Wednesday, April 9, 2014

April Bees

I mentioned the other day that we recently did a hive inspection of our three top bar honeybee hives.  We had thought that all three colonies survived the winter because there was consistent activity coming and going from all three hives on warm days.  We were thrilled!  We knew that we needed to get inside the hives, though, and really check on them for a few reasons.

1) We wanted to make sure each colony had a queen.  If we couldn't spot the queen, we at least wanted to see eggs.  This would tell us that a queen was alive three days prior which is a very good sign.

2) We wanted to see the brood nest growing.  Usually, the ratio of eggs to larva to capped brood (from which adult bees emerge) falls around the 1:2:4 ratio.  If there are more eggs and larva than there should be in this ratio, you know the queen is increasing her laying and building up the hive (this should happen in the spring).  If there are less, you know she might be having trouble.

3) We wanted to check on their food stores.  While plants are blooming now, there can be lapses of no nectar or pollen in the spring so they need back up reserves.

It was 70+ degrees and partly cloudy with no wind- a good inspection day.  Earlier this spring when we just looked in the backs of the hives, I wore my nifty hand-me-down bee veil for the first time.  It fit fine and I appreciated the protection but I couldn't see through the veil well enough to take good pictures.  Between the veil and the glare of the sun on the camera screen, I was just guessing as to what I was taking pictures of. So this time, I left the veil in the house.

 Busy honeybees.  In the top of the photo you can see capped brood.  In the center and lower left you can see lots of pollen- a very important ingredient in what the nurse bees feed the eggs and larva. Pollen stores are crucial this time of year since the queen is increasing her laying.

We opened up the first hive after smoking it and started pulling out the bars.  Everything looked great.  There were lots of bees, they had several full bars of capped honey in the back, we saw lots of brood (including eggs), and could tell that the queen was building up the hive.

Lovely brood nest comb- capped brood in the center surrounded with pollen, nectar and capped honey (seen at the top).

All of a sudden, SMACK.  A bee shot out of the hive I was leaning over and collided with my chin.  The force of the contact surprised me almost more than the sting.  This was the first time any of our bees had stung me.  Last year I never wore a veil and got just as close as Jamey (who does wear a beekeeper jacket and veil) and I went the whole year without a sting.

I walked away quickly, with the bee (or another) buzzing around my head until it left me.  I asked Jamey to hurry and come over to remove the stinger- I could feel it pulsing more venom into my face- and to smoke my face to cover the pheromone that alerts other bees that I am sting-worthy.  He pulled out the stinger and I went back to watching- this time from a distance.  More on the sting in a minute.

So the first hive looked great.  The third hive looked great.  The second was a sad sight.

As we moved through the bars from the back to the front what struck us was 1) there were little to no bees, 2) there was little to no honey stores, and 3) the empty honey combs appeared to be chewed open in a hurry versus carefully and cleanly uncapped as normal.

When we moved into the area where the nest should be, we saw it- evidence that the colony had died. There was an obvious circle of dead bees on two combs that were facing each other and a pile of dead bees underneath.  This was what was left of the winter cluster.

Dead bees still in cluster form with more dead bees below.  Also on the bottom was chewed up wax caps that had been chewed off the capped honey.  There was no one left to clean up.

At some point during the winter, the colony dwindled and died.  The activity that we saw flying in and out were other bees stealing that colony's honey.  When they rob, they don't care about uncapping the honey neatly (and no one cleans it up and repairs it).  The reason they didn't appear like they were in a robbing frenzy (I'm guessing here) is because there was no one guarding the hive.  They just walked right in and flew right out, laden with honey.

Chewed open honey stores and some remaining capped honey.

Since we think it's our other colonies taking the honey, we decided to let them finish it off then we'll have to find a way to safely store the combs until they can be used again by the surviving two colonies or a split.  We did, however, take the bar seen above inside for us to eat.

Rusty at Honey Bee Suite introduced us to comb honey- cut sections of honey-filled comb to be eaten comb and honey together.  I always thought that the only way to do this left you with a wad of wax in your mouth that had to be spat out.  Rusty explained that the best was to eat it is to spread it on hot, toasted bread, like you would butter.  The wax melts and soaks into the bread a bit and when you bite and chew the bread, you don't even know the wax is there.  All you taste is freshly uncapped, flavorful HONEY.  Your body doesn't digest the wax, so it just goes out the other end, unbeknownst to you.

We had some for dessert that night and it was heavenly.  Next time, I need to plan ahead and have some fresh baked rolls coming out of the oven to spread it on.

Back to my sting.  It's been awhile since I've been stung by a bee but I wasn't worried that I was allergic in a dangerous-sort-of-way.  I didn't swell up hardly at all, but Lord have mercy did that stupid sting itch!!  It itched for 3 and a half days.  And if I itched it or even touched it the itch factor skyrocketed.  I used anti-itch cream which worked really well but I'm thinking twice about my veil next time I head out to the bees.

All and all, we're really pleased that it appears that two of our hives will survive the winter and spring.  We're hopeful that we will be able to take excess honey from them this summer and are excited to make splits to increase the number of colonies we have.  We're thankful that last summer our two starter-colonies turned into three.  If not, we might be down to only one.

I highly suspect that this beekeeping hobby will never, ever get boring.  I could do without the sting-excitement itch, though :-). Pin It


  1. You take the best hive pictures! Congratulations on having 66.66% of your colonies survive the winter; that's pretty good for a first year. We have already had our strong hive swarm but seem to still have a good colony. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love reading your bee posts. It's on my list of things to do so I like to soak up as much info as I can before diving in. You could probably just put peppermint oil or lavender oil on your stings to get rid of the itch. We use that on mosquito bites in the summer. Peppermint works quicker I think. Plantain weed/salve is THE best! I put lavender oil right in mine. The plantain will take care of it all by itself though if you don't want to make the salve. It grows wild everywhere! And I make my salve with beeswax!! Which you have plenty of!!:)


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