About a month ago, I got a call from a local woman who had a bee problem. As a flower gardener, she knew she had bumblebees rather than honeybees, my usual bugs of choice, but she hoped I could help her. In her gardening efforts, she was getting stung as she worked near their colony. You see, in her beautiful flower garden, a nest of bumblebees had taken up residence in one of her birdhouses.
I’ve never kept bumblebees, but I like all of the flying creatures with the word “bee” in their name so I said I would come and take a look. From talking with my grandpa a dozen or so years ago, I remembered that bumblebees do indeed make honey. As a kid, he said he and his siblings used to follow bumblebees back to their nest to collect the small caches of honey they made. Grandpa described their unusual-looking nest (better pictured here than my trying to describe it) and talked about the fun he had chasing after them.
Isaac and I entered the woman’s garden and found, on an eye-level shepherd’s crook, a little birdhouse filled with a bumblebee nest, just as she reported. I told her I didn’t think I could get the bees out and she said, “Oh no, of course not, just take the house and all if you want to.” Of course, I wanted to so Isaac and I wrapped it in a sheet, returned home and placed it on a shepherd’s crook in my yard where it remains, still full of bumblebees.
I am not sure how/if they will winter there, but I am inclined to leave it alone and see what happens. They have been a delightful addition to the yard and garden and we have enjoyed seeing them on blooms all over the yard!
Quite a title, I know, but that’s what it’s called in the beekeeping world. This weekend, I looked into my colonies and added honey supers as necessary in preparation for the honey flow which starts soon in WV. I mostly found good colonies with healthy queens, good worker build-up, plenty of eggs and larvae, etc. In one hive, I found a problem though.
Sometimes, when a hive loses its queen, the infertile female worker bees sort of change into queen-wannabees. Every hive needs a queen to survive as she is the one which controls the mood of the hive, ensures future bees and generally runs the show. When a colony goes queen-less, all of that falls apart. Something in a number of worker bees triggers and they begin to sort of convert into queen bees. These infertile bees are called laying workers. Their bodies begin producing eggs. Since the aren’t really queens though, they cannot fertilize the eggs and something is just not right about how they roll…they don’t know how to properly lay eggs like a real queen would.
Instead of laying a single fertile egg in the center of each honeycomb, laying workers lay multiple eggs in the honeycomb, on the honeycomb walls, heck, sort of everywhere. If the eggs develop into anything, they would turn into male drone bees but in most cases, they are just junk and signal the end of a hive.
Some beekeepers used to say that they could save the non-laying workers by shaking all of the bees out of the hive at some distance, say 500 yards, from the original location. The idea was that, like a typical real laying queen, laying workers would not really fly and so would die where they were shaken out (queens can fly…when they breed in their first week or so after emerging from a queen cell and when they swarm…in both ). Non-laying bees would return to the hive where the beekeeper could install a new fertile queen.
Research has shown that it doesn’t really work that way though…or not consistently. I prefer to shake the bees out and remove the actual hive from the location where it once stood. Any bees that return have to either transition into a nearby hive that will not tolerate laying workers or die where their old hive stood. It’s a harsh reality I suppose but the only viable solution in my yard. Sometimes it happens which is a drag, but I am pleased that I have a good number of healthy hives that will hopefully produce a lot of good honey…if the predicted frost tomorrow doesn’t kill all of the nectar-producing blooms!
We seem to be running around a lot lately but I can’t tell you much of anything that we have done that was either interesting or productive. I guess that’s just how things are nowadays. As a reprieve from the apparent chaos in our lives, I thought I would take a few pics of the critters around our place…some of which I care for, some of which I do not.
Of course, the chickens are as crazy as always. They are laying eggs but it is pretty haphazard. I get at least one egg per day and sometimes 4. I never get 2 green eggs a day as I should be though so either one of my Easter-eggers is not laying at all or they alternate pretty wildly. I figure I’ll let Spring kick in a little farther before I worry too much about it. Neither Easter-egger seems to be having any problems so I don’t think they are egg-bound or anything like that. I figure it might be light or cold related.
My favorite bird is Fezzik. She’s a nut but super loyal to me. She runs to me every day and demands to be petted, even if for half a minute. The other birds, except Houdini, will tolerate petting, but Fezzik demands it. The kids feel trepidation as they get cornered by her looking for a quick pet. Maybe it’s good to keep them on their toes!
I looked in on the bees a few weeks ago when we had a really nice day. Everyone had come out for a quick poop and stretch of the wings. I’ll look in again in the next week or so and get a better sense of how this Spring and Summer will progress. It was a super cold and slightly longer than usual Winter this year so this might be interesting. I suppose the bears are out of hibernation now and still no evidence of one coming by to look at the hives makes me happy. I know there are bears near my ridge so let’s hope they don’t like the electric fence!
I didn’t order any bees this year. I had to many last year and it was more work than I wanted. I plan to just focus on keeping these colonies healthy and hopefully productive. I will definitely re-queen in the early Fall to ensure healthy stock going into next Fall.
We have a new guest around the house too. We used to have a neighbor who collected cats. By “collected” I mean bring home and turn loose in the neighborhood. She didn’t care for them and get them fixed. She has since moved away and the population thinned significantly. Only two of the original 20 or so remain. With only 2 outside cats wandering around, our squirrel and bird populations have finally started to recover. I guess I like most creatures and have a live-and-let-live attitude about even the ones I don’t like. But especially, I like to watch squirrels wander around doing squirrelly things. I caught this guy munching a hickory nut watching me get ready to take a drive. Two separate times he watched me. The second time I got within 3 feet of him. Maybe the nuts he was chewing was especially tasty. For his sake, I hope he recognizes that although I am friendly, the remaining two cats might not be as pleasant!
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!
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!
Isaac was mowing the yard at my office tonight which gave me a little time to take in the local wildlife…and a lot of pollen and chlorophyll. Mostly there were stink bugs and flying whatnots but there was one extremely huge bumblebee with which I made friends.
Emily really hates dandelions but I think they are sort of nice. I mean, in the spring time, all of the colors are so bold and bright…and it doesn’t get much bolder or brighter than dandelions. My bumblebee obviously agreed as he was all over the flowers that Isaac was mercilessly slaying!
It’s taken me awhile to fully appreciate the lowly bumblebee. When I was a kid, I spent every weekday at the local swimming hole. I mean 100% of days. There was a “beach” set up along one of the local creeks in Tionesta, PA where I grew up. They had a concession stand and..well, that’s about it. But still, it was the beach. Anyhow, there was a ton of clover and back then, honeybees were still common. Between the honeybees and the bumblebees, I got many stings and I hated that. Heck, I have been stung so many times since then, I guess I have made peace.
Most small critters fascinate me but I think bees of all sorts are among the tops in my book! So, my bumblebee and I will check in each week as Isaac cuts the grass…as long as I can keep Emily from plowing under all of my dandelions!
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!