While we have been tending to our bees more or less faithfully we have quite badly neglected our blog and now have too much history to suddenly report in our usual fashion of logging each visit to the apiary. It would be like trying to binge-watch one of those entertainments with a large, ensemble cast that bounces attention among multiple story arcs like a game of Three-card Monte. Only confusion could result along with a complete loss of interest in any of the characters. Instead we shall try catching up by relating each colony’s months-long tale separately with dates inserted in the text.

Angharad The less fortunate half of our Baldrick split had been steadily declining. We found no brood even in the cross-combed mess of the lowest box. [2021-Jul-03] We decided to simply dismantle her, stealing the honeycomb and unceremoniously dumping the bees to let them find their way into whatever hive would have them.

Blodwyn The more fortunate half of our Baldrick split, had been steadily drawing out comb and raising brood. [2021-Jul-03] Rather than make the tower of nucs any taller, we moved all the frames into Clarissa, opening only a single entrance hole in front of which we fixed a dangling branch to encourage reorientation by any departing bee. At Blodwyn’s former location we left one box of empty frames for returning foragers.

Moving the frames involved separating those cross-combed in the bottom box. To our surprise this was much easier than expected and showed some lovely combs of brood. It seemed as if the bees themselves had corrected much of the problem themselves.

Before sunrise the next morning we put a wee table at entrance height in front of Clarissa. Then we carefully carried the diminished Blodwyn thither and put her on the table facing Clarissa’s entrance. We thought this would encourage the occupants of the nuc to move to the hive with its familiar welcoming scent. Unsure of how long to leave it, we simply lost patience and later in the afternoon dumped any reluctant bees onto Clarissa’s roof and took away the nuc.

Cerys Our captured swarm struggled. While she drew out comb steadily for a time, she only ever achieved a few cells of drone brood. Did we fail to catch the queen or somehow injure her? Was she too depleted to lay the egg that would supersede her? [2021-Jul-03] Our manipulations temporarily swelled her population with refugees from her dismantled neighbors, Angharad and Blodwyn, but she never grew. We dithered over trying to find her a queen or attempting a paper combine with a hive but [2021-Aug-07] finally we dismantled her as well, letting her dwindling population find new homes.

And then there were none…except for the three full-sized hives.

Dorcas We had been watching her population drop and observing the emptiness of her comb so [2021-May-16] we transferred a comb of open brood from Beatrix and [2021-Jun-27] that seemed to have done the trick. She prospers and [2021-Aug-01] a sugar roll showed only one mite per sample.

Inspired by a recent post from Sassafras Bee Farm, [2021-Aug-10] we popped a jar of syrup into her closet today for the dearth.

Clarissa The bees formerly in Blodwyn have taken to their new home. [2021-Aug-01] Alas, a sugar roll showed 8 mites per sample, so we have applied formic acid treatment and should soon check its efficacy. [2021-Aug-10] She also received a jar of dearth syrup.

Beatrix After the swarm she remained our most populous hive and simply carried on, raising bees and making honey. [2021-Jun-27] A sugar roll showed her having only one mite per hundred bees, below treatment levels. All seemed well until we noticed her population dropping. [2021-Aug-01] Inspection showed several empty queen cups and no brood at all. Time did not improve the situation and she sounded different than our other hives. Perhaps this was the queenless roar?

[2021-Aug-07] Fortuitously we learned that a local beekeeper, not overly far from us, had a pair of extra queens for sale and drove out to get one. She was from the beek’s favorite line so he was quite invested in our success and kindly gave us excellent instructions for the ride home and the coronation. Back at the hive, much of the former brood chamber was being backfilled with nectar so we dug through until we found empty comb. There we pressed the queen cage into the comb and watched. Rejection would have had agitated bees trying to ball, bite, sting, or otherwise do her a harm through the mesh. Instead bees gently collected, extending probosces through the mesh to feed her! In addition, the overall sound of the hive seemed to swiftly become calmer.

[2021-Aug-10] And three days later, after supplying a jar of syrup, we looked and found the cage empty. Now we hope for brood.

It seems that we have left an August story unfinished. Perhaps, because the ending is sad it was particularly easy to avoid writing and let ourselves be carried along by the flow of quotidian demands until unusual events quickened the current and turned it to white water at year’s end, leaving August far behind. By the time we successfully navigated the metaphor to arrive in calmer waters again, we had quite forgotten that we had left our readers with a bit of a cliffhanger. In brief, the Angharad Experiment failed and Dorcas died. With no particular timeline (can not be bothered to check notes) the ordered events, including a recap, are:

  • Dorcas had a queen in June. We even saw her!
  • We could not find her in August but did find three queen cells on two frames.
  • We made a nuc, wee Angharad, including the frame with two cells and left the other in Dorcas. Splitting just like real beekeepers!
  • The queen cell in Dorcas opened at bottom indicating that a queen emerged but we never found any new brood in Dorcas.
  • The queen cells in Angharad remained unchanged. We emptied Angharad by putting all comb back into Dorcas.
  • One queen cell ripped open from the side indicated a queen killing competition. The other queen cell was unchanged and the only capped brood seen were drones.
  • Time goes by and with only drone comb seen, we feared laying workers so we dumped, brushed, and blew bees off each comb in Dorcas and installed it in Clarissa. Then we moved the Dorcas hive far away.

And so we entered the winter with only two hives, Beatrix and Clarissa, both of which have survived into mid-May. We have removed their winter insulation in spite of the occasional snow flurry.

Beatrix is booming as always and with a few queen cells under construction. She will surely swarm if we do not split her but we were ill prepared to do so during the inspection and now weather has turned cold again.

Clarissa is confusing. The follower board position reminds us that she had expanded nearly as much as Beatrix. But only the first half of the hive seems to hold a busy colony. The latter half is empty moldy comb, which we are assured the bees will clean up.

Dorcas is yet empty but in position and open for occupancy. She does hold one frame of comb among the empty bars and we put a drop or two of lemony-smelling supplement into her entrance. We have since seen bees take a serious, continued interest in her. If we can not find occasion to actively split Beatrix her cast may migrate to Dorcas on their own.

Frankie is likewise empty and waiting. She has been spontaneously occupied before. It would be much to expect that lightning again even as we hope it will strike Dorcas.

We have also inherited the hive stand we made for our now-moved-away niece. It needed a little attention and is now next to Frankie, ready to receive any nucs we may be able to make this season. It is unlike us to be so optimistic but better to be ready in case of good luck than scrambling to repair and deploy equipment.

It has been a few days interrupted by storms since Annabelle cast her swarm and Beatrix still stands unoccupied. We are resigned that the swarm, Annabelle-At-Large, will not be back and wish her well wherever she has chosen to settle. That allows all our worries to focus on the remaining diminished colony, Annabelle-At-Home. We fretfully scrutinize all her usual behavior for signs of queenlessness or threat of afterswarm whereupon she puzzles us with unusual behavior.

Bees on the hive stand crossbar

Bees on the hive stand crossbar

Wednesday afternoon we were surprised to see drones crawling on the ground in front of the hive, as if evicted. The girls must feel there is not enough nectar entering the hive although we can see them bringing pollen. It has certainly not been dry enough for a dearth and the milkweed is beginning to bloom.

Looking for the drones again later that day we saw only one but our attention was caught by a small group of bees on the rear of the crossbar of the hive stand. We have seen isolated bees rest on the face of the hive or the roof. This was an unusual location and the bees did not seem to be resting but rather somehow fussing over one of their number.

Queen and court outside the hive

Queen and court outside the hive

Looking more closely we saw that one was a queen and the others were tending her although we could not tell exactly how. Nor could we tell if she was leaving the hive to be mated or returning afterwards. We wished to help but concluded that in our ignorance we should simply leave them alone. A few hours later she and her court were no longer in evidence. And so, not even certain whether we should be encouraged by having seen the young queen, we return to simply watching Annabelle and fretting.

Today, on day 18 since transferring the nuc frames, we attempted another hive inspection, hoping to spot the queen and some eggs. This time we remembered the camera. Over the weekend we had picked up a bag of wood pellets used for horse bedding from our local Tractor Supply Company store to use in our smoker. Of the ways to keep defensive bees distracted smoke may be the hardest on them but also, according to some, most immediately effective. For this reason some beeks keep a smoker handy even if they do not smoke the hive as a matter of course. This struck us as prudent so after we smoked our bare hands we took the smoker out with us to the hive and kept it in easy grabbing distance. It should be mentioned that we had a hard time lighting it and keeping it going. Partway through our inspection it just went out but the bees were being good to us and so we daringly continued.

Starting at the end farthest from the entrances, we saw that the feeder was down to 500 ml of syrup but there were no bees in that area. Also there was syrup leakage on the floor. Could that entirely account for drop? The bees seemed completely uninterested in the syrup. We left it for now.

Sliding the follower away to open the bee compartment, we then began our march towards the other end of the hive. The procedure was to slide the current frame/top-bar into the opening, lift it out, take a picture of each side, examine it for whatever we could see, replace it, and slide it away to make room for the next frame/top-bar. When done, slide everything back into place, replace the roof, and go look at pictures.

The frames farthest from the entrances had come with stored honey, which was still there. They have not been dipping into their stores. Good. Then came two frames with odd-looking comb. These had come to us looking as if the foundation had been drawn out only in a few patches. No additional work was evident and there were no bees on them. Next an empty top bar followed by a top bar with two bits of comb started and a mere handful of bees at work. And then we were into the brood area.

On the first brood frame we finally encountered a significant number of bees crawling over the comb, hard at work. We could see capped brood (and not drone brood) and larvae in the central area. The open cells of the perimeter showed the glistening of nectar not yet concentrated enough to be honey. No eggs visible to us but we have mentioned our aging eyes before. We had brought a large magnifying lens with us and it was helpful but not helpful enough to spot the eggs, which we assured ourselves must be there. The rest of the brood frames looked much the same except that the perimeter cells showed pollen storage and more honey than nectar. We saw more bees at work and more larvae but still no sighting of eggs or queen.

And then came the top bar with the new comb being built, followed by the top bars with comb that our package bees had built. The bees were working on all these although not as many as on the brood frames. The cells mostly held nectar for concentration along with some pollen and capped honey.

Since the two partly drawn frames with odd-looking comb had neither brood nor food stores nor any interest at all for the bees we removed them, brought up the rest of the frames(which had stored honey), and added empty top bars at the far end. And so we replaced the roof and tied it down. We look forward to retiring all the frames and having only top bars. The roof will sit better and the bees won’t have gaps to move up through.

Throughout all this disturbance the bees seemed curious but calm. They climbed up atop the frames requiring a little brushing and water spray for us to be able to close things back up. A few crawled onto our bare hands but crawled back off either spontaneously or with a gentle prod from the other hand. No one was stung.

Back at the house, we examined the pictures. Although the shots were merely quick snaps of the entire comb with the default settings of automatic everything, we could zoom in to an impressive degree. When did consumer digital camera technology get this good? We were still unable to find eggs but we found the queen in the picture shown earlier. Click that image to see it full-sized and have a look around. She is easier to spot in this close-up taken somewhat left and up from the center of that mass of bees on the left side of that frame.

Now to leave the little dears in peace for a while.