Pet rocks - example of a fadIn some years almost everyone’s colonies seem to exhibit some identical puzzling behavior. One would suspect that a pointless fad is sweeping the bee population until calmer thought, wisely suspecting weather and the resulting environment, produces an explanation. Year 2012 in Michigan was the year of swarming early and often, frequently leaving queenless the strongest hives, the very ones which had best survived the winter. That strange spring is explained in a four-part analysis at the Michigan Beekeepers Association website.

This year, as we learned from Dr. Milbrath, is, for Langstroth hives, the year of backfilling the brood nest rather than occupying an empty super. Spring came very late this year and all things blooming seem to be in a hurry to get back on schedule. Combined with a nearly perfect amount of rainfall this is resulting in a very strong nectar flow. Unfortunately the unusually cool weather is making the bees reluctant to climb upwards into an empty super. The abundant nectar is instead being stored in empty cells from which brood has hatched, leaving the queen with nowhere to lay. This would eventually result in a crowded feeling in spite of the empty supers available and then in swarming.

So it was at our niece’s hive last Sunday when Dr. Milbrath visited for another inspection. The hive at this point consisted of two full deeps with a medium super. Another super of drawn comb was waiting in the wings in anticipation of their having filled the available space. Instead the super had not been much drawn out. The deep below it had only one frame of brood and was otherwise full of honey or nectar. The deep below, the bottom-most one, looked more normal with frames of brood in various stages but signs of backfilling were evident there as well. The new medium, which had been intended for the top, was instead inserted between the two deeps to provide space for the queen to have a chance of laying before the workers occupied all the cells with food. The original medium was left in its topmost position to continue to be drawn out and filled. Another medium should be obtained soonest as the flow is still strong.

After this invasive disassembly and reconstruction of the hive, during which our niece acquired a sting on a finger, we all moved to what would have been presumed to be a safe distance and desuited. The discussion that followed was interrupted by a particularly agitated bee who was not comforted by her home having been reassembled. She chased our niece’s father into his car. Dr. Milbrath suggested that it was the dark clothing that made him the chosen target. This suggestion was scorned by our niece’s habitually black-clad uncle who had not noticed our own bees bothered by his wardrobe. The angry bee then entered the debate by buzzing in front of the retreating uncle’s face until it stung him on the temple. Dr. Milbrath, gracious in victory, saved him from a second avenger who had gotten stuck in his hair.


Snacks were brownies and rugelach with iced rooibos tea.

The first draft of this post began back in the summer of 2012 when the milkweed fed our bees in a drought. After a time it ceased blooming, formed pods, and still later cast its downy seeds onto the winds before the cold came. Yet the post was unfinished due to lack of attention or inspiration. Perhaps the next year when the milkweed bloomed again. Well, it did and finished and still we had not posted. Even worse, we were scooped by fellow blogger Petals and Wings in a post with much nicer pictures. And now here we are again, two years later, our milkweed having again burst into scented bloom. Time to extract the pollex and finally publish before we are again watching seeds fly away.

Milkweed is best known as the obligatory host of caterpillars of the monarch butterfly. While an adult monarch can sip nectar from a variety of flowers it must lay eggs on milkweed for there to be future generations of monarchs. So as the milkweed largely took over its flowerbed we began in spite of our sign (Click on the picture to enlarge it and you will see a honeybee flying past just above the "H".) to vaguely regard the little patch as butterfly fodder and of no particular interest to other pollinators.

Then came July of 2012 when we were moaning about the lack of rain and fretful that anything flowering would be deficient in nectar until we smelled the milkweed in bloom and saw the bees visiting. Turning to wikipedia we were reminded that every variety of it is in fact a major source of nectar for honeybees, so abundant that one can shake the blossom and see the nectar fall. We did not try the experiment as we could hardly ever find a plant without at least one bee hard at work. The plant is often described as drought-tolerant but we took that to simply mean that it will not die in dry spell rather than that it would continue to produce abundant nectar under those circumstances.

Consulting our favorite reference, Honey Plants of North America by John H. Lovell, we found a large section about milkweed, another of those plants beloved by beekeepers and despised by the general populace. Deep rooted, growing on nearly any soil, and spread by a cloud of windblown seeds it is oft regarded as a noxious weed. But those deep roots, especially in clay soil, bring forth the life-saving summer nectar. Its flow in Michigan is reported to be about thirty days beginning in early July and so rapid that a colony can gather over ten pounds in a single day. The resulting honey is very light in color with a slight tang that becomes milder with age.

The pollen on the other hand is useless for honeybees and even dangerous. Rather than existing as a loose powder to dust their furry bodies and collect in their corbiculae, milkweed pollen occurs in coherent clumps called pollinia. The manner of propagating these is unique to the milkweed and described in lovely photographic detail along with more of the milkweed life cycle at microscopy-uk.org.uk.


Our own capsule summary is that a pollinator’s leg slips into a slit on the elaborate structure of the milkweed flower whereupon it gets clamped by a corpusculum from which dangle two pollinia. Then the pollinator must withdraw its leg so that after a few minutes the dangling pollinia can dry and twist and form a narrow body. Finally the pollinator visits another flower, where that leg again slips into a slit and the pollinaria contact a small area at the base to achieve pollination.

Inara Serra

Completely gratuitous picture of Inara Serra from firefly.wikia.com included for Dewey Sanchez of August Cottage Apiary.
We try to be responsive to our readers.

Unlike the dusty pollen she collects on her fur and in her saddlebags, the pollinaria are an irritation to the honeybee. Rather than get on with pollination it is likely to spend a lot of time trying to just get the wretched things off its leg. She may return to the hive for help where, if it can be removed, it is simply discarded rather than used to make bee bread. And that assumes that the honeybee can remove her leg from the flower. A larger pollinator would have no trouble but a honeybee may become trapped and perish. Or she might remove her leg from her body instead, which also does not bode well for her.

Most of the bees we saw working our patch seemed to have avoided the hazard but we did come across one making repeated attempts to fly away from the grip of the flower but unable to loose herself. In that case we were able to gently brush her free and she flew off, presumably to return to the hive. We have read other reports where a samaritan expedited a bee’s release only to have her fly back to the same flower and get trapped again, the lure of the uncollected nectar being too strong.

We also once saw a hovering honeybee engaged in beating a milkweed flower with her foremost legs like a boxer working the speed bag. She seemed to have all her legs with none encumbered by pollinaria. Had she had a narrow escape and was letting the flower know that it had best not try such a trap again? We would welcome any other reports or explanations of such behavior.

And so, having finally completed and published our milkweed maunderings, we conclude with a recent, happy observation not related to bees. We have seen a monarch caterpillar munching away in our milkweed patch as well as a monarch butterfly feeding. Only one of each and not likely to count for much against the numbers lost to disappearing habitat and pesticides but enough to gladden our hearts for a bit.

Since hiving the three nucs we had been worrying over our failure to spot a queen in Clarissa but were hoping that we had somehow simply missed seeing her. Then came last Monday when we finally had time and weather to permit an inspection. We still could not find the queen nor any recent sign of her. We have oft complained that our old eyes can not see eggs but we were hoping to see larvae as we have in previous colonies. We did not. The only good news seemed to be that we did not yet have any laying workers to complicate matters.

Having received our bad news, Dr. Milbrath arrived this morning with a replacement queen but first inspected the hive herself and found the queen!

Inexperienced queen-finders that we are, we had relied upon the large, very visible paint markings to locate them. Clarissa’s marking was much less pronounced as her more fastidious court had cleaned most of it off her, leaving a small, dull dot rather than the big, bright, blot visible from feet away which we had come to expect from the other two queens.

But why no larvae? Dr. Milbrath pointed out the larvae. Oh. They were simply younger and hence smaller and more easily missed than we expected. She also saw eggs, which would have seemed like empty cells to us. After all our worry Clarissa’s queen is present and laying as she should. And we are a little embarrassed but happy to be wrong and thankful to Dr. Milbrath.

Captain Malcolm ReynoldsWith that quotation from Captain Malcolm Reynolds let us report on our hiving. We picked up the three nucs from Dr. Milbrath Wednesday night and brought them home to spend the night on the deck. We then stayed up too late, winding down from the long drive and general excitement. So the following early morning found us with insufficient sleep, insufficient breakfast, and, worst of all, insufficient caffeine attempting to hive our bees as soon as possible. Needless to say we were not at our best and things did not go smooth ..um.. smoothly.

We began by prepping each hive for a swift and orderly installation of bees: removing the roof, placing a baggie of syrup (not yet slit) within, putting a sealed nuc box nearby, and so forth. Misfortune struck nearly at once. The follower board in Dorcas got misaligned and stuck. As we had done for many test fittings we thumped it free. As had not happened before, the glass pane of the observation window cracked. Luckily it was in the middle behind a vertical wooden support where it would not interfere with observation and easily covered with tape. A diasappointing beginning nonetheless.

We began with Beatrix, lifting each frame from the nuc, inspecting it, and placing it in the hive. We cheered to see the brightly marked queen on a frame full of brood. One last frame had not yet been much drawn out. The others had a mix of brood and food. And then we ran into a slight hitch snugging up the frames. The second one was encountering the metal bracket holding in the window pane, which problem we readily fixed by slipping an empty top bar between first and second frames. With all the frames installed, we added two more top bars and the follower.

Noticing a fair bit of burr comb atop the frames, we scraped it off. Alas when one of us picked up a scraped-off wad of wax the bee attached to it went unnoticed, was squeezed, and stung a thumb tip in revenge. In spite of immediately scraping off the stinger and heavily smoking the sting site that same hand soon got an unprovoked sting to the back of its ring finger. We carried on natheless by placing previously prepared thin strips of wood over the gaps between frames1, covering it all with some denim, slicing slits in the baggie feeder, and replacing the roof.

We repeated the process with Clarissa without acquiring any more stings but without spotting the queen. And we noticed, as we hadn’t with Beatrix that the rooves sit a bit askew thanks to the thickness of the wood with which covered the frames. It is more noticeable on the new hives since their rooves do not hang as far below the top of the hive bodies. We shall do something.

Lastly we again repeated the process with Dorcas. No additional stings, queen spotted, and Dorcas seems to have the most brood of the three as well as the most active bees.

And so we adjourned to the bench to watch the girls. There was little activity yet, mostly stragglers from the nuc boxes trying to find out where the rest of their number had gone. As the day grew warmer we would see more flying. We, tired and hungry, preoccupied with the work ahead of us, were having trouble feeling the usual joy of bees. It will come.


1Horizontal hives have no gaps between top-bars since the bees do not need to access an upper volume. Frames made for vertical hives do have such a gap. We could have ignored but decided to try covering them.

ThreeLittleHives

Our three nucs are ready for pickup from Dr. Milbrath and we hope to be able to do so within the week. Meanwhile the hives are mostly ready. There is always a last minute detail and then a last last minute detail. Nevertheless they are sufficiently complete to take their places in the bee-yard for a fashion shoot.

At left and center respectively in the photo (as usual click for a larger image) are the new twins, Dorcas, elegant in Wild Grapes purple, and Clarissa, cool in Mint Sprig green, both sporting this season’s saltbox roof, of which there ought to be a future construction post, while at the right under her traditional peaked roof, is our greying Beatrix, still classically bare to the elements in her natural cedar.

Not seen is our first hive, Annabelle, still in Suddenly Sapphire blue, who is on Sabbatical for the season to enjoy some tender, loving repair, which also should be the subject of at least one future post.

In our giddy anticipation of again having honeybees living in our yard we once more commit poetastry with mischief aforethought, this time inspired by a tune from Gilbert and Sullivan.

Three little hives in the yard are we
Each awaiting nuc of honeybee
To become a thriving colony
Three little hives in the yard

Building comb on each top bar
Foraging both near and far
Soon to fill thief’s honey jar
Three little hives in the yard

Three little hives are Tanzanian
With windows for one to see in
Though our bees are European
Three little hives in the yard
Three little hives in the yard

One little hive’s done this before
This season there will be two more
Hum of honeybees galore
Three little hives in the yard
Three little hives in the yard

To two little hives add a new pair
Take first old one off to repair
Populate those remaining there
Three little hives in the yard
Three little hives in the yard

Three little hives are Tanzanian
With windows for one to see in
Though the bees are European
Three little hives in the yard
Three little hives in the yard

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