The Queen is Dead, the Queen is Dead! Long Live the Hive! Part 1

Listen to your bees.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming.  Looking back, the signs were there.  But this being our first year, we didn’t know exactly what was going on.  We still didn’t understand bee language.

All honey, no brood

It started with some queen cells in the established hive.  A couple months ago we opened the hive and in the medium brood box (1 deep and 1 medium) there were a hand-full of queen cells on a frame.  We thought the hive was preparing to swarm, so we took obvious preventative measures by removing the queen cells and adding a deep brood box to give the colony some room to expand.  We checked again the following week, and again there were queen cells.  That seemed a bit odd since they had plenty of room to expand.  We figured the cells were left over from the previous week and removed them.  Meanwhile, the hive seemed to be quite busy.  They were packing all the frames in both the brood chamber and the super with nectar.  They weren’t really drawing new comb very well, but they were really filling the hive up with nectar.

After another two weeks we went back into the hive and again saw queen cells.  This time they were capped.  And not only that, as we were examining the frame, we saw a new queen hatching.  That in and of itself was very cool to witness.  But our awe was short-lived as we tried to figure out what was going on with this colony.  We moved the frame with the new queen plus a frames of brood, honey, and pollen to a 5-frame nuc box.  Our first nuc!  That was exciting.

When we opened the hive up the following week there was yet another queen cell.  Another one?  No matter what we did the past month these girls were persistent in making a new queen.  We tried giving them more room, adding another super, splitting them into a nuc.  What were they trying to tell us?  It was then we realized we weren’t dealing with a swarming hive, we were dealing with a failing queen.

It all started to add up.  The queen was supposedly two or three years old.  While we still saw eggs, there were less and less opened and capped brood and more and more nectar.  The laying pattern was spotty.  The queen cells were on only one frame, and clustered together.  And there was plenty of room in the hive.  We had been so concerned with (and read so much about ) swarming that a failing queen wasn’t even on our mind.

At this point we had a decision to make.  Buy a queen or let the hive raise a new one?  The first option is the quickest and the most fool proof.  Pick up a new queen that was raised and selected by a breeder, add her in a queen cage, come back in a few days to check that she was accepted, and you’re done.  The second option is much longer and far more risky.  The hive will raise several queen cells.  Once they hatch, the most fit queen will kill off remaining queens and queen cells, at which point she will mate and start laying.  The whole process takes 3 to 4 weeks.  It’s a lengthy process that can go wrong at any time.  Perhaps the bees will raise sub-par queens.  Maybe the queen will get killed on her mating flight.  Or she may mate with an inferior drone.  If anything goes wrong, the process starts over.  The hive could go queenless for a couple months.  In the interim a laying worker may emerge that screws the whole thing up.  The whole colony could collapse and be lost.

So which option did we choose?  The sure-fire method that would get our hive back in shape in time to salvage the remainder of the nectar flow?  Or the risky we-could-lose-it-all method that could cause us headaches and sleepless nights?  Of course we picked the path that could lead to total failure.  More of that in Part 2.

Waxing or Waning on Plastic

We opted to start out with plastic foundation because it’s cheaper than wax, easier to set up, and reusable.  Mostly because we’re it’s cheap.  But we did do some research and found that a lot of people love plastic foundation, commercial and hobby beekeepers alike.  There’s no mess wiring the frame – just pop it right into the frame and you’re done.  Plus when the comb gets old and needs to be replaced, you can reuse the plastic foundation after cleaning the old comb off of it.  So what’s not to like?

bad comb on plastic
Poorly drawn comb on plastic foundation

Apparently our bees don’t like it.  The hive we purchased (with wax foundation) needed to be expanded.  Our package seemed to be doing well enough with the plastic foundation so we added a second deep brood box containing undrawn plastic foundation.  But in the following week, they made a real mess of their comb.  Between the plastic foundation the bees had built the comb perpendicular to the foundation, not parallel, in essence gluing frames together.  It wasn’t just one or two frames, it was most all of them.  The little that was drawn correctly was very sparse, and poorly drawn at that.  A real mess.

After a little research we found out we’re not the only ones that have seen this problem.  While we did know that coating plastic foundation with some beeswax to encourages the bees to draw it out, we assumed the pre-coated foundation we bought was sufficient.  As it turns out, while the plastic frames are coated with wax, they aren’t coated thick enough.  It is highly recommended that you put an additional coat of wax on the frames.  With all the messed up comb, we ended up with a fair amount of wax that we melted and used to coat undrawn foundation.  With the partially-drawn frames we just shook off the bees and put a quick coat of wax on the undrawn portion.  Hopefully the bees will be much happier now.  We’ll post an update in a week or so to see if this actually works.

Bees, Skiing, and Life Lessons

We’ve only been keeping bees for a month now, so I feel it’s kind of early to pontificate about how much we learn from bees or how much they’ve taught us about ourselves and life in general.  Perhaps in five or ten years I will wax poetic about how much we as humans can learn about the hidden secrets to a fulfilling life from the humble honey bee if we would only stop, hold hands in a circle, listen to the buzzing and gaze into their eyes, or something along those lines.  For now, I’ll say they have taught be a small life lesson in humility (aka humiliation).

I knew nothing about bees six months ago.  When Andy and I decided to start this venture, we immersed ourselves into every piece of bee literature we could find.  Books, forums, YouTube. Anything. We learned a lot.  Everything was great on paper.  We could talk like we’d been keeping bees for a decade.  We knew this beekeeping thing inside and out.  This was going to be easy.  But then we got the bees.  And half flew away.  And we screwed up their feeder.  And we got stung – a lot.  (Some more than others.  A super of bees may have been dropped in the process.)  The latest lesson in humility is a rearrangement of the frames I read about, but failed to realize it was for a different purpose and definitely not when it’s 50 degrees and raining outside for days on end.  Maybe someday I’ll admit the details of my mistake publicly, but for now it’s enough for you to know I may be currently killing our bees because I won’t been able to open the hive and fix my mistake until the weather clears tomorrow.

So where am I going with my rambling confession?  I’ve been reflecting/brooding on all the screw ups in such

skiing bee
Can you believe I actually
found a skiing bee on the web?

a short amount of time.  So far it’s been a bumpy ride with very little reward in sight.  But as I was beating myself up about how terrible of a beekeeper I am (I will not say “we”, because I’m not dragging Andy down with me), I remembered the first time I went skiing.  I was horrible.  I literally fell the whole way down the mountain, by which I mean the almost flat bunny slope.  And I did that the whole night.  And the next week.  But by the third or fourth time I got really good at quickly recovering from my falls.  As I moved up to the black diamond courses, I noticed that the people who didn’t fall much on the easy courses had a much more difficult time recovering when they fell.  Everything stopped for them while they gathered themselves and their egos together.

But it was different for me.  I had learned early on how to fall and recover without missing a beat.  By doing it wrong so much the first time, I learned how to do it right and correct myself when I did mess up in the future.

So right now when we’re abusing our bees, being terrible animal husbanders, I am working to replicate this skiing lesson with our bees, trying to take solace in all we’ve learned so far and how much better beekeepers we will be for it in the end.

The Honeymoon Is Over

It was nice while it lasted, but the honeymoon is over.  (See, I told you there were more bad puns to come)

partially drawn frame @empirebeefarm
Our breakup letter

With bated breath we removed the feeder to take a look at our bustling new hive.  It had been a week since
we added the package to their new home.  This was to be an easy, quick look to be sure the queen was released.  As we pulled the feeder off of the brood chamber we were shocked to see… nothing.  And I mean nothing.  No bees, no queen.  The only evidence that bees were ever there were an empty queen cage and a couple partially-drawn frames packed with a little pollen and some syrup.  I felt like a groom left at the alter.

What happened?  In short, they absconded.  Basically, the colony doesn’t like where it lives for one reason or another.  It could be lack of food or water, pesky neighbors (e.g. skunks, yellowjackets, or loud lawnmowers), the smell of the new hive, overheating, or disease.  When Rusty at Honey Bee Suite wrote about absconding the other week I gave her post a quick read and moved on.  Why should I worry about that?  Our packages were already installed, and everything seemed to be doing okay, besides the deadly feeders.  But that was quickly resolved, and both hives had been eating.  Even two days prior there was activity in the feeder.

So why did they leave?  Looking back, it could have been a number of things.  The bees started out in an abusive relationship.  We were unintentionally killing them from the beginning.  We were also too needy.  Since we were paranoid about killing them, we were opening up the feeder (but not the hive) every day to make sure everyone was doing okay.  Or maybe they just didn’t like our place after they moved in.  Was it the smell?  We use screened bottom boards, and I have since read they can lead to new packages absconding.

Next time we’ll do things a little differently.

  • First, we’ll be sure to provide the new package with a couple of drawn frames.  This should make them feel a little more at ease and not work them so hard.
  • Second, the queen’s release will be delayed.  This can be done by not removing the cork for three or four days, then allowing the queen to self release.  Or you can wait a week and manually release her.  Either way it will give the workers time to build up foundation.  If there is more foundation, then it’s less likely they will leave.
  • Third, we will just let them be for longer.  The only visits will involve peaking at the entrance to be sure there is activity.
  • Fourth, a solid board will cover the the screen bottom board until the colony is established.

I’m not sure we’ll never know exactly why this relationship ended.  Most likely that it was us, not them.  Hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes and treat our ladies better in the future.

How to Build a Pro-Drown Bee Feeder

We were ready.  The hives were assembled and painted, the foundations were on the frames, the bottom boards, top screens, and roofs were handmade to (almost) perfection.  We even made our own entrance reducers.  It all looked serene sitting in the garage waiting for tens of thousands of buzzing inhabitants.  The only thing we needed yet was the feeder.  That didn’t seem like a problem.  A dish with some sugar water, right?  Apparently there are as many plans for feeders as there are opinions on which feeder is the best.

bad bee feeder
What I thought would happen

A feeder touted as “no-drown” seemed the way to go.  That narrows it down by 5%.  After some careful thought and deliberation – and a little too much time in beekeeping forums – a screened ladder looked like a good way to go.  The principle is quite simple.  Bees fly up into the feeder through a small opening in the bottom, walk down a ladder made of hardware mesh, take a drink, and walk out.  Perfect.  The design looked simple enough to make.  No problem.  Besides, I thought this through, and if there was a glaring design problem, I’m sure Andy would point it out.  The problem is that I’m a scientist, not engineer, and I took it upon myself to come up with the final design.  The box was simple, just a medium super with a plywood bottom and a 4″x2″ inch opening at the one end for the bees to travel up.  The opening was flanked by some 3 1/4″ high wood to enclose it.  On the other side we added a 10″x10″ aluminum pan for the sugar syrup.  Done.  For the ladder we simply cut a piece of #8 hardware cloth and stapled it in place.  There, the bees can eat.  We didn’t want bees flying around in the feeder, so the ladder was stapled on the top of the opening then leading down into the syrup.  We effectively made a nice roof to protect our bees from flying around the feeder.  We wouldn’t want them to accidentally land in the syrup and drown.  There was no mesh bottom for the bees to walk down, but that wasn’t a problem, I reasoned.  The bees would fly up to the opening, make a short jump to the mesh roof and crawl upside down to the sugar syrup, and return the way they came.  They’re smart, right?  As I’m writing this, I cringe at how stupid my logic was.  Really?  The bees will just crawl upside down to eat?  What was I thinking?

pro-drown bee feeder

What did happen

Nonetheless, the feeder went onto our newly installed packages.  We were so careful during the installation.  Everything was perfect.  Only a few squished bees.  Nothing to worry about, we’ve got plenty.  The next day I peaked in to see if the bees were eating.  It seemed odd there were a dozen or so dead bees floating in the pan.  No matter, they’ll figure out how to eat.  I’m sure there’s some worker doing her waggle dance telling the rest they need to suspend upside down to eat.  But alas, there is not.  The following day I returned to find a even more drowned bees.  I witnessed the atrocities.  The bees were just flying up to the opening and taking a step off into the abyss of sugar syrup.  Trying their best to fly out, their flight to safety was impeded by the cleverly built upside down ladder, forcing them to plunge back into the syrup, sealing their fate.  I had build a bee death trap.

no-drown bee feeder
The fix

Quickly I called Andy who realized the error of my plans.  He immediately went to work on making and installing a proper ladder that is fully enclosed, complete with a mesh bottom.  The next day I once again peaked in.  There they were, walking down the ladder, drinking up till their hearts’ content.  The bees seem quite happy no one is trying to kill them.