A Season of Increase

It’s been a busy spring for me and finding the time to do a blog post just hasn’t happened,   but here’s an update on my beekeeping adventures this year.  A bit long winded, but I hope you enjoy it.

I went into the winter with 6 1/2 hives (1/2 was the small 5 frame observation hive) and came out with 3 still alive.  Even though I insulated all the hives with foam insulation, some perished during the excessive cold snaps we had this past winter.  The observation hive didn’t have enough bees to last through the winter (and I didn’t expect it to, but I was experimenting), Sarah’s hive died for unknown reasons (probably during one of the cold snaps), Laura’s hive froze from moisture buildup and BnB2 probably died from a mite infestation.  That left BnB1, Hello Kitty (Duncan’s hive) and the Left Hand (Langstroth) Hive.  I had hoped to come out of the winter with 4 or 5 hives and build up to 10 this year, but that wasn’t in the cards.

In the chapter of the same name as my new favorite beekeeping book, A Song of Increase, Jacqueline Freeman tells the story of how the bees gear up in the spring after the winter decrease.  The queen starts laying vigorously in the spring and as the population increases, the hive gets crowded and they think about swarming.  The queen is coaxed into laying eggs that the maidens (workers) will raise as new queens and when the time is right, the old queen will swarm with half the bees to find a new home.  The excitement of this process in the hive is palpable.  According to Freeman, the flight of the queen into the sunshine renews her fertility after living in the darkness of the hive all the time.  This is how bee colonies increase in nature, year after year after year.

In the beekeeper’s world, swarming can mean a loss of bees if you don’t catch your own swarms.  Most beekeepers go to great lengths to keep their bees from swarming for this reason.  One way is to split the hives into two or more hives – effectively trying to imitate the hive division that naturally occurs.  Even though I was starting off with fewer hives than I wanted, I figured between splits and catching swarms, I could build back up the number of hives that I cared for.  But the best laid plans of the beekeeper are subject to the whims of nature.

In the past, when I’ve split hives, I move the old queen and some of the bees to a new hive and let the old hive raise new queens.  This year, I decided to leave the old queens in their hives and let the bees in the new hive raise queens.  Ideally, you’d move some frames with queen cells to the new hive since those contain potential queens that the bees raised for that purpose.   But none of my hives had queen cells so I figured I’d see if they would raise emergency queens from the eggs and larva that I moved to the new hive.

BnB1/BnB2

By my reckoning, the queen in BnB1 is 4 years old which these days is old for a queen.  She originally came with a package I bought 4 years ago.  Since I don’t mark my queens, I can’t tell for sure that it’s the same queen, but I’ve never seen this colony try to raise a new queen.  One trait of this queen is that she is slow to start laying each year.  I keep thinking it’s a weak hive and worry that it won’t make it, but at least for the past 2 years, once she starts going, the colony builds up strongly.   Even though the colony wasn’t as robust as I would have liked in late April, I decided to split some eggs and brood over to a small nucleus hive.  I really wanted to propagate her genetics since her offspring are good honey producers.  The bees went about their business of raising a new queen, she hatched, got mated and started laying eggs.  I moved the nuc into BnB2 and I gave them some more capped brood from BnB1 so they would have new bees until this queen’s eggs would hatch, but apparently they didn’t like the queen they made and started making more queen cells from her eggs and the new frame I put in.  And I couldn’t find the queen anywhere.  Now I had to wait for a new queen to hatch, get mated and start laying.   But either she didn’t make it back from a mating flight, or something else happened, because there were no eggs/brood.  I finally had to buy a new queen last week and now I’m waiting to see if she will take.  If not, I’ll probably move these bees back to BnB1.

Hello Kitty/Sarah’s Hive/Nuc/Hive to be named later

Of all the hives coming out of winter, Duncan’s hive (Hello Kitty) was the strongest.  They had lots of bees and brood and were filling up the hive nicely. 

Duncan inspecting his hive

Lots of bees in Duncan’s hive!

I decided to make a split to Sarah’s hive since it’s the same shape as Duncan’s.  So, I moved some brood and eggs over to Sarah’s hive and waited a week to see if they made some queen cells.  Duncan and I checked and they did.

Queen cells in Sarah’s hive

Since they had so many queen cells and Duncan’s hive was overflowing with bees, I decided to take a frame with a couple of queen cells and merge it with some bees from Duncan’s hive and create another split.  I needed a split to give to someone who let me take over her bee yard.  Originally, I was going to give her the split from BnB1, but since it was having problems, I needed a backup plan.

Then I had to wait for the new queens to hatch, get mated and start laying.  Ideally, this is all done by the beginning of May, but now it was getting into late May.  I checked the nuc and that queen seemed to be okay.  But when I checked Sarah’s hive, the queen cells were open (meaning the queens hatched), but there was no sign of eggs.  Sometimes it takes a little while for a queen to start laying after mating, to I tried to be patient.  I went back a week later and still no eggs, so now I had some decisions to make.

I checked Duncan’s hive and found that there didn’t seem to be a queen there either and they had 10 queen cells!  I think either I accidentally killed the queen on a previous inspection, or that they swarmed and I didn’t see it.  In any case, I now had too many queen cells for that hive, so I decided to move some of the queen cells to Sarah’s hive, and take some queen cells from Duncan’s hive and some brood from BnB1 and start hive in the new bee yard (the hive to be named later).

As I was moving the queen cells into Sarah’s hive, I noticed that one was open on the end indicating that the queen had hatched.  It was curious that I didn’t notice that before.  I put the frame and the bees in the hive and when I looked in the nuc that I used for transport, there was a virgin queen running around – she had hatched in transit!  I quickly dumped her into Sarah’s hive and closed it up.  Again, it was time to wait for hatching and mating of these queens.  A couple of weeks later, both hives had eggs and a week later, Sarah’s had some capped brood.  Duncan’s hive was still questionable – it seemed like a queen was mated and laying, but then there were signs that she was gone.   Duncan and I checked this past weekend and my fears were allayed – there were capped brood and eggs.

Left Hand Hive

For the first time, the Left Hand hive survived the winter.  I’m not sure if the insulation helped, or the fact that this was a swarm from last year.  In any case, they were building up nicely, until the surrounding fields got planted with corn – most likely treated with pesticides.  I went into the hive one day to look at them and there were lots of dead bees on the bottom board and more painfully dying there.  This is the world of “modern” agriculture – coat each seed with enough poison to kill 80,000 bees to keep the “bad” insects off the plants.  The problem is that the coating doesn’t stay on the seed, but drifts into neighboring areas to kill the good insects.  Just when I thought this hive was going to rock and I could do a split, they got hit with poison.  At that point, I wasn’t sure they were going to make it, but they are still alive, the queen is laying well and the population is rebounding.  This is the hive that I use to fill the observation hive for the Eldo kids camp for now.  But they don’t seem to like me these days, so I’m probably going to have to figure out a way to set up the observation hive as a stand alone hive.  Less stress for all of us.

Eldo Hive

One of the new hives that I’m tending this year is down at the Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram, along with my fellow beekeeper, Karvari.  I decided not to rely on swarms and splits to populate this hive (good thing as you’ll see later), but bought a package of bees just to make sure.   Since Eldo is in bear habitat, we had to construct a bear fence around the hive, but that wasn’t ready when the package arrived.  So, we loaded the package into the hive in my backyard until we could move it to Eldo later on.

Package of bees for Eldo hive

Package of bees for Eldo hive

Karvari and the queen!

On Memorial Day weekend, I loaded the Eldo hive and the nuc into the car and took them to their new homes.

Eldo hive and nucs in the bee yard

Eldo hive and nucs in the bee yard

Eldo Hive and Nuc loaded in the car

Eldo Hive and one nuc loaded in the car

Swarms

Last year I caught 3 swarms which made me hopeful for increasing my colonies this year.  I loaded up the truck with swarm catching equipment – boxes, ladders, nucs, extension poles and protective gear.  I signed up for the BCBA swarm hotline and let my bees and trees friend know that I was ready to help out.   But for all that, I got nothing on my own.  Out of 3 potential swarms, 2 left before I got there and one wasn’t even a swarm.  The one call I got from the BCBA was 20 feet up in the air – too high for my ladder.  Finally, my friend called and said that one of her hives had swarmed and that they had collected it and it was mine if I wanted it.  I said, “Yes, definitely!” and grabbed that and put it in Laura’s hive.   It was a huge swarm and so far, they seem to be doing well.

The first day I was doing presentations on bees down at the Eldorado Yoga Kids Camp, my friend Lucia texted me that there was a swarm back at work.  I was bummed that I was going to miss it, but teaching kids about bees took precedent.  When I got to work the next day, Lucia and I went to see where the spot that they were at and they were still there!  So, I got my swarm catching gear from my truck, hopped the irrigation ditch and went to see if I could coax them into the box.  They were hanging on the side of a willow tree. 

Bees on the tree - not a swarm

Bees on the tree – not a swarm

After watching them for a while, I thought maybe it wasn’t a swarm but rather they were living in the tree.  But I couldn’t see the entrance hole, so I decided to blow on them to move them a bit.  I do that frequently when I’m looking for the queen on a crowded comb.  Well, that was a mistake, especially since I didn’t have my veil on.  The guard bees came after me – a sting to the lip, 2 to the top of my head and 2 to my back!   I had to walk/run around the irrigation ditch because jumping it was out of the question.  By the time I got into the building and to the bathroom to see the stinger in my lip, I was starting to have a bit of a reaction.  Luckily we have a nurse on site so I got some Benadryl from her which lessened the reaction.   So, it turned out not to be a swarm and they are living in that tree.  However, they are constantly bearding on the outside, so I think they must be crowded inside.

Note to self – don’t blow on the bees without a veil

So now I have 8 colonies to tend.  It wasn’t the smoothest season of increase, but I learned a few things.  Since some of them are getting a late start, I might not get much honey this year, but that’s fine.  I want them to make enough to make it through the winter, but  I’m sure there will be a few extra frames for me as well.  Next year, I’ll time my splits better and move the old queens to new hives, and hope that I have more luck with swarms.  And I won’t blow on bees without a veil.

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3 Responses to A Season of Increase

  1. Julie says:

    Sounds like you have your hands full of bees! Fantastic!

    Love seeing Duncan growing up into a proper beek. He’s got some beautiful queen cells in his hive, too.

    Your story about blowing on bees without a veil cracked me up. Yep, that’s one-trial conditioning. LOL! However, that’s a really impressive beard on that tree. How cool is that?!

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