The Split


Over at the garden, we’ve encountered a number of issues this summer including a swarming hive, a queenless hive, and a virgin queen that missed her mating window. While we may be losing one hive, we were able to split a very strong hive into two hives about a month ago.

Typically, what happens is that the hive will become so strong and full of resources that they decide to swarm and reproduce as I’ve talked about in previous posts. As I noticed my hive was preparing to swarm, I decided to beat them to it and simulate a swarm by splitting the hive in two. Ideally, you take half the hive which includes frames of honey, frames of eggs, frames of larvae, and frames of capped brood to start a split hive.  It is important to take bees in all stages of brood development to ensure that there have a consistent build up in population and avoid any dips in numbers.

What was unusual about my split is that I believed that not only did my bees want to swarm, but they also wanted to replace the current queen.  I believe I had a faulty queen in both of my hives (roof & garden) due do negligent treatment from my bee supplier. If you remember, in my roof hive, they replaced the queen as well.


Luckily, when I was preparing to split, I spotted a virgin queen. You can tell that she is a virgin because her abdomen is short and not engorged with sperm glands from male bees.


Actually, after spotting her I decided I would not split the hives assuming she had killed the other unborn queens. The day before splitting I had done an inspection and found at least a dozen capped swarm cells.


You can see in the photo above, the queen never emerged from this cell. Instead, the virgin queen stung her through the cell wall, killing her. The worker bees must have been quick to remove her carcass.


By the time I made it down to the bottom super, I found that the virgin queen had destroyed most of the other capped queen cells with the exception of a few she missed.

Having found queen cells still in tact, I planned to do the split once again. However, there were not nearly as many queen cells as I had spotted the day before. The virgin queen may have emerged from one of these and killed a few off. It is also possible that the worker bees aborted some of them.


So treating the virgin queen as if she was the mother queen, I moved her to the split along with many of her undeveloped sisters (the worker bees, of course). After setting the hive up with the apiary, I did my best to make sure they had an even amount of resources. My hope at this point was that the split hive bees would acknowledge this as their new home and not retreat back to the parent hive. To help this, I put obstacles in front of the entrance to cause the bees to do reorientation flights.  This was somewhat successful.

I was also hoping that the virgin queen would take a successful mating flight. Additionally, over in the parent hive, I was hoping a new virgin queen would emerge from one of the queen cells and also take a mating flight. Splitting hives is never guaranteed.  A new queen might not emerge, might not mate, or might get killed on her mating flight (tasty snack for a bird).

Usually one hive contains the mother queen bee and the other contains her daughter queen bee.  In my situation since the mother queen bee was rejected and probably destroyed, these two hives are actually sister queen bees.


I am happy to report that I saw signs of healthy mated queens in both hives. The older sister’s name is Beeatris II and the younger one is Gabee. The queen on my roof is Beeyonce II. The split hive was a little low in numbers, just as I had expected.  To give them a boost, I took two frames of capped brood from my roof hive and put them into the split hive.


Hopefully they continue to rake in the honey and build up strongly before winter!

When Everything Looked Great*


Oh the good times.. when the queen was laying and the worker bees were bringing in honey and pollen. Where did those times go? Okay, that is a bit dramatic. In reality, this summer has the potential to create some strong colonies and produce lots of sweet, sweet, honey.

*Over at the garden, we’ve already dealt with Spencer’s hive swarming. My hive has had a great start to the beekeeping season with a few issues along the way.


All the rain we have been having has been great as the bees have been raking in the nectar and making honey.


Before installing this hive, I converted my solid bottom board into a screened bottom board. This allows better airflow in the hive and also helps control varroa mites.  When the varroa mites fall off a bee, rather than climbing back up and into the brood chamber, they fall through the screen and out of the hive. Unfortunately, the screen mesh I installed was just big enough for bees to squeeze through when entering and exiting the hive. When they squeeze through, the mesh scrapes their pollen baskets and flicks the pollen granule to the floor. What you see in the photo above is a pile of pollen under the hive. There has been a lot of pollen this year and I know they have also brought pollen in from the front, so I am not too concerned.


Bee pollen is actually a super nutrient. Some people take bee pollen as a natural energy supplement. It also has a very interesting taste and texture. The bees won’t recollect the pollen once it has fallen on the ground. Rather than let this pollen go to waste, I collected most of it and put it in a jar in my fridge that I snack on from time to time. Just another delicious byproduct of beekeeping.


Here is a great example of a good laying pattern.  You can see a little white rice-shaped egg in each empty cell. When a healthy queen is laying properly, the pattern is densely clustered, with one egg per cell.


The egg develops into a larvae and eventually capped with wax. The capped larvae is the final stage of brood before hatching into a baby bee. Again this is a very dense pattern, which is great.


Honey is also capped with wax. After the bees bring in nectar, they wait until they have the right level of moisture in the cells before capping it off, which is when it is officially considered honey.


With a hive is thriving and doing great with resources, it is only natural that the bees start to consider swarming.  Here are two queen cups the bees have created in preparation to swarm. Looks like I will have some work ahead of me.


The Failing Queen


The summer solstice has passed and I continue to see a lot of new things from the bees and continue to learn.

In the first few inspections of the hives, things couldn’t have looked better. I have 20 frames that already have comb built in each hive. This saves the bees some work as they begin foraging for nectar and pollen.

Initially, both queens were laying eggs like pros- very dense patterns of eggs and looking really healthy. However, the queen on my roof has since had some troubles. In fact, as of now I can confirm her absence. Three weeks ago I did an inspection and could not find the queen, but more importantly, I did not see any eggs. I did see some larvae, which tells me she was there days ago, but eggs would have been evidence that she was present. In my inspection two weeks ago and the one I did last week there were certainly no eggs and no queen.


There were some queen supersedure cells (as seen in the middle of the photo above), indicating the worker bees believe the queen is failing and want to replace her. Initially, I thought they were preparing queen cells to swarm, but now those cells are gone and only the supercedure cells remain.

I chose not to interfere and let the bees do what is best for themeselves. I was hoping the supercedure cells would result in a healthy queen bee. The only way for the bees to raise a new queen is to take a female egg laid by the previous queen and implant it into a queen cup.


Lo and behold, in my last inspection I spotted the new queen! She is a virgin queen at the moment, but soon she will take her first mating flight. If everything goes right she will start laying within 2-3 weeks.


Before spotting the queen I came across this one bee getting a lot of attention from the others.  At first I thought I may have found the queen, but then I noticed the poor bee was paralyzed in her back portion of her body. The others are simply trying to help.


If the bees were unsuccessful at rearing a new queen, I could have ended up with a laying worker. Worker bees only lay drones (males), which are not productive for the hive other than mating with the queen. So this would mean the downfall of the colony.

Alternatively, I could have ordered a queen for $30 plus a rush delivery fee by mail and try to have her accepted by the worker bees. There’s always the chance they would reject and destroy her. Or a queen might have been born without me knowing and would kill the new queen. So I decided let the bees sort it out and that’s exactly what they did.


Here is a drone as he emerges from his birth cell. Those are some big eyes he has.

There is still a frame of capped brood from the previous queen, which gives me hope that there will still be enough bees to nurse the brood the new queen lays. Typically, the lifespan of summer bees are around 4 weeks. The gestation period of a honeybee is about 21 days. This means that there will be a lull in bee population for a few weeks while my new queens eggs/larvae are developing.

I really need this queen to get productive- and quick.

At least my bees are not likely to swarm at this point. They are pulling in nectar like crazy and I would love for this to continue. This could be a good year!

Hoping for the best!

The Swarm


Wow.  There has been a lot of craziness lately. Trying to manage two hives, mentor a new beekeeper, and updating a blog is tough to keep up.  Let me start by saying we’ve had an unusually cool and wet spring and summer to this point.  The rain has been great for crops and vegetation allowing the bees to have plenty of nectar and pollen to source.  However, with too much rain the bees do not have a chance to leave the hive and forage.  Lately, we’ve had a good mix of sunshiny days with rainy days.  The heat is also a positive factor at this point, helping wake up the hive in morning at get busy.  (what’s your productivity level like when you wake up on a sunny day versus a gloomy gray day?)

Before I post about my hive inspections, I would like to cover an amazing phenomenon of nature- the swarm of a honeybee colony. The focus of this post will cover the recent swarming activities of Spencer’s hive.  Spencer is the beekeeper I am mentoring who has a hive next to my hive in the Met West Community Garden.  The photo above was taken in the garden where the hives are located.  The bees decided to take a temporary residency 25 feet up on a branch.


There are a lot of factors to understand about a swarm in terms of What, When, Where, Why, and How.  I am far from an expert on this and still learning, but I will do my best to explain.


What is a swarm?

In very simple terms, a swarm is a mass of honeybees. Although a swarm of bees tends to frighten people, they are actually very docile in this state as they are bloated with honey (cannot flex their abdomen to sting) and they don’t have a hive to protect.  It is common to see them cling to something like a tree limb, a chainlink fence, or even a brick wall.


Why do bees swarm?

In a nutshell, honeybees will swarm in effort to start a new honeybee colony.  It is their natural means of reproduction.  In preparation of swarming, the bees do many things differently in the hive.  Most noticeably to beekeepers, the bees will prepare a swarm cell (or queen cell) at the bottom of a frame to create a new queen.  The swarm will leave with the residing queen before the new queen is born.  You can see in the image above that there are several swarm cells at the bottom of the frame (those peanut shaped cells).  In the foreground is a capped swarm cell, meaning the queen is days away from emerging.


Often bees prepare queen cups in case the need arises to replace the queen or if they feel they must swarm, which become queen cells once an egg is placed inside and the bees begin the queen rearing process.


Bees feel the need to swarm if things get too crowded in the hive.  This is a sign of a healthy colony as the population is so great, they feel overcrowded.  Beekeepers can prevent a swarm through a number of measures.. however as we learned, this does not always work. This photo illustrates just how overpopulated the hive was.


Here is Spencer as he initially enters the hive, unknowing what’s to come..

One measure to take is to give the bees more space by adding a super on top.  The beekeeper can also checkerboard dense brood frames with empty cell frames to create more open space.  Removing the swarm cells will also help prevent a hive from swarming.


However, yesterday we removed 6 capped swarm cells and 8 queen cups with eggs from Spencer’s hive.  This morning, they swarmed.  We were too late in our efforts.  Now we had issue that we had just killed and removed any new potential queens for the worker bees that stayed behind.

Another option would have been to forcefully split the hive into two hives, one retaining the old queen and the other with several queen cells.  These queen cells would produce several queens to fight to the death to take leadership of the hive. This method is known as creating a split.  This would have also prevented the swarm.  We didn’t do this because we did not have the equipment or permission at this point to create a new hive at the garden.  We also thought we had taken necessary measures already to prevent them from swarming. We were wrong.


Currently, there sits a swarm of bees 25 feet up in the tree at the community garden.  Without a ladder or any method to capture the bees we turned to plan B.  Luckily Mike had a swarm lure, which is an oil based liquid that attracts swarming bees (smells similar to lemongrass oil).  The plan was to place this in an empty hive about 200m away.  The smell of the lure would be quite strong and permeate throughout the neighborhood (only bees can smell it).  Hopefully the swarm of bees send a scout to check it out and report back to the swarm that she has found their new home.


Here is Spencer explaining to the neighbors why they saw mass of thousands of bees flying around earlier that day.  Although they were frightened at first, after discussing what happened, one of the neighbors was interested in joining us on a hive inspection sometime.

Meanwhile, I am taking other swarm preventative measures in my own hives…….. we’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: The swarm was lost. Spencer was keeping an eye on it through the afternoon and the swarm took flight and headed north.  He tried to track them, but they moved too quickly.  Hopefully they found a good home in a hollow tree or something. Hoping they did not decide to take residence in a cavity of a building where they might become a nuisance.

A sad day to be a beekeeper :(


I regret to share with you that I have lost my honeybee colony. Deceased. Not only did my hive die, but both of Mike’s hives did as well. We knew it would be a tough winter after such a poor summer last year, but we did not expect to lose all 3 hives.

It was warm enough today to peak inside the hive and lay a pollen patty on top. Pollen patties supplement the bees’ diet with proteins that plumpen them up and stimulate brood rearing. This would have helped them have a strong start to the spring. Given that we have some warm weather ahead of us, upwards of 55 degrees, now is the time for pollen patties.


We started with Mike’s small hive and quickly noticed zero activity. It was quite a shocker, to be honest. I felt my heart sink to my stomach. For some reason, in my mind I had told myself that all three hives would survive.


We had the roof shingles attached to the sides as insulation, so we couldn’t immediately go down through the hive. So it was onwards to the next hive- my hive. At this point, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I removed the bricks and lifted away the telescoping cover to reveal the inner cover which has a small opening in the middle. Again, instantly zero activity.  As I cracked open the inner cover, I saw a couple bees frozen in place, as if I hit pause on a video.


As I peered down between the frames it was clear to me that everything was lost. I pinpointed the cluster of bees and where they met their end.


I pulled out a couple of frames and found some bees head first in the cell. Their final attempt to stay warm.


We moved on to Mike’s other hive and it was the same story. All were dead. This is the only one of the 3 hives that had made it through the winter last year. It was the most promising.


Here are some of the frames as we pulled them and cleaned the dead bees out. You can see there is still a good amount of capped honey in these frames. We fully disassembled the hives for cleaning and then put them back together for storage. A sad sight.


Why did they die?

We can’t be certain why they died, but we do know a number of contributing factors.

Varroa Mites – This is probably the main cause. Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that feed on the bees. They weaken and shorten the life span of the bee from which they feed. We found a lot of mites in the piles of dead bees. There tends to be a certain level of mite infestation in most colonies. Some people use chemicals to treat for them or alternative methods to encourage hygienic behavior among the bees. Looking back, we could done more to manage the mites.

Low Population – Ultimately, the mites lower the population of the bees going into winter. Whether or not the low population was because of the mites, it means there are fewer bees to cluster and keep warm, leaving them more susceptible to cold temperatures.

Freezing Temperatures – A strong colony of bees can survive in temperatures down to -30 degrees F, provided they are protected from the wind, have proper ventilation, and have a strong population to keep warm. In our case, the low population ultimately caused them to freeze and shut down indefinitely.

One of our biggest fear going into the winter was that they would not have enough food to make it to the spring. The bees must have died in January or February because there was still a lot of honey in the hive. I probably have a good 20-30 pounds in there.


You can see here among the beeswax and pollen, a good number of varroa mites. They are the small elliptical-shaped black dots. The number of them here in relation to the number of dead bees is high. This indicates we had quite an infestation.

What happens next?

Well, it’s time to suck it up and move on. It’s time to order another package of bees. A package of bees will run me anywhere from $75 to $100. This is assuming there are still packages available for sale. March is pretty late to be ordering packages. I will have to call on Monday to a few places and see if they have any available for April pick-up.


I do plan on taking some of the honey my bees left behind. I will probably take 2 or 3 frames worth of honey, which will be a few jars. I am going to save the rest and use it to hopefully jump start my next package of bees, giving them a strong start to the season and strong colony by next winter to make it through to the following year.

Also, I will end this with some exciting news. I am going to be starting a beehive at the Met West Community Garden in East Village. I have already ordered my package of bees for that. So there will definitely be bees in my life in 2013. During the summer I am going to invite members of the community garden to join me on inspections and hold educational sessions on honeybees.

Another thing I am planning to do in a couple months is try to catch a swarm of bees. This will be an adventure and merits a blog post on its own. Mike will not be ordering a package of bees and will be depending on catching a swarm, which will be tricky.

The Move: 3 hives, 3 stories down, 4 stories up

The dreaded hive move.  Last month I moved out of my apartment into my new condo about a mile away.  The bees would wait to be moved until last weekend, going from a 200 sq. ft deck to a 1100sq. ft rooftop.
Overall, it appears to have gone well, but not without a few hickups along the way.  We moved one hive from my old apt porch to my new rooftop.  We also moved two hives from my friend Mike’s porch to my new rooftop.  I am hosting his hives since he is moving out of his apartment into an apartment that has no outdoor space for hives.  All of the hives travelled roughly under a mile.  There’s a rule of thumb that you need to move a hive either 2 feet or 2 miles- anything in between and the bees may return to their original location. Each hive weighed anywhere from 100-180 lbs.


We moved the hives a night, ensuring that most, if not all the bees would have returned to the hive. My hive was first up. To prepare them for the move, I screwed thin planks of wood on 3 sides of the hive, to ensure no supers would shift during the move. There were a significant amount of bearding bees in the front of the hive.  Luckily, I was able to duct-tape screendoor material over all the bees and the front entrance.  Then I crisscrossed ratcheting straps across the top of the hive just to be sure nothing would shift.


They were all packed up and ready to be moved. I made one silly mistake.  Knowing that the bees were enclosed, I removed my gloves and veil. Then one bee stung me through the screen when I first lifted the hive.. oops.  But from there with that hive, it was smooth sailing.


Next was Mike’s two hives, one was in its 2nd year and the other was a split.  We packed his hives up the same we did mine.


Mike’s bees were bearding far less than mine was.  I think his entrance was much smaller than mine.


Things were going well, until we were bringing the first hive up the indoor 4 story stairwell of my condo building.  These bees were irritated and angry.  I would be too if someone picked up my home and shook me around in the back of a pickup truck. After about a 1/2 story up the stairs, we noticed some bees were escaping.  Then one landed in my hair and was buzzing away.  Of course I swatted it away, but it stuck in there for about 10 seconds.  Finally, I knocked it away and it fell on my neck and gave me a good sting.  At this point we were panicking.  It was about 12:30 in the morning and we were making all sorts of noise in the stairwell.  We tried moving up, and Mike took a couple stings on his leg.  We tried duct tape a sheet around the hive, but that didn’t help.  Finally, we just rushed it up the stairs to the rooftop.  At this point, there were at least 100 bees that were aggressively flying throughout the stairwell. We had no choice, but to start swatting them quietly and clean them up off the floor.


It didn’t appear that any of the neighbors took notice.  At the moment, the 3 hives are on my rooftop, still with the screen over the entrance, but the morning I cut about a 2 inch slit in each one.  We put branches and leaves in front of the hive.  This will cause exiting bees to orient themselves to the new location of their hive.  Mike has already noticed a few bees back at his apartment. One of his hives had bees flying around it, maybe reorienting themselves.  His other had bees sitting on the outside of the screen.  My hive was completely sealed until I cut open the screen, but then they appeared to be coming out slowly crawling through the branches and leaves.


Hopefully they will settle in nicely.

My Bugs Have Bugs

More appropriately, my bees have mites.. varroa mites that is. I found this out after Mike was browsing my blog and sent me an email after seeing multiple photos with mites on the abdomens of a couple bees.  He tells me though that mites are common in many hives.  There’s a good chance my bees can manage the mites themselves without me taking any action.  I definitely prefer to to stay chemical-free and treat them only if necessary.

Here is an image of the mites CAUGHT IN ACTION crawling across a brood cell in my hive.

What do the mites do?
When trying to understand mites, one might compare them to ticks.  Basically, they suck on the bees.  This makes them more susceptible to disease. As the mites get into the hive, they hide in the brood cells, sometimes more than one mite in a cell.  The basically lay their eggs in there and when the bee hatches, the mites hatch as well.  The mites prefer drone cells because the drones are larger and thus mean more bee for the mites to prey on.

Where did the mites come from?
My mites came with the bees when I ordered them and I just haven’t noticed them until now. I got my bee package from Apple Blossoms Farm in Indiana.  Luckily, I found out my queen is a Minnesota Hygenic Queen, which means her and her offspring do fairly wellwith control mites and disease.

What can I do to treat or prevent mites?
It is possible to treat the mites with various chemicals or essential oil alternatives.  One chemical-free method that is fairly common is to sprinkle powdered sugar on the bees in masses.  This is safe for bees and causes them to clean themselves. In the process of picking the sugar off their backs, they pick the mites off as well.

Before taking these measures, what I did is replace my bottom board with a screened bottom board.  Essentially, instead of having a wooden board at the bottom, there is a screen.  When the mites fall from the bees, they fall through the screen and out of the hive. Otherwise, the mites would have the opportunity to crawl back up and into the frames.  The screened bottom board also provides adequate ventilation, especially once we get into these hotter summer months.  Come winter time, I may need reduce the amount of air that comes in.

Visit to Mike’s Hive

Looks like we should have a warm week ahead for the bees to be flying around and foraging. I just wanted to share something I experienced this past weekend. I had met up with Mike M., another beekeeper in the Wicker Park area. He has been working with bees for about 2.5 years. His hive was started last Spring and made it through the winter strongly, so strong that the hive is very populated. Mike had noticed signs of swarm preparation, lots of brood cells and a lot of dense areas of bees. (I should note that the photo above is a result of accidentally dropping a frame loaded with bees on it.  They are simply making their way back to the hive).

 Over at his place we went into the hive. His plan was to rearrange the supers so the heaviest one would be at the base to help the bees think that there was room in the supers above. However, when we got down to his lowest super, it too was jam packed with bees. We saw several queen cells. At one point, when he was lifting a middle super it separated some burr comb and in this action, it actually opened up a queen cell. We saw the queen in that cell, and I guess we were so dumb founded, we didn’t know what to do. Sure enough, the new young queen crawled out of the cell and into the hive. We were certain it was a queen based on the size of her abdomen. So I guess he should be expecting a swarm in the next 24 hours, or so.


There are a couple really interesting things going on in this photo. This is a photo of after Mike lifted a super up and broke some burr comb. First, that white looking bee is a drone larva in a development stage. Secondly and more importantly, in the center a bit to the lower left there is a queen cell. The cap of the cell was removed when the super was lifted out.  What you see right there is a new queen bee emerging from her queen cell. As you might know, a hive has only one queen. This hive now has two queens. From my understanding one of two things will happen, or possibly both.  One, the two queens with fight to the death. Two, the older queen will swarm away from the hive with half the bees. I say both could happen because the old queen could kill the new queen and then still decide to swarm because the other bees still smell her pheromones.  Also, there are at least 2 other queen cells that could potentially produce more queens.  From my understanding the bees are creating these queen cells because they believe their hive is too full and must propagate.

Oops. Flopped on her back and is momentarily stuck.

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