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Ross’s Bee Journal, #7: Another Bee Season Ends

October 22, 2006

I’m listening to “The Very Best of Tower of Power,” freshly downloaded from the iTunes store, wondering what happened to my summer. Temps have been in the mid-50s most of the past week, with nights dipping as low as mid-30s. We even had a brief snowfall ten days ago. It didn’t stick. The snow fell as tiny pellets, light and fluffy. It looked like a styrofoam factory had sprung a leak.

I’ve been worrying about the bees — do they have enough food to get through the winter? If not, it’s our fault. We’re the ones robbing them of the honey they store for just that purpose. If we take too much...

But let me back up, since it’s been so long between journal entries. Last time I wrote we were flushed with excitement at having caught a swarm. Not just any swarm; these were feral bees that live in a very large, old wild cherry tree. Bees that had survived at least the two winters we have had this farm, perhaps more. We wanted their genes.

I’m sorry to say that this swarm colony did not take. We checked on them after a few days and not much was going on. While the other three colonies all had a steady stream of field bees coming and going, the bees in #4 were just milling around. If we were more experienced beekeepers we would have known that they were queenless. When we next inspect this hive, on summer solstice, we confirm this suspicion and realize we have a laying worker, as there is capped drone brood.

You may recall that, in the absence of a queen, a worker bee may start laying eggs. Nature’s way of preserving the gene line. The drones a worker produces are genetically the same as those produced by a mated queen, hatching as they do in both cases from unfertilized eggs. Here’s an interesting factoid we recently learned: sometimes a fertilized egg will produce a drone.

I told you in an earlier journal that fertilized eggs always result in female bees (workers) while unfertilized eggs result in males (drones). Bees are haploid-diploid, meaning that they can be born with a full set of chromosomes (diploid) resulting from normal sperm and egg combination, or born with half the number of chromosomes (haploid), those from the egg alone. Common knowledge is that diploid bees are all female and haploid bees are male, but apparently there is such a thing as a diploid drone; a male bee from a fertilized egg. This is only observed in a lab, however. In nature, worker bees detect the abnormality and destroy the larva before it can develop.

We decided to ignore the swarm colony until we could figure out what to do. Should we try to introduce a queen? Is it too late in the season for the colony to build up enough bees and store enough food to get through the winter? We dunno. Oh, and what happened to the queen from the swarm? Dunno that either. Maybe we didn’t get her, maybe we killed her in the transfer. Maybe the bees didn’t like the box we gave them and left right away to find another tree hole like the one they left. If the latter, then the bees we have been observing in #4 are likely our own bees from the three adjacent hives, coming in to steal back the honey we stole from them to get the swarm colony started.

It’s early July by now and the three package hives are filling up their supers with nectar. We add a comb super to #2, since they seem to be good wax builders. Still don’t know what to do with #4. Now it looks like they have a queen cell almost finished, and is that a larva in it? Where would they have gotten a fertile egg from which to raise a queen? Now I begin to wonder if bees are enterprising enough to steal a fertile egg from another colony.

That may sound patently ridiculous, but consider this documented behavior of African honey bees, as related in “Following the Bloom,” a book I’ve mentioned before about migratory beekeepers. African bees sometimes parasitize another colony in a practice called commando swarming. A unit of 200 workers and a queen (enough to fill a teacup) will land on the side of the target colony. After dark, some workers enter the hive and kill the resident queen. Then they wait until the colony realizes it is queenless. With instinctive intelligence, they move in with their own queen at just the right moment, when the colony is ready to accept a new queen. Once the commando queen has been laying eggs for a few weeks, the population of the colony begins to change. This is one way in which a colony of European honey bees can become Africanized. Freaky, huh?

The next time we go into the hives, 15 days later, some honey supers are nearly full and bees have started capping. Soon we will do the first extraction of the season. But just now, we are going to try a method of mite control that exploits natural behaviors of both mite and honey bee. In a wild hive, bees will maintain about 20 percent of their brood comb for drone production. This is a much higher ratio of drones than beekeepers prefer (two of ten frames in a brood box), unless they’re breeding for certain genetic traits and want large numbers of drones for mating.

Drones take the longest to develop in a comb cell — 24 days (compared to 21 for workers, 16 for queens). Varroa mites want to stay in a cell, feeding on the larva and reproducing, for as long as possible. So they naturally prefer drone larva. (Don’t ask me how mites know drones take longer to develop; they’re already weird enough with the brother-sister mating thing.)

The natural mite control method that takes advantage of these tendencies is simply to give both the bees and the mites what they want: drone cells. You give them a frame with foundation that is embossed with the slightly larger honeycomb pattern that encourages the workers to build drone cells. The bees give you a full frame of drone comb that the mites flock to once the eggs have hatched and the larvae begin to grow. After 20 days you remove the drone frame, now capped and, one hopes, filled with reproducing mites, and you put it in the freezer overnight. This kills the drone larvae and the mites, too. Put it back in the hive and the workers just shrug, clean out the dead larvae, and spit-shine the cells to make them ready for another cycle of egg laying. It works well as long as you attend to it at the proper intervals. You don’t want those drones to hatch, and emerge with thousands of new mites.

To make room for the drone frames we must remove a frame from each colony. We’ve just been to the annual Stateline Beekeepers Association picnic (which is also a regular meeting, because a group of beekeepers can’t get together without talking about bees) where our president, Phil, mentions his practice of regularly stealing a frame of brood from each hive to form new colonies. At the height of brood production in mid-summer the loss of a frame of brood is easily tolerated by a healthy colony. Phil allows the colonies thus created to raise their own queens (must be sure there are some eggs on the frame that can be turned into queens). It’s called a “walkaway split,” a lazy beekeeper’s way to increase colonies.

We decide to try it, since we have a fourth colony set up in the apiary with nothing productive going on in it (no sign of the previously noted queen cell). We take a spare brood box to the apiary, into which we will place 9 frames — 3 from each of our package colonies. For balance, we remove from each colony one frame of capped brood (these will soon hatch into workers), one frame of uncapped larvae and eggs, and one frame of honey. We’re lucky to find some fairly complete queen cells on one of the frames. This brood box, topped with the two supers in which we had tried to install the swarm, becomes our new #4.

We put our only bee escape on one of the hives as well. A few days later, we take off the escaped super, then take one super off of each of the other two colonies one frame at a time, brushing the bees off of each frame. This method works well and we decide to do it this way from now on. We use the bee escape upside down on top of our stash of brushed frames so any stragglers trapped in our takeaway super can get out before we leave the apiary. These three supers yield around 98 pounds of honey.

A week later we take three more supers off and get 109 pounds from them. These two extractions give the bees enough room to work that we don’t bother them for three weeks. Middle of August we escape the comb super (because the frames formed by the comb packages seem too wobbly to pry out and brush bees off in the field), then we look in #4. There are good patterns of eggs and larvae. They have a mated queen! Outstanding. They raised their own queen, her mating flight was successful, and now the colony is building up its numbers. We can’t expect any honey from them this season, it will be all they can do to get enough for their own use. But we’ve just expanded our apiary by 25 percent at no cost (save the used hive bodies and some frames).

At the end of August we take 4 supers off and store them in the basement for later extraction. Hive #4 is still raising bees, but they have very little honey. We’ll have to feed them heavily if they are to get through the winter.

The comb production was somewhat disappointing. Looking down into the super in the field we could see drawn comb in both sides of the middle 6 frames, and on the inside (toward the center) sides of the outer 2 frames (only 8 frames in this kit). All look like they’re full of honey. But the reality, once we start to pull the frames out and cut each one into the 16 four-ounce comb packages a frame yields, is that only about half of the total count are fully capped and saleable. Many are not completely filled with honey, or are filled but not capped. It was not a bad first attempt, but we’re going to try a different comb system next year. There’s a very popular kit that produces 8-ounce round comb packages. The brand name just happens to be “Ross Rounds.” How can we lose?

Each time we go into the hives now we dust the bees with powdered sugar. This is another natural mite control method. The bees groom themselves and each other to remove the sugar (and get a sweet treat). The grooming knocks mites off. And the powder interferes with the ability of the mite’s footpads to cling to the bee, so more mites fall off, down through the hive, through the screened bottom and onto the ground. Without the screened bottom board, mites could wait around on a solid wood platform until a bee walks by, jump on and get a free ride back up to the brood comb. Our sugar roll test in early September shows few mites. We count at most 5 or 6. Last year our test turned up more than 22.

By mid-September we have removed the remaining supers, many of which are only partially filled with honey. Our final extraction of the season is 145 pounds from seven supers. I order top mount feeders for all 4 hives so we can feed the bees syrup. All but #1 feel too light. We’ve learned how to gauge the readiness of a colony for winter by its weight. Using the hive tool as a lever, you try to lift the hive slightly from the back, feeling the weight of it. At the September bee workshop Jeff had a two-box colony rigged up with bags of sugar to simulate the proper weight of a hive with adequate stores of honey for winter survival. We each gave it a lift and tried to embed the feel of it in our muscle memory.

So here we are in October. We’ve fed the bees around 12 gallons of syrup by now, plus all of the honey-soaked wax cappings that we cut from the frames of honey during extraction. The hives are starting to feel like they’re heavy enough, but we’ll feed them again if we get a warm enough day. I wrapped the sides and backs of each hive with half-inch thick foam insulation, and inserted a slab under the top cover to help them retain heat. We’ll leave the top feeder boxes on all winter. They make it easy to feed the bees now without having to open the hive completely. It will also be easy to feed them in the spring. We’ll give them a lighter sugar syrup to stimulate brood production when it’s time to start building up the colonies again.

I think next year we’ll be sure all of the supers are off by the first week of September. That will force the bees to store the fall nectar in the brood boxes they will winter in and perhaps we can feed them less, if at all. We got through the whole summer without feeding these bees anything other than the brood honey that our doomed ’05 colony didn’t use. And they have thrived. All the colonies are heavy with bees right now. Perhaps they’ll make it through and we can start next season without having to buy packaged bees.

Ross Thompson

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