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.

I inspected the hive last Sunday expecting to see frames filled with fresh comb. (Remember a couple weeks how I mentioned my affinity with the virtue of patience?) Boy was I disappointed! Not a bit of fresh comb to be found. What I did find, however, were busy bees covering two full frames with plenty of bees roaming all around the other parts of the hive. I also discovered how much heavier a frame can be when it has honey in it. At best my frames have a wee bit of honey, so I can’t wait to see how a full one feels.

I also observed a bit of packed pollen in another corner.

The area circled in red is packed pollen, and, I think, the area circled in blue is capped honey. The other closed cells, capped with a lumpy looking dark orangish-brown covering is capped brood (baby bees). There might also be three cells of uncapped brood (baby bees that haven’t pupated yet) in the three open cells directly above the red circled area.
The shiny fluid inside these cells is honey that has yet to be dehydrated to the appropriate level. Once that occurs, the bees will cap it with a protective wax covering for storage until it’s needed later in the season.

Again I could not detect eggs. Along with the lack of fresh comb I was concerned as the bees seem to have little room for more egg-laying and brood production. So I posted a picture and posed the question on the San Diego Beekeepers Association Facebook page to see if there was anything more to be done. Two key points emerged: 1) since my colony is so small there just aren’t enough workers to tend to all the eggs and babies were the queen to lay more eggs. These are highly intelligent creatures! Maybe not in the same way humans consider intelligence, but there is an awareness here and the queen will only lay eggs to the extent that there are workers to care for them, and 2) it is possible that we are getting into what’s known as “the dearth” when there is less blooming so queens reduce their egg production since there is not as much to eat. There’s that intelligence in nature again!

It seems that my bees are doing fine. After conferring with my beekeeper friend, I added two sticks a little wider than a bee to each side of the feeder to lift it above the cover and give the bees access to more drinking areas on the lid.

Sticks inserted under feeder to lift it above the inner cover and give additional access to feeding holes in the lid

It made a huge difference! They had previously eaten only approximately 16 ounces in a week. When I checked it on Tuesday they had consumed another 16 ounces in just two days. My hope is that now that they have more food, and more bees emerging soon, there will be fresh comb on the next inspection in two weeks. We’ll see! Thanks for following along on this adventure.

My mamacita asked me a few weeks ago about pollen baskets, or pollen pants as some beekeepers call them, since which time I’ve intended to do a wee post to properly introduce the star of this blog: the bees! The next hive inspection is planned for tomorrow, and I want to adhere to my planned once a week post because my business coach husband says this is important, so today’s the day!

As a wildlife biologist who has spent my career so far focused on threatened and endangered species, and birds in particular, I’m really enjoying diving into a completely different taxon, the order hymenoptera, to which bees (and ants and wasps) belong. It’s a fascinating order because it is so different from how vertebrates function. Today we’re going to focus on two key traits: bee anatomy and social structure.

Insects are composed of three body segments: head, thorax, and abdomen. They take in oxygen through spiracles in their exoskeleton. See those pollen baskets on the hind legs in the images?

Filled pollen baskets on the ladies returning home.

These are where they store the collected goodies while foraging. I think this is why I prefer the term pollen baskets over pollen pants. While they do look a bit like they’re wearing puffy golf pants, a basket seems like what one would use on the way home after grocery shopping. Collected nectar is eaten and goes into their honey stomach to be later converted into…you guessed it, honey!

In a bee colony there are three castes: a queen (one), workers (many), and drones (some). The queen’s job is to lay eggs. That’s it! She’s much larger than the workers with wings that are too short for her body. She is attended by workers; I like to call them her entourage. The role of a worker changes over the course of her life, which is only a few weeks long. She starts out in housekeeping and eventually graduates to foraging responsibilities. Drones, the only males, are there to mate with future queens. They’re larger than the workers, with very large eyes.

Castes from MadeGood.org

A bee’s caste and sex is determined by the chromosomes that each bee inherited. For those reading this whose biology is a bit rusty, humans have paired chromosomes: one set from our mum, one set from our dad. Our chromosomes are called diploid, meaning there’s two sets. Biological sex (I hope I’m using the correct term here) in humans is determined by a specific sex chromosome: biological females generally have two X chromosomes, and biological males have an X from their mum and a Y from their dad. Birds, by the way, have a different system and it’s reversed. Super cool! Back to bees…Bees on the other hand sometimes are diploid from a fertilized egg (queens and workers; females) so their genetic material comes from both a queen and a drone. Sometimes they are only haploid from an unfertilized egg (drones; males), meaning their genetic material comes from one set of chromosomes, from the queen. The process from egg to adult bee takes about three weeks.

So here’s something interesting about my colony based on this haplodiploid concept that you may have already figured out. Since a bee inherits all of its genetic material from the queen who is the only member of the hive producing bees for that colony, and any given bee only lives a few weeks, the bees that are currently inhabiting my hive are completely unrelated to the bees from the swarm I gathered. Their genetics are gone, at least from here. Usually when bees swarm, the old queen leaves with a portion of the workers from the old hive, leaving the old hive with a new daughter queen. So perhaps, those genetics lived on in that source colony. But my bees, all hatched from eggs laid by either my new queen or the queen from my beekeeper friend when she gave me a frame of baby bees, are completely unrelated to the bees with which I started. We’ll see tomorrow how they’re progressing.

It’s always exciting to check on the progress of the hive. Once we removed the feeder and inner cover we saw that they had devoured all of the pollen patty, but had not eaten much of the sugar syrup. Moreover, there were clearly a lot more bees than with which we started. When we first captured the swarm, I barely had one side of a frame and now there are bees on two frames, plus they are moving out to a third.

Me carefully pulling out a frame.

Below is a comparison of one frame a week after requeening (left), and two weeks later on the 16th (right). These are two different frames, but it gives an idea of the increase in bees. The frame on the right is one my friend gave me that had capped brood (baby bees going through their process from egg to larva to adult bee), which you can still see a few of on the frame. They’re the 15 or so reddish-brown spots that you see on the comb towards the middle-top where there aren’t many bees.

They still haven’t built much new comb, and they have very little honey stored, so that is a bit worrisome. I’ve been feeding sugary syrup using a black, plastic jug type thing with a small metal screw-top lid with holes in it. Food in the black plastic may last a little longer before growing algae or fermenting, so it may be better for the bees, but it’s harder to assess their use of it. You may have noticed something black on top of my hive in the video on my last post…that was the feeder.

Since the hive inspection, my friend gave me a different feeder to try that has more area available from which the bees can feed. I like this one a bit better as it is made from clear plastic and has measurements on the side so I can gauge how much they are drinking, if at all. The clear plastic may grow algae or ferment faster than the black plastic, but once I have a better idea how much they’re eating, I can adjust and not fill it as full so as to avoid spoilage. Also, since it sits flat on the inner cover, I avoid crushing bees as I did when I checked the other one where the lid fit into the hole in the inner cover. In case you are curious, here are pictures of the two types:

There are also other types of feeders that I have yet to try. I’m hoping that feeding the bees is just a short-term thing I’ll need to do until next spring and that beyond that, my colony will be self-sustaining. We’ll see!

The rest of the inspection went well. I haven’t been able to spot eggs as they are really tiny, like a grain of rice, and my eyes are old so that even with my glasses and in full sun, I have yet to be able to confidently say I have seen one. I can though see the brood (bee larvae) and cappings indicating that new baby bees are growing.

In search of eggs…
…and the quest continues

I’ve also found the queen each time, which is pretty easy to do with her bright blue marking. I’ve noticed that her marking is fading a bit and there is a gap that wasn’t there in the beginning. Maybe it’s a result of her entourage cleaning her? In any case, all looks well with the hive. I’ll do another inspection where I remove the frames in two to three weeks.

Long live the Queen!
%d bloggers like this: