees to find a queen. She moves differently than the other bees and the other bees usually give her some room as well.
I sometimes get my queens marked. The beekeeper who sells queens can mark an ink dot on the thorax of the queen to make her easier to see. The color of the dot coincides with the year she was born. In my experience, the mark tends to wear off pretty quickly but it only costs a buck or two. I think this marking is cool since it is heart shaped!
So, here are some pics I got of one of my beautiful queens, new last Fall. You can see her abdomen is significantly larger than the female worker bees around her. Notice how the workers sort of make a circle around her, all facing her ready to serve at her beck and call…or something like that.
There is a lot of other stuff to see in the hive too (click the pics to enlarge if you want to see better). The bright yellow stuff is fresh pollen. There is a lot this year and the hive is full of different colors. The brown coverings on some of the honeycomb are covering brood…baby bees pupating into worker bees. Towards the top, you can see white horseshoe shaped larva. There are several sizes representing various stages of development. Female worker bees are in the larval stage for around 5 days. After that, they pupate and turn into normal looking bees over the course of 13 or so days. All told, a bee starts as an egg and 21 days later hatches into a worker bee, ready to begin duties in the hive.
I took some more pics that turned out pretty great so I’ll share some more in the next few days…it’s bee season after all!
It’s finally Spring as far as the bees are concerned! Typically, maples are among the first things to bloom…usually in March sometime. When the maple blooms pop, I usually sigh a sigh of relief. There are no guarantees with honeybees, but once the maples bloom, bees generally can find sufficient pollen and nectar to start their spring build up and ultimately, survive.
This weekend I peeked in on the colonies and saw lots of activity! Maple pollen is a sort of greenish, grayish color and it was what I expected to see. Instead, I saw tons of bright yellow pollen! I have no idea what pollen source the bees had found but I suppose we might as well call it daffodil pollen…it was the right color and daffodils are my favorite flowers ever. Does anything smell better than a daffodil bloom in spring? No, I think not.
As I often do, I sat in front of the hives and watched the bees come and go. Spring is a wonderful time for bees…they are so focused on chasing blooms and nectar and pollen that they hardly even notice my presence. I love the opportunity to just sit and listen to their buzz and watch as they weave and bumble into the hive entrance, loaded with pollen. In addition to the pollen baskets on their legs, the honeybees seemed to be completely covered in pollen, head to stinger. I love spring in the apiary (and everywhere else too) and I can’t wait to taste this year’s honey crop! Yeah yellow pollen!
Like many folks across the country, this has been a weird winter. Honestly, it may not be so weird compared to when I was a kid, but lately, winters have been so mild. Anyhow, we had a this-year-rare nice weekend so I tromped out to my bee yard to see how my girls had fared.
Did I ever mention that there are only female bees in the hive at this time of year? You see, the males are only useful for breeding in the spring and summer when the colony may need a new queen. Queens only breed during a week or so period when they first hatch and never again. So, males (aka drones) are only good for breeding during that period when a new queen is hatched. Otherwise they just eat up resources which are precious through the winter. The females kick out all the males in the mid-Fall and make new in the spring. Males are made when the queen lays unfertilized eggs, a process she controls since all breeding happened during that one week of glory when she was first hatched.
Anyhow, I like to check on the bees on warm days to make sure they are still alive, haven’t starved and don’t have nosema (like bee dysentery). Bees “hold it” to keep the hives clean, so on a warmish day, they all need to get out and poop. Normal poop is fine but “the runs” is a bad thing so I check to make sure they are not abnormal.
So, for the most part, the colonies looked good. I may have lost one colony but that isn’t unexpected or unusual. I don’t like it, but some winter loss just happens, even in a well-managed apiary. I made some feed available in the form of sugar-water so any colony that is a little light on stores can grab a quick bit of food to get through the remaining weeks until the maples bloom and the pollen and nectar flow again. That is often at the end of February through the beginning on March but with our cold and snow, it may be a bit later. Well shall see, but for now, it looks like the bees are doing well!
Just like at my house, the queen in a bee colony runs the show! The queen bee is the mother to all of the bees in the colony who sort of live to serve her. They feed her and clean up her waste. They guard her and, based on the pheromones she releases, swarm with her when it is time to move. The temperament of the queen has everything to do with the temperament of the colony as well.
Queen bees only breed immediately after they are hatched. Once a queen leaves her queen cell where she pupated, she takes several mating flights in her first week or so where she hooks up with male drones mid-flight. Based on boy-bee anatomy, at the completion of the act, the boy parts are ripped from their bodies dooming them almost immediately. The queen may execute this breeding process 1-10 times in her first week or so and in that process stores all of the sperm with which she will populate her colony. If Africanized drones are flying near (which is a real possibility with Southern-made queens), the queen will produce bees with Africanized genetics. If crazy males are flying by, the queen will produce crazy bees. It’s a bit of a crap-shoot and the temperament of the colony will change as the queen “works her way through” the sperm she gathered during her breeding period.
Hey, here’s a fun fact…female bees, which make up the majority (~95%) of the hive, are the workers who make the honey, guard the hive, and raise baby bees. Only female bees are made from fertilized eggs. The queen lays a certain number of unfertilized eggs which become male drone bees which only exist to breed with other queens outside the hive. That is, if a nearby colony makes a new queen or if the queen in the current hives dies, drones will mate with the newly made queen (more on that in another post). If you thought life required fertilized eggs, you are wrong! Male bees come from unfertilized eggs!
Anyhow, most good beekeepers will, at some point, requeen their hives to ensure that the colony will have a good supply of female workers, to alter the temperament of the colony or to ensure that the queen is young and vigorous. The typical queen will last 5-7 years maximum and will, over that time, produce a weaker and weaker colony. In the end, she will run out of stored sperm and will make a colony full of drones which do not make honey and will ultimately die.
Last weekend was the weekend for me to requeen my colonies. Imagine if you will, looking through a colony of 60,000 bees, one of which looks a little different, and all of which are unhappy about having their home inspected. It’s like finding a slightly longer needle in a needlestack! Some beekeepers go their entire beekeeping career never seeing their queens. Those beekeepers often have trouble throughout their careers which is a shame. Anyhow, I blur my eyes a little and watch for “queen movement” She just moves differently and I can spot her easily if I look for her special “shimmy”!
Once I find her, I mash her and introduce a new queen contained in a special cage that has sugary candy in the end. The idea is that the bees will eat through the candy because it’s…well..candy. In that time, the old queen’s pheromones dissipate and the new queen’s take over. If that goes well, she is accepted and life goes on. Of course, if it doesn’t go well, they immediately kill her and I am out $25 and a lot of work. In that case, I order a new queen and try again!
As a special treat, here is a recording I made of one of my queen bees piping as she waited to be put into a colony. Piping is a way the queen communicates that she is ready to do battle with other queens and that she rules the roost…many people have never heard this sound so I am pleased to have recorded it. I only ever heard it one other time when there was a virgin queen still in a queen cell, but nearly ready to hatch. She and the old queen were throwing it down! Apparently, queen bees pipe in G#!
I’ll check next weekend to make sure all of the colonies have freed and accepted their new queens…lets’ hope for the best…long live the queen!
We pulled honey off of the hives the other day and a typical part of that process is taking a general gander (technical term) at the health of the colony. I usually look for the queen although I don’t spend a lot of time on that during the harvest. I do definitely look for eggs though. Eggs mean a queen was nearby in the last few days. I like to see a good number of worker bees and a typical brood/pollen/honey pattern in the nest. I usually get a good feel pretty quickly whether the hive is “hot” or overly defensive. In no way do I tolerate a hot hive. It’s dangerous for me, for other people and animals nearby and it is generally just not any fun whatsoever to work in a hot hive. I’ll tell you how to correct that in another post soon.
Anyhow, the other thing I do is a varroa mite check. Varroa mites (or just plain mites) are what began decimating wild honeybee colonies in the late 1980s around the United States. The mites are parasitic little pieces of evil that literally drink the bees dry. They are vectors for disease and just plain suck. I look for obvious signs of varroa mites… the mites actually hanging on the bodies of adult bees as well as for misshapen wings (they look chewed upon) that often indicate varroa. I also pop open a few capped drone cells (drones are the male bees that serve no purpose this time of year for me…queens are already mated and healthy. They will be thrown out of the hive in a few weeks anyhow.) You see, varroa like to attach to the bodies of the larva where they simultaneously mature with the bees.
So, I popped open a few cells and did indeed find varroa on some of the drones. There are several mostly effective methods to treat against the varroa and I am due for another treatment anyhow so I will add that in the next week or so. Most treatments take a few “doses” so that’s what I will do.
I also use integrated pest management (IPM) techniques including screened bottom boards and small cell honeycomb to help. Working around varroa is a necessary part of keeping bees nowadays so I just keep up on research and assume varroa exist in every hive. Following the routine has kept my bees alive and healthy for years now! I still hate those nasty little bugs though!
I am registered on all sorts of lists to catch bee swarms around Charleston. The folks at the 911 call center know me. Several exterminators know me. The Department of Agriculture folks have my number. I get lots of swarm calls. I LOVE SWARMS! Catching swarms of bees has to be my all-time favorite part of beekeeping.
A gentleman called me the other day reporting a large swarm of bees in a tree at his house. He lives within a mile or so of me so it was the perfect situation. I ran to the house, grabbed up a bunch of equipment and headed to his place where I met his family and the neighbors too. The cool thing is that I know the neighbor family. Abigail plays soccer for the neighbor and their son plays for me.
Anyhow, Abigail and I walked up to the swarm and it was a good one. It was about shoulder high on a smaller tree from which I could easily cut a branch to remove the swarm. I typically lay a sheet out, place my destination hive on top and shake the bees from the branch into the swarm box. Bees in a swarm are usually not terribly defensive. I typically approach a swarm pretty boldly to see how they roll and rarely have any issues with them. That being said, never touch a swarm of bees because there are still 10,000 or so stinging insects who don’t care much about manners. Call a beekeeper every time.
So, I sent everyone inside where they could watch from behind screened windows and started my tree trimming. Within a few minutes I had the bees in the hive and we were all done but for the crying. Wait…no crying. Just loading the bees into the car.
edit: one of the ladies took these pictures…
I think I like catching swarms for the “show-off” factor as much as anything. The two families that watched the swarm catching were curious and interested and called me crazy! It doesn’t get any better than that!
When I got home, I had three more calls from people with bee swarms…it might be a busy few weeks!
Did you ever wonder what bees do in Winter? No? Rats. Well, it’s pretty interesting actually (says the beekeeper). I was up at the apiary last weekend and wanted to check in on things. When we used to actually have cold winters, beekeepers had to make sure their bees were fed well in the fall and hope the bees had enough honey to survive the winter.
Bees huddle into a cluster when it is cold and they rub together to make heat through friction. The cluster of bees moves slowly through the hive during slightly warmer days to get to new food. When we have a normal winter, the bees slow somewhat and don’t go through lots of honey (i.e. they don’t starve to death). When it gets warm like it has been, the bees are more active than normal and tend to run through their stores of honey faster than they should. I took some sugar-water up to leave out for the bees since it is supposed to be pretty nice all week so hopefully I can balance out the increased honey consumption.
The good thing about this warmer weather is that the bees get to take a poop break. They don’t poop in their hive so they “hold it” all winter. It’s better for them if they get a break as you might imagine. Now I know you may be confused right now. I know, girls don’t poop and all of the bees in the winter hive are girls. Friends, I cannot explain it. Without any males in the hive (they are only there in the warm-weather hive), all I can figure is that some of the females turn into…well, you get it.
Anyhow, I checked out the hives and things looked good. A few bees came out in the cold to greet me and I listened to the other hives to make sure that each hive had bees. There is still a lot of winter left so who knows how things will end up, but I am hopeful for another strong start this spring!
It has been a really busy swarm season for me this year. I think the mild winter allowed a lot of bees to survive that otherwise would not have made it and many colonies started spring build-up earlier than normal. I think that I love catching swarms more than any other part of keeping bees. I like seeing them en masse out where they can be “checked out” and I love their temperament. I love being the brave bee man who dazzles audiences and makes women swoon and men blush.
Typically it is a pretty straight forward process and is actually pretty safe (for me…I know what I am doing. Do not try this at home unless you know what you are doing…10,000 angry stinging insects in a typical swarm will not end well if you do it wrong). Usually I survey the bees a few minutes before digging into the capture. The only hairy part of catching a swarm is usually climbing into the tree with a box of some sort in which to capture the bees.
I have caught two swarms recently that have been interesting though. A few weeks ago I had a message on my phone from a family who had a swarm of bees in a tree outside their home. They had small kids and were nervous of the bees being in the playyard. It was 8:30 pm or so when I discovered the message so I headed to their place a town west of where I live. By the time I got to their place, it was 9:15 or so at night. After driving, I wasn’t about to walk away from a nice swarm, dark or not. The man of the house left a spotlight aimed up in the tree while I climbed into the tree. I was able to scoop the bees into my box and climb back down in the dark. Luckily, that went off without a hitch. Catching a swarm after dark is not a good thing though. Usually bees disturbed after dark assume the perturber is a bear or other critter which has bad witchery in mind. Luckily, I did not smell like a bear I guess!
Sunday, I was at our place in the country for a little bit to do some work and I needed to attend to the call of the water gods. As I completed the…uh…task, I happened to turn my head to the right and not 18 inches from my face was a huge swarm of bees. I was near the bee yard so I assumed the buzzing noise was from the bee yard, not from a swarm hanging right beside me. It was pretty exciting to see the swarm pretty close to ground level but I was without a bee suit. “What should I do?” I asked myself. “Be a honey badger (some language)of course!” So, without a suit, I proceeded to gently cut the inch thick branch from the tree and move the swarm to the hive box I happened to have sitting in the bee yard. A number of bees fell on my sleve but I only got one sting…one sting from a bee anyhow. Somehow in the process of moving the swarm, I skidded the handsaw across my hand which left a lovely opening in my skin.
Well friends, I do love catching swarms but I cannot really suggest that anyone catch swarms after dark or without a bee suit. In both cases it turned out fine, but unless you are a fool or a beekeeper who rocks like KISS (I will leave you to decide which case describes me), you should catch swarms in the usual and safe manner. Sometimes I get swarm-drunk (Wasn’t KISS drunk a lot of the time? hint, hint) and can’t help myself!
I know keeping honeybees isn’t for everyone but I remain fascinated by them. This weekend, Isaac and I moved the last of the bee hives that were here in Charleston out to our place in the country. It’s perfectly legal to keep bees in Charleston and WV has a very progressive apiary law that makes it safer for everyone involved. Still, after my episode a few summers ago, I decided that I would no longer keep bees in the city.
Anyhow, I opened the bee hives after the move and took a good look around. I am always amazed that they can survive on the back of a trailer, bumping around up my dirt road and across the hayfield. The bees did great though. I took this video with my phone and was super amazed with the quality of what came out. I hope you enjoy a look at the bees and see how cool they are, even if from across the internets!
Part of moving the bees to our place in the country is so they can be out of town and away from people. Of course, getting away from people means getting them closer to good old mother nature herself. For anyone who has read Winnie the Pooh, you know that bears like honey when they get a rumbly in their tummies.
Not much will really stop a hungry bear, but the official recommendation is to enclose all “country bees” in an electric fence. When a bear attacks a hive, the bees always come out in great number to ward off the attack. Bear fur is typically too thick to present a problem. The only sensitive place on a bear is apparently their nose/mouth area. While my electric fence is a little more “juiced” than a bee sting, most folks agree that a bear has to learn about the fence with their mouth or nose. I’ll talk more about that another time, but it makes sense that an electric fence properly set up should deter all the Poohs out there.
So, you may be wondering how solar power can deliver enough juice to make a bear even notice it was there. It turns out that the people who make electric fence controllers make a version that runs on DC (i.e. deep cycle batteries, not house current which is AC). The controller I bought is designed to power up to 25 miles of fence. All told, I have maybe 1000 feet of wire strung on a few poles, so the charger will deliver a good shot when it fires. I won’t bore you with the calculations about the capacity of the battery but it is roughly the size of a car battery just for perspective (a car’s starter battery would not work here though…this application needs a long continuous draw on the battery rather than the quick hit when you start a car)
The instructions show that the fence will run for 2 weeks on a fully charged battery of the proper specs but I do not want to have to worry about whether the battery is still charged if I don’t make it out there for a few weeks. Instead, I bought a solar panel and a charge controller to keep the battery full.
I pointed my solar panel south and angled it to the optimal angle to get direct sun. Output wires from the panel go into the charge controller which regulates the power going into the battery. The charge controller makes sure the power is the proper voltage and that the battery does not get over or under charged. The charge controller also has a “load” connection so I connected the fence controller to that connection and we’re off and running! All of the charging/controlling/shocky-shocky stuff is inside a beehive surrounded by my other beehives as a sort of a theft deterrent.
Oh, by the way, without thinking I tried to use a regular household switch at the gate to turn the power on and off. Of course, the fence controller pushes somewhere around 10,000 volts which didn’t even slow down for the switch rated for household current of 110 volts. If you want a switch, make sure you get one rated properly…same with any wire you may need to use (I only used fencing wire which handles the charge nicely)
So, I hope some of that makes sense. So far it is alive and well. Let me know if you want more details…