This winter has been hard on everyone with the unusually cold temperatures and lots of snow and perhaps that is what caused the collapse of one of our bee hives. We’ve had warmer weather the last day or two (highs in the 40s) so we tapped on the bee hives to see if anyone was awake. One hive gave off a steady “buzzz” but the other was silent. And there were a bunch of dead bees on the ground (we couldn’t see them before because they were covered in snow which just now melted). Upon opening it up we found even more dead bees. We should be able to recover some honey from the hive- most of the frames in the super are about half full. The frames in the body of the hive look kind of weird though so we aren’t sure if the honey in them will be usable.
Too Many Swarms
A week and a half ago I posted about one of our bee hives swarming. Well exactly a week later it swarmed again. We are theorizing that the first swarm was just a normal spring swarm that most established hives experience every spring or fall. Its just what happens when a hive is strong and growing and fills up all the space it has. The second swarm, though, was unexpected. The hive had just split in two so it certainly wasn’t over crowded anymore. We did some research and talked to some experts and this is what we think happened:
When I have gets full and is ready to swarm, a bunch of baby queens are started. This happens when regular bee larvae are fed royal jelly to make them develop into queens. They feed this royal jelly to a number of larvae to ensure that they will get at least one healthy queen. Once the larvae start to develop the old queen leaves the hive, along with her swarm, to start a new hive.
Now the hive is left without a queen while it waits for its baby queens to grow up.
Usually what happens next is that one of the queens emerges and, if she is strong and healthy, she destroys all the other queen larvae before they emerge. Now she is the new queen and things return to normal.
In our case, the new queen didn’t destroy all the other queens and one of the others also emerged and was healthy. Generally you can’t have two queens in one hive, so one of the new queens took a swarm and left.
The first type of swarm is an inevitable part of bee keeping and is actually a sign of a healthy hive so its nothing to be concerned about. The second type of swarm, though, isn’t good because it means that your already smaller, weaker hive is split in two once again.
So, now that we know that this can happen what do we do now? And how do we prevent it from happening again.
This evening we opened up the original hive and removed every frame, one at a time, and cut out any queen cells that we could find. Thankfully queen cells have a very distinct look so they are easy to find once you remove the frames. I removed or destroyed at least 10. Some of them had already been destroyed or emerged from but some seemed to be intact. Hopefully this will prevent any additional queens from emerging and creating additional swarms at this time.
Then while we had the hive open we added on a brood super. Before, this hive just had its body and then a queen excluder and a honey super — i.e. a box on top for collecting honey but not for laying new baby bees. The new brood super we added will give the new queen additional space to lay babies. She probably won’t need it for a while now that the hive is smaller, but it will allow the hive to grow larger over the summer without needing to swarm again due to size. This super is also where they will store honey to get them through the winter since we will steal all the honey from the honey super.
This evening we also took the hive that we’d put the first swarm in and combined it with one of our other hives. This hive was started this spring with a box of bees that we purchased and it just wasn’t thriving. We don’t know if the queen was weak or if it was just because the box had less bees in it than the hive we started from a natural swarm and therefore seemed weaker in comparison. Either way, this hive seemed like it could use a bit of bolstering so we decided to combine it with the first swarm. We did this by putting the box with the swarm on top of the other hive body with a couple layers of newsprint in between. This will give them a chance to get used to each other over the next couple of days. Hopefully by the time they get through the paper they will be ready to mingle peacefully. Since we will end up with two queens in this hive we think that what will happen is that the stronger one will kill the other one. Or they may decide to co-exist (doubtful). Or maybe they will swarm again. We’ll see!
Bee Swarm Recapture
This afternoon ended up being unexpectedly exciting. First Chris spotted a fox attacking one of our chickens and after scaring it off we tried to track it for a while to figure out if its nesting nearby. We were unsuccessful. It killed two of our chickens and injured another one. We have a trap set out to see if we can catch it if it comes back again.
While looking for fox tracks we discovered a swarm of bees in one of our trees. This wasn’t terribly surprising since we’d found some queen cells in one of our hives last week which is a sign that swarming will occur soon. But even though we knew it was coming, we still weren’t entirely prepared for it. Thankfully we have a local “bee guy” — one of Chris’s coworkers– who is generous with his time and equipment and comes out to save us whenever we have a bee situation. So this evening around sunset, when the bees are nice and calm, he brought his tall ladder over, climbing up to the branch the swarm was on and brushed the bees off into a box. Then he helped us to dump the box full of bees into a new hive. This all sounds much simpler than it really was, mostly because of how high the bees were and how awkward it was to get to them. Chris and I were very glad to have an expert willing to come out and show us how its done. Hopefully next time we’ll be confident enough to handle it ourselves.
I guess in some ways the day balanced out. We started the day with 15 chickens and 2 bee hives and ended it with 13 chickens and 3 bee hives.
More photos from the swarm re-capture here.
In really hot weather, bees will sometimes form a “beard” on the outside of the hive. When we saw this happening we were concerned that there was something wrong, but this is just a method of controlling the hive temperature. Some of the adult bees leave the hive and hang out on the outside in order to allow more air flow to get into the hive and cool it down. Its important that the temperature inside the hive be controlled so that the baby bees can develop correctly and so that the honey being stored can cure in the comb. The bees on the “porch” at the bottom are also helping to cool the hive by fanning the opening with their wings.
We added a new super filled with frames today. The extra space should help cool the hive and it will provide more space for storing honey. This super has a queen excluder so that the queen can’t lay her eggs in the coomb and it will be 100% honey storage. Once this super is filled up, we will finally be able to harvest honey for ourselves!
The super we added to the hive 2 weeks ago is already filling up! This frame is from near the center- the yellow cells have baby bees in them and the white ones are filled with honey.White caps have been added to the completely filled cells but most of the non-capped ones are nearly full and will be capped off soon. All by the very outer frames are completely covered in honey comb in various stages. I wonder when we’ll need to add another super. We hadn’t planned on adding another one this year but they are filling it up faster than we expected!
This is one of the frames from the bottom, almost completely filled with baby bee larvae:
Its been a few weeks since we checked the bee frames and they have been busy! Almost all the frames are completely full of honey and/or baby bees. And though we don’t have an exact count, there seem to be a lot more bees buzzing around than there used to be. I’ll me sending my dad these pictures to get his opinion, but I’m wondering if its time to add another super full of frames for them to start working on!
Busy as a Bee
The bees have been hard at work putting away honey and making new bees. We have had warm, sunny weather lately and everything is in bloom so there is constant traffic around the hive with bees coming in laden with pollen and back out to collect more. When my parents visited a few days ago my dad was eager to see how the hive was progressing so we opened it up for a look.
The wax that looks white contains honey. They put this around the outer edges and corners of the frames- this is the honey they are putting away to eat during the winter.
In the middle of the frames, especially those in the center of the hive where it is safe and warm, the queen lays her eggs. In this photo you can see a little white speck in some of the cells (an egg), and in others the curved shape of the larvae is visible. Workers put a layer of royal jelly over the eggs to feed the larvae and later fill the cell up with more food for the developing bee to eat. These cells look yellow, compared to the white honey cells.
Once the babies are big enough, they eat their way through the yellow plug and join the colony. Our queen likely started laying eggs almost immediately after being set up in the new hive, so we already have new members of the colony flying around. Its hard to tell in the photos, but the young bees are smaller than the adults. They spend the first part of their lives working in the hive and then once they are full grown with strong wings they take over the task of collecting pollen. Worker bees only live for a month or two, and it takes the larvae almost a month to develop, so the makeup of the colony is constantly changing and being renewed. Only the Queen remains the same, sometimes for years.