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A little more than a week after installing the queen, I opened the hive to ensure she had been released. She had. All had calmed from the prior week’s mayhem and the bees were peacefully about their bees-ness within the hive. But the peace had come at quite a cost. All of the honey that had been stored for the winter was gone. I was thankful to have harvested in May because I think that, had it still been on the hive, it would have been taken as well. All that remained were a few frames containing some pollen stores. I don’t know if this is normal for a year when we received less than half our usual rainfall. On my most recent beekeepers’ meeting people were already talking about feeding, but others have mentioned that my area is still having something of a nectar flow. So it seems like this occurrence was unusual and likely linked to whatever it was I had witnessed, whether that was robbing, or an attempted takeover, or something else.

With all the honey resources gone, I need to supply them food again to ensure they can feed themselves and the new bees needed to rebuild the colony’s strength. I had placed a feeder on the top when I locked them in since they were already low on honey at that point; most of the damage had already been done. When I checked the feeding station, I was shocked to find an unmarked queen wandering on the board. How had this happened? I don’t know for certain, but I may have missed this one when searching, she may have recently hatched from an unseen queen cell, or she had recently returned from a mating flight. Clearly, my inspection technique needs improvement and I really need to be able to see eggs, since that is the hallmark of a queen-right colony; I’ve been skating by on seeing young larvae and it is not sufficient. Marc recently purchased me a magnifying glass, which should help with the eggs immensely. The rest, I hope, will come with practice…and probably more mistakes like those I’ve made over the past two months.

But what does that mean to find this wandering queen? Primarily, that my bees had not been queenless when I installed the new queen, which may have been the reason for all the turmoil. She may still have been in her cell growing with the few remaining bees caring for her, and the bees would have been reluctant to accept the new brood and bees I introduced from Andrea’s colony. It was odd to find her in the upper chamber because I had used a queen excluder so I wondered if she had hatched and then been trapped above, possibly leaving her a barren queen if she had not been able to conduct her nuptial flight, which is the one time she mates and collects all the sperm she will use for her lifetime of egg-laying. I caught her and a few others in my queen clip, which Andrea kindly bought for us after our last misadventure in trying to catch a queen.

Queen in a clip

Once I observed bees flocking to her without intending her harm, I decided to leave her in the upper box to see what she would do. Everyone was peaceful inside so it seemed she had been accepted along with the White Queen. However, she apparently had other ideas. When I returned with the refilled feeder, she calmly walked to the upper entrance and flew away. So far, never to be seen again.

I added a pollen patty a few days later and used my new magnifying glass to verify there are eggs. I also removed the empty honey super after finding wax moth larvae in it, a sign that there is too much space for the bees to defend from invaders. At this point, my plan is to stay out of the colony except for adding pollen patties and sugar syrup or fondant as needed. There really isn’t much I can do for them except keeping them fed and avoiding disrupting their brood nest. I’ll inspect it again in mid-August when I do another mite check for Mite-A-Thon.

I carefully installed the new queen (All hail the White Queen!) Tuesday night by nestling her cage between two of the three frames of brood we had just taken from one of Andrea’s colonies. I went to sleep content in knowing the bees would be back on the road to self-sufficiency soon. I peeked out at them after walking Jonah, sometime around 7 in the morning. What I saw had me thoroughly distraught.

I thought, at the time, it was a good sign that these bees were walking calmly over the cage containing the new queen. She’s not pictured here, but she has a white dot on her back marking her as a queen hatched in 2021.

Surrounding the hive were what seemed to be hundreds of bees at the entrance, at the back, up and down the sides of the hive, all trying to get in via any small crack they found. I thought for certain they were being robbed. I had never seen the behavior before but knew it was something that tended to happen when resources were scarce once the nectar flow dried up (called a dearth), which is what we’re experiencing in parts of San Diego county. Upon closer inspection, I could see bees being dragged from the entrance, and others tussling on the sides or in the mulch below.

I realized that the hive entrance was wide open. When a colony is strong and the weather is hot, the entrance can be open to better ventilate the hive, but for my weak queenless colony, that left them vulnerable. Maintaining a smaller entrance gives the bees a narrower area for the bees to defend from any intruders. I immediately grabbed the reducer and squeezed it into place, but it would do little to help them at that point.

The robbers’ strategy is to attack the entrance to overwhelm the weaker residents and raid the delicious, nutritious contents. There are multiple techniques to minimize the damage from robbing; the one that came to mind was the use of wet towels, blankets, or sheets to completely envelope the hive. The robbing bees can’t find the way in but the residents can because they know their home. They can also just stay home for the day and use the existing resources in the hive. I pulled the bottom board out to ventilate the hive so they wouldn’t cook inside from the heat. Marc was working from home and agreed to keep the sheets wet if needed. There was little else I knew to do.

Of course I called Andrea to give her the blow-by-blow and she was intrigued because a couple things did not seem to square with robbing: robbing tends to happen later in the day and the robbers overwhelm the entrance but not other parts of the hive. This seemed to look more like they couldn’t find an entrance they thought should be there. Hmmmm. Was this actually robbing? Or was something else happening? Could there be too many conflicting pheromone smells emanating from the hive? I had added both brood from another colony as well as a queen with a distinct scent from another colony. Perhaps they were simply confused. Could one of the hatched queens have finally returned? I didn’t know and there seemed little I could do at this point; they would have to sort themselves out.

I attempted to lock them in the following night using a plug of grass, which they promptly pushed out of the way. This seemed to indicate to me that the problem was coming from within and not robbers from without. Following another day of mayhem, I locked them in late last night with a properly sized piece of wood fully placed across the entrance and some Gorilla tape to hold it in place. There are still bees buzzing about the hive, but they are far fewer. The casualties seem extreme; at least the birds and ants are enjoying the spoils. I hope when I check back in a few days that they have released the White Queen and the survivors can go back to a harmonious existence. We’ll see!

Mayhem Day 2. I was fairly certain this was not robbing, so I removed the sheet and let them duke it out not knowing what else I could do for them.

When we left off, I had just harvested some honey and was searching for my queen. As you may have guessed, she was not to be found. What we did find were emerged swarm cells indicating multiple swarms had already departed. Eek! That was not part of my plan! I hope they found safe homes where they aren’t disturbing people and causing trouble.

There were a few capped queen cells, but when I checked again a week later, there was no queen and the cells were empty. Another week later and there is still no queen. By my estimate, the swarming happened sometime between the beginning and middle of May. The queen was definitely there when I added the new deep body because I saw drawn comb with young brood in one of the new frames two weeks later. As of today, they have been without a queen for at least a month, possibly as long as six weeks. The break in brood rearing helps with mites since the mites depend on young larvae for their life cycle, but a colony cannot survive without a queen. The remaining bees can raise a new one from eggs laid by the queen before she left. But those eggs are long gone; the egg stage is only three days. So what’s a colony to do?

Andrea caught several of her swarms and has more colonies than she wanted. We planned to remove one of her extra queens for my colony so she can combine two of hers.  Capturing a fast-moving queen on a frame full of bees is not as simple as it seems, or at least it wasn’t for me. I had her in our improvised cage but thought we also needed some attendants for her. In trying to get just one more bee into the cage, the queen escaped and flew away. We checked again for her a few days later and the colony had started making queen cells, an indication that the queen did not safely return. Ugh! Now we’re both queenless. We did learn an important lesson in the process, however, which is that specialized equipment exists for a reason. There are special clips that will scoop the queen plus the few surrounding bees in one swoop, we just did not have those to hand when we needed them. We’ll have them for next time.

This season started so well where it seemed I was able to keep on top of the need for increased space to avoid swarming and I harvested a half super of honey. Four months later, nearly all my bees are gone and they probably produced multiple swarms to annoy my neighbors. Yet all is not lost. A new queen arrives on Tuesday. I have hive bodies full of drawn comb. There is a super nearly filled with honey for their use this winter. The brood break should have reduced the mite population. Approximately a year into this adventure, I have learned a lot…and there is still a lot to learn.

When last I posted I was on a bit of a high in terms of how well the bees were faring. I knew we had cut things close with space, and hoped I had added another hive body before the swarming hormones fully engaging. However, I failed to find the queen the next inspection two weeks later on May 14 despite bulging honey supers mostly filled with capped and uncapped honey, part of which I happily harvested because there were plenty of stores at that time in the brood nest. I was ecstatic harvesting frames for the first time and then learning how to uncap and extract the delicious sweetness from them.

During that inspection, I also learned a valuable, albeit sad, lesson about the queen excluder. As experienced beekeepers are likely already well aware, drones, like the queen, cannot pass through it. That would not ordinarily pose a problem, but when I added the additional deep hive body for more space, I moved the medium with a mix of brood (larvae and pupae, aka baby bees) and honey above the queen excluder thinking that the brood would hatch from their cells and the cells could then be used for honey. That worked fine for any workers hatching above the excluder, but the larger drones were unable to pass through to the hive exit. When I removed that hive body, out fell several dead drones who had spent their short lives trapped in the hive unable to fulfill their destiny of inseminating a queen.

The various manipulations likely stressed the bees by adding too much space and spreading the brood out too much. I won’t do it that way again. I kept multiple brood frames together and had honey and pollen stores near them, but it still required the nurse bees to cover more area to keep all the brood warm and there may not have been enough of them. Further support for using a single-size hive body, which would have made things more interchangeable, rather than a mix of deeps and mediums.

I also did a sugar roll to assess the number of mites in the colony as part of Mite-A-Thon, a citizen science project to measure mite loads across all of North America. I had nine mites in my sample of approximately 300 bees, which equals three mites per hundred bees. I thought my measure was a little short, but when I discovered upon rechecking the protocol that it generally takes only a half-cup, not a full cup, to approximate 300 bees. The mite estimate was lower than I expected since I had been seeing a large number of mites on the bottom board. The sugar roll method tends to underestimate, so it is possible that the actual number is somewhat higher. Treatment is recommended above three mites per hundred bees, but chemical treatments including Apiguard cannot be done with honey supers on the colony leaving me with only non-chemical methods like a break in the brood cycle or powdered sugar treatment.

Sooooo, back to that missing queen…

(and just like a rollercoaster ride, this one’s a cliffhanger)

Very lengthy hive inspection video. Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to speed up the video and add a voiceover afterward.

It’s been a bit over a month since I’ve posted about the bees. It’s not that there isn’t anything interesting happening; au contraire! I’ve been busy with them, whether mine or someone else’s, nearly every weekend. I simply have not taken the time to organize my thoughts about what to write.

Since I began learning about beekeeping, I find myself questioning my own motives, as well as those of other well-meaning folks who want to help “save the bees”.  Non-native honeybees, as far as I can tell, are not the pollinators desperately in need of our help.  Humans generally recognize the importance of honeybees in pollinating our food crops and, since they are useful to us, these bees tend to receive the attention they need. Plus, the increased attention on honeybees has been instrumental in conversations to limit pesticide use, which helps far more species. So I’m not completely knocking the honeybee; rather, I am simply cautioning that there are native bee species who may need our care more.  What about species that aren’t as charismatic as our sweet little honeybee?

The diverse array of native bees, of which there are 1600 species in California alone, are left mostly to their own devices. Fitting, I suppose, since many are solitary bees.  However, to compound the issue, not only have we eliminated much of the native habitats and open spaces these species depend on for nesting and foraging, but the landscape is swarming in non-native honeybees who out-compete these locally-adapted species. Native bee species tend to be specialists that are evolved to forage on plants local to their environment. Non-native species, like honeybees, can take advantage of a wider variety of species, and in better pollinating them, help those to spread even wider.

So where does all this leave me and my wee colony of bees? Well, they are growing well. So well that I needed to buy an emergency extension when the equipment order did not arrive in time (a local beekeeper was generous and offered me a loan, but I was pretty sure I’d need the gear eventually). I don’t want to be a beekeeper who is casting swarms about willy-nilly and adding to the problem; I don’t think it’s particularly neighborly to do so when living in a residential area.

In my last hive inspection, I did a sugar roll to count the number of mites and found two, which equates to less than one mite per hundred bees and is in the acceptable limits. I’ll do another count in a week or so as part of Mite-a-Thon, a citizen science project to track mite numbers across North America.  I sent the inspection video to a few family members as a preview, and my mum supplied me with some questions that I’d like to answer here for her and others. I think my mum asks some pretty great questions about things that I tend to go over quickly or ignore assuming everyone knows what they are. Anywhoo, I hope you’ll find these interesting:

  1. Q: Did I ever find the queen? A: That day, nope, I don’t think I did; but there were other signs of her somewhat recent presence through young larvae.
  2. Q: What are those two cups for that were on the first few frames? A: Those are the start of queen cells, signs that the bees might be feeling a little cramped for space or that the queen isn’t doing an adequate job. Not things one wants to find in the colony, and signs that make finding either the queen or eggs important.
  3. Q: What was that white looking screen for? A: That is a queen excluder. The spacing is such that the larger-sized queen can’t get past it, but the workers can. It’s used for limiting where the queen can go and lay eggs.
  4. Q: Every time you inspect the hive, you have casualties? A: Yes, unfortunately. It’s one of the reasons to not inspect too frequently. Every 2 – 4 weeks is recommended, depending on timing and other considerations.
  5. Q: What do you think the bees think when you put all the sugar on them? A: “WTF, lady? Get this shit off of me!”
  6. Q: What happens with all those bees flying around afterwards? A: They all go back home. They know exactly where it is and will go back to their home with their queen, who is the only one that can reproduce. An individual bee can’t survive by herself. She needs the hive and her sisters for food, warmth, and protection.

I inspected the hive again last weekend and am pleased with how they are progressing. I discovered when reviewing the video that my bee suit was partially unzipped the entire time. Yikes! How did I miss this?! How did I not notice this when I took off my suit? Thank goodness the bees also missed this oversight.

The middle super was so full, mostly with capped and uncapped honey, that I could barely lift it. The bees have also decided to make a lot of drones in that section; I’m not exactly sure why, particularly after what I witnessed last night when I watched a worker hauling her still living and much larger brother out of the hive on his back, pulling him by his legs. I have read that the male drones are permitted to stay as long as there are sufficient resources, and what I had seen the prior week indicated that there should be plenty of pollen and nectar for all to share. Still, I was impressed by her tenacity.

I found the queen rather quickly. I recently bought and started reading, Queenspotting, authored by a local beekeeper, Hilary Kearney with Girl Next Door Honey; I think it’s improving my search image. The book has some lovely stories about beekeeping and several “Where’s Waldo” type pages where the goal is to locate the queen. I powdered the bees with sugar to encourage them to clean themselves, which removes Varroa mites in the process. Next time, I plan to count the mites with the sugar roll method again, using a finer gauge wire mesh in the lid that I hope will be more effective.

The weather finally shifted last week and it’s warm enough to wear a t-shirt during the day. The citrus trees are magnificently in bloom; the evening air is heavy with their perfume that I can smell from a couple houses away. The native lilacs glow with their brilliant, purple blooms, and the earliest sages are blossoming. Nectar and pollen sources seem plentiful.

The kingbirds have also located my hive and perch on various trees, garden posts, and tomato cages when resting between contentedly picking off bees as they come and go from their foraging. I don’t begrudge them the snacks; they are grassland birds in an area where grasslands have been largely eliminated. At first, they stopped by daily, and I started to tell time by the sound of their characteristic call near my own lunchtime. Now they only stop by briefly, and not every day. Perhaps they know better than to clear out the entire supply all at once, or maybe one can only eat so many bees.

So now it seems I wait. I keep expecting the top super to have more development, but it has yet to occur. I think I am just impatient. Perhaps next week will be the big week when I open the top to see the pearly, fresh comb peeking out just below the top frame bar.

This week we have a special guest: my friend and co-worker, and experienced beekeeper Andrea. She is a far more engaging host and I greatly appreciate her generosity in sharing her knowledge and equipment through this learning process. We had high hopes for the inspection as you hear in Andrea’s introduction of our plan. As per the usual so far, we made a plan…and then life (or the bees) had a different one.

The plan had been to do some minor reorganization of the brood box. There are two frames where the bees only like one side for honey storage and have not built any comb on the other, so I thought we would move those two half frames out and let them build fresh comb so that they had ten full frames. I was simply trying to maximize usable space. If they haven’t used a part of the foundation, it’s often that there is something about it that they don’t like. In my case, the foundation is somewhat old, which could be putting them off. My goal has been to switch to foundationless frames so it seemed a good time to continue that process.

Once we pulled the feeder box and inner cover, we discovered that the bees had been very busy over the past couple weeks. I had fed them sugar syrup twice and with that they had almost completely cleaned up the old comb and drawn out the empty frames on the honey super. Plus, they had filled it at least half full of honey in various stages of completion and capping. Ahhhh, that was the delicious smell that had been regularly wafting from the hive on warm days. I do not have a particularly adept sense of smell, but it is a delectable, unique melange of flavors. Trying to describe it feels a lot like describing wine: it has hints of honey, wax, vanilla, and caramel with distinct floral notes. Marc says it smells distinctly earthy. If you have never had the opportunity to smell a beehive, add it to your bucket list. It’s a delight!

We scrapped our original plan to pull the two half-built frames and find the queen, deciding that all was well in their colony and there was no need to disrupt it to go deeper into the nest this time. Instead, we added another honey super along with the queen excluder. This super would not be filled with honey made from sugar syrup as they had plenty of resources to support themselves at this point and there was no need to continue feeding them. Instead this super, if filled, will be the excess that I hope to harvest, leaving the bees with the lower super and filled brood nest for their winter provisions.

If you’ve been following along, or know something about honeybees, you know that the queen is not really in charge of the colony in the same way as the queen is in a monarchy and that bee society more closely resembles a democracy, but I was at a loss for other titles.

At the close of the last inspection, I had not observed the queen or eggs, and had removed the beginnings of a queen cell, which could have been the colony’s only hope for making a new queen if needed. Focusing on the lack of space, I was thinking only about the bees moving into the honey super and beginning to draw comb there, which I hoped to encourage by feeding them again with sugar syrup. But I still needed to know if they had a queen or if I had a larger problem on my hands. I found a warmish afternoon to go back into the hive to see if I could find the queen, or at least eggs.

This time I started from the back of the frames, avoiding the two that are stuck together, knowing that I’d have to separate them if I didn’t find the queen on the other frames. Thankfully, I found the queen with her conspicuous blue dot fairly quickly. There were a few open cells with what I thought were eggs, and I found uncapped brood of various sizes. So I knew that all was well with their colony. I just needed to solve their lack of space problem to keep them from swarming. I decided to remove the queen excluder that I had placed between the honey super and the brood nest to see if giving her more space to move around changed things.

A queen excluder is a piece of metal or plastic the same length and width of the hive body with grids so that workers can pass through it but the queen and drones cannot due to their larger size. The purpose of this is to keep the queen from laying eggs in what may become the honey harvest. This commits the combs above the excluder to storage area for honey or pollen. I had already decided that I wouldn’t harvest any of the honey that may have been made from sugar syrup in that super, and that it would be left to the bees for their winter survival, so removing the excluder and allowing eggs to be laid there if needed did not change my planning. If there’s enough blooming to get a second super filled with honey, that will be my harvest, assuming they have enough resources for themselves.

The queen excluder is circled in yellow.

Since I was in the colony twice in close succession during weather that has been less than ideal, I decided to wait two and a half weeks before I inspected again since each inspection introduces risk of harming the queen. I did that inspection today with my beekeeper friend, Andrea. But you’ll have to come back next time to share in our findings đŸ™‚

The queen has one primary job and that is to lay eggs, as many as 2000 per day. She also produces pheromones that are spread by the workers throughout their home. These serve as signals as to who is a member of that colony and also communicate to the workers that the queen is healthy. While she is referred to as, “the queen”, honeybee society is not a monarchy and is actually a democracy where each of the workers has a voice. If the queen is not producing sufficient eggs or pheromones, whether that’s because she is aging, diseased, injured, or just didn’t mate properly to fill her spermatheca (a scientific term for the sperm sac), the workers will decide to make a new queen. They do this by forming a longer, peanut-shaped cell around an egg and then feeding that larva only royal jelly. Once the workers are confident they have a new, mated queen, they will form a ball around the old queen and heat her to death; beekeepers refer to this as “balling.”

On my most recent hive inspection, I wanted to see how the bees were responding to the honey super I had added three weeks earlier. Our young neighbor, Jones, joined me and, unfortunately, was stung towards the end. He handled it very bravely! I have since bought a spare veil that he or Marc can wear to protect them when I am angering the bees. I discovered that more bees had moved into the super and appeared to have stored some honey in a few cells, but, by and large, there was little comb construction occurring there. The brood nest, on the other hand, was packed with bees. I found the beginning of a queen cell on one of the first frames. I quickly removed the cell, thinking that perhaps the bees still had swarming in mind. This, I later learned, was a potentially grave error for the wee democracy, since I did not know at that point if the queen were still alive and well. Removing a queen cell is removing the only hope that colony has to create a new queen if there is something amiss with the old one.

The most important part of a hive inspection is determining if the colony is queen-right, which means that it has a laying queen. The best way to do this is by finding eggs in cells, which means that the queen was alive and laying within the past three days. I have a really hard time seeing the eggs, even while wearing my reading glasses, and am learning that I need to find a solution to this. I tend to use the presence of uncapped brood as my surrogate, but that gives a much longer time-frame of about nine days since the queen was known to be laying eggs.

I mistakenly focused on swarming as the reason for creating these queen cups, without thinking that there are other reasons for making them. Not fully grasping the possibilities of what I had done, I finished the inspection finding neither the queen nor eggs. I thought the lack of space was the issue and proceeded to add the syrup feeder back as a means of stimulating wax production so they could fill out the super above. It was only once I posted to the San Diego Beekeepers Association page on Facebook and asked for some recommendations that I realized the democracy might be in crisis, and I had just removed their best chance to maintain it.

It’s been two weeks since I added the honey super. Unfortunately, the day that Andrea was here to help, Marc was busy and not available to film us, so there is no video. Plus, we were so completely absorbed in our task of doing a thorough inspection of the colony that I didn’t even think to take pictures along the way. The inspection went well: we found the queen, still with her blue dot; we found drones; and we even found a queen cell, a sign that the colony was feeling the lack of space. We removed the queen cell in an attempt to keep them from getting any ideas about swarming.

Once a colony is out of space, they begin making preparations to swarm and the first step in that process is to make a new queen, which requires a particular type of cell since the queens are a larger bee. I tend to think that an important part of beekeeping is to manage swarming, if at all possible, particularly because I live in a residential neighborhood where random swarms flying around may not be welcome. So I want to stay on top of their swarming shenanigans. A swarm also results in the colony splitting: the majority of the foragers leave with the old queen to find a location where they start anew. This potentially weakens both colonies since those who swarm have to start from scratch with building comb and storing resources, and those who stay behind keep the resources on hand but need to rear a new queen before egg-laying and more workers are produced. While the colony is strong now, particularly from where we started less than a year ago, I would prefer to not split them yet. The question is whether or not the bees agree with me.

I decided to check them again a week after adding the honey super to see if more queen cells had been produced and to see if they had moved into the honey super. This time, I did video myself (inspection). As you will see in the video, the hive is filled with bees on every frame. There were even festooning bees, which is where they make something like a chain holding onto one another. Towards the end of the video, there are two frames where I did not close the space correctly and the bees connected the combs between them, which makes it difficult to remove those two frames. I tried to, but noticed that I was damaging the comb and so I stopped so as to not make more work for them or potentially harm the queen should she have been on one of those two frames. Unless the queen cells are on those last two frames, the colony seems to have accepted my additional space and are no longer looking to swarm. I plan to keep a close eye on them over the next few weeks to be sure all is going to plan. I am prepared with a second hive setup just in case they do continue towards swarming, but I would prefer to add a second honey super and keep this colony strong rather than splitting it, at least for this year.

Festooning bees highlighted in blue
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