We had thought that we were done with our laying worker saga and so with punning on Song of Fire and Ice for our titles. Alas, not so. Clarissa nee Angharad, our swarm caught in joyful wonder, has succumbed to the white wrigglers and we are sickened by the loss and the manner of it.

It had seemed that our turbulent transfer of frames from nuc to hive had ended successfully with the bees settling down in their new home and foragers steadily departing and returning. We thought it best to leave them in peace for a spell but then recently noticed the traffic lessen to almost nonexistence. Last Wednesday(2018-Aug-22) we opened her for a look and found crawling horror. Be glad we have no pictures to share. Tiny, white, writhing wax moth larvae were carpeted atop the frames. Inside we saw a pool of fermenting honey and water with drowned bees and more wax moth larvae. Working through the sickening mess, we saw fallen comb after fallen comb and yet more wax moth larvae.

With dejection, disgust, and determination we collected all the comb into a trash bag for discarding, cutting free what had not fallen, and piled up the hastily scraped frames for a proper cleaning later. The hive interior, after all entrances were opened, was washed out with a garden hose, causing a flood of worms to flow out the entrance holes. When done we inverted the hive on the stand as we typically do for a deadout awaiting cleaning and repopulation. The frames have by now gotten a more complete scraping and bath in an oxalic solution.

We are not certain what happened. Something had caused major comb fall. The frames are foundationless and unwired but so are all our top bars in the other hives that did not suffer. However it occurred, we think the dispirited bees thereafter absconded and the wax moth took over. And it is, of course, somehow our fault.

The one bright spot is that in Dorcas, whom we examined first, we discovered the queen, capped worker brood, and uncapped larvae. Of eggs, as usual, we know not. It seems as if Dorcas is once more up to her tricks of last year and gone on a brood break. If she does this in response to nectar dearth, that may be a valuable behavior. But she needs to build up before the cold season. One comb of worker brood between two of drone is not impressive. Perhaps the recent, long-awaited rains and the goldenrod, which has begun yellowing, will give her encouragement.


The bees were calmer throughout our relocation project than we expected although their patience was finally exhausted towards the end. There were bees in the air, on the hive’s face, under the hive, on the hive stand, on nuc parts, just everywhere. Our gloves were decorated with feckless stingers and we collected a few injuries as they found weak spots in our armor. But there was little choice except to persist until nuc Angharad’s bees were housed in hive Clarissa. Then we had to take a long detour to discourage a group of unusually persistent followers and beelessly re-enter our house.

Nor were they quite settled by next day when we took the picture above. Not all the bees had found their way inside the hive. All the patches of bees from the day before were still in evidence, including the one on the ground where the nuc bodies had briefly sat. Of greater concern, the entire backyard felt under siege by a cloud of confused bees. We could not approach the barn without collecting a few interested followers. One particularly upset bee would come to buzz us as soon as we left the back door of the house. We did not acquire any more stings but it was unnerving to get such attention when not suited. Nor did we look forward to suiting up each time we needed a bit of basil from the herb bed or the lawn needed mowing. We feared for visitors.

As the day progressed the cloud pulled back to Clarissa ceding our backyard to us, leaving just the one angriest bee stubbornly menacing us each time we left the back door. Internet lore is that such especially defensive individuals occur even with the gentlest bees and one should simply swat them dead and be done. We considered suiting up and standing outside as a target to be stung by her, after which she would naturally die. But by evening even she had relented (or died of apoplexy) and things were back to a tolerable approximation of normalcy.

The patches of bees had vanished except for the one on the barn. Suiting up we carefully studied the little cluster, looking for a queen but not finding one. It seemed one explanation for these bees thoroughly ignoring the hive a few feet away, right where their old home was. But then if the queen were there surely the cluster would have grown rather than diminished. Another week later we tried gently collecting the bees by brushing them onto a tray and then dumping them on the hive roof to find their own way in. Where they had been was dotted with tiny bits of white wax, which we tried to remove without scraping the paint. The little cluster keeps reforming in spite of frequently being brushed or washed off and is there even now as this is being written. What pheromones are they leaving? Perhaps we shall have another location on which swarms will gather.

And what of the former Clarissans, the bees that had been dumped by the fruit trees? Both Beatrix and Frankie seemed to have sudden population increases, judging by their beards in the hot afternoons. Yet Dorcas, who was a nearest neighbor of Clarissa, somehow managed not to acquire any refugees. She is looking worryingly small by comparison. Actually she is just looking worryingly small. Sigh.

Having discovered that Clarissa had become a laying worker hive, we made a rather detailed plan to deal with her and perhaps harvest a little honey in the process.

  • Set up a table and buckets for processing comb under the fruit trees behind the hives.

  • Transfer Clarissa’s top bars to a pair of of eight-frame hive bodies in the garden cart and wheel them to the fruit trees some distance from the table.

  • Move Clarissa’s hive next to nae-sa-wee Angharad behind the barn.

  • The Mrs. would then systematically take a bar, brush off all the bees onto the ground, and carry the comb to her table. There she cut apart the comb, putting capped honey into one container and the rest, containing drone brood and nectar, into another.

  • Meanwhile the Mr. would disassemble Angharad and move the frames into the now empty and relocated Clarissa.

On the morning of the following Sunday (2018-Aug-05) we proceeded to implement it. Naturally, in spite of a smooth start, not all went according to this plan.

We had thought that the Mrs. had the harder job, that the bees would follow the comb to her honey station and bother her there, but instead they seemed keener on returning home. Meanwhile we expected the Mr.’s job to be a doddle, just move frames from here to there, but crazy comb made the task increasingly difficult and the bees increasingly annoyed.

In the top nuc box the bees had just begun to build comb down but on one frame they had also begun to build comb up and that part was soft, new wax heavy with honey and floppy, the work of a moment to cut away and no great harm done. Ah, but it was a portent. The second nuc box was full of honeycomb but with some crossing frame to frame, above the top bars, under the bottom bars. Much surgery was performed with dripping honey, never a happy thing for bees. They began to get upset. The last box seemed full of brood and even more badly crosscombed.

By now the Mr. had called for help from the Mrs. and we fumbled at things together. We tried cutting apart the comb but were dismayed to be cutting through brood and feared damaging a queen in hiding. We tried removing an end frame but the comb broke free from the top. We tried to remove the other end frame but quickly gave it up. We would have to move the five frames as a unit.

As always, the unexpected emergencies leave neither people not time for photography and words must paint the picture. After hasty brainstorming we used a pair of that unusual beekeeping tool, the bar clamp1. Starting on one side of the five frames we slipped the tabs one-by-one onto the bar of an open clamp then tightened it just enough to snugly hold the frames together. Repeat on the other side. Then lift the unit from nuc to hive and undo the clamps. And watch a large outer brood comb go splat into the bottom of the hive.

After running to fetch the house to fetch kitchen twine we applied skills we learned from our cutout. Tying one end of a long bit of twine around a tab of the frame we made several front-to-back loops around the frame, proceeding to the other tab where we again tied off the twine. Unfortunately we made our loops too loose. After another run, this time to the barn for a staple gun, we lifted up on a central loop of twine to get it taut enough and then twisted and stapled it to the top bar of the frame. Finally, after a quick search to reassure ourselves the comb fall had not smashed the queen, we reassembled the hive, moved the bee-less nuc parts away, and retreated to the house.

Third part to come soon.

1It is hard to overstate the convenience of having one’s bee yard in one’s back yard rather than in some distant out yard. Any possession found to be suddenly and unexpectedly useful is just a mad dash away.

The post about our weeks-spanning adventure grew far too long and so has been broken into three pieces. It shall not drag on like the series whose titles we are punning. Here then is the first part.

On Sunday two weeks ago (2018-Jul-29) weather and schedule permitted us to open each of the hives for inspection and a few sugar rolls. We found that Clarissa had no mites at all. But also no queen and no worker brood. All the brood frames looked rather like the picture at left, proud with copious drone brood. We concluded that we had too long left Clarissa to her own devices, missed some misfortune befalling the queen, and now have the curse of laying workers.

Worker bees are a caste of female bees with nonfunctional reproductive systems, the ovaries being suppressed largely by pheromones from open worker brood. As with many statements in beekeeping this is only mostly true. A healthy queenright colony may have a small percentage of workers with ovaries sufficiently mature to let them lay eggs. Of course, they have never mated and so will lay only drones. Their eggs are usually eaten by the other bees but if one finds a tiny patch of drone brood far off in the honeycomb then it may be a laying worker’s sons. At any rate a small number of laying workers is normal and not a problem.

But if a colony stays queenless long enough it will become broodless as well and eventually a very large number of workers will develop their ovaries and start laying drone eggs, even if their sisters foolishly build queen cells for them, as in the picture at right. Drone brood does not have the suppressive quality of worker brood so the number of laying workers will increase. Such a colony is doomed as the females, who do all the work, eventually die without replacements. The drones simply move on to other colonies and may have a chance to at least propagate some of the dead colony’s genes.

There are any number of procedures in the lore to try rescuing the colony by requeening or combining with a queenright colony but they are prone to failure by regicide. Weekly donations of open worker brood from another colony are said by some to eventually restore normality and allow the colony to make its own queen. But it is not guaranteed to do anything except weaken the donor colony. The surest solution is to simply dismantle the hive and dump the bees near the apiary, not too close to any one hive, and let the homeless bees try finding their own way to acceptance in some other, queenright hive. Some claim that it is nurse bees that become laying workers and so will not fly to a new home but perish. Others are less dogmatic about this but trust that guard bees will not allow a laying worker to enter, since she will not smell right. However it works, this was the approach we chose.

Second part soon to come.

During the brutal heat and humidity that preceded our last intervention each of our colonies was consistently sporting a layer of bees spread over much of her face, the behavior called bearding whereby bees leave the interior of the hive to make it easier for those remaining to regulate the environment. But such bearding bees are stationary while our very brief video shows wee Angharad’s bees very much in motion, the specific motion of a more mysterious behavior called washboarding. More such videos by other beekeepers may be found. The individual washboarder orients herself head-downwards and rocks back and forth on her four hindmost legs while the front two engage in a vigorous scrubbing/sweeping action. She may also seem to lick the surface or rub it with her mandibles. Entire rows can form like line-dancers. No one knows why they do this although most suspect it is some kind of cleaning activity.

It is described as a group activity although we have at times seen an individual bee start washboarding only to stop after some minutes when she can not get other bees to join her. Such bees do not seem to point as strictly downwards as washboarders in a group. Perhaps a few bumps early on encourage realignment and coordination.

What little is known seems to be due to Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab who, in their words, “investigated the frequency of washboarding behavior in relation to worker age, time of day, and surface texture” with results:

  • Washboarding behavior appears to be age dependent with bees most likely to washboard between 15-25 days of age
  • Washboarding increases during the day and peaks through the afternoon.
  • Workers may respond to rough texture and washboard more on those surfaces as we found an increase in the behavior from bees on glass, wood, and slate but further testing is needed to confirm this.
  • The function of this behavior remains to be elucidated.

James Tew offers some of his observations in an article from Bee Culture:

  • Only during warm weather.
  • Only near an exterior entrance.
  • Bees washboard on the hive inside.
  • Mostly on an open area on the hive.
  • Not all colonies get involved in the procedure.
  • Other bees carry on working and ignoring the washboarders.
  • He does not know why they do this.

We quibble with the second assertion that it only occurs near an entrance. Our brief video shows the side of wee Angharad totally covered in washboarders. The opposite side and her front were likewise covered. Alas, we did not think to sneak a peek at her back. She clearly has an exaggerated sense of nearness. The third observation, washboarding inside the hive, is one we have never seen but then we stay out of the hives on hot days when serious washboarding is likely to occur. His other observations are consistent with ours.

And yet with all the observations informal and scientific, still no one knows why bees washboard.

After a few cooler if still too hot days her bees had ceased covering wee Angharad. Monday morning as temperatures again rose they once more began washboarding. There were a few rows just above the entrance and one row on one side along the seam between nuc body and bottom board. On the other side was a lone washboarder half way up and a third of the way back. A few other bees were crawling around her. As we watched, one eventually bumped her and she ceased washboarding and went off.

So while it seems an overstatement to say washboarding only occurs near an entrance it does appear that serious line dancing begins there and spreads thence. It was too hot for us to linger and verify by observing the growth of the dancing crowd.