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I decided last Monday was a great day to open the hive and check the progress on the remaining four frames. I had invited a friend and her young son to join me since she had expressed interest. In the process I learned a few things:

  1. I get really excited sharing what I’m learning about beekeeping, especially with youngsters who are so curious about them. This is mostly a good thing, but it does take more time and the hive is open longer, which does not make for happy bees. In the future, I’ll plan a reduced inspection when guests are present to minimize everyone’s stress.
  2. When the buzz volume increases, this is the bees giving a gentle warning to wrap things up quickly. Choose to disregard this warning at your own risk. I did not heed their warning and was stung on the hand.
  3. By Tuesday afternoon the swelling was such that my knuckles were no longer visible and I had to leave work from the discomfort in my hand coupled with a splitting headache. I used two homeopathic remedies (Apis and Ledum) and a bit of honey, but my reactions seem to be getting more severe than the first two times I was stung and something stronger was required. I’ll be keeping Benadryl on-hand going forward. It’s a miracle worker for bringing the reaction under control; the swelling started subsiding within an hour of ingestion. Thank you, Western pharmaceuticals!
  1. My friend, who had been standing about 10 to 15 feet away, was also stung, right at the time when I located the queen. In my concern about my friend, who had a couple bees in her hair when I looked over at her, I put the frame back into the hive rather hastily without paying close attention to the queen’s whereabouts at that moment. Normally, that might not be a big concern, but when I had spotted her she was towards the top heading in the general direction of the outer edge where she was at greater risk when the frame was slid into place. When I later went to find her again to show her to my friend’s son, I couldn’t find her, sending me into a panic that she’d somehow been squished and leading to me rechecking several frames trying to find her. This is what ultimately led to learnings #1 through #3.
  2. No construction had occurred on the four remaining frames, three with foundation and one without, leading me to suspect that the boom and bust construction cycle is predominantly driven by my workforce, or lack thereof, and less by their sentiments towards foundation. They do appear to have more resources as evidenced by multiple frames containing honey, including some nice capped sections that can be seen in the photos below.

At the point I closed the hive back up with a fresh pollen patty, I still did not know if the queen was alive or dead and I now have my own version of Schrödinger’s cat: Prestera’s bee. Curiosity is getting to this cat and I think I am going to check for her tomorrow morning because, if I did harm her, I need to make a plan to re-queen my hive and now is not the easiest season to acquire queens. Wish me luck!

Well, you know

We all want to change the world. 

And where better to start than in our own homes?  Many people are aware of the problems bees are having, primarily caused from habitat loss, extensive pesticide use, and pathogens like mites.  What people may not know is that there are many species of bees and there are simple steps everyone can take to create habitat and support their survival.

The non-native honey bee, brought here from Europe, is the only bee species in North America that nests in large colonies, and there is some concern that they compete with native bees for resources.  Our native bees nest in the ground or plant stems.  They are generally called solitary bees because they don’t live in large colonies like honey bees.  You may even find one over-nighting curled inside a flower.  I’ve found them in my mallows if I’m up early when the blooms are opening.

Bumble in mallow (Photo courtesy of usgs.gov)

Nesting sites can easily be created for these native bees in our yards.  Ground nesting bees need small areas of open, bare soil preferably in direct sunlight.  Avoid using a heavy mulch or weed-fabric, which the bees can’t get through, or if you do use these in most of your yard, leave small openings available for the bees.  Tunnel-nesting bees use pithy-stemmed plants (examples: asters, goldenrod, and elderberry), logs, or brush piles.  Commercially made bee houses can also be purchased or you can look online for ways to make one yourself. 

I had wondered who, if anyone, was using the bee house I had placed on the side of our house a couple years ago. Turns out this mason wasp was.

Bumble bees will use messy, unmown areas particularly in native bunch grasses.  I was happy to learn this information since I’ve included a selection of bunch grasses in our backyard planting plan.

Bumble bee on my lilac hedge last winter.

What all bees need, besides a place to call home, is nectar and pollen.  Bees collect nectar and pollen for their own use and pollination of those plants is a happy by-product of their activities.  Honey bees pollinate a tremendous number of food plants, and some of our native bees are even better pollinators for certain plants.  In fact, some plants, like tomatoes and blueberries, aren’t pollinated by honey bees at all; instead, they require bumble bees or other native bee species for something called buzz pollination, which is a method of pollination that honey bees can’t perform. The bee grabs onto the flower and then moves its flight muscles quickly dislodging the pollen. How cool is that?!

Thousands of flowers are needed to support a single bee.  Use a variety of plants in your garden and strive to have something blooming every season.  Look to your local native plant societies for ideas, including plant lists with a calendar of what blooms when.  California Native Plant Society and Xerces Society provide free resources on their websites, including online trainings and downloadable plant guides.  Native plants support a wider variety of native pollinators, particularly specialist species.  They also tend to require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides, as they are adapted to your area.  One of the local native plant nurseries that I love, Moosa Creek, has an online tool to help you select native plants to replace common non-native ornamentals like lawn, ivy, and privet. 

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can help pollinators.  Some companies have initiated pollinator programs.  One of my moms showed me one the other day through Purina Beyond pet food.  They’ve created Project Blossom and partnered with The Nature Conservancy to contribute towards their efforts to protect and create pollinator habitat.  Purina provides more information and ways to help on their page. 

You can also participate in citizen science projects that help scientist collect data on what species can be found where and when.  One example is called Bumble Bee Watch where you submit pictures of bumble bees to their website.  They’ll help you to ID the bumble bee and an expert will verify the species.  These types of projects allow everyone to participate in data collection and allow scientists to learn more than they can on their own, particularly about rare and hard to find species.  In recent years a number of bumble bee species across the U.S. have been listed or proposed for listing as endangered or threatened.    

There you have it. A few small actions that you can take towards a bee-volution. Stay tuned and I’ll share some other ways to help in the future, mainly through reducing our use of pesticides.

But when you talk about destruction

Don’t you know that you can count me out.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in Mr. Severson’s class as a young freshman who had spent most of my life until then devouring books purely for the purpose of diving fully into whatever world had been created for me and enjoying the story, and rarely for the purpose of analyzing the meaning of the story from a literary perspective. Now that I live in a location where I hear mockingbirds singing nearly daily, I think of that book, and that line from it, often. There is a male singing his heart out throughout this video and he’s really the star of the show. Also, please disregard my footwear once again. Beekeepers advise that one should wear boots or something that provides protection at the ankle, as this is an access point and an area that is often attacked by defending bees; exposed wrists are also an easy target. My bees have so far been so gentle and non-defensive that I am quite nonchalant about these things. I’m sure a day is quickly approaching when I will need to be more cautious. We’ll know we have arrived on the day when I’m shrieking about being stung again. I hope I will be able to manage a more zen response, but we’ll see when we get there.

The bees are progressing very well. They have filled out the foundation-less frames, leaving only four frames with no comb and two with partial construction. This time I replaced another frame, trying a piece of the old foundation as a guide to encourage the bees to build across the frame. I don’t know that it was necessary since they have been building straight combs with no cross comb, but I wanted to try the concept.

Me, pointing to the comb guide at the top of the frame and fashioned from foundation.

I don’t think I placed the frames in the best position for an accurate interpretation of the results as a preference for foundation-less versus an increase in the number of workers who have been able to build more comb. I have an idea for another (better?) experiment to try next time when I replace one or two of the last frames. Ultimately, I wanted to convert the brood nest to foundation-less anyway, so the answer isn’t critical.

This was also the first time that I found the queen on a frame other than the two that my friend had gifted me…well, except that one time I found her in the ball of bees in the cross-comb on the cover. There are multiple frames with some honey in them, although still only a small amount of capped honey. They are drinking a little more than a liter of syrup each week and I will continue feeding them until I have four frames mostly filled with honey as that is the general recommendation for over-wintering a colony in San Diego. All in all, everything seems to indicate that the colony is expanding and gaining strength.

The last couple weeks I have mentioned the use of foundation in the frames. It’s generally recommended that new beekeepers begin using foundation-filled frames. These provide a template for the bees because the plastic is embossed with a hexagon, honeycomb pattern to serve as a guide for the bees who then add their own wax to the template to expand the cells to their full width.

Still life #1: frame, foundation, and lime.

There are a few arguments made in support of foundation: 1) fewer drones are made, 2) it is easier to harvest honey without damaging the comb, and probably the most important reason, 3) the chances of cross-comb are reduced. Cross-comb is where the comb is built so that it runs through multiple frames rather than running the length of a single frame. It poses a nightmare for hive inspections since the frames are now held together and cannot be individually removed for inspection without damaging all of their work.

An example of cross-comb gone awry, courtesy of http://www.overallgardener.com/

Proponents of foundation-less beekeeping argue that it is a more natural method that allows the bees to build the size of cells they prefer or need, rather than some human-imposed system that limits them to worker-sized cells. The bees simply build their comb themselves without the template. As a biologist, this method appeals to me since I tend to think humans are rather arrogant in our assumption that we fully understand a natural system well-enough to improve on it. In case I needed more reasons (I don’t), the wax coating on the foundation has a tendency to contain accumulated pesticides and herbicides, which may not be good for the bees.

My friend gifted me the equipment with which I started, and the foundation was fresh in 2018 when I made my first attempt to entice a swarm. More than two years later, and after being stored in the heat of our garage, it may be somewhat stale and this could be why I haven’t seen much comb building on those frames. This gave me a great opportunity to run my experiment into the foundation-less world. I think that by trading out a frame at a time that I can minimize the risk of cross-comb. For future frames, I’ll attach a piece to the top as is advised by other beekeepers. It can be as simple as a tongue depressor attached to the top, or even a piece of foundation, which is what I plan to try next since I had frames already filled with foundation. This still provides at least some of a guide in the direction that the beekeeper wants the comb drawn, and helps to discourage the bees from making their own creations.

Still life #2: Frame, comb guide, rock, and passion fruit.

I think that replacing only a frame or two at a time also helps limit their creativity. That’s what I’ve done so far; I’ve replaced two frames and placed them next to frames that were already drawn. When I checked the syrup feeder this week, they had drank quite a bit and I saw foragers returning with dark orange pollen pants. I hope this is indicative of a lot of construction occurring within the hive. We’ll see next week!

I decided to do a quick hive inspection last weekend before I installed the new water features, which by the way are looking great with a couple bees buzzing around and using them. There’s even a pretty new bloom from the water lily. It wasn’t open this morning when I took the video, but it’s pretty all the same.

There seemed to be about the same number of bees, maybe more than before, but still around 2.5 – 3 frames full. It had only been one week since I’d repaired the comb disaster, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of comb construction. I was excited to see that they had used the bits of comb that I’d moved from under the top cover and held onto a frame with rubber bands. In place of the larger odd pieces there were now four beautiful sections of freshly drawn comb hanging from the frame and filled with honey. That was some rapid work on their part!

I removed the rubber bands as they had served their purpose and were no longer needed. The other frame showed no signs of work being done to it, but I had only placed some very tiny bits of salvaged comb on that one and it was farther from the brood nest. I left the rubber bands on that frame, still holding the tiny pieces in place.

I now wondered if the reason the bees had not built more comb was an issue with the bees not liking the old plastic and wax foundation rather than a shortage of bees of the correct age for wax production. They had built the new comb so quickly once I provided the empty frame. So I decided on a wee experiment. Of course! I’m a scientist! I pulled another frame out on which no construction had been done yet and removed the foundation from it. I placed it between two frames with comb to discourage any free-form constructions and to encourage the bees to build in a straight line along the width of the frame.

Frames filled with a plastic-based foundation and then coated in wax. The cell structure encourages the bees to build their comb straight and to make worker-sized cells rather than drone cells.

So here’s how I’m testing the hypothesis that it’s the old foundation delaying comb-building:

  1. If the bees simply don’t like the plastic foundation, I would expect that the two frames sans foundation (one with bits of salvaged comb and the other without) will be built out to some degree by the time I do my next inspection two weeks from today and that no other comb-building will have taken place.
  2. If it’s an issue with the workforce size or nectar dearth, then I may not see any new construction, or only a small amount, but not necessarily on the two foundation-less frames.

The bees have been going through syrup pretty quickly now, so I think they’re well-enough fed. Comment your predictions as to what I’ll discover, and then check back the weekend of October 2nd to find out the results. Or if you have other hypotheses to test, let me know.

I learned about bees and water first when we moved to our house four years ago. I had installed a small bird bath made of some sort of glass or acrylic material and the bees could not climb out after landing. Bees were drowning and I tried a few different tactics to help them before finally using a stone buddha statue from my altar in the bird bath. Since then, there have been no drowned bees. Once I started my bee project, I thought the new bees would use the bird bath as others had done. However, it turns out that bees can be rather finicky about their water source, and, as far as I can tell, mine do not seem to like that bird bath.

Many people are not aware that bees need water, not to drink, but to maintain the temperature and humidity of the hive. Bees maintain the internal temperature of the hive somewhere in the vicinity of 95° F. In the winter, they use the energy burned from eating their honey supply to maintain warmth and keep a stable temperature. In the heat of summer, they use water to create a sort of air conditioner in the hive. They place the droplets of water on the comb and fan it with their wings to evaporate it, cooling the area.

I live within a few miles of the ocean and it is rarely over 90° F here, but last weekend I checked my weather app, which showed it was 104° F. I was shocked! I decided then that it was time to provide some better water sources above and beyond the bird baths. Our neighbour has a pool, and a child allergic to bee stings (thus, the siting of the hive as far from their property line as possible), and I really did not want the bees using their pool as their primary water source. Girl Next Door Honey had provided a short video on her Instagram site showing how simple it was to create a small water garden so I used that as my guide for two new water features.

I liked the wine/whisky barrel idea, but wanted something slightly more decorative for the other container. I chose the pot at a local nursery and used an epoxy from Home Depot to seal the drain. It set in 5 minutes and was ready to be filled in an hour. I placed the barrel next to the oregano patch where they might find the water quickly; the bees might not care that it’s level, but I do.

Once the barrels were filled with water, I placed a few plants in each one. The barrel is larger so it has a beautiful lily pad in a submerged pot, some free-floating water hyacinth, and another free-floating plant. The flower pot just has a few of the two types of free-floating plants. I had also purchased some mosquito fish and a product to dechlorinate the tap water so it would be safe for them. I left the bag of fish floating in the water for a few minutes for the temperatures to equalize and then put a few into each barrel. Now that I know how easy that was, I might create a few more of these after we finish planting the rest of the backyard this Fall. Hopefully, the bees will like my creations and will be using them in the near future.

I mentioned last week a wee problem in the hive that needed to be rectified, and that problem was burr comb, which is one of a few names for comb built in places you wish it weren’t. As I discovered when I looked in the hive today, I had placed the inner cover on upside down and that gave the bees an extra gap between the cover and the frames. Combined with the spacer I’d been using, they had about a 1 inch gap.

Much like nature abhors a vacuum, bees do not like unfilled space. The basis of the Langstroth hive (the type of hive I’m using) is beespace. Langstroth found that bees would fill with comb any space larger than 3/8 inch; smaller than that, and they’d fill the gap with propolis. The hanging frames in a Langstroth hive are sized specifically to be sandwhiched together and allow enough width for comb on each side and bees to move freely, while not exceeding that 3/8 inch limit. With a 1 inch gap or larger, I had a huge violation of beespace. Last week they had only managed to make a few nice pieces of comb that were filled with honey. I should have fixed the problem immediately, but didn’t know exactly how to accomplish it quickly, so I put it all back together and decided to wait a week. That was not the best decision.

Couple my beespace violation with the bees’ preference for building willy-nilly free-form versus within the forced structure of foundation, and I had a mess after leaving it for another week. Who could really blame them? Free-flowing coloring outside of any lines is far more fun than coloring within them!

This shows only the bottom pieces of comb, not the larger pieces that adhered to the top cover. By the time I realized how much was attached to the top, the hive had been open for far longer than I’d wanted and I’d spotted the queen in the mess, so I didn’t snap any photos until the end and just got the job finished.

In the intervening week, the bees had constructed multiple small combs across the top where the syrup feeder rests. There was also a ball of bees on the underside of the inner cover and, as I feared when I saw the tight grouping of a lot of bees there, I found the queen amongst them. Ack! Not good! But I had made a plan, and I thought it would still work: take two empty frames without the foundation that the bees use as a template for building comb, add rubber bands to hold the odd bits of comb, and insert them into the hive on opposite sides of the brood nest. I pulled out two frames to make room for these, one of which had old comb on it and I thought might be the source of the wax moths.

I gently scraped each piece of comb from the base, carefully working around any bees gorging on honey, and then affixed the comb on the frame between the rubber bands. I had done this for all the small bits before I realized how large the other bits on the underside of the cover were and before I discovered the queen in the ball of bees. My time would have been better spent focused only on the larger pieces. For the queen, I carefully scraped off the piece she was on when she was near the top of it so that I wouldn’t inadvertently injure her. I placed it as the top of the brood nest frames and encouraged everyone with her back inside. Once she’d safely moved below, I added that piece of comb to my construction.

I’m not quite sure if this will work. When I’ve seen this done in videos or photos by experienced beekeepers it is usually a single, larger piece of comb placed on each frame. I hope I’m successful in rescuing at least some of their hard work and resources. Either way, I removed the spacer and flipped the inner cover the right way around so I shouldn’t have this specific issue again. Fingers crossed.

I think I have mentioned a couple times the idea of “checking the bottom board.” There are two types of bottoms for a hive: a solid wood bottom or a screened bottom; there may be more, but these are the two of which I know. The names tell you quite a bit about their appearance. I am currently using a screened bottom, which consists of a wire mesh screen above a thick plastic base. The plastic slides in and out, allowing for complete removal to increase ventilation in very hot environments such as inland San Diego county, or for periodic review of the hive. A quick glance at the goodies accumulated on the plastic is a great way to “see” what is happening inside the hive without annoying the bees. It’s how I have discovered ants were inside even when they could not be seen entering the hive or how I’ve verified that baby bees were emerging from their capped cells. It can also be used to look for mites that the bees have removed. I check it at least once a week, sometimes more frequently if I’m wanting to do something “beekeeper-ish” but don’t want to bother the bees again.

A view of most of the bottom board. Pollen patty bits are in the two rows at the top left, which is approximately where the pollen patty sits on top of the hive frames.

Usually, the board holds a lot of pollen patty remnants and bits of paper from the patty, a few cell cappings, and some escaped pollen. Those were all present this week, including pollen in a new shade of pinkish-orange that I had not seen before. They may have found a new pollen source as we head into the Fall and different species begin to bloom.

Pollen remnants (the larger oblong bits) in a variety of hues from pale yellows to an unusual (to me) pinkish-orange in the bottom left corner.

There were also a couple new things that I was not happy to see: two adult wax moths and a wax moth larva. The fact that these were at the bottom may indicate that the bees are able to successfully defend against them, but their presence is worrisome and I’ll need to check more thoroughly for signs when I am next in the hive. I didn’t see any of the obvious signs of their presence during yesterday’s inspection, so I’m hopeful.

An adult wax moth is the elongated, gray shape in the middle of the board.

The wax moths burrow through and eat the wax (shocking given their name, I know!) and the larvae eat the bee larvae so they are certainly not something I need in there. I have a couple frames that have some old comb on them and this may be how they were introduced. It’s not really a problem I expected yet since there is so little comb in the hive. I discovered another problem during my inspection yesterday that needs to be rectified soon (burr comb) and my solution includes removing those old frames so I hope I will have caught the problem before it gets too large.

Wax moth larva at the middle top of the board. Yuck!

I did not see any mites on the board, so that’s good news! But I still need to start thinking about a more rigorous method to check the hive for them. I’m leaning towards a sugar roll, which doesn’t kill the bees like the alcohol method does, and just gives them a dowsing in powdered sugar. More about that and the burr comb in the future. Thank you for following along and learning more about honeybees with me!

This is our second week away from our home, and away from the bees and myriad other critters in our yard and I find that I miss them deeply. It’s just not the same only seeing them here and there when I have the time to go over. What I attempted as a vegetable garden this spring is also showing distress signs from the lack of attention and water. I stopped by yesterday late morning and it was already too hot to water so I knew I needed to go back this morning. Despite the lack of attention the towhees are still hopping around and chirping, the Allen’s hummingbird buzzed me perhaps to say “good morning, where have you been?”, I heard quail below the wall in the lemonade berry so I threw out a couple handfuls of seed for them to munch on (and hopefully not too much for the squirrels). I think the orioles have moved on for the year as their syrup feeder was still fairly full. Happiest of all sightings were two juvenile fence lizards, each no longer tail-included than my pinky. There were butterflies galore passing through: whites, sulphurs, blues, Monarchs, and a fritillary. Besides my honeybees, I saw a carpenter bee and some rather tiny green bees that I think were metallic green bees in the Agapostemon genus.

A metallic green bee harvesting from the oregano.
Blue butterfly on chocolate mint

The bees have gone through about 32 ounces of syrup in the past week so I am now curious to see what the results are within the hive. Whenever I peak under the top cover, they are busily working at the container. I’ll need to replenish the syrup next weekend.

The ladies enjoying some sugar syrup.

The ants had finally found a way through the Tanglefoot barrier and there were quite a few of them on the bottom board. After cleaning the board of all the ants, I applied a perimeter of diatomaceous earth around each of the legs of the hive stand. I could have applied more Tanglefoot, but this seemed a bit quicker and will possibly last a bit longer.

The hive’s new diatomaceous earth “moats” to help with ant control.

Dust and debris gets kicked into the Tanglefoot, which makes it less effective since the ants are then able to find a path across it. When I checked the board again today, I couldn’t find any ants on it so I think my repairs were effective. See you next week when we peak inside the hive again!

We went over early to check on the bees this morning before it got too hot, since heat can lead to cranky bees. It’s a little weird not peeking out the window to check on the bees each morning, and I hope we can get back to our home soon. The bees were buzzing about when we arrived; they have really been enjoying the oregano, basil, and mint that are in various stages of bloom in the backyard. I puffed a little smoke into the entrance as a way of saying, “Here I come” and then opened the top. In the video you’ll see them move down into the hive when I use the smoke. Please ignore my footwear. It is not appropriate beekeeping wear, but my tennis shoes didn’t work with my outfit for the day, and the bees have yet to go for my feet.

I did have one bee sacrifice herself in defense of her hive today. She stung my hand, unsuccessfully, thanks to my gloves.

The girls have been good eaters of pollen, but have slowed a bit on the syrup. Two weeks ago they were going through the syrup more quickly and now they’ve hardly touched it. That reminds me that they can use their propolis to seal the openings, so I’ll check that soon to be sure they can get to the syrup. There were bees around the lid so I assumed they could, but it wouldn’t hurt to verify. Two frames are filled with bees, and they’ve started building out comb on the next frame over. That was exciting to see! It’s partially filled with brood, capped and uncapped, and there is a little honey and pollen. I easily found the queen, thanks to her blue marking, but again can’t say that I could see eggs. What I did find were some very small larvae and some larger ones that maybe are close to pupating. There is less honey stored than two weeks ago, which is likely due to my expanding workforce during the dearth, which is what it’s called when the nectar flow slows and there is less available forage.

Fresh comb under construction and used for expanding the brood nest.

All in all, things are looking good so far. It’s been nearly two months since Queen Aliénor was installed and the hive is expanding well.

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