Continuing our adventure from the last post, once the swarm had occupied the nuc on the tarp we left them undisturbed while we prepared a quart of sugar syrup in a Boardman feeder. When it was at last sundown we suited up and went to work.

We began by stuffing the entrance with a wad of tall grass to pre-empt any emerging protesters of our handling. Then we gently slid a loop of wide Velcro® strap under the bottom board and over the telescoping cover to hold all the nuc components together. After tightening the strap we carried the nuc as smoothly as we could manage on the uneven ground to behind the barn onto a stand improvised from parts of a plastic shelving unit.

Once the nuc was in place and the strap removed, we lifted the telescoping cover. The bees had been so quiet during the move that we began to wonder if they had not already departed but they were still within, peeking at us through the hole in the inner cover. We placed the feeder on the inner cover near but not blocking the hole, added a second nuc body to enclose it, and restored the telescoping cover with a pair of the traditional bricks to hold it down. So wee Angharad, as we have named her, is now a two-story with frames below and feeder above. Our last act was to pull away the grass plug so it would no longer confine the bees but still be a slight obstacle to encourage them to orient on their new location.

Now, except for supplying sugar syrup as needed, we must leave wee Angharad in peace for a week or two as her bees settle in, building comb and starting to raise brood. As full of bees as she is, we may soon have to add frames to her second story so they can continue to build comb. And eventually we should build her a better stand.

The next morning there were still a few die-hards at the apple tree and wee Angharad seemed quiescent while our three hives already had traffic. But in another hour or so our little nuc was just as busy as the rest and by mid-afternoon we felt confident in removing the grass plug entirely.


This has been an encouraging year for our fruit trees. Only one of the Asian pears flowered so there is no hope of fruit there but, to our excitement, both of the apple trees flowered this year for the first time since we planted them. As we have been doing with our quince we sprayed the blossoms with a lemony smelling bee attractant to encourage pollination. Then as the quince began this year’s flowering we sprayed its blossoms as well.

Today, as more quince buds had bloomed, we decided to use up the current batch of attractant by spraying the new blossoms. Finishing this task we glanced at the neighboring tree, a dwarf Fuji, to see if it had any more flowers. It did not but it did have, hanging at eye level, the great sausage of bees shown at left. (As usual, clicking on a picture will display a larger version.) And so we entered stage one of seeing one’s first clustered swarm up close, Identification or Oh, look. It’s a swarm.

We rapidly entered stage two, Disbelieving Wonderment or A swarm? Right there? Oh, wow! We drifted nearer in a bit of a trance, without any fear in spite of not being suited up. The bees had no interest in us at all, letting us get quite close. They mostly hung there humming with a handful flying around the cluster and a few waggle dancing on the surface of the great mass, scouts who had already found what they regarded as a suitable home.

And so we rapidly entered stage three, Panic or Oh, no! They will get away if I do not act fast! There is never any way of telling how long a swarm will stay in its bivouac location. It could be a day or less commonly several days but it could be under an hour. Nor did we know how long the swarm had already been hanging there but seeing the wagglers reminded us that we ought not waste time.

After briskly retreating to suit up we rapidly returned with a five-frame nuc, clippers, a tarp, and gratitude that a ladder was not required. Spreading the tarp on the ground near the tree we put the nuc on it, and removed the cover. Not having handy any old comb or similar item to make the interior smell homey to a bee we gave it a quick, desperate spritz of the bee attractant. Then we gathered our courage, gripped the base of the branch from which the cluster hung, and clipped it free of the tree. After a moment’s uncertainty we just gave the branch one good shake low over the open nuc. Most bees made a pile atop the frames with some spilling to either side of the nuc and some taking to the air. The pile began to descend into the nuc’s interior, aided by a little gentle sweeping with the leafy but now bee-less branch. We slowly slid the inner cover onto the nuc from the rear, sweeping the bees before it careful not to crush any. After repeating this procedure with the telescoping cover while holding the inner cover in place with one hand we stepped back to watch.

With the queen within one should see bees at the entrance lifting their rears and fanning their wings to spread a lemony smell from their Nasonov glands. This is to guide the rest of the bees to the entrance of their new home. We saw a little individual fanning but not much. Neither could we smell anything lemony nor see the expected tide of bees crawling to the entrance. Yet within half an hour there were few bees to be found outside the nuc. We hope that means they are within and happy with the home we have chosen for them.

There remained a half dozen or so bees seemed to be trying to return to the no-longer-present branch. Perhaps they were late returning scouts ready to dance for a dream home somewhere else. Or they could just have been stubborn bees. Either way they gave up after a few hours.

And now, our work not yet done, we are in stage four, Giddiness or We really caught a swarm! This is akin to the feeling we had after hiving our very first package, a joyful awareness of having experienced something wonderful with the promise of more wonder to come. We shall wait until dusk, when any foragers will have returned, and move the nuc onto a stand at a better location where we shall feed her.

Finally the nights are springtime warm and the dandelions are blooming, which is the cue for nervous beekeepers to split colonies threatening to swarm. Last year about this time we split a booming Beatrix to make the late Clarissa with the help of Dr. Milbrath. This year since, as Sassafras Bee Farm has reminded us, we can no longer claim to be beginners after seven years we screwed up our courage last Saturday and tried the task by ourselves. The critical bit is to make sure one hive has the queen and the other has the wherewithal to make one, i.e. eggs or sufficiently young larvae. Our ability to spot the former is not impressive and the latter nearly nonexistent but we assured ourselves that if we we were patient and carefully scrutinized each frame we could manage. We were not entirely correct.

Working our way through Beatrix we expected the usual concentration of worker brood comb sandwiched between drone comb at one end of the hive and honeycomb thereafter. Instead we saw a full comb of capped drone brood midway along the hive with more brood comb on either side and at least a little capped brood on almost every comb. We saw no full honey comb, suggesting that the bees were getting to the end of the larder, but there were a number of combs with some honey.

We also found an empty queen cup at the bottom of a comb and what may have been an open queen cell in the middle of another one. We could not tell if it was occupied or not but it seemed to be the center of interest for a number of workers so we are hopeful. Exultantly we found the queen! We were assisted by her still bearing the mark of Dr. Milbrath’s paint. But even with magnifying lenses we could not see any eggs.

We promptly moved the comb with the queen to the waiting Clarissa and returned to Beatrix to select a few more combs to transfer. This task was made difficult by our fear that any apparently empty cells on any candidate comb may actually be the only ones in Beatrix containing eggs that we wished to leave behind. In the end we moved a mere two combs partially filled with honey and put them on either side of the comb on which we found the queen. We did however brush the bees from a few other brood combs into Clarissa. The foragers would presumably return to Beatrix but the nurse bees would stay and accelerate their development to become foragers themselves sooner than usual. Adding two empty top bars we closed up both hives. To our embarrassment all this took us three hours. And so we return to our familiar occupation of worrying.

Beatrix: Had we left her with sufficiently young brood to make a queen? Was there an occupant in that one queen cell? Or will we find a box of drone-laying workers when we check after leaving her be for a few weeks? Waiting another week before splitting may have found her with a few queen cells, making our job less fraught. But then another week may also have found us lacking time to do anything but watch another swarm escape.

Clarissa: We made a very small split. Will nights stay warm or become too cool for them to survive? Will she be robbed?

Dorcas: Uncharacteristically, we are not worried about Dorcas. She may be splittable as well but does not seem to be threatening to swarm as had long been our fear for Beatrix so we can put that off for a while.

On Sunday, given her minimal resources, we put a jar of syrup into Clarissa to fuel her bees and encourage comb building until she had foragers to gather nectar. She would also need pollen for healthy brood but we had no plan for that yet. To our surprise, a few bees were already engaged in what seemed somewhat like orientation flights. By Monday we saw pollen being brought in. Our tiny colony is wasting no time.

After three somber posts about sorrowful recent events it is time to return to being generally informative and humorously entertaining, even silly.

hydroxymethylfurfural moleculeIt is a common caution to not heat sugar syrup or honey intended to be fed to bees too much lest it form toxic compounds. The specific reason is the dehydration of fructose to form the molecule toxic to bees which is diagrammed here and amusingly named  hydroxymethylfurfural. At least we find it amusing. It is the furfur. How can one say furfur and not smile. Furfur.chuckle

Ahem. The process is catalyzed by acids, which is why those of us using an oxalic acid drizzle to treat for varroa ought not save any leftover syrup, although there are claims that it may be kept in the freezer safely. We shall not risk it since it is easy enough to mix just the amount needed and the syrup is cheaper than bees.

Our procedure for preparing any syrup for bees is to boil water in an electric kettle as we measure the sugar (plain, old grocery store sucrose) into a large Pyrex pitcher. When the water has boiled we pour a measured amount into the sugar and stir. Then we cover it with a paper towel and wait for it to cool before adding whatever else our purpose requires. For feeding we add a commercial mix of essential oils (formerly a squeeze of lemon juice) to attract the bees and prevent molds. For varroa treatment we add the carefully weighed oxalic acid.

The hot water unavoidably splits some small amount of the sucrose into dextrose and fructose and some tiny bit of the resulting fructose no doubt forms a tinier bit of hydroxymethylfurfural. snicker But surely the amount is minimal. It seems that those who add sugar to water actively boiling on the stove risk generating more. And even more yet if they try to invert the sugar (split most of the sucrose) by adding cream of tartar or some acid. But even these beekeepers do not seem to routinely poison their hives. Anyone up for some quantitative chemistry?

Although the furfur part of the chemical’s name comes from the Latin word for bran, it always makes us think of Furfur the Great Earl of Hell mentioned in certain grimoires, oft drawn as a winged hart, whose specific abilities are said to include causing love between a man and a woman, raising tempests, and teaching secret knowledge.

Would that secret knowledge include beekeeping?

A third funereal post although this death is but metaphorical.

Our first hive, Annabelle, commissioned in 2011 from Steller Apiaries, had been in need of repairs for a while. The picture shows her upside-down on a table in the wood shop, awaiting our attention.

One can readily see her worst problem, the front face cupping and pulling away from the sides. The unpainted, interior side of a hive is exposed to high humidity from bee respiration. That side of the wood will try to take up the moisture and swell, cupping the board. This must be resisted by the fasteners holding the hive body together. In Annabelle’s case the construction staples used had eventually failed to hold. Keith Steller no longer uses these in hive construction having long ago switched to wood screws.

The next major issue is the mesh floor, which we requested in our ignorance, having read about such things as a varroa-management tool. It only ever provided a place out of the reach of the bees where wax moth cocoons could safely develop. Our later hives all have had solid floors as do Keith’s. He only implemented this foolishness because we asked.

For the first problem, we planned to squeeze in a bit of glue, use clamps to force shut the gaps, and apply screws in between the old fasteners. For the second, we would remove the hardware, pry off the wooden bits holding the screened floor, pull or trim the staples, and fit a solid wooden floor at a depth compatible with our other hives. And finally a little touch-up with fresh paint.

Unfortunately the wood had become too fragile. No matter how carefully we tried to disconnect the mesh floor we broke a little more of the sides. Every fresh fragment made us lose confidence in our restoration project. The more work that we did, the more work we found was needed and the less confidence we had that Annabelle could hold herself together for very long after we finished repairs. In the end we decided to retire her permanently.

Pragmatically we are simply disposing of a no longer functional piece of equipment. We have other hives and they also will need replacing eventually, in spite of sturdier construction. No hive lasts forever. Yet we feel mournful that Annabelle will not be restored. She is the hive that first made us beekeepers, however ignorant and unskilled. She was home to that first package we installed whereupon we were giddy for the rest of the day with the thought that we had bees. And so we end with this old picture of her, freshly painted and awaiting her first tenants.

On a more cheerful note, yesterday of this odd springtime was quite warm with both Beatrix and Dorcas flying and giving us the rare sight of seeing the girls working the daffodils just beginning to bloom along the driveway.

Next Page »