This was probably inevitable, but I had hoped I wouldn’t need to address ants for a little while. However, I discovered on Monday morning that ants were trying to invade my hive, likely because we had added that frame with brood, which also had some uncapped honey, there is the top feeder holding about a gallon of sugary sweet syrup, and we had shifted the bricks around when changing the bottom board. That evening, I reinforced the diatomaceous earth moat surrounding the hive, hoping it would be sufficient.

Now, there is some debate as to the efficacy of diatomaceous earth in the battle against ants. Some biologists say the science isn’t there. Regardless, I’ve used it since we first moved here, mainly in the moats for my hummingbird feeders. They are intended to be filled with water, but here in southern California, water evaporates too quickly and diatomaceous earth is a simple alternative. Wherever I’ve used it when the ants have attacked my hummingbird feeders, they quickly cease and desist. So that was what I first turned to when I needed something to protect the hive, and I now have a fairly solid white area around and under it. Yet the ants are still finding gaps to get through, as evidenced by a few of them around the entrance and a number of them on the slide-out bottom board. Bonus from my checks of the bottom board this week has been evidence of baby bees from the caps that are removed and land on the board as the new bees emerge.

Along with the diatomaceous earth, I also use a bait gel called Optigard, which I place along any trails and the ants take it back to the colony. I like it because it is ant-specific and doesn’t affect the other insects. I’ve been using that for the past two years, mainly in the front yard, and have seen the ant numbers drop. Unfortunately, it’s so effective that I haven’t needed to use it much this year until now and need to restock.

I decided to just do a fairly simple check on the status of the bee food at the end of the week, since my beesuit and, more importantly, hat and veil have yet to arrive. This involved removing the inner cover and feeder so I could see the frames. I took out a couple empty frames on the east side, then decided that I might be pushing things when I had neither a smoker to calm the bees, nor protective clothing to properly shield me should I anger them. I was happy to see that the bees are still in the middle of the hive, and there now is much more activity on two frames instead of just one.

I had checked the feeder a couple times this week already, and in the process crushed a few of my already limited number of bees. So I was particularly careful this time in my technique of removing and replacing the inner cover. I left it open for a bit while I prepared more syrup, and came back to the bees having cleaned the remnants of their compatriots from the frames and moved back down inside. For the few that were still loitering along the top, I lit a sage branch and turned it into an improv smoker. I don’t have many bees, so it was adequate for my needs.

My husband, who has been kind enough to photograph and video this whole adventure, captured a great image of the bees as they gathered near the opening on the inner cover. I sent the picture to my beekeeper friend who agreed that there appears to be at least one fuzzy-headed youngster in the picture. Can you find her?

Can you spot the new-bee?

Today was the big day! The great reveal. Had the queen been released and had my bees accepted her? My friend the beekeeper arrived with another frame to swap, this time of brood, and a pollen patty to help nourish the bees while they got themselves started with this new home. We lit the smoker, made our plan for the inspection, and donned our veils. We opted not to wear full beekeeping regalia as it’s a little warm here in southern California, and we were feeling brave. I wore gardening gloves and hoped as I got going that I wouldn’t regret this choice when I realised how much skin was revealed once I started really moving around.

First, we replaced my bottom board with a new one that has a slide out piece that I can regularly check as a more gentle way of indirectly looking into the workings of my hive. Various things fall on it for me to see whenever I pull it out: bee parts, flakes of wax, or parasites. All providing useful information about my bees without requiring me to disturb them.

Next, we began the actual inspection. I removed the upper hive body and feeder, then carefully removed the inner cover. The bees had moved to the middle of the hive. I removed and inspected three empty frames, making enough room in the hive to shift the other frames for easier viewing. I’m still pretty clumsy and learning how best to handle the frames. I’m a clutz at the best of times and feel like I’m all thumbs when handling the frames, but am sure I’ll improve in confidence over time.

Removing the first few frames

Bees are still mainly on one frame, with a few on a second. There hasn’t been a serious expansion in drawn comb, but we were able to see what appear to be eggs in a few cells and Queen Aliènor roaming around one corner with a few dedicated attendants. Success! The blue marking dot sure does make it easy to find her! It also helps that there aren’t many bees.

Queen Aliènor la Bleue

Inspecting the frame for eggs and the queen

We placed the frame of brood from my friend’s hive between the two frames where the bees were, removed the queen cage and rubber band, replaced the frames, placed a pollen patty on the top, and closed it all up after checking that they had adequate sugar syrup in the feeder.

Thankfully, these bees are rather mellow and haven’t been inclined to sting, other than that first day. I had one dodgy moment when placing the pollen patty on the top and a bee was rather focused on my face, zigzagging within inches of it. I had the foresight not to swipe at my face or the bee, and instead chose to walk away for a moment to regroup. The bee moved on and no one was harmed.

Since my hive was queenless, there was no need to remove the existing queen before installing the new one. If that is needed, GirlNextDoorHoney advises removing her 24 hours in advance.

My friend arrived and this was the first time where I would be the person working the bees. So exciting! She had brought me a frame from one of her hives to swap out with one of my empty ones, this way I had some honey and drawn out comb. It would have been ideal to have uncapped brood, but it wasn’t possible this time.

We lit the smoker, made a plan for all that we would do this time, and then we put on our hats and veils. My suit hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m still borrowing her spare veil and wearing a heavy flannel shirt with jeans. We opened the hive and removed a couple frames to make space allowing us to more easily see the rest of the hive. Most of my frames are empty, which made the process go faster, but we still checked each of them. There were more bees inside the hive than I’d thought! They were mostly on one frame with a few on a second. They’d even made some comb with a few pollen and honey cells. We carefully checked the frames for any sign of a queen and, finding none, attached the new queen (I’ve named her Aliènor) to the frame brought by my friend. We slid that frame in next to the frame where the bees had started building and shifted everything slightly more towards the center. Now the wait begins as the bees cannot be disturbed for a week while they release the queen from her cage, and, hopefully, accept her. We’ll see tomorrow!

Unfortunately, I was so excited about the new queen and working with the bees that I forgot to take any pictures or ask to have any taken. So here is a picture of my hive. Hopefully, the queen has been released and all are happily preparing for eggs and babies soon.

I had hoped to find a local supplier that I could easily drive to and pick up a queen that weekend, but to no avail. What I did find is a company that ships queens next-day via UPS. Wildflower Meadows is located in southern California and does occasionally offer in-person pickup, it’s just that none were available at the time. So I reviewed all of their information and opted to order a queen from them that would arrive that Thursday as that was the earliest available. One of the things I like about Wildflower Meadows is that their queens are genetically selected for increased vigilance towards mites, which are a recurring concern in bee colonies. I opted for delivery at my home rather than at the pickup center because the weather forecast for the week was pretty mild.

I still had nearly another week without a queen in my colony. I didn’t know how I would contain my impatience. I watched the video on their site for how to install my queen once she arrived, and found through them a fabulous new resource in GirlNextDoorHoney who even offers online beginner beekeeping classes. I’ll be there soon!

I was ready! Thursday morning was perfectly overcast and I could see from the UPS tracking that my queen would arrive late morning. She arrived without incident and remained on my kitchen countertop until my beekeeper friend could come over in the late afternoon to help me with the installation.

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She’s here!
Queen Aliènor la Bleue and her attendants

We waited about a week from when we collected the bees before we opened the hive to see if there was a queen. From the title of this post, I think you can see where we’re going, but our hope had been that somehow there was a second queen in the swarm. It was a far-fetched hope, but a hope all the same. We opened the hive to discover approximately one frame of bees, who had not done much of anything over the past week. No comb being drawn, no sign of any activity, and definitely, no sign of a queen. As I saw it, the issue was that we needed a queen, and we needed one soon. I had a jar of honey in the cupboard that I’d purchased from Max’s Honey House (excellent honey, BTW), which had a phone number on it that we called. We reached a man who is a commercial beekeeper and dissuaded us from trying to re-queen this colony of bees as it was too small and too late in the season to have a viable colony come winter. He recommended that I acquire a nucleus hive, which for those new to beekeeping is about five drawn frames filled with a queen, some drones, and some workers ready to be placed into a new hive body. That is still my next plan, if this colony fails.

In the lovetime, here were some queenless bees who would slowly die out over their natural lifespans and that seemed a little sad. I had collected them in the hopes of saving them. Sure, honey would be nice eventually, but I was and am more interested in the process and understanding of beelife. So after much deliberation, we decided we would attempt to re-queen them and see what happens in our grand experiment. We placed a feeder of sugar syrup on the hive and called it a night.

Mmm, mmm good!

The morning after placing my hive, I spoke with my friend the beekeeper. There was activity in and out of the hive and she recommended that I carefully remove one side of the entrance reducer we had fashioned out of cardboard the night before. I cautiously slid it out only to find that bees were hiding in the flaps. I tried to encourage them gently out of the way, but apparently I wasn’t as gentle as I’d thought. As I’m on the phone with my friend, I suddenly experienced an extreme burning sensation in my lower arm and called out, “It’s stinging me; it’s stinging me” like a lunatic only to look down to see a bee attempting to escape while some of its innards remain in my arm. I was only wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, not appropriately garbed for working my bees, and was surprised to be stung because didn’t they know I was trying to help them. Well, of course they didn’t know that; the bee that stung only knew that I was disturbing them and they were likely already plenty upset over being moved the night before.

I could see the tiny venom sac lodged in my arm and removed it, although not correctly and made the mistake of squeezing it in the process. The proper way is to lightly scrape it from the base of the skin so as not to further squeeze the venom into the wound. I’ve been stung three other times, but I think this was the only time where I received the full sting experience. My first sting was when sometime before adolescence, when rolling down a grassy hill was one of the most fun things one could do. It was also a great way to get stung by a bee in clover. My second and third stings were in preparation for the Vineman half Ironman and they were just glancing stings, over very quickly and not terribly painful. But I did stop wearing that purple bike helmet shortly thereafter.

The burning sensation died down after a few minutes, but it itched over the following few days and ultimately even bruised a little. I tend to have an over-reactive immune system that swells and reacts significantly over any small bite. My husband found the entire event amusing when I recounted it to him. His sage wisdom, “Leave the bees alone and they won’t sting you.”

First morning after collection from the valve box

Ever since we bought our home, I’ve wanted to have chickens and bees along with a small garden. I sort of fancy myself a backyard farmer. A little more than two years ago, a co-worker friend offered me some of her beekeeping equipment as she was downsizing and I had expressed interest in learning. There are a lot of bees in the area around our house, so she also placed some queen pheromones on one of the frames with some leftover comb in an attempt to attract a swarm passing through. Shortly thereafter, I broke my legs (yes, legs, plural) in a skydiving learning-gone-wrong. I wasn’t able to check on the bee results until several months later, and what I found was just a few dead bees and multiple black widows in the hive body. Hmmm, back to the drawing board.

Well, that didn’t go as expected.

Earlier this month while on a survey for California gnatcatchers with my co-worker beekeeper friend, we received a text from another colleague regarding some bees that had taken up residence on a part of her fence. I had put off trying to start a colony again because we have been re-configuring the backyard and the landscaping won’t be done until this Fall, when it’s easier to keep new transplants alive than through the heat of summer. But I leapt at the opportunity to collect a swarm and try again to get a colony started.

We went to our colleague’s home that night where most of the bees had moved into a valve box, but a cluster remained on the ground surrounding a dead bee. We hypothesized that this was the queen because: 1) she was larger in size than the other bees and 2) when we scooped up the dead bee and moved it for a closer examination, the other surrounding bees flew around but when we put her back on the ground they all clustered around her again. We tested this a couple times to be sure that the clustering was related to the dead bee. So we placed the presumed dead queen into my hive and scooped as many of the bees as possible in there with her. Once we had most of them, we drove the hive to my house and set it in the backyard, ready to see what happened next.

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