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 🙂

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

I decided to check the colony one week after the first Apiguard treatment rather than waiting the full two weeks and discovered that the first patty was nearly finished. I am in a time crunch with rain arriving finally and plants soon to start blooming, so I am attempting the two patty treatment in a constricted timeframe. The colony appears strong despite the alarming number of mites I find on the sticky bottom board when I check it each morning. I’ve estimated 30 – 50 mites per day, with the numbers definitely falling over time; assuming a full hive body holds 20,000 – 30,000 bees that results in a 2 – 3.5% infestation rate, which is getting too high. According to Honey Bee Health a beekeeper should strive to keep the colony infestation below 3%.

My colony has filled all the frames now and there is no room for them to grow. They are apt to swarm if I don’t add more space for them soon. Some of the sites I’ve read recommend adding more space when the colony has filled six to eight frames in a ten frame box. Managed colonies expand by the beekeeper adding additional boxes with frames for the bees to build new comb. There is a balance to maintain because if there is too much empty space during the winter, it’s harder for the bees to maintain and protect their environment and it’s easier for intruders like wax moths or hive beetles to get a foothold into the colony. I am hoping that with the swath of lemonade berry about to bloom behind my property, there will be plenty of honey to keep the bees through next winter as well as a bit for my harvest. That means I need to add a super at a time when I am not also treating for varroa mites since the thymol treatment can lead to funky tasting honey. If it weren’t for my honey greed, I could have added another box at any time and just left whatever was produced for the bees.

Lush chaparral hillside

The timing of my inspection was not ideal as it was still a little too cold and most of the bees were in the hive rather than out foraging. That meant a lot of angry bees when I started peeking in their house! Here are links to the videos on YouTube if you’re interested in watching: inspection and summary. One note if you watch the second video, don’t do as I say and run and hide if bees are chasing you; if you safely can, calmly walk away. I tried to be quick about the inspection due to the weather, but became a bit disturbed when I could not locate the queen.

What I did find was several capped drone cells (I’ve highlighted them in the photo to the right) and one large bee sans blue dot. Last week I had found a couple drones, so I thought I knew how to distinguish them from the queen, but I’m clearly not confident in this.

Though this larger bee lacked the dot, I thought this was a queen due to a more elongated abdomen. It also seemed to have rather large eyes, a drone feature, so I clearly need more practice. Unfortunately, the bees were so upset that Marc, my super-handy husband and chief videographer (pictured to the left; yep, he needs a beesuit), was not able to get in close to get a photo for my later reference so it’s all a bit of a mystery for the moment. I did not find queen cells, neither supersedure, nor swarm cells, so I assume she’s there.

I’m going back in today to pull the second Apiguard treatment and add the honey super. My beekeeper friend is coming to help so we can be certain if the colony is queen-right. Wish us luck! It’s still a little cold.

It’s been a few weeks since I sugared my bees.  After being stung once again while filling their sugar syrup, I’ve been reluctant to open the hive while the weather is still a bit chilly.  I’ve been checking the sticky board regularly and finding a disturbing number of mites on it, so I knew I needed to increase my efforts at mite control.  I spoke with my beekeeper friend about options, and checked out methods local beekeepers have posted online.  I decided on something considered a “soft” chemical treatment called Apiguard that uses thymol, a primary ingredient in thyme oil, as my next-level choice. 

I opened the hive with the intention of placing the Apiguard and a new pollen patty, and discovered bees everywhere: throughout the frames as expected, but also along the sides of the hive body and at the bottom. Even more exciting is that I found a couple drones. These are the only male bees in the colony. I had seen pictures of them, but hadn’t actually seen one so it took me a minute to figure out what I was seeing. At first, I thought my queen had lost her blue mark because the drones are quite a bit larger than the workers. Then I noticed a couple peculiarities: 1) there was more than one of these larger bees and 2) they were unusually chunky looking. Drones! How cool! Unfortunately, Marc was not helping me film this inspection so the video I shot has only a single camera angle and does not have any close-ups of the drones (Inspection 011721). If only Jonah had thumbs, he could help.

Besides these first drones, I also noticed that the frames at the far side of the box that have been empty for months now have beautiful, freshly drawn, creamy white comb in them.  Which means the bees have been busily building again in preparation for spring’s arrival, and now the frames are nearly full with nowhere for them to go.  This would be a wonderful achievement for my mini-swarm-started colony, if I weren’t also finding more mites than I’d like and if we weren’t in a dry, La Nina year. 

Less rain means the blooming season is likely to be shorter, which also means there will be a limited amount of time for honey.  Either I can continue to expand my colony for another year and not worry about honey, or I can put honey supers on early and maybe have a wee harvest this year.  We’ve had one good rain so far this year, with more in the forecast this week.  The lemonadeberry is starting to bloom, and the canyon is full of it so I’m hoping they’ll have a feast in store for them, even if it doesn’t last long.  

The catch with the Apiguard treatment is that I’ve timed this all rather poorly since a full treatment takes three to four weeks and it must occur prior to placing honey supers.  Once complete, the super can be put on right away.  My current plan is to stop feeding the sugar syrup so they’ll eat some of their honey stores instead of the syrup and continue the Apiguard treatment that I started.  I’ll check the hive in two weeks and re-assess.  At that point, I’ll either place the second Apiguard treatment or stop treatment and install the honey super.  It will depend how the space is looking in two weeks.  Hopefully, I have time before they start getting ideas about swarming.  And next year, assuming mites are still an issue requiring treatment, I’ll treat the colony in the fall right after removing the honey supers.  Ah, the joys of learning!

I decided to try a prophylactic mite treatment for my hive after doing the powdered sugar roll a couple weeks ago. You may recall that my test failed due to operator error and it appeared that I did not have any mites. However, among beekeepers in this part of southern California it is known that no mites is highly unlikely, so I was fairly certain that I have mites in my colony; I had simply failed to detect them. I spoke with my beekeeper friend who shared with me some pictures of mites on the bottom boards of her colonies. We even played a little “Where’s Waldo”-esque game of Find the Mite to help me develop a good search image. Equipped with this information, I carefully searched the bottom board a few days later and I found a couple of the little buggers. (Side note: my aging eyes are getting more problematic. I’ve found that even wearing my glasses, the mites are too small for me to be certain of them so now I take a picture of the area where there is something that resembles a mite and then zoom the picture in closer to confirm. Perhaps I’ve found a use after all for Marc’s odd real estate gift magnifying glass he handed me a few weeks ago.)

European honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not co-evolved with the Varroa mite so they have not developed adequate adaptations to this threat, which they have only been dealing with since sometime in the 1960s for the species, and since the 1980s in North America. Varroa mites were originally known in Asia where they parasitize Asian honeybees (Apis cerana), a different, albeit sister, species. I’ve been looking into the array of methods one can use to treat for these mites and the reasons for and against treatment. As a biologist, I tend to agree with some of the treatment-free beekeepers I’ve read. In this philosophy, mite infestations are generally viewed as a genetic issue best handled by re-queening from a treatment-free breeder. A queen bred from stock that has survived without the use of chemical treatments should have genes better adapted to combating and co-existing with the mite. This is why I opted to purchase my queen where I did, since they have queens that have been selected for what is known as VSH, Varroa selective hygiene. Increased mite resistance is also one of the advantages for keeping feral colonies with some Africanized genetics who seem better-adapted to handling Varroa.

A powdered sugar dusting is one non-chemical method that can be used to encourage bees to clean themselves, which results in mite removal (Hive inspection video). This method does nothing for the mites that are busily reproducing in the capped brood cells, so multiple treatments are needed in quick succession to have any hope at reducing mite numbers. On some sites I’ve read that store-bought powdered sugar, which contains corn starch, is hazardous for bees and it’s recommended to make your own by putting granulated sugar into a blender. Other sites have cited research that cornstarch-laced powdered sugar is not harmful to bees, but other anti-caking agents are. I had powdered sugar on hand, so that’s what I used. After checking the bottom board this morning, I counted five mites. I’ll check the board again the next two days so I can get an average daily mite drop, and I’ll sugar them again in a week. Aside from the mites, the colony appears healthy. They are chugging through their sugar syrup and there were plenty of bees, capped brood, and capped honey visible on the few frames I pulled out.

Here I am sugaring the bees

So I’ve mentioned doing a mite check for a while now and finally did my first one over the Thanksgiving weekend. It was an epic fail that might be better described as a series of what not to do. I had read about the method I had selected; I probably should have looked online for a YouTube demonstration of the technique prior to attempting it myself. Perhaps I will remember that the next time I attempt something. Knowing me, I will not.

Varroa destructor, Varroa mite, is a common parasite of the honeybee. I’m not going to post any pictures because I think they’re pretty icky looking. Wikipedia has a good close-up image though, if you’re curious. This particular mite is a vector of multiple viruses that are passed to infested honeybee colonies. Serious infestations can result in death of the colony unless beekeepers step in with a variety of tools to protect their bees. The mite is native to Asia and so European honeybees, the most common honeybee in North America, have not evolved with this parasite and do not have adequate defenses against it. Beekeepers breed queens from selected stock with genetics that are more resistant to the mite, mainly through increased cleaning behaviors that are more likely to remove the mites. Africanized colonies are also thought to be more resistant to this threat. From what I’ve read, the mite is found throughout the United States. There is a citizen science project, Mite-A-Thon, to track mite levels across North America, but it is dependent on voluntary participation so a high reported mite level could mean that mite levels in the area are higher than other areas, but it could also mean that there is a high level of participation in the area.

There are a few methods to determine the mite level in a colony: alcohol wash, sugar roll, and a sticky board. The sticky board is a passive method that requires a layer of some sticky substance on a board placed under the hive. After three days, one looks at the board and counts the number of mites. This is not the most accurate method to use because it depends on the mites falling off or being cleaned off the bees for them to then land on the sticky board to be counted. The other two methods count the mites actually found on the bees. The alcohol wash is likely the most accurate, but it also kills all the bees used in the sample since they are swirled in alcohol to remove the mites, and then the mites are counted in the alcohol. The sugar roll is a similar method where the bees survive since they are only swirled in powdered sugar and can survive this level of abuse. So that was my preferred choice. Both the alcohol and sugar methods require collection of a sample of approximately 300 bees from different frames in the hive. Ideally the sample is composed primarily of nurse bees from the brood combs as these are the youngest bees and most likely to have mites since the mites attach to baby bees in the brood cells and emerge with the newly hatched bees already attached to them. The video is a great demonstration of how not to collect bees.

Besides my troubles with collecting bees, I also missed a key step in the method. After coating them, I was supposed to let the bees sit for a couple minutes to give them time to heat up in response to the sugar, which then causes the mites to release from the bees. You’ll see in the video my other error.

So after all that, the answer is that I still do not know if I have a mite problem or not. It has been so cold lately that I haven’t felt like disturbing them again so I may wait until spring to try again. Plus, I need to find a finer mesh screen to use that keeps the bees safely inside. My hope is that I won’t have a large mite problem yet since the colony was so small to begin with and I started with a queen known to have more hygienic behavior who will pass that on to some of her offspring. This may be wishful thinking.

I’ll leave you with a photo of my favorite assistant doing what he does best: enjoying the sun. I love this guy more than words can ever begin to express. He’s snoozing next to me now as I type this, hogging the entire chaise lounge and leaving only a small section of the sofa for Marc and I to share.

This year was to be the first time one of my brothers would host Thanksgiving at his new home. I was excited for the possibility. When my mum broached the topic in July or August, I was still hopeful that we’d be together as I have missed seeing my family. However, as we got into November and started seeing Covid cases on the rise, we all agreed to forego the gathering this year and I found myself happy to have the extra time digging in the yard. The first phase of plants are nearly all in the ground and there will likely be time to get the last of them planted this weekend. The mallows I planted two weeks ago arrived with a few small buds already on them, which have now opened into pretty pale pink blooms.

Phase two arrives the second week of December, and comprises even more plants, but fewer varieties, than the first. Bees keep investigating me while I’m working in the yard. One landed on my bare arm today and I gave her a lift around the side of the house until she decided she had reached her destination and flew away.

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. It is the perfect holiday in my opinion since it is all about family and food, and it reminds me to be grateful for the myriad blessings in my life. Plus, it’s during a time of year I love with its brisk mornings and warm days. It’s also near my birthday, which is generally my time for taking stock of the past year and envisioning the next.

I am thankful that despite everything that has occurred in this crazy year, my family is safe and healthy. My brothers and I are still working out in the world and not able to isolate completely. Our parents are older and I am thankful they made it easy for us by clearly stating that they did not want any of us to take unnecessary risks by being together for the holiday. I am grateful for a job that I mostly love even though I sometimes have some serious disagreements with the organizational mission and disregard for life. I am grateful to my husband, Marc, for providing this beautiful house to use as a palette in designing a playful, magical space that welcomes and provides habitat for wildlife. I am especially thankful for friendships with MaryScarlett, who encouraged me to start this blog, and with Andrea, who has generously shared her time and knowledge of bees to get me started in this beekeeping adventure. Lastly for this abbreviated list of gratitudes, I am most grateful that for the first time in many years, and quite probably due to the blessings listed above among many others, I am more curious than I am resigned: curious to discover what the future holds, curious to see if humans will critically consider and seek to remedy the deleterious effects we have had on the other species that inhabit this little rock of ours, curious to watch how the plants grow, curious to learn if the bees will thrive, and curious to explore ways to assist them where needed.

And you, what are you thankful for?

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