When Everything Looked Great*

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Failing Queen

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 :(

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.