Saturday, September 20, 2014

He bee? Gee, bees!

Yes, we are talking about drones today – the male of the species. There was some discussion about titles for the blog today – Drone It Make You Want To Go Home, and Droneo oh Droneo. All three are relevant. Drones are the playboys of the hive set. They’re born, they mate, and they die. Well, if they’re lucky, they mate (although that could be subject to interpretation, I suppose).

Today, while watching the hives in action (a not rare pastime around here), we were able to see the drones outside the hives. The workers were working – some bringing in absolutely HUGE loads of pollen, some cleaning, some defending the hive. The worker bees are all – surprise, surprise – female. The workers are the smallest bees in the hive. The drones are slightly bigger, and the Queens outsize them all. We’ll talk more about the workers, and the Queens, later on in the year. Right now, it’s drone time! (although we were absolutely thrilled to see so much pollen being gathered at this time of year).

Drones – they take the longest to mature (no, we shouldn’t be surprised at that, should we?). They are distinctive because of their size, but also because of their huge eyes. You would think that they are built this way in order to better defend and protect the hive, but no. They have no stinger, so they are not a defensive creature. When they hatch, they are fed and cared for by the workers. Then they leave the hive during the day to try to find some sweet new Queen bee on one of her (usually) three nuptial flights. When they do find one, they lay on the charm, hoping to be one of the twenty or so men she will take a shine to. Here’s the thing though – once they have mated with her, that one time, they die, because she rips off their reproductive organs and carries them with her. She stores the sperm in her spermatheca where she can then get it when she is laying her eggs (which she will do all day, every day, for the rest of her life).

Worker bee on the left side of the opening, drone on the right.
See the difference in their eyes. 
When the hive needs drones, the Queen will lay unfertilized eggs that will then become males. She never breeds again, other than on her nuptial flights, and no mating is ever done within the hive. When a new Queen is ready to be bred, she finds drones from another colony, thus keeping her hive strong and healthy. A colony will produce several hundred drones (compared the tens of thousands of workers it produces) so seeing the drones is always a good sign of a healthy hive.

Workers pushing a persistent drone away from the hive.

But, females can be pragmatic critters, and when it comes time to prepare the hive for winter, they are worried about having enough food to last. They know the males will do nothing but help deplete stocks, and they know that the queen can create new drones within 24 days, so when the going starts to get tough… the men get going. Yes, the workers will force the drones from the hive, which is again another death sentence for them. (To be fair, they only live about 4-6 weeks anyway.) As we watched today, the workers from The Dregs were having no argument. The drones were being pushed out, sometimes dragged out, and occasionally wrestled out of there! They didn’t want to go, but then again, they were living a pretty charmed life – no cooking, working, cleaning or helping with the kiddos. In a hive, if you don’t work, you don’t last.

Pushing another persistent drone out the door. 
It’s another sign that the bees are getting ready for winter. We will be helping them in the coming weeks, but for now, as long as they’re pulling in the pollen, we are going to let them. The nights are cool, but there are still some good bee-flying days ahead… unless you’re a drone. 

Workers heavy with pollen. The one had so much she toppled
over when she landed. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Well, it’s finally that time of the year, a first for us, hopefully of many. It’s apparent that our bees didn’t read The Introduction to Bee Keeping book where it said that they should not produce any surplus honey in their first year. We’re sort of happy they didn’t.

We started the morning by pulling the honey supers off the hives. Last week we had condensed them down, taking the empty frames out of the lower supers and replacing them with ones already filled with honey from the ones near the top. We also pulled 10 frames that were totally filled and capped. Well done, little bees. The bees cap the honey when the moisture content is below 18%, which is when the honey is about perfect, and will naturally store with nothing else done to it. They know what they’re doing.

Once the rest of the honey supers were pulled, and the bees (angry bees, they were) were evicted from the frames, we started treating them to get them ready for winter. Varroa mites are one of the new major problems for bees, and they must be treated before they tuck away for winter. These parasites feed on the bees and on the brood, weakening and eventually killing the bees and the hives, especially over the winter. We wanted the honey out of there first, even though the treatment for the bees is not supposed to harm it. It’s a natural, organic treatment that is heated and the vapors are let off in the hives. This will have to be done two more times before they bees are ready for winter.

We then started the fun of extracting honey. With so few hives, we were able to borrow an extractor. I’m not too sure we would want to use this hand-crank one if we had twenty hives to pull honey from, but today it worked well. Thanks, Smiley.

We put the frames where they would warm up. This is a much easier process with them in an area that is above 80F. We then took the caps off, trying a couple different methods. For us, using a warm sharp knife worked best. This exposes the honey in the comb. We then put two frames into the extractor, and start them spinning. It takes 150 turns to pull the honey off each side of the frame using centripetal force. We then turn the frames inside the extractor and do it again. At 300 turns per two frames, ten frames per super honey box, and six honey supers full, we did a LOT of cranking today.

The honey comes out the chute near the bottom of the extractor, to be gathered in a filter bag that pulls out the little pieces of comb that might still be there. It drips into food-grade 5 gallon buckets that are 
sealed up until we are ready to take care of the honey in them. We let it clarify for a day or two then we put it into sterilized jars. We will have a LOT of jars of honey by the end of this week.  

This is what it was all about… well, sort of. The honey tastes wonderful. It won’t be processed or pasteurized, so it will retain all its wonderful healthy and healing properties. Of course, there is an absolute need to test the honey as it comes out of the extractor (and we certainly ended up with sticky enough hands), and it was wonderful. 

We learn more every day, and now we know that when we build our ‘honey shack’ – something on the Technicolor wish list – it will have a sink and running water in it. We may try next year to catch some of the pollen for a while, and we will add some more hives next year. For this one, we need to finish up treating them, and bedding them down after the first frost. Stay tuned, then cross your fingers that they have a good winter. We’ll blog later about how we prepare them for the almost 6 months of inactivity that they will endure, and why it’s such a nerve-wracking time for a beekeeper. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gimme A High Five!!

Wow, we have a lot of catching up to do! It’s been hot and while a number of beekeepers are saying their hives are slowing down and they are supplementing food, we are still doing okay. There are a lot of alfalfa fields around us in bloom now, and apparently bees like sunflowers, and we have a LOT of them. The other thing we have, though, is a bear nosing around, so we’re getting ready to deal with that. For now, we have a radio (talk radio station) playing all night to keep him hopefully away. There are a lot of berries and a ton of fruit on the trees so hopefully he likes that better. It would certainly be easier for him to eat.

Last week we found that Gang Green had only one frame empty, and they were laying lots of babies, so we added a second box to their hive this week. We removed a lot of burr comb at the top and swapped a couple of frames from the bottom to the new top box to encourage them to move up. We shimmed the lid to give them a bit more air movement in the heat, and we will now see how they do. Considering how late the hive was started, we aren’t going to complain.

Pistachio had already made use of their second box, and had only the outside frames left to use. We swapped them to the middle, and this week we added their honey super box. In the intense heat we’ve been having, this is our only hive to beard – they collect in a huge pile stuck to the front of the hive... hanging there like a beard. We’ll try to get pics this week of it.

The Dregs... the poor poor dregs. Last week there was one frame with brood that we moved to the top box, and there was no other activity there. The bottom box had two frames of capped brood. Today we found queen cells on one frame in the bottom box. We also found one frame with a lot – A LOT – of drone cells. Obviously they need a new queen, so there has been no new brood, and there are a lot of empty frames. We changed to a smaller entrance way with them.

The Moody Blues have been busy bees. Last week they had filled all but one frame in their top box, not with brood but with honey. This week, because they were still at it, and because they had a ton of burr comb on top of the hive, we added a honey super for them.

The White Outs last week had seven frames of honey in their honey super, although nothing was capped. Today, like the Moody Blues, they had a lot of burr comb, and they had the honey super just about full, so we added another honey super for them. When we added it, we put it under the first honey super, so they will be more inclined to go to it now.

Team Tangerine – well, everyone has that one that they worry about, and I guess that’s Team Tangerine for us. We had added a honey super already, but last week there was nothing in it. They had four frames of capped larvae in the second box though, so we were hopeful. Today we took a lot of burr comb from the top of the second box. We swapped out a drone frame for a regular frame. They had some capped and uncapped brood, so we moved the outer frames that hadn’t been used yet into the middle. If this hive survives the winter, we will probably be looking for a new Queen for it come spring.

To end on a high note – really high.... high five, in fact – we added a third (yes, THIRD) Honey super to the Mellow Yellows. They are quite mellow, and gentle, for bees, but man, do they work! Last week the top honey super had 5 full frames of honey. The second honey super was full – it weighs over 30 pounds! – and we swapped the two supers around. Today, they had lots of burr comb that absolutely dripped with honey because they only had three frames left unused. Gotta love those Mellow Yellows! 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hello, Queenie Waheenie, Queen of the Moody Blues

We needed to give the hives some time to sort out and settle down after the splits, the moves and everything else in the last few weeks. The weather hasn't helped matters, with strong winds, unheard of hot temperatures and unbelievably dry conditions. There is not much in bloom, although some surrounding alfalfa fields are about to be ready again, so that should give our babees a bit of a boost.

The Gang Greens -- they have kept us on our toes. The fact that bees from the other hives were going to the Gang Green three to steal easy food was probably what caused the problems, to a large degree. It has been almost like a shell game with them, but finally we think they are sorted out. We knew two weeks ago that the red racer was not going to do well. It had no queen, it had a small population... so last week, we broke it down and the bees found a home in the neighboring Gang Green hive. The red racer was in the middle. Today, we broke down the blue racer as well, for the same reason. That leaves us with a Gang of one Green... but that one is doing pretty well, all things considered. They are filling out frames, creating pollen and creating a queen.

Pistachio is rocking! They are two high now, and are packing the top frame with honey. There were 7 frames already started. They have a good, healthy, large, active population, and new larvae. If we have any concerns about it, that concern would be about the noise -- it was much louder than normal which can mean they aren't happy. We're hoping that's just because of the heat and the smoke in the area.

The Dregs is also doing well, and we'll put a second box on it so they can move up. They are really full. Considering how that hive started, we couldn't be happier with the results so far. Moody Blues is also doing well. It is also in need of a second box, but we need to get more frames before we can do that. We'll be getting them this week. We also had the treat of seeing the queen in that hive... a first for us. The White Outs have been wonderfully busy, so we gave them their first honey super. Their frames are totally full and they are laying a lot of brood. Mellow Yellow got a second honey super, and looks good. We left them to do their thing undisturbed today, other than to add the new box.

Queenie Waheenie -- Ruler of the Moody Blues
Team Tangerine is still a concern. The honey super is untouched. Two of the frames in the second box do have brood though, so that was a very good sign. It's still hanging in, slowly building back up. We'll give it time, and hope for the best on it, but it should be fine once that new brood starts to hatch.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Introducing... The Gang Greens!

We're late, I know... and have a lot of ground to cover to catch up. Yes, some days we wish we had the same stamina and dedication that our little honeys have. This is to catch up from last week (you'll understand why before you get to the end of this log). We will have more tomorrow on Monday, for this week's romp through the hives.

We made the decision about The Dregs. We made three new hives, and took three of the four frames with Queen cells from The Dregs, and created new hives. Considering that we planned on having only 3 hives for the year, we are now a long ways ahead of where we had planned. The Dregs and Pistachio were humming! In The Dregs, they had been capping lots of honey while they waited for one of their 27 Queens to emerge from her cell. Pistachio had been making a massive amount of comb, and was ready for a second box. That said, the bees were a bit.... grumpy (a new epi-pen, a trip to the emergency, and several days in a Benedryl haze attests to their grumpiness... at least where one of us was concerned.)

The three new hives were set out. They were cobbed together pretty quickly, and all painted the same color -- so we give you... The Gang Greens. We will be able to tell them apart though, because each one has a racing stripe that is a different color. Lucky for us, the bees will also be able to tell them apart as well because of the different colored doors.

The White Outs seem to be loving their new home. They were busy, but had only started filling in their new frames. The Mellow Yellows had three frames of honey for us! Team Tangerine was very quiet, their new Queen being a bit slow on the uptake, plus it would seem the majority of the bees who made up The Dregs came from TT. The Moody Blues got a second box as well, so they were all pretty happy overall.

We did discover a mistake we had made, but it was an interesting one, to say the least. We had left out one frame from the Pistachio hive when we took out the feeder. They create honeycomb sculptures to fill in the empty space. Apparently bees, like hoarders, cannot stand empty space.

The Gang Greens are the only ones left in the yard (and they will be moving out soon too). They haven been much calmer, although the bees wanted water and decided the swimming pool would be a great place to get it. After rescuing MANY from the pool, we set up a container of water in the apiary for them, but there was one stubborn bee who wanted pool water instead... and resulted in our second sting of the weekend when, while checking the thermometer in the pool, the bee hitched a ride unbeknownst to us, and decided he didn't like hands on his floaty seat.

(Yes, the first sting was to yours truly... the only one without a suit because you can't write and take pictures with the whites, gloves and veil on. He got me in the face.)

HELPFUL HINT -- if you get stung by a bee, remove the stinger right away, then soak the bite in white vinegar. Seriously, it really works. We're learning! (albeit the hard way)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Schrodinger's Bees?

The Dregs, sitting and chilling on their front porch.

It's been five days, and we just couldn't wait. Bees were coming, bees were going, which was good, but not enough to satisfy our curiosity. We needed to know what was going on inside The Dregs. This is the one problem with bees and beehives -- you can't see inside them without lifting the lid. Like the famous cat of Schrodinger fame, they could be alive or dead, but without looking in the box, we would never really know.

Lots of capped brood and Queen cells at the bottom.
Once everyone was suited up, that was exactly what we did -- and we could not beelieve what we saw! We were hoping that by taking uncapped brood from other hives, the new hive would be able to create some Queen cells so they would have the required egg-layer to keep the hive alive. Alive? That would be an understatement! They did create a Queen cell... then another... then another. Actually, we counted 27 Queen cells on the middle four frames, and they have been working on every frame in the hive. They also went through all their juice; it was bone dry. The Queen cells are distinctive because of their long shape and bigger size. Usually the brood cells are capped flush with the frame. Only one Queen will go on to rule the hive. When she comes out of her cell, she will chew through the other Queen cells and kill the growing Queens inside. The Queen in this hive will spend a lot of time chewing those other cells!

Textbook Queen cell on the bottom right end... the really long one!
So, now comes the new dilemma. Do we try to split it again, taking the three frames with Queen cells and putting them into a hive each, robbing some brood and eggs from the other hives, or do we not get greedy in the creation of new hives? We were more than content to end the year with 5, especially considering that we had only planned on 3 when we started out. We already are up one -- a bonus hive. Do we push our luck and see if we can take this year to establish the hives, then let them do their honey thing in full force next year? Looking out the window and seeing the rain, I can't imagine the bees will want to be doing much of anything in this cold, so perhaps letting them make a new hive or two might not be a bad idea after all.
More hired help. They will eventually get paid... in honey.
More Queen cells, these all over the frame. The bees will pick any cell that has an egg that is the right age when they don't have a Queen. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Herbie the Wonderdog, in case you had to ask.
Well, it’s been a week. After the Moody Blues and White Outs got too cranky to have in the yard, taking their ire out on man (especially when mowing lawns) and beast (poor Herbie the Wonderdog does not like bee stings), we decided it was time to find them a permanent (for now, because that’s how we roll) location. Thankfully, the longest day of the year held promise for such a job.

On Saturday, a day that started at 6am, we cleared out the area where the bees would call home. We pounded in the posts, stretched the wire, covered the ground with crush, built the benches, and finally, at 9pm, we were ready to move the bees. Luckily for us, the Moody Blues and the White Outs had retired early (being cranky all day is probably tiring). We covered their doors and moved them to their new digs. Team Tangerine and Mellow Yellow, however, were more than content to sit on their front porch and visit. After all, it was the longest day of the year, and the evening was very pleasant. They were still visiting out there at 10 pm, and at 10:30 pm... Finally, being the old fogies that we are, we went to bed before the bees, promising to be up early again the next morning to move the last two hives.

Herbie (the twice bitten but still not shy) Wonderdog woke us at 5 am, apparently anxious for the rest of the bees to be gone. We could see that the Mellow Yellows were sleeping in (thankfully) but Team Tangerine was already starting to buzz. A few pieces of wood and some duct tape later, they too were on their way. We put pieces of wood in front of their porches so they would know that something was different so they would do some exploring flights, but some of those bees were just downright determined to stay in the yard, returning there and gathering where their hives used to be. Fortunately, the Pistachios, being the slowest of the hives, had been left in the yard, put in place of the Mellow Yellows. This was done in the event some of the bees wanted to return to their old home. A lot of them did, and are now calling Pistachio home, but that’s okay. It’s a simple and effective way to strengthen a weak hive.

We noticed though that there were a lot... seriously A LOT of bees returning to where Team Tangerine used to live, as well as some to where the other two hives used to be. What to do? The obvious thing to us was to take a new hive, pull a couple of frames with brood and eggs, and some uncapped larvae from the established hives, slip them into the new one, give them a feeder and some protein paddy, and put it where the stragglers were looking for their home. We now have 6 hives (if the new one creates a Queen)... we’ll call the new one The Dregs.

Having upset their routine so severely, we wanted to check on all the hives. Of course, it has to be the hottest day of the year... hotter than the hubs of hell, as my dear old daddy used to say. We opened up the bottom screens for all the hives, giving them some better air circulation. We opened up their doors, allowing more bees to go in and out. We were thrilled with one hive, disconcerted about another and a bit disappointed in the third. Suffice to say that none of the hives were thrilled to see us!

The Moody Blues had moved onto their first new frame. We took out the feeder, and we removed the protein paddy (okay, we left it out by accident but they weren’t eating it anyway). There were still five empty frames so we sprayed them with a bit of sugar water. We were hoping to see a bit more progress from them.

After closing up that hive, we were thrilled to see what was happening with the White Outs. They still had juice, but we pulled the feeder anyway to make some room for more frames They had five frames with both sides capped with brood! We scraped off the comb they had been making on the lid, because it too was filled with open brood, and put it in the second box. Yup, they had progressed enough that it was time to double their hive size!

Team Tangerine still had their drone frame empty. We removed their feeder because the entire top box was full of... honey! There was no brood there at all, so we decided it was time to give them their third box, a honey super. They can fill that baby with honey to their hearts’ content now. We took one of their top frames of capped honey and moved it to the new box we were starting. In their lower box they had very little capped larvae, but all frames were in use and new larvae, uncapped, was there, so the Queen is back on the job. That was a relief to see, because Queen transactions can be tricky.

Yes, that's honey... lots of honey just as it should be!
The Mellow Yellows have been working like troopers. They have had a honey super (third box) on the hive for a week, and they have already filled four frames with honey. On their second box, the outside frames were empty but the rest was very active with brood and honey. We took one frame of capped larvae to the new hive, and one frame of larvae and eggs. Hopefully the bees in the new hive will feed one of the new larvae lots of royal jelly and turn her into a Queen. They really are incredible animals.

Last was poor little Pistachio. The hive is still in the yard, gathering the stray bees from Mellow Yellow, and it was a busy place today. They still have three untouched frames, some capped brood and still have some juice. We opened the door, and will probably move them to the new area next week.

The Dregs was given a full feeder of juice. They will be a little bit of Mellow Yellow, a little bit of Team Tangerine, and tonight, when the Moody Blues and White Outs stray try to go to bed in their old location, we will have a cardboard box for them to sleep in. Once they are asleep, we will quietly move them into The Dregs as well, so they will have a home. Hopefully it works, but it will be a learning experience nonetheless, and could have the potential to create a new hive – a split (because it comes from pieces taken from already established hives). Welcome to Splitsville!

Angry bees -- for now.
Splitsville -- The Dregs, with all it's new bees.