Beekeepers both welcome and dread early spring in equal measure. We are happy to again hear the birds sing and see the snow begin to melt, but spring for us brings a measure of apprehension as we search for proof our bees survived the winter.
It has been a long, cold, snowy one, making it impossible to treat, add food to, or peek at the hives.
Each morning, there’s been a sprinkling of dead bees outside California Girls (aka “The Pink Palace”), which I’ve taken as a good sign because it meant there were still living bees inside.
Of course, it could have just meant they were warmer due to the insulation and so decided to go flying in less than suitable weather, dying in the process.
Outside Buzzers’ Roost and NewBees, there were none.
Here’s a picture of them from my post on 20 November. The view hasn’t changed much these last few months — until today when the temperature rose to nearly 50 F, and the snow began to melt.
This doesn’t mean spring is here or there will be no more snow; it merely means spring is coming … eventually.
More importantly, it meant I could finally check under the hoods of all three hives. It still wasn’t warm enough to do an in-depth inspection, but I was able to take a quick look.
I started with Cali Girls because we knew the hive still had bees, and I wanted to be sure they had food. Also, I wanted to give them some Super DFM probiotics.
Honey bees sometimes suffer from dysentery (diarrhea), especially after a long winter, and I think the probiotics help keep the problem from becoming something more.
Judging by my brief inspection, they seemed to be doing well. I gave them more food and sprinkled on the Super DFM. No picture though. Some were disturbed enough that they began to fly, and I was afraid they’d end up dead in the snow.
Sadly, my judgment about the other two hives proved correct. There was no activity I could see. It’s possible I missed something, but generally when you open a hive in cool weather, at least a few bees will come out to see what’s going on.
Once again, we are entering spring with one hive still living. Once again, it is the Pink Palace. We are hoping that it’s not once again a hive that dies in March.
There is one difference, however, that may work in this hive’s favor. Last year, the Pink Palace was a nucleus hive, split from one of our others, which means it started with a smaller population than this year’s Pink Palace. It struggled into March, but died before its population was replenished.
You never really know what will happen. March is a tough month for bees because the hive begins to repopulate, but there’s not much pollen or nectar available. But the two hives that didn’t survive this winter started with more bees than Cali Girls/Pink Palace.
My thinking is we should probably order another nuc or package while continuing to monitor California Girls. That way, we have at least one hive (hopefully two) this summer. But The Engineer and I will have to Discuss.
To balance out this depressing news, I’m sharing my latest scrap-happy afghan. I like the way its mix of colors and texture resembles a crazy quilt.
Cross your fingers that California Girls will live through spring to become Ohio Girls this summer.
This will be our fourth winter as beekeepers, and every year we’ve changed up our winterizing process, trying to find the perfect tactic for our area.
The first year, we wrapped our sole hive with a “Vinyl Coated Hive Wrap” from Better Bee. They survived the winter, so the next year, we did something similar, sliding a piece of foam insulation between the hives to create a common wall for better insulation, and wrapping them together. (You can see the foam insulation, reused this year, in the above photo.)
They survived again, so we repeated the process in 2019. This time, however, we had a nuc from a successful split we were trying to overwinter.
To accomodate them, The Engineer built the “Pink Palace,” basically a smaller version of the foam structure above.
All three hives perished, though the Pink Palace survived the longest. Our Bee Inspector said it was likely due to the effects of Varroa, but we treat for the mites regularly, so I’m not sure I agree (although he certainly is a more experienced beekeeper, so maybe I just don’t want to admit we didn’t protect them enough).
Still, we rallied and began again in spring with an Ohio-bred nucleus hive and an over-wintered queen, as well as a package of Saskatraz bees shipped from California.
Both hives thrived, which meant splitting them to prevent swarming. One split (the one from Buzzers’ Roost II, the Ohio hive) “took,” creating their own queen, but the other never managed to make new royalty. We ended up combining them with NewBees (the split from Buzzers’).
So going into winter, we have three full-size hives.
Just before COVID became an issue, we attended the Ohio State Beekeepers’ conference (where once again we learned how little we know about beekeeping) and bought a quilt box.
This is basically a wood box (and there are many many designs available to build or buy), which is then filled with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. Wood shavings are a favorite, but I’ve also heard of people using crumpled newspaper.
Here’s a picture of our quilt box (taken from the side), which we’ve put on Buzzers’ Roost (II). Note the holes covered with screen to allow for ventilation.
Here’s a peek inside.
The Engineer repurposed the original Pink Palace to fit California Girls, so they have no outer cover, instead being surrounded by an igloo of insulating foam.
The NewBees setup is similar to past years, with a wrap, the inner cover, and foam insulation cut to size between the inner and outer covers.
Buzzers’ doesn’t need the foam because they have the quilt box.
We’ve done away with the Hacienda this year, though Buzzers’ and NewBees each have newly shaped metal overhangs (courtesy of The Engineer and his workshop) to help keep rain or snow melt from forming puddles on their front porch.
And here they are, all set for winter.
The forecast is for 8″-12″ of snow over the next 36 hours, which actually means the bees are probably better prepared than we are. 🙂
Addendum: One day later, the words “nick” and “time” come to mind.
After treating our hives a few weeks ago, we anxiously waited for a break in the weather to take a peek under the hood.
That break finally came on Tuesday , but the news wasn’t good.
Our plan was to check food stores and give all three hives a dose of probiotics to try to combat any possible side effects of the Oxalic Acid.
We opened Buzzers’ Roost and immediately saw the worst had happened. Though there was plenty of food (cleared away before taking the photo), there was no activity whatsoever.
Not a single living bee in sight, and not many dead.
Dreading what we might find, we opened FreeBees to find a similar sight.
Both hives seemed damp, so I immediately concluded they died from too much moisture. Bees can handle cold better than damp, so this is a possible explanation. “A wet bee is a dead bee,” is a phrase commonly bandied about by more experienced beekeepers.
The Engineer focused on how few bees there were, which reminded me of the number of dead we cleared out last time we were in the hives. Too few bees = not enough warmth because it takes a certain number to generate enough heat to keep the hive warm.*
Either of these could be the cause of the die-off. Or they could be merely a symptom.
The only thing we can rule out is lack of food.
Both hives had honey, which you can see above, as well as sugar patties. (And although the bee above looks like she is alive, she’s not.)
We knew NewBees were still alive, possibly thriving, because they were out flying.
They’ve been out more than the other two hives all winter, but we put that down to the difference in how they were winterized. “The Pink Igloo” has proven to be a simpler, and warmer, winter cover. Because it goes over the hive, with airspace in between, it gives our girls a means of getting outside the hive without having to face winter weather. And that space also allows air circulation to help keep their home drier.
Where do we go from here?
The Buzzers’ and FreeBees hives are gone, but we still have NewBees (crossing fingers, wishing hard, praying they make it to spring), plenty of drawn comb, and even some honey and pollen to help build new hives.
When the weather warms, we’ll move FreeBees into one of the empty boxes to begin that process. I’ve ordered a package of Saskatraz bees for the other.
In the meantime, The Engineer and I will take an afternoon to dismantle, clean, and try to autopsy Buzzers’ and FreeBees. If we can get an idea what happened, we can try to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. (On a side note, I think next year going into winter, there will be a row of pink palaces in our yard, rather than one pink and two black-wrapped hives.)
We will also be keeping a watchful eye on NewBees and hoping for a good spring nectar and pollen flow.
*Such disagreements and the resulting discussions are one of the many reasons I’m glad our beekeeping is a team effort. It’s been extremely helpful because although we work well together, we think differently and bring different skills to the job.
Saturday, we harvested honey from FreeBees, our most productive hive. We took two supers (medium boxes) of ten frames each. Not all the frames were completely full, and not all the honey was capped, but the frames passed the shake test. (When held parallel to the ground and shaken, nothing dripped out.) We also have swapped in an empty large frame for one full of honey in both FreeBees NewBees (twice in NewBees.) We stored two of these in the freezer in case they need them for winter, but decided we wouldn’t be shorting them if we extracted one. It looked much like this one from Buzzers’.
Before extraction day, we did a quick check to see if our queens were laying.
There was brood and larvae in all three hives. In the third picture, you can see a somewhat typical pattern – a rainbow of capped brood, surrounded by nectar and honey. Usually, there’s also an arc of pollen, but lately the girls have been mainly bringing in nectar, though I was glad to see a lot of bright yellow pollen coming in the day after we checked.
All those baby bees need pollen for protein!
We didn’t see any royalty in FreeBees, but there was plenty of evidence she’d been busy (all that capped brood in the above pictures).
And we spotted the queen in both Buzzers’ and NewBees (much easier when she’s sporting a big green dot!) I even managed to snap a few pics of Buzzers’ royalty. I also got a picture of a fat drone begging food. Look at that rotund body and those big eyes! In the pictures above, you can see Buzzers’ capped brood and lots of larvae. If you look closely below, you’ll five baby bees emerging from their cells.
But I promised a post about honey, and you shall have one.
Look between these frames. Some cells were built out to the next frame, causing them to burst and drip with glistening, amber honey.
On Friday, we inserted an extra super above the queen excluder, put a shim with an opening on top of it, the escape board on top of that, and the honey-filled supers back on top of all the boxes below.
So working upward from the hive stand, it was a deep box, another deep box (both for brood), the queen excluder, an empty honey super, a shim, the escape board, a honey super, a second honey super, the inner cover, and finally, the outer cover. FreeBees towered over the other hives.
Thankfully, The Engineer remembered to block the entrance on the inner cover, or we’d have moved the bees out of the supers only to have them come back in through that entrance.
We left the escape board on for about 36 hours. If left less than 24 hours, most bees won’t have moved down. More than 48, and they begin to figure out how to get back in.
When we opened the hive to take the supers, a few bees remained, but they were easily brushed off as we checked the frames one at a time and put them in a plastic container to carry to the garage.
We placed the escape board below the hive and watched the bees flow like a river back into their home.
I insisted on closing the garage door so we could work without being invaded by every bee in the county. This was the right move because later, when the extraction was done, we opened it to let in some air as we cleaned propolis off the boxes and frames before returning them to the hive.
First, one bee came exploring, then another, then three or four more. We closed the door again when it became clear we’d soon have a garage full of bees if we didn’t.
Here’s a picture of our setup, with the box of frames in the back, our uncapping tank, and the extractor.
If you look closely, you’ll see two screws on the board on the right. These help hold the frame in place as we slice the caps off the cells. This is done with a knife like this one. We heated it with hot water between frames to make it slice more smoothly.
Sometimes, the cappings were set too low to cut without gouging into the frame, so we sliced off what we could, and then scratched openings in the rest with a capping scratcher (kind of a glorified fork with extremely sharp tines).
The uncapped frames go in the extractor, leaving the capping wax and extra honey to drop into the uncapping tank, which strains out the largest pieces of wax, allowing honey to be captured in the tank below.
Next, we crank. And crank. And crank. Then the frames are turned so the opposite sides face the inside of the tank, and we crank some more.
The yellow spigot is used to drain the extractor into a clean bucket through a strainer or two. We used a colander set inside a second colander that was lined with cheesecloth.
This works, but it’s a bit convoluted, so I bought a proper honey filter like this one for next time. It’s two strainers in one, a coarse one on top a finer one.
Once all the honey was extracted, we bottled. The Engineer calculated our harvest at about 59 pounds, but I think it was actually more because we used odd sized jars, and were guesstimating their weight.
I began the beeswax rendering process by putting the cappings in a 200* F oven in a large metal bowl. When the wax floated to the top, it left behind enough honey to fill another jar or two.
When it cooled, the bottom of the wax looked like this.Yesterday, I tried to scrape the gunk off, then put it back into a container, adding boiling water to separate the good stuff. It didn’t work too well, so I fell back on my old method of heating it on a burner at the lowest heat (watching it like a hawk), and then straining throw a clean cloth.
This works ok (see above), but next time, I plan to try crushing it all in cheesecloth, and pouring boiling water over it. In theory, the cheesecloth is supposed to hold in the yuck, allowing the wax to escape. I’ll let you know how it works.
I also strained the honey from the bottom of the uncapping tank. Since there was less, I did it inside with a colander and sieve (balanced precariously) on the kitchen counter.It was enough to fill these bottles. We cleaned up most of the mess on Saturday, first with the hose in the yard, then with hot sudsy water and a rinse, followed by a swish with a weak bleach solution to sanitize everything.
I washed the remaining items inside with sudsy water, a hot rinse, and boiling water from my kettle to sterilize.
Extracting with an extractor is definitely better than the crush and strain method we used last year, but it was the right decision to wait to buy one. The investment in money and cleaning time wouldn’t have be worth it for just a frame or two.
I’m pretty sure our bee club loans out an extractor, and you can rent them, but we (I) ended up buying the bees their very own for Christmas last year, a gift-giving practice that will not become a tradition. It was on sale for $200-something last fall, so it’s not a cheap investment.
Still, we expect to get at least some honey from Buzzers’ and maybe another frame or two from NewBees, so renting one would have been about $50 just for those two occasions.
There’s a quote I read about beekeeping that sums up our experience perfectly. I can’t find the exact words, but it’s something like “The more I learned about bees, the less I knew, until finally I knew nothing at all.”
From our last post, you’ll know there was no eggs, no larvae, and very little brood in any of our hives, with FreeBees having gone the longest with nothing in sight.
Consequently, I had ordered two new queens.
We used to name our queens but have long since stopped – we’ve been through so many. And if you wonder how much this turnover of queens costs, we pay $42 for a marked Saskatraz queen.
It gets expensive, which is why we were so delightedNewBees raised a queen. (That would be the one who has disappeared. Sigh.)
I’m sure part of the problem is we’re not the best at locating our royalty. The only solution for that is keeping on trying.
So, here’s where I admit I know nothing.
Before we put in new queens, we decided to check the hives one nlast time just to verify they weren’t “queen right” (when a hive has a laying queen and all is copacetic), even though we were pretty sure they were queenless (“queen wrong”?).
Buzzers had nothing, and we’re quite sure there’s no queen. She was marked – therefore easier to spot.
NewBees had nothing either. No new brood, no larvae, no eggs, therefore no queen, despite having all of the above a few weeks ago.
FreeBees was a different story. Not only was there now capped brood, there was also larvae.
After thinking about what might explain the no brood, then brood situation in that hive, I’ve come up with a possible scenario.
FreeBees was full of queen cells when we split it. We took out all but one, which we put in NewBees. Then we went to France. When we returned, NewBees was in great shape, but FreeBees was without a queen.
Or so we thought.
I think FreeBees had a queen, but she was a new queen who hadn’t mated yet, or maybe just hadn’t started laying because I think they swarmed while we were gone, leaving behind the new unmated queen. (When bees swarm, the old queen goes with the swarm).
Hence, the temporary lack of new bees.
That’s my theory.
But what do I know?
Today, we introduced the new queens into NewBees and Buzzers, so it’s possible we may end up with three full hives, which wasn’t our plan.
Queenless or queen right, all three hives are still growing heavy with honey, especially FreeBees.
In fact, next week, we’ll be pulling some full deep frames to store for them and replacing them with empties so they don’t get too crowded.
Below are some photos of the queens in their cages with their attendants before we put them in the hive. Sorry, I couldn’t get a really clear shot.
And here are pictures of FreeBees and NewBees hanging out on their front porches due to the heat. This is called “bearding”and sometimes – when there are a lot of bees – it can look like a beard on the hive.
It’s not surprising they’d want to cool off. It’s been in the 90s today, with high humidity. Sitting on the front porch fanning seems a reasonable reaction.
We have a new hive! Okay, so technically, it’s a nuc (nucleus hive – basically a mini hive with only five frames).
It is, of course, named “NewBees.” (What else?)
The Engineer calls it the “Pink Palace,” though it’s actually lavender.
NewBees hive was created using a variation of a “walk away split,” where you take a couple of frames with eggs, larvae, and capped brood from a strong hive, add another frame of honey and pollen and two empty frames (preferably with comb on them), and make a new hive. Before closing up, you shake a frame of nurse bees in (from another frame of brood, which is then returned to the original hive). It’s called a “Walkaway split,” because you then walk away. If you’ve shaken the queen into the new hive, the old hive will create a new queen. If the queen was left in the old hive, the new hive will make one.
We hedged our bets by looking for our old queen before putting the frames into the new hive and making sure there was a nice fat queen cell on one of them. (If you’d like a more thorough explanation of splits, go here: http://www.bushfarms.com/beessplits.htm.)
If you recall, the last time we were able to check FreeBees, they had started making queen cells. For several weeks after that, the weather wasn’t conducive to opening the hives, and I was growing concerned they would swarm either right when we were leaving for our trip or while we were gone.
Thankfully, a window of good weather opened, and we were able to do the split. It was a good thing we did! There were at least ten queen cells in various stages. We chose the fattest one, and scraped off the rest before stealing brood and honey for NewBees.
They still looked crowded, so we also added another honey super. Although we weren’t sure they’d need it, we also knew we’d be gone for two weeks and unable to check.
Many beekeepers recommend relocating a split 2 miles or further from the old hive to prevent drift. But some say if you shake enough nurse bees in, the foragers you shake in will return to the original hive, but the nurse bees won’t because they haven’t yet imprinted the original hive’s location as home because they haven’t been out int the wide, wide world.
We planned to follow the “moving the new hive” plan, but time was short, so we didn’t. I’d also read you can put a board or something in front of the hive to force the bees to reorient. We did that, put on a big jar of food and left them to it.
Poor FreeBees. We also treated them with Formic Pro before we left. The timing wasn’t ideal, coming right after being split, but it needed to be done.
Buzzers were also due for a treatment, but we held off because the new queen seemed to just be settling in.
Fast forward two weeks to our return.
All three hives seem to be thriving, although the weather was once again not our friend. We had a quick look inside NewBees. Saw lots of bees, but no brood or eggs. When I rechecked our resources, I discovered we should not have checked until four weeks. It had been only two.
No wonder they were a little crabby.
A swift look under the hood of Buzzers showed the new queen has found her mojo. Lots of brood, lots of bees in both Buzzers and FreeBees, so we don’t think FreeBees swarmed.
Lots of pollen and nectar coming into all three hives, though you won’t notice much activity in this picture. It’s just to show you what the hives look like right now. Buzzers on the left has the standard two deep boxes and a super. The super has been being used to feed them while we nurse it to full health, but is now empty because we finally managed to treat them (also with Formic Pro). The directions recommend putting on an empty box – something to do with better air flow and less bees dying off.
FreeBees has two deeps and two honey supers with frames for honey. If you look very closely, you can see the metal queen excluder between the deep boxes and the supers.
We also treated NewBees, but they got Oxalic Acid. Oxalic Acid works only on the mites that are phoretic (on the bees). It doesn’t penetrate the capped brood. But NewBees had no capped brood because of the break in the laying cycle as they raise a new queen.
After the treatment, we were standing around watching the NewBees hive (yes, beekeepers actually do this). The Engineer noticed a large, long, fat bee land at the entrance and pointed her out.
Dear readers, we think we actually saw the queen returning from a mating flight!
This leaves us feeling cautiously optimistic about our three hives, although we won’t be able to check either NewBees or Buzzers’ Roost for another couple of weeks. Buzzers have to be left alone while their treatment works, and NewBees need to settle in, hopefully with a new queen. But I hope we’ll have a chance to take a good look at FreeBees in the meantime.
I’ll update you if we do.
Meanwhile here are some photos and a video of bees, and a wasp in France. I took them after a delightful lunch of canard (duck) with mashed potatoes in a cafe in Pompadour. We were supposed to visit Pompadour Chateau, but it was closed, so instead I took pictures of bees. I’m sure the people in the cafe thought we were crazy. I loved this orange bumblebee, with its white bottom, similar to the yellow one in the video below. (We also saw the white-bottomed, yellow ones in England.)