Last Thursday we managed to steal an hour between other responsibilities to attend to Beatrix. She had come out of winter brimming with bees putting us in a state of continual fret, awaiting weather and time to split her before she swarmed. Although our old eyes can not see eggs at all easily we expected to find easily seen, peanut-shaped queen cells in preparation for swarming and anticipated no problems with swiftly populating a nuc during our allotted sunny hour.

Instead we found far fewer bees than we expected and not much capped brood. There were empty cells as well as cells with larvae of various ages. Of course we can not see eggs and, as usual, failed to see the queen. Nor did we see any queen cells but only a few queen cups. The difference is that a cup is shorter, open at the bottom, and most importantly unoccupied. It may be in the process of becoming a queen cell or not. Some bees, especially Russians, build and tear down queen cups nearly constantly whether to just keep in practice or to be pessimistically prepared for loss of a queen, probably at the hands of those Пчеловоды идиоты1.

Bewilderedly continuing to work through the combs we found that Beatrix had also followed this season’s fashion for ill-behaved comb. Fortunately none had fallen but all remained attached to the top bar. Unfortunately some were attached to each other and a few to the floor as well. Once again we performed comb surgery and again escaped without stings. The operation was generally successful although a few combs were so attached that we could not free them without breaking them off their top bars. If this remains a regular occurrence we shall have to prepare some means of reattaching comb. Having used up our hour we then simply closed up.

The following Tuesday we were fortunate to have our guardian angel Dr. Meghan Milbrath inspect our hives. She found and marked for us the queen in Beatrix, who seemed to be laying as she should although the brood pattern was not the best, perhaps due to the signs of European foulbrood which Dr. Milbrath pointed out. We were aghast but she calmly comforted us, saying that outbreaks are not uncommon in the spring and although some beekeepers immediately reach for antibiotics it often simply clears up, so a watch-and-wait attitude was not unreasonable. Or we could discard the current, not-too-populous brood comb and transfer some capped brood from a donor hive. Choosing that option, we carried off the brood combs, brushing the bees2 back into the hive, and went to inspect the enthusiastically bearding Dorcas.

With all the comb we had removed, Dorcas was crowded, combs dripping with bees as we had expected from Beatrix, and enthusiastically backfilling brood nest with nectar. Dr. Milbrath found the queen, still marked, and we found a queen cell, whereupon we got ambitious when Dr. Milbrath agreed there were bees enough to make a small nuc as well as transfer to Beatrix. Unfortunately we discovered that our hives are unintentionally a little deeper than a Langstroth deep and the comb would not fit in the cardboard nuc. As we dithered over giving up or attempting some kind of kludge the decision was made for us by the accidental crushing of the queen cell. Oops. There is non-standard nuc construction in our future.

With that distraction dismissed, Dr. Milbrath selected three bars of capped brood, covered with nurse bees3, which we carried over and placed into the waiting Beatrix. Then we added half a dozen empty top bars to Dorcas to replace the bars taken and further expand her available space, staving off the threat of her swarming. After closing both hives we proceeded to inspect Clarissa, for the sake of completeness, and found a well populated thriving hive. Dr. Milbrath again found and marked her queen and rode off into the sunset4 with our gratitude.

So what did happen to Beatrix? The timing seems a bit tight but the likely scenario is that she impatiently and unwisely swarmed while we were ill and the nights were yet near freezing. The remaining colony was then too small to stay adequately warm, allowing the foulbrood to take hold. Then as old bees died, they were not being replaced since the infected brood died before reaching adulthood. The transplanted healthy capped brood will soon hatch, building up the population and leaving open healthy cells for the queen to lay in. She ought to recover and thrive although it will be a while before she is again bursting with bees.

1Beekeeping idiots
2Dr. Milbrath finds that bees tend to get stuck in the bristles of bee brushes so she just grabbed a handful of tall grass to use.
3Unlike invading foragers, nurse bees are accepted without violence by any hive.
4Okay, drove her car off into the general direction of the eventual sunset.

Crazy comb in ClarissaAfter tidying the fallen comb in Dorcas, we lost the next few weeks to cold, both as weather and as illness. Finally last Sunday we were both healthy and the day warm enough to deal with the fallen comb we had spied through Clarissa’s window. We could see that three, large, consecutive combs had broken off entirely. Perhaps there had been some domino effect at work as the first, heavy comb struck bottom then leaned into and broke its fragile neighbor. Repeat.

One dropped comb was still mostly vertical as it sat on the floor. The rest had unfortunately come to rest lying on the floor in partially fused layers, somehow joining as well with the bottoms of other unfallen combs. Or perhaps more combs had partially broken but the bees had been able to build new comb all the way down, as opposed to the first three, whose top bars showed just a few short beginnings of new comb construction. That might explain one patch we saw of old, dark comb surrounded by fresher wax. However it happened, it was a much worse mess than in Dorcas.

The cleaning was a tedious affair. To provide working room we removed the follower and any empty bars, placing them on a nearby bench or on the ground leaning against the hive. Any bars with comb we placed in a home-made frame holder capable of holding several combs. We then carefully cut and lifted the comb from the floor onto a sheet tray, scraping the floor as clean as we could while trying not to shake the hive. We proceeded in this wise until we saw no more comb on the floor and straight comb hanging from the bars. Coincidentally this was the start of the brood area. Or did tougher brood comb better resist breaking and falling? We do not really know what started the catastrophe.

Throughout all this the bees were surprisingly calm, too preoccupied with reclaiming honey from the combs being removed to bother stinging the vandals removing them. Once or twice they seemed to buzz a little impatiently and swirl up as if reconsidering the stinging option but a puff of smoke proved effective counterargument. Still it was a relief when at last we replaced the bars and closed Clarissa. Since what comb was on the bars was straight and true, we did not need to remove any as we did in Dorcas.

And now to process the stolen comb for a little more honey and a little more wax as we wonder why this season has had so much fallen comb.

Have you ever in some long term project made an early, uncaught error that increasingly corrupted every subsequent step until eventually the supervisor who should have corrected you in the first place finally notices and informs you that all your work will need to be redone? Building comb can be like that for a honeybee.

Last Sunday it was time to pay attention to Dorcas. Opening her unoccupied area we removed the moisture-absorbing pillow and observed some spots of black mold and a small puddle of water. Nothing too troubling. Then it was time to crack the follower. It is a pity that taking pictures during the procedure would have been one task too many for we would be working our way through an artistic phantasmagoria of wax sheets with excrescences, tunnels, and a whimsical sense of verticality. The picture at left of the trimmed combs and fragments does not adequately represent the waxscape we had to fight.

We were greeted by a misshapen comb with the right half much thicker than a typical honeycomb and the left half, sporting a flying buttress at a right angle, much narrower. Cutting attachments and excising the worst outgrowths we slid this bar back to reveal another monstrosity, thick and thin and twisted, having exerted bad influence on the comb we first saw, itself led astray by the comb we had yet to see. Repeat through a jungle gym of more combs of untouched honey and comb being filled with nectar until we arrived at the original fallen comb, attached to the floor and sporting odd vertical features. This is the comb we should have cleaned up much, much earlier. Did schedule and weather not allow? Or were we just negligent? We do not recall.

On the other side of this mess, the combs were much straighter and we began encountering brood and we saw the queen! Overall there were four combs thick with brood, mostly worker with a little drone. And plentiful bees. While not bursting as Beatrix seems to be, Dorcas is adequately populated.

In the end we removed the irredeemably misshapen comb, sadly depriving Dorcas of nearly all her leftover honey and empty comb in which to store incoming nectar. We also pulled the four of her original frames that were yet empty. The fifth held brood. In exchange we judiciously inserted some empty top bars on which she may build straight comb and gave her a jar of syrup as encouragement1. Poor Dorcas is much smaller than she was. Considering how mellow the bees were during all our surgery and thievery, she may not bear us a grudge but will simply and stolidly, as bees do, set to work rebuilding.

We would have liked to inspect Clarissa as well but with other tasks requiring completion we decided that we had inconvenienced enough bees for one day2 and contented ourselves with removing the pillow, exposing some black mold, and leaving a jar of syrup.

1We feel like the reviled stereotype of a villainous commercial beekeeper. Take all the honey, leave them sugar, and twirl one’s mustache while laughing an evil laugh.

2 Is this how comb remains fallen?

It is that vigorous phase of the eternal shoving match between summer and winter that we call springtime in Michigan. Daytime grows longer and the sun makes more frequent appearances to warm us but sudden gloom, cold winds, and even attempts to snow still occur. Natheless last Saturday we felt confident removing the black, insulating panels from our hives although we left the black on their rooves yet. We had hoped to also inspect all our hives and possibly deal with the fallen comb we know awaits in Dorcas but the day began to cool almost as soon as it got adequately warm for hive-opening. So we confined our intrusion to Beatrix, where we much wished to make room for a follower board again.

She had grown so full last season that we had removed her follower to let her build comb on each and every bar in the hive. Too late we realized that this made inspections more fraught. With a follower board one can always pop an empty bar or so from the unoccupied section and move the follower back to make some room. Then the next bar of comb may be checked for attachments, cut free if necessary, moved back, and lifted without fear of rolling any bees, particularly the queen. However full a hive gets we shall not let a hive be without a follower board again. We may even modify our design to have one at each end for safe and easy access.1

Back to Beatrix. With trepidation we lifted one of the initial frames that had populated her and set it aside. That gave us room to proceed. Over the next few bars we saw ample honey remaining, capped brood, and lots and lots of mellow bees crawling everywhere. Then we noticed how rapidly the temperature was dropping and simply closed up, having removed two expendable honey frames and restored her follower board with an empty bar on the other side. Not enough room to accommodate a feeder but enough for easier future inspections.

We then went off to observe hive traffic from a safe distance. All hives had been reduced to a single left-most entrance hole for winter and increased to two as the weather had begun to warm and returning foragers to crowd. Now it seemed they were still crowding a bit. We also saw the occasional forager landing on the cork in the third entrance and crawling about it in a way which we anthropomorphized as wondering, “Was there not an entrance here? I am certain there was.” We responded by opening each hive’s third entrance and relieved foragers very soon began using them for Dorcas and Clarissa. Beatrix showed rather more enthusiasm. As soon as the cork was popped bees gushed forth like champagne and her traffic remained crowded. We removed the central cork to get another bee gusher. Repeat for a fifth entrance. At that point we stopped as her traffic settled into a busy but not congested regularity.

Had Beatrix noticed winter at all? Again we note that we must surely split her as soon as we can but first we need reliably warmer nights and, of course, drones.

1 There is a two-follower strategy that starts with the bees sandwiched midway along the hive and allowed to grow in both directions as they wish. We shall not be doing that. Such a strategy requires major rearrangement of the bars before winter to put all the honey on one side of the cluster. We shall continue to keep them at one end or the other and allow only unidirectional growth.

Dr. SeeleyLast weekend, we attended the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring 2017 Conference. The main attraction this year was Dr. Thomas Seeley, famous for research into honey bee behavior, who gave four talks over the two days.

Will we be able to post a report on each of them before the year is up? Probably just barely.

The Bee Colony as an Information Center This talk described how a colony efficiently deploys and redistributes foragers to nectar sources in numbers related to the changing quality of the source. We serendipitously discovered that the material is also in his book The Wisdom of the Hive, which we bought at the conference. The diagrams are so much better than our hastily scrawled sketches.

Plastic Foundation: Good for Beekeepers? Good for Bees? We attended in spite of using no foundation of any kind, certain that we would learn something interesting about the bees. We did but you will have to wait.

The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory This was a repeat of the talk from a SEMBA conference in 2013 and we have already written about it. So we need report on only three talks before the year ends. We may just make it.

Capturing Swarms with Bait Hives After describing his experiments to determine what kind of home the bees themselves prefer, also found in the popular HoneyBee Democracy, he presented the results, rather well-known by now, and gave practical advice on exploiting those results to successfully catch swarms.

We also attended some non-Seeley presentations, which may or may not result in blog posts.

Plan for Mites by Dr. Meghan Milbrath. The message, that we are in a varroa epidemic and whistling past the beeyard will not be helpful, is much the same as her previous talks but the tone has gotten firmer. If one will not be a responsible bee-keeper then one will not be merely a bee-haver but a bee-serial-killer. She has thoughtfully provided the text of her talk on this Michigan Pollinator Initiative web page.

Beekeeping in Uganda by Sarah Scott. Currently conducting field research for the United States Geological Survey this talk is from her time studying honeybee health in Uganda. The saddest thing we learned was that as the illegal distillers of sugarcane attempt to improve their fortunes they are inadvertantly ruining that of beekeepers. Bees drown in the open fermenters full of sweet sugarcane liquid.

Essential BeekeepER First Aid by Dr. Tyler Andre. The capitalized ER is deliberate to nod at the speaker being an Emergency Room resident.

The Benefits of Splits and How to Make Them by Nathan Snyder. This presentation contrasted methods used in his own hobby apiary and in the larger commercial apiaries for which he has worked.

And so to start writing.

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