Since reporting our happy discovery at the beginning of July that Clarissa was queenright after all we have written about our niece’s bees, bee plants, and cut-out bees but not the colonies in our own backyard. It is time to catch up.

  • TopBars004In a frenzy of sawdust during the weekend post-hiving we made fifty-six brand new top bars per the procedure described in our Making Top Bars post. Those were enough bars to finish populating the part of each hive on the unoccupied side of the follower board with some extra bars remaining. The rooves have been much more level ever since.

    Building of improved, mouse-resistant ekes must happen before winter threatens but with the coolness of the summer and lack of bearding other, non-apicultural tasks continue to have greater urgency at the present.

  • This year’s novel problem was the formication of all three hives with small black ants, much smaller than the ones we found in Beatrix last year. Not only did they show great interest in the syrup we provide in the unoccupied part of the hive but they even invaded the space between observation window and shutter. Per beekeeping lore from several sources we successfully repelled them by scattering cinnamon powder where we saw them inside and outside the hive. The bees do not seem bothered and should in their own time carry it out as rubbish.

  • Otherwise we have simply been adding top bars, opening more entrances, and swapping syrup bags as needed. Each hive has by now gone from the original five frames to a dozen frames/bars and four entrance holes with Beatrix slightly behind her new sisters. It may be that she gets the first morning sun a little later or it is just the usual variation among colonies.

    In past years we tended to simply add new bars just before the follower board, extending the occupied volume without moving any of the existing bars. Now we judiciously insert them between other bars already bearing straight comb. This forces the comb-to-be-built to also be straight. In particular we have taken to inserting them at the boundary between brood and food comb. Appending new bars would result in their bearing honey comb while inserting into the brood chamber would result in more brood comb. Rather than helpfully coaxing them one way or the other, this lets the bees choose the use of the new comb.

  • We have once again found a nest of yellow jackets in a hole in the ground near the hives and will be applying the dreaded glass bowl. Eradicating them is becoming a regular part of late summer beekeeping.

And so we return to watching the girls work the basil, oregano, cup plants, buckwheat, and we know not what else as we wait for that funky smell in the hives that tells us the goldenrod flow has begun in earnest.

Such was the subject of an email broadcast last week to the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers. A house once occupied by a beekeeper had been left unoccupied (except by bees) for six or seven years and was now scheduled for imminent demolition. Recruits were being sought to help transfer the bees into Langstroth deeps to be moved to Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where they would be cared for as teaching hives. There was also a hopeful wish expressed for a battery-powered saw since there would be no electricity available. Since we possess a handy Milwaukee Hackzall and the house was not far away we volunteered for the mission.

As the experienced know and the innocent can imagine, a cut-out has the potential for many a surprise. Until the investigation begins, one never knows which inaccessible cranny caught the colony’s fancy. Much ingenuity may be required. In that regard we were fortunate. Since the house was going to be demolished the day after cut-out we could be as destructive as needed without a care to fixing any damage we might cause.

CutOutFirstColonyExposedWe arrived at the site nine-ish Sunday morning with our saw, a few ladders, and bee suits to join a handful of beeks of varying experience, most only a few years like ourselves. Dr. Milbrath was there to advise and coordinate and lend use of her bee vacuum bodged from a cordless DeWalt. CutOutBeeVacuumPreliminary reconnaisance had already been accomplished by tearing away the siding where the bees could be seen flying in and out. On one side of the house a seemingly small colony had neatly occupied the space between a pair of ceiling joists extending from the outer wall inward with no inclination to spread. A larger colony had done likewise on the other side of the house.

CutOutFirstColonyCombExposedWork began with the smaller colony so that we could all get a bit of practical experience before tackling the more populous one. The ceiling was cut away to expose the comb, most of which was surprisingly empty, and tracks where long-gone comb had once been. The bees were surprisingly unconcerned by our remodeling. While one can not be certain Dr. Milbrath theorized this might be a small swarm having only recently occupied the space left by a previous colony that had absconded.

CutOutStaplingHiveBottomA bottom board was stapled onto each of the two Langstroth deep hive bodies we would be using. Carrying them up and down ladders and stairs would be awkward enough without trying to deal with a separate bottom board as well.

CutOutFirstColonyRubberbandingCombThe comb was cut away from the ceiling and floppily fixed in frames by rubber bands. Even before the process was completed a whiff of lemon could be detected. The bees within the hive body were accepting their new home and calling their fellows.

To speed the process one sturdy soul climbed the step ladder to hold the heavy, comb-filled hive body directly below the former location of the comb, where bees were still clustered and milling about. A second beek went up the other side of the ladder with a bee brush and swept as many of the remaining bees into the hive as possible before the hive-bearer’s strength was exhausted. This process would have been even more fraught had the bottom not been stapled on.

CutOutFirstColonyLureOn the floor above, directly over the former space a hole was punched through the outside wall to make a new entrance. The hive, full of comb and with inner but not telescoping cover in place, was then placed on the floor facing out. The top of the inner cover was full of fanning bees calling their sisters through the new entrance and into their new hive.

Unfortunately not all the bees heeded the call. An increasing number were returning through the original entrance to cluster where their comb had been. Some scent of home was apparently lingering on the empty boards. An attempt was made to herd the bees back outside where they might find the hole leading to the hive body by gently puffing smoke at them. Sadly it was not sufficiently gently done and the attempt failed. Rather than the more typical confounding of bees by filling the air with smoke this technique required them to be able to detect a clean-aired escape from the smoke if they went back out the old entrance to re-enter the new one above. In the end the bee vacuum was employed and some scrap wood nailed over the old entrance.

CutOutSecondColonySawingThe procedure was repeated with the second colony, much larger and with significant honey stores. The bees were somewhat more bothered as the scent of banana in the air indicated they were releasing alarm pheromone. They poured out of the saw cuts as soon as a pry bar widened them enough for a bee body.

CutOutSecondColonyExposedAs before comb was cut from the ceiling, this time making a mess dripping honey onto beeks. The brood comb was fastened into frames as before and the bee vacuum again deployed. The honey comb, however, was simply tossed into one of three five-gallon buckets. Honey comb is usually too heavy to be bound to a frame. Instead once the hive full of bees was in its new location the honey would be fed back to them by placing a completely empty hive body above the inner cover and the comb dumped in taking care only to not block the opening.

By now it was noon and Dr. Milbrath had to leave to teach a beekeeping class. The rest of us broke for lunch before completing work on the second colony. Being so close we dashed home to return with a folding card table on which we served crackers, apples, cheese (aged cheddar and velvety St. Andre), a bit of salami, and a bowl of cherries. To wash it down we had iced water and elderflower lemonade. Beekeepers must keep up their strength.

CutOutSecondColonyHiveOnLadder Returning indoors we finished cutting away the remainder of the honey comb and then putting the hive body full of brood in position to be found by returning bees. This time the hive body was placed outside the house blocking the old entrance. We used one of those three-sectioned folding step ladders that can be configured as a straight ladder, step ladder, low scaffold, or, as we used it, an upside-down L-shape. Bracing the short leg of the L against the wall resulted in a steep ladder topped by a shelf on which the hive body was placed.

And so we were done at two-ish to wait until dark to allow all the foragers to return and get over their confusion at the new look of their homes. To while away the time we returned home where, with some trepidation for our beekeeper whites were filthy are honey spattered, quickly inspected our own three hives and uneventfully saw that all seemed well with them. We drove to Matthaei Botanical Gardens to catch Dr. Milbrath finishing her class so we could return some batteries she had left behind. By the time we again returned home it was late enough for supper, during which we watched an episode of Midsomer Murders, fortuitously one in which a beekeeping monk plays a part. We have not had a day so filled with bees since the last SEMBA conference.

At nine thirty that night, when all or nearly all the bees could be assumed to be within their hives, the organizer returned to seal up the hive bodies and transport them along with the buckets of honey comb to Matthaei. We came back to assist and retrieve our ladder. Some unruly bees made this more exciting than we cared for after such a long day, finding gaps in the seals and our bee suits, administering a few final stinging insults, but we managed to contain them whereupon we returned home while they were chauffeured to their new location.

And so ends the tale of our first cut-out, an intense, educational experience. Stings were acquired although nowhere near the number one might expect considering the destruction being wrought. We two collected five altogether. Between the accumulated dirt of abandonment, the raised dust of wrecking activity, and the steady drip of honey from overhead this was the filthiest and messiest of our bee-related activities to date as well as the longest we have had to stay suited up. And yet it had its moments of wonder such as holding a huge chunk of comb and feeling it vibrate in one’s fingers from the combined quivering of the bees riding it. And, of course, we could feel virtuous for helping to save some bees.

Pair of two headed monardaIn a previous post about monarda fistulosa, also called bee balm, we reported our amazement to observe that on a few of our plants a second, smaller flower head had sprouted from the first. The phenomenon repeated itself this year, two examples of which are being pointed out in the picture at left, which may, as usual, be clicked to see a larger version. Ever since then we have scrutinized every patch of bee balm we come across for such oddities with the enthusiasm of a child questing for a fourleaf clover and the luck it is said to bring. And we have discovered that these two-headed monarda are not so very rare (at least among the native variety) for all that it seems difficult to find mention of them.

Searching the web brings us uselessly to our own blog or to monarda on lists of bee-friendly plants or tips on growing monarda but no mention of the occasional tiered flowerheads. We have only found one picture of a red variety with a tertiary head and a page discussing anomalous secondary petals among cone flowers.

Large two-headed monardaWe have so many questions.

  • What causes a subordinate head to develop?

  • Does it always develop near the center of the supporting head?

  • Does its formation somehow suppress or make unlikely another head on the same tier?

  • What limits the number of tiers?

No answers. No answers. Is there not a grad student in botany somewhere studying this?

We conclude with the picture at right, our best example thus far found, having a secondary head about the same size as its primary. Perhaps it will sprout another?


Edited 2014-Jul-30 : Please, see the reply below from infamousginger for an explanation.

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.

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