While we have not made any serious effort at preserving our anonymity we have been coy about mentioning our names on the blog and shall likely continue that habit in future posts. But for this post the curious reader can find us out as the authors of “Honey and Preserves” in the 2017 Summer newsletter of the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy.

We regularly join fellow SMLC members with our saws and shovels at the nearby preserves to work on projects like planting pollinator meadows, keeping trails clear, and the like. During those sessions it is entirely possible that we may have held forth on honeybees once or twice. Or thrice. Okay, nearly every time but they ask us questions. It is not our fault. Ahem. So when it was decided that the summer issue of the newsletter would focus on the importance of preserved land and its connection with area residents we were asked to write a short article making that connection to beekeeping. We are too pleased with ourselves not to briefly break cover and share the news here.


When we first mentioned that we would be posting detailed follow-ups of the talks we attended at the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring 2017 Conference, there was a particular request from a reader for a report on Dr. Seeley’s presentation on plastic foundation, Plastic Foundation: Good for Beekeepers? Good for Bees?, and the interesting thing we non-users learned. Months later we finally present that report.

Plastic foundation is food grade plastic covered in a very thin layer of beeswax1. It is available in two forms, as sheets to be inserted into wooden frames just as wax foundation is and as complete one-piece plastic frame including foundation. The general conclusion is that it has advantages for the beekeeper.

  • Frame assembly is made simpler, especially if already part of a one-piece frame.
  • The plastic back makes strong combs that do not blow out in a centrifugal extractor.
  • It is better for pre-supering.2 Practiced in apiaries that are hard to visit frequently, this is the procedure of adding supers of undrawn comb far in advance of a nectar flow. Wax foundation thus used gets dry and nibbled.

But Dr. Seeley had questions about disadvantages for the bees.

  • Does it hinder comb building?
  • Does it reduce honey production?
  • Does it interfere with waggle dancing?

The answer to the first two is ‘yes, but there is a fix’, the first part of which is to paint a thicker layer of beeswax on the plastic sheet3. Dr. Seeley suggests using disposable foam brushes. That may suffice but one can also try to establish ideal conditions for comb building: a heavy nectar flow and hive full of brood and nectar. The middle-aged bees, which are the nectar-receivers and wax-producers, will be strongly motivated to draw out comb to make room for the incoming flood.

That leaves the question of whether or not it is a fully suitable substrate for waggling. And here comes the information we found so interesting, if only because of the many hours spent so long ago surrounded by electronics equipment in physics labs . The comb consists of relatively thin cell walls rising from the foundation and having a thicker rim at the top. A waggle-dancing bee shakes this rim to attract followers, producing vibrations centering around two frequencies, 15 Hz with its body and 250 Hz with its wings. Followers of the dance detect vibrations in air and through the comb with the subgenual organ in each leg, seemingly over a greater distance on open comb than on closed comb.

In one of his few experiments not involving watching individually marked bees in an observation hive placed in a contrived environment, Dr. Seeley used an oscillator in a lab to find that comb on plastic foundation dampens the 250 Hz signal but not the 15 Hz component.4 But then he returned to his habitual tricks to observe in the field that there was no difference in recruiting effectiveness for any of wax foundation, plastic foundation in wooden frame, and one-piece plastic frame with foundation.

One question raised by the audience that was not investigated was whether the plastic outgassed significantly to harm the bees or build up in the wax. But then Dr. Seeley’s focus is honeybee communication rather than general health and that investigation would have required an entirely different array of laboratory equipment.

In conclusion plastic foundation has advantages for the beekeeper and, even with different acoustic properties than wax, no disadvantages for the bees if the beekeeper makes an effort to get them to draw comb upon it.

1Very, very thin. Jokes were made about the nearly monomolecular, almost homeopathic thinness of the wax coating.
2An audience member pointed this out.
3The same audience member pointed out that a version with thicker wax coating is available.
4It is common for higher frequencies to be more attenuated than lower due to acoustic heating of the medium.

Plate spinningA number of still ongoing, non-apicentric distractions have been for too many weeks leaving us unable to do more with the bees than glance at hive traffic, fret over queens, listen to the buzzing in passing, fret over varroa, walk past them working flowers, generally fret, and uselessly wish them well. Finally last Monday we forced some time to inspect them and perform sugar rolls.

Dorcas – The queen cell was gone but there was no sign of a queen or the combs of brood we had been expecting. We did find a very few drone cells, which raised the spectre of laying workers, but could simply have been uncapped when we last looked at the cells. Was there a queen slow to be about her business and we failed to see her? We decided to look for a suitable brood frame from another hive to transfer and see if they try to make yet another queen.

Beatrix – She has definitely recovered from her European foulbrood and is again bursting with bees. So much so, that she had started building comb on the other side of the follower board! This is the first time we have seen that. We spotted the queen and felt very proud of ourselves! Unfortunately, she was on one of the two brood frames we wished to transfer to Dorcas. Delicately prodding her majesty with the tip of a gloved hand we tried dropping her into the measuring cup of the sugar roll kit to then gently deposit her on the floor. We were successful in dislodging her but she deployed her wings and glided down on her own. Fervently hoping we had not injured her, we transferred the two brood frames.

We next proceeded to perform a sugar roll, somehow having a harder than usual time filling the cup. With brood breaks from both swarming and the EFB we were not expecting much varroa and, indeed, counted 6 in the sample for 2 mites per hundred bees, borderline treatment level.

Clarissa – We had forgotten how close she is to having full comb on all her bars. One honeycomb was not quite cross-combed yet but had an odd two layer structure that promised future trouble. We stole harvested it.

The brood pattern looked good but there were a few uncapped cells with large larvae, perhaps eleven days old, visible. Evidence of hygienic behavior? Again having a hard time collecting the sample, the sugar roll result was a frightening count of 16 for over 5 mites per hundred bees! Having pessimistically ordered MiteAway Quick Strips (formic acid) earlier in the season, we were able to immediately fetch it and apply a full dose. We accidentally opened a second package and applied it to Beatrix just not to waste it.

Annabelle – She is yet unrepaired, sitting in the woodshop. Seeing Beatrix once again so full suggests that we should rush Annabelle back into service and perform a split. But then we have already just stolen brood from Beatrix. Should we be raiding her again soon? And the old saying is that “A swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” suggesting that our split would not have time enough to build up before winter. Having used up our capacity for decisive action we again fret ourselves into circles.

As ever when we are having bee troubles, we contacted Dr. Meghan Milbrath for advice. Fortuitously in our area yesterday, she made time for a look at Dorcas for us in spite of this being a busy time at her business, The Sandhill.

She confirmed that there was no sign of an active queen but neither was it a laying worker situation. The bees may not have been as energetic as we have seen them but they did not appear distressed and were moving purposefully. In fact, they seemed to be cleaning out cells in preparation for a queen to lay in them. Around then the Mrs. pointed out a clandestine, capped queen cell along the outside edge of a comb. Dr. Milbrath also drew our attention to the large number of drones wandering about. Although drones may generally enter any hive they wish1, she said that they do not necessarily receive a warm welcome. Their numbers here indicated that the colony anticipated a use for them once a virgin queen took her mating flight.

Dr. Milbrath’s conclusions were that something had indeed happened to the old queen. She may have left with a swarm2 or the colony decided to supersede her. There may already be a virgin queen within but there is certainly one developing in the queen cell. We could add a comb or not but either way, the hive should be not bothered for three weeks. We opted to just move all the empty-celled combs to the one end of the hive, close up, and hope.

1Except for the autumnal purge when they are evicted from all hives. Some strict colonies will also evict them during a nectar dearth.
2Later reading said that bees usually make a large number of queen cells for swarming but make only a few, sometimes even just one, for supersedure.

As Paul Pena sang during a low point, “It’s a hard life when you’re stupid. It’s a hard life when you’re blind.” Indeed. We can’t spot queens. We can’t see eggs. We do not know what we are doing. Oh, woe.

We went out to sugar roll the hives again, beginning with Dorcas, who seemed to our casual glance less populous than before. Starting from the follower we checked each comb and with increasing anxiety reached the other end of the hive without finding any brood. None at all. Just capped honey and uncapped nectar. And no sightings of her majesty. And the bees seemed less energetic than usual, as queenless bees are said to be.

One hypothesis is that we, clumsily and without noticing, killed the queen during the sugar roll. But an emergency queen would then be in the works and we only saw a few half-hearted, open-ended queen cups. Another hypothesis is that we missed another swarm and the replacement queen failed her mating flight due to bad weather or hungry bird or other hazard. A third happier hypothesis would be that eager backfilling has robbed her of any place to lay and we missed her sulking in a corner. We are probably not so lucky.

We likely need to transfer a comb with eggs soonest, probably from Clarissa. But first we shall seek expert advice. Oh, woe.