Friday, June 29, 2012

Summer Storms = Grouchy Bees

The weather has been mostly cold and wet this year and the sun hasn't made much of an appearance in the Northwest as opposed to the record breaking heat the rest of the country has been getting.  So that leaves us with light hives and grouchy bees.  The girls actually fly in this gloomy weather, but unfortunately the rain washes away the nectar and pollen so there isn't much for them to find.

Collecting nectar from a Senecio shrub.

I've noticed that the girls like to get pollen from flowers that are just opening and nectar from flowers that are a bit older.  I think some flowers take time to build up enough nectar to get the bees attention.

Nectar from Red Hot Poker flower.

Giant Tiger Lily blooming.

The Linden trees have started to blooming in some areas and if the weather allows for it the girls might be able to collect some surplus.  With the blackberry flow wrapping up many hives just haven't been able to collect much so far this year.

Linden tree flowers near the Arboretum. 

Something else that bees will sometimes do is clump up at the front of the hive entrance.  This is called bearding and they do it for several reasons.  Typically they do this when they are hot as a way to cool down the hive and to improve the ventilation. They might also do this if they start getting cramped for space or in this case due to a weather change.  After weeks of crappy weather we actually got 3 beautiful days in a row and the bees were going crazy and then like a slap in the face we got another downpour (almost an inch of rain).  It's hard to tell, but I was getting wet under an umbrella when I took these pictures and some of the girls were still flying anyway.

It is called bearding because it kind of looks like a beard on the hive.

The roof is keeping them dry and they are leaving room to get in and out.

While bearding might look like swarming it is not and doesn't mean they are going to swarm.  However it is something you would typically see on a healthy hive so it stands to reason if they are doing well it would be best to keep an eye on them because healthy hives will swarm eventually if they run out of space.  In talking with several local beekeepers bearding apparently was fairly common here last Friday when the storm blew in.

Hive checks (6/24/2012)

Didn't see the queen but saw eggs.  Comb building is still stalled.  Lots of brood and they have a big population.  Low on stores.  Still have feed left, and have taken about a quarter gallon since it was put on.  They have been fanning at nite to dry nectar.

Saw the queen, eggs, and lots of brood.  Comb building is still stalled.   Lots of brood and they have a big population.  They have a decent amount of stores left.  They have been fanning at nite to dry nectar.

Nuc 5
No sign of a queen, might have seen a egg or two, but nothing that stands out.

Nuc 2
Queen is laying, found eggs and brood!

Queen is laying, found eggs and brood. Good amount of syrup stored and they are building up pollen reserves.

One of the queen cells had already emerged!  Ironically it was the one I was going to harvest for a nuc.  She cleaned up the others so there was nothing to harvest.  I would estimate she emerged the day before based on the cleanup of the other cells.  They have started taking syrup.

They are doing great and building up quickly now.  They are taking a lot of syrup.  Identified the beetles I found and they are carrion beetles which aren't a pest of the bees.  Fortunately my eyesight is better than the macro on my camera to see the distinguishing details.

I think they were attracted to dead bees or the syrup in the hive.

Hive checks (6/25/2012)

Found the queen and saw eggs and brood.  Besides the fact that this hive is smaller than the others the brood pattern actually looked decent and I didn't see any signs of varroa issues.  Without the knowledge of previous inspections it wouldn't be obvious just looking at them during this inspection that this was a weak hive.  They have a lots of stores and pollen surplus built up as well. 

Another swarm

To add to an already busy week of beekeeping I caught a swarm on 6/27/2012.  I got the call in the afternoon by a worried home owner that said these girls had been in her yard all day and wanted them to get to a safe place.  As it turns out they most likely swarmed from a hive across the street that was setup only three months ago.  That hive also had bees in it so it must have built up quickly.

As far as swarms go this one was fairly small and I wasn't able to spot a queen .  I suspect based on the size that there is a virgin queen in there somewhere.  It is also odd they were balled up in the grass under an apple tree and I suspect they might have started on the branch and fell down.  I'll check them again in a few days to try and find a queen.

Put down comb to attract them which seemed to work well.

Most of the girls are in, but there are a few stubborn ones that didn't want to leave the grass.

The long range forecast is predicting summer to start on July 5th... which is sort of a Seattle joke with a bit of truth.  More often than not it actually seems to be the case.

- Jeff

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Summer Solstice Nectar

To a non-beekeeper talking about the nectar flow sounds a bit magical, like a reference to the Force in Star Wars.  Nectar is something plants make to attract pollinators to their flowers which results in the transfer of pollen from one plant to another.  Bees drink the nectar into a honey stomach up to their body weight to take back to the hive.  Bees also collect pollen in addition to nectar and on any given trip from the hive they will only collect one or the other.  Some plants produce more pollen and others more nectar.  Nectar is mostly carbohydrates and minerals and is used for energy, and pollen for protein which is used to raise brood. There are many plants that don't rely on pollinators to transfer pollen but rather the wind.  Those plants tend to have pollen that has lower protein value and do not make nectar as a result of not needing to attract pollinators. 

Collecting black pollen from poppies.

So with all this work to find food and bring it home you have to wonder how they even manage to survive with each flower only offering a tiny amount of pollen/nectar.  One advantage honey bees have over other pollinators is their ability to communicate to the other bees where a good source of food is.  This allows the scout bees to recruit work forces from the hive to focusing their efforts on the best locations for pollen or nectar even at the cost of traveling great distances.  Other pollinators do not have this advantage and will work everything they can find close to home not knowing that a better location might exist down the street.  It is not unusual for honey bees to travel several miles to find a good food source if none exist close to home.

Thus the nectar flow is a time when something is blooming in excess to the point that the bees are able to collect more than the hive immediately needs and can store a surplus.  This surplus nectar will be dried and saved for dearths and winter.  Once enough water has been dried out of the nectar the bees will cap the dried nectar in cells with wax which would now be called honey.  Hives that are unable to store enough food before fall will ultimately starve, so each hive will store as much food as possible during the summer up to the capacity of the hive.  Typically hives are able to store more than they will need for winter and this surplus is what beekeepers harvest.

This girl is collecting light brown pollen from blackberries flowers.

The locust trees are in full bloom now and you can hear the girls buzzing.

Results of the the girls pollination efforts.

Hive checks (6/17/2012)

Did a quick check to make sure the comb was straight and to check if the queen had started laying.  The brood from the Geek donated comb had emerged and the queen was laying eggs to back-fill the cells already.  This is another plus for a swarm to have some drawn comb ready so the queen can get a head start on laying.  So far everything looks good and these girls seem really mellow.   Part of that I'm sure is due to their smaller swarm size and we will have to wait and see how they act as they build up.  Got my first good look at the queen and she has dark Carniolan colors.

Healthy looking all black queen.

Also took a comb measurement to get a better idea of the type of hive they came from and found the measurement to be 5.19mm.  This would indicate to me that they came from a managed hive on standard foundation, and are not from a feral source or someones natural hive.  

Comb measurement is smaller than standard foundation but not natural cell size.

Nuc 2
Saw the queen.  There "might" be a few random eggs, but otherwise I don't think she has started laying yet.

Nuc 3
Skipped this week.  New queens should be mating.

Nuc 5
Didn't see the queen.  No signs of eggs.

Saw the queen.  Lots of brood on they way, and they seemed light on surplus nectar.  They have stopped building comb so I gave them syrup.  They were a little runny this week.

Missed the queen, but saw lots of brood and eggs.  They have decent stores left from the maples.  These girls are hoarders.  They were pretty calm this week compared to last week.

Skipped this week.

Did a partial inspection and saw multiple emergency queen cells started on the frame of eggs they got last week.  This is not unexpected, but still unfortunate that the new queen is failing.  Two were capped and three were about to be capped.  I will likely harvest 1 or 2 cells and make up a nuc to increase mating success odds.  If I had a mated queen that was laying I would introduce her, but atlas our rainy weather is not proving too kind to queen mating so far this year.

Skipped this week.  They are building comb and taking syrup.  Gave them more syrup to keep them going.  I will need to take more frames for Surf to keep that population up in coming weeks.  Found some small black beetles in the back of the hive and disposed of them.  If they are there again next week I will collect samples and identify them. 

Well the rainy weather pattern is continuing this week and it is not good for the blackberry nectar flow.  So far it is looking like we might have a repeat of last years bad flow.  I've heard that blackberry blooms need three nice days in a row to make good nectar.  I don't know how accurate that statistic is but so far we have had one nice day this entire month which isn't promising.

 - Jeff

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Waiting for Summer

The back to back storms we have had here over the last week have been hard on the hives and the girls are getting antsy for some nice weather!  Comb building has stalled and they aren't raising much new brood.  The drone population has dropped quite a bit as well.  They still have enough stores to keep them from starving so I haven't put feed on yet, plus the forecast is also predicting some nice weather.  Blackberries have started blooming in several patches around the hill and the locust trees are now in full bloom.

Working Spanish Lavender.  This is the first of the lavenders to bloom here.

Collecting pollen from Rock Rose as it opens.

As a follow up to last weeks post I wanted to talk about the special cells they build for queens.  Bees naturally build queen cups which are empty cells that can be used for raising queens.  There may be several of these to a frame or a couple in the whole hive.  Typically they remain empty and are not used unless there is a need for a new queen in which case the queen will lay a fertilized egg in them and they will be called a supersedure or swarm cell.  These cells are not the same as emergency cells where a worker cell is modified to make it bigger.  

Empty queen cups.  Note that the comb is reversed here and these actually open downwards. 

Opened queen cell after queen has emerged.  You could also see a queen cell with a hole in the side which is a sign that another queen has emerged first and killed the competition in the other cells.

Supersedure is a natural process where the queen is replaced and sometimes you will find both the new and old queen in the hive at the same time.  This allows them to assess the new queen before killing the old queen and is one of the rare times when two queens will be tolerated in a hive.  The old queen may also be killed by the new queen as soon as she emerges.  An old queen may be replaced for a variety of reasons and not just age related.

Swarming is a process where the old queen is still going strong and the hive is at a point where it is getting cramped and can split.  The queen will lay eggs in queen cups and then leave the hive taking up to 2/3rds of the bees with her before the new queens emerge.

Emergency queen is a process where something unplanned has happened to the queen or her presence is no longer felt in part of the hive.  When this occurs the bees will chose several female larvae of a very young age to raise as queens.  The main difference here is that the cell the larvae was laid in must be made larger to be suitable for a queen bee.  Newer wax cells are ideal for making these modifications as the older wax is harder and less flexible.  Emergency queen cells can produce a queen of equal quality as those from a queen cup granted the bees are able to modify the cell.

One final point to make is that worker bees and queen bees are both female and develop from fertilized eggs.  An unfertilized egg will turn into a drone (male) bee.  The important difference between an egg that turns into a worker bee vs a queen bee is the food sources they are given.  The queen is exclusively fed royal jelly (a very high quality food source) while the worker bees only get a tiny bit of royal jelly when they first develop and then are fed nectar/honey and bee bread made from pollen.  Not only does this high quality food source allow the fertilized egg to fully mature into a queen that can sexually reproduce, it also results in a bigger bee that develops in 16 days vs a worker that takes 21 days to fully develop.  It is a pretty impressive example of how important diet is on early development.

A favorite water source is sometimes more popular on cloudy/rainy days.

Hive checks (6/9/2012)

This hive is building up and they are taking syrup with this rainy weather.  I took a half frame of eggs from them to give to Surf.  They are building comb more quickly now as well.

Unfortunately still no eggs in this hive.  The queen is there looking the part, but not walking the walk and the girls are getting pissy.  If I have a nuc queen that is showing signs of a good start I'll replace this queen next week if she still isn't doing anything.  I suspect I'll find queen cells on the frame of eggs that were donated from Sand.

Hive checks (6/10/2012)

Drop in drones this week and not many eggs/larvae found.  The queen looked fine and I suspect the drop in drones and eggs is due to the storm this week.

Same condition as the Librarians this week.  Comb production has slowed down as well.  

This girl found some bright orange/red pollen.

Same as the Geeks this week. 

Nuc 2
Found the queen, no eggs or brood yet.  

Nuc 3
Opened the dead queen cell and it looks like the queen died just after it was capped.  Both the new queen cells are capped and should open this week.

Nuc 4
No queen found. I have never found the emerged queen in this hive.  I'm assuming she was lost during mating.

Nuc 5
Found the queen, no eggs or brood yet.  Combined bees from Nuc 4 with this hive to give them a boost. 

No check this week.  Peaked behind the follower to check their syrup levels and snapped this shot of what they are up to.

Building new comb.

That's the update, and now back to waiting for summer to start.

- Jeff

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Queen Bees Journey From The Hive

Queen Death Match

Over the last two weeks the new queens in the nucs will have emerged and hopefully mated.  The first thing a new queen will do is make a piping sound to announce herself to any other queens in the hive and battle them to the death.  She will also seek out and destroy any other queen cells that have not yet emerged by stinging them and biting a hole in the side.  If another queen has emerged already they will battle until one is victorious.  A queen is critical to the survival of the hive and two queens will not battle in such a way that they could deal a simultaneous death blow to each other.  In such cases they will break off the fight momentarily and start the battle anew.  This is quite amazing to think about.  How on every level a hive really is the sum of all the parts and there is no individual.

Drone Congregation Areas (DCA)

Once the queen has her house in order it is time to mate.  Mating will occur in the afternoon on a nice day and may occur over one or more flights to a  DCA .  Each  DCA  is a special place that exist in the landscape from year to year that drones and queens from different hives are able to find without any existing knowledge being passed on to them of its location.  Every day that the weather allows for it the drones from hives all over the area will find these locations and wait for virgin queens to arrive.  The queen will fly to a  DCA further than the drones of her hive will to find a  DCA  with drones from other hives which prevents inbreeding.  The queen will mate with 15-40+ drones in flight, with the strongest drones out-flying the weaker ones to mate with her and providing the best genetics.  The mating process comes to an unfortunate ending for the drones much like life comes to an end for a worker bee that stings you.  After mating in flight the drones fall to their death while another drone takes their place to mate with the queen.

After the queen has mated with a sufficient number of drones she will return to the hive to prepare for a life of egg laying.  The mating process also alters the pheromones that the queen produces and the workers will find queens that successfully mated with many drones to be more desirable.  The queen looses the ability to mate within several weeks of emerging and will never mate again in her life.  This is also the last time the queen will leave the hive unless there is an opportunity to lead a swarm to a new home.

The bees are loving all the varieties of Creeping Thyme in bloom right now.

While we wait for the blackberries to start here there is still a lot of forage available for the bees.  There are also several locust trees in the area that have started blooming.  The Linden trees are also blooming but I'm not sure if there are any in the neighborhood for them.  The locust and linden trees can provide a minor flow if there are enough of them in an area.

Locust Tree



The Swarm

To wrap up the weekend just when I thought it was time to relax on Sunday evening I got word of a swarm just a few blocks away, and thankfully they weren't mine!  From all the horror stories I've heard about hard to get swarms 30 feet up in trees or having them fly off on you just as you get there, this was a pretty mellow bunch.  They were just a few blocks away at Memorial Stadium on a staircase waiting to be taken to a new home.  There was actually a practice HS football game going on and people were walking by "cautiously" but otherwise not too worried.  Apparently they had been there at least all Saturday and they were having trouble finding someone to come get them and were getting ready to call an exterminator.  Thankfully I saw their post to prevent such a tragic end like extermination or having them find an unfortunate spot in someones attic or walls.

Swarm on side of stairs.  I'd guess around 9-12K bees.

When I got there I put on my suit to be safe (you never know how pissy they are going to be after a few days) which surprisingly didn't draw much attention from the people around.  I then setup their box and proceeded to lift them off the wall in handfuls into the box.  On the second handful I saw a pretty darker colored queen.  It took about 6 handfuls to transfer 90% of them into the box.  I then closed up most of the top and left a gap for them to fan the rest of the stragglers to come into the box.  I hung out for about an hour while the foragers came back in and then packed everything up and brought them back to their new home.

Fortunately I have a swarm hive ready to go for just this purpose.  It was used for a month last summer by the Geeks while I built their new hive.  This is perfect for bees needing a new home as it smells like bees and even has traces of wax in it.  I took a newer frame of brood from the Geeks and added it to the hive to give them some encouragement that this was an ideal place for bees to live in.  They seemed to agree and started fanning everyone to come inside.

The welcoming committee checking out their new home.

Justin already came up with the name "Icons" for these girls based on where they were picked up (Space Needle/Seattle Center).  That sounded pretty good to me.

Hive checks (6/2/2012)

Saw the queen and no signs of swarm cells yet, but they are still making lots of cups.  Lots of brood on the way as well and they are storing and drying nectar.  Opened up several bars in back for them to build out the rest of the hive.  Less cross comb than last week.

The bees seemed a little more runny on the comb than usual.  When a hive is this full of bees on every frame, runny is a bit relative.  Runny is a term to refer to how active the bees are as a result of the inspection when you open a hive.  Ideally you have bees that seem unaware of you during inspection and focus on what they are normally doing.

Such a well behaved hive with nice straight comb.  They hardly notice you are inspecting the combs and keep working away.  Lots of brood coming and I would expect them to peak for the Blackberry flow.  Both this hive and the Geeks take a lot of time to get through with the high number of bees in them.

Seems that this hive peaked 2-3 weeks ago and is just on idle now.  They have as much drawn comb as the Geeks and Engineers but the hive isn't boiling over in bees (I'd estimate 60% of their size in numbers).  I did see a lot of eggs in combs so maybe she slowed down after the maples and they are picking up again.

Nuc 2
The queens have emerged and a winner has been chosen.  Hopefully she had successful mating flights while we had a patch of nice weather last week.  She seemed to be calmer than the virgins I've seen in the past so hopefully that's a sign everything went well.

The new blond queen from the Engineer queen line.

Nuc 3
The queen cell in this nuc was still closed which means it should be dead.  I found it odd that it wasn't opened and am wondering if it might have been an unfertilized drone egg they turned into a queen cell.  I'll know if I see a big ugly drone in there.  I moved the now capped cells from Nuc 4 to this hive that I stashed behind the follower last week for safe keeping.

Nuc 4
Not sure on this one.  The cell is open, but could not find a queen.  Will wait and look again next week.

Nuc 5
New queen from the Geek queen line has emerged and hopefully has mated as well.  She has an interesting color pattern that goes from light to dark that I like.  I wonder how it will change as she matures.

A bit photo shy, but you can see her tail really well in this shot.

Hive checks (6/3/2012)

These girls are doing great and the hive is full of brood.  They have started taking syrup and are building comb quickly.

Saw the queen again, but no eggs yet.  They have started taking syrup and there are more cells open for the queen to lay in.  The frame of eggs they got last week has been capped and the queen was found near them which is a good sign.  They have also started taking syrup and are building comb.

So that was my busy weekend and now mother nature is providing us with rain.  The weather report is saying "Junuary" is back.  Just what a beekeeper with lots of hungry girls wants to hear as they are reaching their peak numbers and can't fly.  If it doesn't clear up in a few day I'll have to start feeding to keep them from starving.  I don't dare underestimate how quickly 60,000 girls will eat up their reserves this time of year in bad weather.  However cooler rainy weather is good for the blackberry buds and leads to a flowers with more nectar.

- Jeff