Talking about the mysteries of bees



Bees have made us boring. Whenever anyone asks me how the bees are I narrow my eyes at them calculating how much detail they can tolerate. Let me tell you, this is one detailed hobby. I’m furiously reading through The Hive and the Honeybee trying to catch my learning up to my observations. Ted calls our mentor once a week with the “why the heck did they do that?” questions for the week.

On the current mystery list:

  • Why did the bees suddenly boil out of a hive, surround the opening, and then go back inside? It’s not hot enough that they needed to cool the hive down.
  • Why did the drones suddenly boil out of another hive, buzz around for a bit, and then go back in?
  • What are the bees in the new hive doing in the cinder blocks supporting the hive?

The best established hive, Knossos, continues building comb. If we get any honey this year it will be from this hive. The hive left from the swarm, Phaistos, is our weakest hive, with aging workers and (hopefully) a new queen. We are dying to know if she hatched, flew, mated, got home safely, and is laying eggs. An inspection is in order, we’re working on getting our mentor out to help us find her and interpret what we see on the comb. The new hive Tylisos seems to be doing fine and is happily drawing comb on new bars.

I go out to the hives first thing in the morning to see who’s up and about. The mason bees fly earlier, Phaistos always wakes up later than the other hives. Ted goes out at midnight and listens to the hive. So we fuss over them.

The masons worry me – one of the three capped tubes was breached, by what predator I don’t know, but the other two tubes still seem to be okay. I can’t really do anything with them as they’re in that delicate place where one jar will move the egg away from its food. I just look at them and hope they’re okay.

Our neighbor called us while we were away for the Memorial Day weekend and asked if he should do anything with the bees – very kind of him! We said they should be able to do without our hovering concern for a few days. As soon as we pulled into the driveway Ted and I both ran out and checked the little windows to make sure they were still there. They did just fine without us!

Bees on the move!

When I came home last night after an overnight business trip Ted greeted me as I drove up with the news that one of our hives had lost most of its bees. We ran out in the dark together with our flashlights peering into the little window. No big ball of bees! Where are the bees? He said worriedly, “Do you think we have colony collapse disorder?”

I went to sleep on that unhappy thought. I woke up so sad, struggling to deal my first loss. When I went out to check on the hive this morning Ted said, “Found the bees!” They had swarmed. They had thoughtfully alighted on a hawthorne tree not many feet from their old hive, about seven feet above the ground – it couldn’t have been a better location for us.

Swarm in hawthorne tree

Swarm in hawthorne tree

We switched gears from grieving newbie beeks to excited beeks with a new learning opportunity. Ted called our mentor (who said, “Ah, your first surprise!”). Our mentor said swarming happens frequently at the point our bees had reached. They had recently hatched a lot of brood, and they felt population pressure, so they just split the hive. On Tuesday afternoon about 4 I saw a great number of bees leaving that hive. I thought it was new brood exploring the world, but now we think I saw the beginning of the swarm.

Ted made a swarm-catching box and coated new top bars with honey. On my lunch I slipped on my bee suit and Ted put on his veil. I gave the branch one vigorous whack and got almost all the swarm into it.
Put the swarm in the box

Put the swarm in the box

Put the swarm in the box

We sat the box down and watched it for a while. After a bit the fanning behavior became obvious – the workers stick their backsides in the air and fan vigorously to distribute the queen’s pheromones and let all the bees know where she is. Fanning let us know that the queen is alive, and she is in the box.



What we have now is:

Knossos – hived this spring from a California package of Italians. Seems to be happy in its hive.
Phaistos – old worker bees with new queen.
Swarm in a box – new worker bees with old queen.

The swarm should be fine, they have a laying queen. It’s Phaistos that is in danger now. There’s a 30 day arc where the hive re-establishes around the new queen. Five days after she hatches she does a mating flight. If it’s not raining to keep her inside, if she doesn’t get eaten by a bird or otherwise dispatched, and if she mates successfully with enough drones, she’ll start laying. Three weeks after that the new brood hatches and begins to repopulate the hive. For those 30 days the old bees have to keep the hive going, and they’re getting to the end of their useful lives – there was another bring-out-your-dead moment when the remaining bees shoved bee corpses onto the landing pad.

Our mentor gave us very helpful advice about our options. Many beekeepers choose to recombine the hives at this point, figuring that the odds for the old hive just aren’t good. Ted and I talked it over. We are natural beekeepers – the best way I’ve heard this put is, the beekeeper takes care of everything external to the hive, and the bees take care of the inside of the hive. Our goal in keeping bees is to keep bees. We decided that we would just let the bees do what they are going to do, give Phaistos a chance to live or not but on its own terms, and make a new hive for the new swarm.

While waiting for the swarm to settle down into its box we took all the bars out of Phaistos to take a look at them. We found queen cells, including one we think hatched the new queen. First one hatched kills all the others (“there can be only one“). We didn’t find the queen, because we are new and inexperienced, but we are betting that she is in one of our photos, we’re going to study them. Tomorrow we’re going to look at Knossos to see if we find any queen cells there that would indicate they are getting ready to swarm.

Is there a queen in there?

Is there a queen in there?

It’s so sunny, and there are so many flowers around, we decided to wean Knossos and stop feeding sugar syrup. With Phaistos in a precarious place we’re going to keep on feeding there. The feeders are constructed with an entrance inside the hive, so hopefully Knossos won’t be tempted to rob Phaistos in its weakened condition.

On a final note, there is one capped tube of mason bees, and we saw a female flying into another tube today. They’re not laying all that fast, but at least they’re laying! Go bees!

Bee journal, week one

Yesterday at the farmer’s market many people asked me how the bees were doing, so here is an update:

The feeder cans we were using belong to the club so we needed to give them back. Ted made feeders to replace them which we hung in front of the hives. Then he made entrance feeders. These have a piece that goes into the actual entrance of the hive so that only the bees in that hive can use the feeder. Stedman’s sells them, but they had sold out before we arrived on package day, and anyway it’s more fun to make your own.

Right after we hived the bees the nightime temps dropped to near freezing – I stayed awake one night worrying about the hives. This is why we continued to feed. That, and our concern that the new hive get started out comfortably; we took Italian bees raised in California and dumped them in an empty box in Washington state, so it was an understandable worry.

Entrance feeder

Entrance feeder

Every day when the temperature hits 50 the foragers start heading out. Mid-day when the sun is out the air fills with bees whizzing around. It really does look like a bee highway. I haven’t seen them on any plants nearby, they’re going out in all directions and coming back, and since they can forage up to three miles they could be anywhere. Ted has seen bees with pollen in their baskets (part of the hind leg where pollen collects). He’s also seen a pollen cake dropped by one bee and picked up by another. So we know they’re getting pollen and nectar. The big discussion now is when we stop feeding. On the one hand, it’s still cold and rainy. On the other hand, we saw a drone, so we could be overfeeding. We’re going to feed for another week and re-evaluate.

We hived the bees on Saturday April 16. On Wednesday April 20 we made our next big move. I put on the bee suit, Ted put on a veil and gloves, and we did the work in the afternoon sunshine. We haven’t used a smoker – we don’t own one, we want to try to get by without it. We talked through what we were going to do before we did it, so that when we did the work we could move deliberately and steadily, and open the hive the least amount of time. We removed the top of the hive, moved some of the top bars from behind the false back, moved the false back, and then carefully pried open the two bars where the queen box was suspended to pull out the queen box. This was heart-pounding because that’s where the Big Ball Of Bees was centered. In both hives we found the queen box empty, so the workers did eat the marshmellow and release the queen. We moved the false back to the end of the hive, replaced the top bars, and closed the hive. Both hives were only open five minutes or so.

Since then we have been watching the hives for hours on end. This is way better than television. We run out and look at them first thing in the morning. We have many questions that can only be answered by observation and experience. For example, did the bees accept the queens? I think so because the hives are industrious, and whatever has happened, both hives are the same. I really see the wisdom of having two hives to compare to each other.

The most burning question was, are they drawing comb? I had read bee forum and blog accounts of bees abandoning a top bar hive in the first few days, so I was worried whether they would stick with us. The Big Ball Of Bees in both hives seemed to be getting bigger so we thought they were. Yesterday afternoon when we looked in the windows of both hives we could actually see the comb. Woot! We spent all night saying, “We’ve got comb!”

We’re busily planting for the bees. The hives are behind the garage in a clearing we have been reclaiming from invasives. We’re down to the grasses now, and rather than using glysophate on them, we’re trying a Master Gardener idea and seeding red clover. This winter we mulched the front lawn with cardboard, leaves, straw, and then dirt, and planted a cover crop which has just started to take hold. I’ve ordered enough lavender plants to fill the yard, and if I can grow them correctly when they bloom in a year or two the bees should love them.

So now the bees are settled into their hives, and we’re settled into watching them. We have adopted the natural beekeeping approach (AKA barefoot beekeeping, AKA bee guardian) where we leave the bees alone and try to help them thrive. We’re going to diligently work to get them through swarm season in June and then take them through the winter. The big honey payoff in top bar hives comes in the second year so we have no expectations for this year. The books all say that top bar hives require more monitoring than other kinds of hives, but as we are watching them continually for fun this is really not an issue.

On the mason bee front, the day we hived the honey bees I saw female bees. I’ve seen a few female bees going in and out of the tubes so there is activity. I haven’t seen one actually finished and capped yet though. The mason bee house is in the same area as the honey bee hives. They checked each other out this week, we saw mason bees at the hives and honey bees at the tubes. I don’t know if they can peacefully co-exist, we will find this out. I haven’t seen bumblebees in the area, although I saw several queens earlier this spring.

Sometimes when we are sitting and watching the bees one of the big slow ones comes and flies around us. I swear it feels as if the hive is checking us out. The natural beekeeping books and forums recommend hanging out with the hive so it gets used to you. The Barefoot Beekeeper recommends listening to the hive and smelling it. Ted’s listening, I’m smelling. We’re happy as bees in clover!

Edit Monday 4/25: FYI, the West Sound Beekeepers Association list noted that we should be feeding as there is not enough in bloom just now to support the bees.

Big ball of bees seen through hive window

Big ball of bees seen through hive window