In an episode of ‘Murders at Barlume’ septuagenarian Emo takes half-his-age Beppe fishing and advises him that “There is a fine line between being fishermen and being two fools1 sitting on the beach.” Beppe reasonably asks, “Which are we?2

Beekeeping is like that, at least, for us. Some days we can clearly read the comb, understand the bee behavior, and act correctly with confidence. And other days we wonder what happened, what are the bees up to, and, most importantly, what should we do? Which brings us to last Sunday’s inspections.

Neither Angharad nor Blodwyn showed any sign of drawing out comb on the new plastic frames. Perhaps it is just too soon but to more strongly encourage them we exchanged each hive’s bottom two boxes so that the box of new empty frames would be between the box of brood and the box of honey. Then we added an empty box above the inner cover to hold a feeder of syrup.

And on to Dorcas. Still broodless and without our seeing her majesty but with a queen cell being built that was not there last week. It seems a bit late. Who do they think going to lay in there?

Leaving Dorcas still open but covered in a cloth we opened up Beatrix, bursting with bees. Starting from the far end we worked our way through honeycomb towards the brood chamber, finding some examples of cross-combing, on which we performed corrective surgery. We simply harvested the worst case.

Eventually we reached the beginning of the brood chamber, a comb of solid drone brood. We removed that also, after sweeping off the bees, and carried on. We found one pair of badly cross-combed bars. Unlike the honeycomb, we left these alone. The queen may have been lurking somewhere in the maze and we did not wish to risk injuring her. Or the brood for that matter.

Finally we found what we had been seeking, a frame with brood young enough to become queens. Carefully ensuring that the queen was elsewhere we transferred the comb to Dorcas and closed her up. Back at Beatrix we interspersed some black plastic frames to make up for the ones we had removed. We added them to the honey area since the nights were yet too cool to want to add empty frames to the brood chamber.

And so, having left no hive free of our ministrations, we returned home to ponder the answer for the day.


1The English subtitle actually used a ruder, slang term for ineffectual self-abuser, which arguably better captures the sense of the Italian ‘coglioni’ but we feel an urge to keep a pretense of gentility in our blog.
2Coglioni, as it happens.

So, we were guilty of hubris after all. Expecting to be up to our probosces in bees, with all hives having survived the winter, things seem less brimming with bees a few Sundays ago. We have already reported Clarissa’s demise and while we have no additional deadouts yet, we have reason to fret.

With reports of swarms already captured in the general area, we hastened to take advantage of the warm weather to inspect our survivors, beginning with Beatrix. She was doing beautifully with bees, brood, and honey aplenty. We saw drones, reminding us that swarming approached, but no queen cells, reassuring us that it was not imminent. We performed a sugar roll and happily found no mites.

Then we moved on to Dorcas, expecting somewhat the same with a smaller population. To our surprise the comb in what ought to be the brood chamber was quite empty. Has she gone queenless or has her queen (which we did not find) taken an extended holiday from egg-laying? There was a decent if not brimming population of bees. We probably should have transferred some brood from Beatrix and will do so next warm spell unless Dorcas surprises us.

Nonplused we moved on to Angharad, the tower of nucs. We had used foundationless frames in her, inserting a thin strip down the center of the top bar as a guide for building comb. The rebellious bees had refused to be guided and crosscombed with energetic abandon before we knew it. Once having discovered the problem we were unwilling to engage in the extensive and disruptive surgery required and defered doing anything about it.

But now, after a winter of pondering, we had a cunning plan. We would nadir with new frames having foundation to encourage orderly drawing out comb and laying brood therein. After repeating a few times, if the brood area kept moving lower, we should eventually be able to remove and dispose of the old cross-combed messes from the top of the stack. And why not try a split while we do it?

Setting aside the top box full of honey comb we put a new bottom board next to the old but facing the other way. Onto this we put a nuc body with new plastic frames. The foundation of the frames has been daubed with extra wax by us but still needs to be drawn into comb by bees. Atop this went one of old nuc bodies with, we hope, brood. We repeated this arrangement on the old bottom board with a nuc body of plastic frames topped with the second old brood box. Finally returning our attention to the box of honeycomb we did some rough surgery to release two frames which went into yet another new nuc box, leaving three in the old. Filling the little supers with additional frames we put one atop each of our stacks and finished with inner and telescoping covers.

Our hope is that whichever wee hive, Auld Angharad or Backwards Blodwyn, did not get the queen will have brood of age suitable to be made into a queen. We could not check without potentially destroying what we hoped to find.

And so, four overwintered colonies became three, possibly en route to two. We may save Dorcas and our split may succeed, returning us to four. And there may still be swarms to catch. But then we are beekeepers. Optimism does not suit us.

Actually she was surprisingly calm, considering our destruction, but the alliterative title was irresistable.

A while ago we noticed that wee Angharad had rather swiftly built out the frames in her first story and we saw burr comb reaching up through the hole of the inner cover. We were in a bit of a panic as the only additional assembled frames we had were in the empty nuc we were reserving in case of another swarm. So we impulsively decided to raid the Frankenhive (now called “Frankie“) for five top-bars, intending to replace them with actual frames as soon as we made some more.

Of course, more time passed than we wished and when we finally had frames, time, and good weather we found her second story completely full of labyrinthine crazy comb. Our suspicion is that while some of the bees were building good comb down from the top-bars some others were misled into expanding the burr comb remnants (we had scraped it off) up from the frames. Where they met chaos came to dance.

We felt like vandals cutting away all the beautiful, white comb but it was needful and we consoled ourselves that it contained neither brood nor honey but just some ripening nectar. Brushing off the bees and cutting off the combs we collected the top bars to be returned to Frankie. Then we replaced wee Angharad’s second story with a new box and fresh frames. The old one we took aside to properly scrape clean before re-use.

All that work undone. And we are probably in a dearth, best blooms being done and not much rain for weeks. We added a third story housing a feeder of syrup to help. Let us hope wee Angharad does not bear grudges.


Meanwhile Frankie has been building nicely straight comb on her top-bars but likewise devoid of food or brood. Nor did we spot the queen but we did not look very hard. Frankie seems quite small and will need help building up. We drilled a hole in her follower board and put a jar feeder in her unoccupied half.

And we finally sugar-rolled Dorcas to find 2 mites per 300 bees, not high enough to require treatment. Actually, since our sample was a bit generous the mite level should be even lower.

 

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.