Archives for posts with tag: hive inspection

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.

Wow! Time really flies. It’s already been four months since I started this adventure in beekeeping. I am happy to report that Queen Aliénor is safely wandering the combs and, hopefully, depositing eggs. I still can’t see the eggs and instead look for capped and uncapped brood as evidence that she’s been laying recently. She was on the third frame in on the side of the hive that is best protected from the wind.

The queen and a few attendants among some capped honey

There are only two frames with no construction, and multiple frames only partly built, as is the one on which the queen was roaming this morning. Two frames have had the wax coating the foundation stripped on one side and will likely never be built out, and I’ll need to replace those next spring once there is plenty of forage for them. I’ve placed those on the outer edges of the hive since there isn’t much on them on the other side either; they have some honey on them, but they aren’t brood frames that need to stay closer to the center. There is one very heavy frame that is full of uncapped honey, and another frame filled with primarily with capped brood. They had eaten through the pollen patty I gave them nearly three weeks ago, and there was only the tiniest smidgen of it left, so I know I need to add patties at least every 2 – 2 1/2 weeks. I refill the sugar syrup usually weekly, though it’s less invasive to check the status of that since I can do it without opening the entire hive. I wonder if I could put the pollen patty above with the syrup? I’ll have to look into that.

All in all, I’m feeling like I have navigated this fairly well so far. I hope that we make it through the winter without too many hiccups. The weather here has definitely shifted to cooler nights and brisk mornings, but it warms up nicely by mid-morning. With the cooling temperatures, I will likely reduce the frequency with which I conduct a detailed hive inspection. Although I still need to do that mite check!

Hive activity this sunny morning

I still intend to post weekly, and have run through most of what I had in mind, although I still have a couple on my list. So I’m curious…are there any topics about bees or pollinators about which you are interested in reading and learning here? Please share in a comment and I’ll add that to my list. Knowing what you’re interested in gives me ideas too. Thanks for following along!

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!

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