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Ross’s Bee Journal, #2:
Building Comb; Ready for the Swarm

June 7, 2005

It’s been a little more than seven weeks since we hived the bees. (Sorry I haven’t written sooner; it’s been a busy spring.) We left them alone for the first two weeks so they could get some comb built on the frames, and build up their strength.

We still had some rather cold nights here in April, down in the 30s a few times — we even had frost. We worried about the bees, since they had come from California and perhaps were unaccustomed to cold weather. One day during those first two weeks I pressed my ear against the hive and could hear them buzzing inside.

After two weeks we fed them more sugar syrup, but didn’t pull out any frames. We just peered down in between them and could see that they had built comb on a few. They hadn’t done much with the pollen patties I made them. I guess there was enough natural pollen available. That or they just didn’t like my cookin’.

Two more weeks and one more bee class later, it’s time to open up and inspect the hive; see how much the workers have accomplished. I should point out here (since one of you brought it up) that the workers are all female. They are by far the largest number in any colony. There is only one queen, specially raised by the workers from a regular fertilized egg; an egg that would normally develop into a worker if not for the special treatment.

The drones are the males and they do nothing, absolutely nothing in the hive except eat and take up space. There should only be a few drones (an excess of drones can mean the queen is dead; more on that later). Some day they may be lucky enough to mate with a queen from another colony, but when they do it will be their last act.

A virgin queen, in her one and only mating flight, will mate with ten or twelve drones. Each mated drone leaves a piece of his anatomy in the queen, and soon dies. She stores the sperm inside herself and fertilizes the eggs as needed. Strangely, fertilized eggs will always be female and unfertilized eggs will be male. There are many interesting ramifications from this odd arrangement, but I fear I have digressed too much already. Remind me to go into excruciating detail on this at another time (for those of you who love the "minutiae").

We fill the smoker with pine cones and dried evergreen boughs and get it burning, then we pump some smoke into the hive. It’s our first time using the thing and it takes several relightings before we get it going well. We pull off the outer and inner covers and start to pull frames and inspect them. (We’ve just done this the day before in our bee class and in two cases the queen was easily spotted.) After pulling the few frames with comb (about half of the nine) we have not seen the queen. We expected her to be rather apparent, since she was almost all black and most of the bees are yellow-gold.

Another digression: you may recall our equivocating from the last issue about whether our bees are Carniolan (as we were told) or Italian (as they appear). We found out that the queen is the determiner and that races may be mixed initially. Since our queen is black she probably is Carniolan, but was hived with a bunch of Italians. The second time we inspect the hive we see many more dark bees — offspring of our queen — which more or less confirms this supposition. Anyway, not going to worry about it further.

So, we haven’t seen the queen, but there are capped brood (pupating bees) and larvae (the phase between egg and pupa) so we know the queen is alive and active. I start to replace the frames, shuffling them slightly to encourage more comb building. You move the frames with comb away from the center and intersperse them with undrawn (combless) frames. Bees can get lazy and not continue moving out from the center of the hive as they build comb, so they need a little push. They won’t like the undrawn frames in between the ones with drawn comb, so they’ll build comb on them.

And before I get another reproach for using the adjective "lazy," allow me to mention a study that determined that worker bees spend a surprising amount of time doing not much of anything but milling about (perhaps as much as 60% of their time). They deserve a break.

I’m nervous as I replace the frames; it’s a tighter fit now with drawn comb on some, and those are covered with bees, sometimes two bees deep. Modern hives are designed to honor "bee space," which is the width of one bee. Bees don’t like a lot of room around themselves, so they’ll build comb everywhere they can, leaving only enough space for a bee to pass between. When they build comb in places other than on the frames (in other words, where you don’t want it) it’s called "burr" comb. They’ll do this to fill up space. Beekeepers are always scraping this stuff off (and the smart ones save it for foundation or candle making).

I said I was nervous; it’s been stressed many times in our bee classes that the primary cause of a failed colony is beekeeper error. The most grievous error a beekeeper can make is to kill the queen. I don’t know where the queen is, yet I’m putting frames in and pushing them together. In our class, when the frame with the queen on it is found, it is placed on a frame rest on the outside of the hive (rather than laid on the ground), and when it’s time to put the frames back in the hive, that frame is carefully placed in, with the queen side protected against another frame so that as the rest of the frames are dropped in there’s less chance of harming the queen.

We close up the hive and go inside. Later that evening we get a call from the guy who farms the land just west of us; they plan to spray tomorrow and have called to warn us so we can try to keep the bees in the hive. Herbicides (and of course, pesticides) are not good for bees. Janice met this farmer a few weeks earlier when he was planting and asked him to call us anytime they planned to spray. They’ve been very good about giving us a day’s notice each time.

We cover the whole hive with a canvas tarp. Some field bees are late returning to the hive and the tarp confuses them. Eventually they figure out how to get back into the hive. A call to Jeff, our bee teacher, confirms that they will find their way in. I wonder aloud what’s the use of covering the hive if the bees can still get in and out anyway. He doesn’t really have an answer, but recommends we leave the tarp on overnight and not remove it in the morning until the dew is off the grass. He also advises us to add the second hive body (with more empty frames) right away rather than wait until all the frames in the hive have drawn comb on them.

May-June is swarm season, and bees will swarm if they feel crowded. Carniolans are more likely to swarm, so I add the second hive body the next day. Swarming is the process a colony naturally undergoes when it has grown too large for its hive. I’ll suppress the urge to tell you everything I’ve learned so far about swarming, and save it for the next issue.

Briefly stated, the colony will raise a new queen and before she hatches, the old queen will leave with half the workers to find new quarters. After they leave the hive, they’ll form a big cluster on a branch nearby, with the queen protected in the center of the cluster. Meanwhile, scout bees will look for a suitable habitat and when one is found (and properly voted on) the whole group will move into it.

Swarming is not something beekeepers want their bees to do. As I said, it’s a natural tendency so it must be worked around or accommodated in some way. One way is to keep adding hive sections so the bees have plenty of room. But eventually this will fail for reasons I’ll explain in the next issue. When the colony is just too big, it’s time to split the hive, taking half the bees (sans queen) and putting them in a new hive where a new queen will be introduced.

We, on the other hand, are hoping for a swarm. There’s a mature hackberry tree behind the house with a very active colony of honey bees in it. They look like Italians. We first noticed them last August when they (in retrospect) must have been preparing to swarm. As we walked past the tree on a hot August weekend we heard what sounded like a very large electric fan running. Looking up, we saw a big cloud of bees buzzing wildly around just outside of a three-inch hole about fifteen feet up the tree. The cloud was a good four feet in diameter.

We have watched that tree colony with interest ever since. We mentioned it at the first bee class we attended back in January and the veteran beekeepers got very excited. A feral (wild) colony that survives a few seasons can prove to have mite-resistant bees. (More about mites another time.) They suggested we try to catch the swarm this colony will be likely to produce, and hive it as our own. And so we’ve planned.

I ordered another hive body and honey super (plus frames) a couple weeks ago. Everything arrived a few days later and I put together the parts. We were given ten plastic frames by a beekeeper in our class who didn’t need them anymore and thought we could use them for a swarm trap.

We put this extra hive body with frames up on a stack of picnic table benches on top of the picnic table on the back patio. (Swarm traps should be up high.) Stapled inside the lid is a swarm lure. This small plastic vial gives off a pheromone that will help to attract the bees. If we’re lucky, an early scout will discover this ready-made home and lobby for it when the swarm occurs. (Yes, that’s right, bees vote — sort of.)

The Tuesday after Memorial Day we inspected our hive again, this time a little better equipped with a frame rest on which to hang the frames with drawn comb. Had better luck with the smoker, too. We found that the bees had still not finished drawing comb on all of the frames in the bottom box, but had drawn comb on a couple frames in the top box. We put all of the drawn frames in the bottom box and moved the feeder to the top box with the undrawn frames. Bees will move up and to the center, so that’s where we want them building comb.

Still did not see the queen. More drones were evident, but not so many as to make us think the queen was dead. Plus, there were more larvae that could only have hatched from eggs laid since our first inspection fifteen days earlier. Eggs hatch in three days, and larvae take another six days to grow to the pupa stage. Nine days after a worker egg is laid, the cell is capped and remains so for twelve days of pupation. Twenty-one days after a worker egg is laid, the new worker bee emerges from its cell.

So why does an abundance of drones indicate a dead queen? Remember that workers are all females. They have ovaries and can produce eggs like queens do, but they have never mated so their eggs will all be unfertilized. When a colony has an active queen she gives off several pheromones, one of which suppress the workers’ ovaries from producing eggs. When the queen dies, that pheromone is no long present and some workers will begin laying eggs. Since their eggs are unfertilized only drones will result.

This may seem like a tragic mistake of nature, but really it’s a very clever way for a doomed colony to pass on its genetic material. Lots of drones means more chances for a successful mating with a queen from another colony. The queenless colony will eventually die, since workers only live about six weeks during the summer. No queen means no more workers; only fertilized eggs become workers.

And here’s a brain twister to ponder: since drones hatch only from unfertilized eggs, they have grandfathers but no fathers, and produce grandsons but no sons.

This Sunday is another monthly bee class. We’ll learn how to take honey off the hive. We’re hoping for a good nectar flow soon. Already the bees have helped with pollinating; the strawberries had abundant blossoms this spring which are all forming berries now. In a couple more weeks, it will be fresh smoothies for breakfast!

Ross Thompson

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