Archives for posts with tag: backyard beekeeping

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

So I decided last night to begin the slow process of moving my hive and today is the first day in the first of three temporary locations. The rule of thumb when moving bees is either move them within three feet or move them at least three miles. The other option is to not follow the rule of thumb, but then I’d need to close them in for three days and I don’t want to do that now when it’s so hot as I fear I wouldn’t have sufficient ventilation for them.

I thought I’d selected a good location for the hive where it receives morning sun, some shade from the afternoon sun, and protection from wind. Turns out that it is also a high traffic area for the birds that come to use the feeders and the top is getting covered in bird poop. I don’t think the bees mind, but I certainly do. There are other reasons to move, which I’ll discuss more in later posts.

The total distance I want to move is about 12 feet, so I’ll need to break that into four smaller moves spread out over a few weeks. I was a little concerned, wondering how they’d figure out that their home had been moved. Hives don’t normally just walk away, so it didn’t seem to be something a bee would simply adjust to naturally. Applying the idea to us, what would you do if you woke up one morning, stepped out your front door, only to find your surroundings had completely changed? How quickly would you notice?

Wanting to understand these fascinating creatures a little better, I did some quick research online regarding their orientation process and how they know where home is. One suggestion was to place branches in the area of the hive entrance to trigger the bees to reorient as they would naturally if a branch or something fell over a hive that was in a tree. I broke some sage flower stalks from a nearby plant and placed these over the entrance. I’m not sure this was necessary since I only moved them about two and a half feet, but I wanted to be cautious and considerate of my bees.

This morning I’ve kept a close eye on the hive. Major fail on my part: the sage stalks touched the ground allowing those pesky ants another access point. I tidied up my branches so that they no longer reach the ground, but still covers the various points of entry so the bees notice something is different. I’ve noticed them exiting and then turning towards the hive and doing their fast zig-zag flight around the exit, similar to what I saw them do the first day they were here and how they seem to investigate me when I’m working around the hive. I assume this is them reorienting.

Sage branches placed over the entrance to signal a change to the bees.

I’ve also noticed more activity and more bees returning with full pollen baskets than before. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps you have some ideas! Could it be related to the move? Or the warm weather? Or just the time since the hive has been established? I hope we’ll learn more over the next few weeks.

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?
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