Progress

The bees are kicking it into top gear. Late last week we took advantage of the sudden good weather to do an impromptu inspection. It was very nice not to have to hold an umbrella over the hive the whole time.

The first thing we noticed was that a good third of the syrup was missing – you can see a few droplets here on the inner cover, but most of it has gone into the bees and been converted into much needed energy. This means the bees have been munching away and working hard to draw their wax frames out into livable comb.

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When we lifted the inner cover, we found the bees more or less clustered around the middle few frames. Eventually they’ll work their way out into all ten and will have to be given a second box to make way for expansion. For the time being, though, population is low and momentum is going to take a while to build.

We gave them a half and half mix of new frames (like the one being lifted here) and old frames. The old frames were drawn out into cells by bees of the past, while the new frames hold virtually flat sheets of wax that these bees will have to draw out themselves.

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Here’s a nice bundle of bees on a new frame. What they’re doing is building up on the hexagonal imprint on the wax foundation we gave them to create a wall of cells in the classic honeycomb shape. Where do they get the wax? From nowhere pretty. The workers eat honey (or for many of them right now, sugar water) to give themselves energy. They then exude tiny bits of wax through glands in their sides. They (or maybe some close friends) scoop up these little bits in their mouths and chew them to warm them up to malleability. Then they spit it out and work it into the existing wax, expanding the honeycomb by a little more.

This process is repeated countless times by countless bees to make a perfect, highly uniform pattern.

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Up close you can see how the honeycomb is starting to take on a 3-D shape. The cells have gotten deep enough that some bee has decided to store a single serving of pollen. Are these bees with their heads in the cells working to build them out more or bringing in more pollen? I’m not sure.

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The old frames have a completely different look to them. For one thing, the wax has turned a dark yellow to brown from the countless bee feet that have passed over it. For another thing, the cells are already at full size, so the bees on these frames can focus on storage instead of wax making.

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Even so, they’ve been making some wax. The chunk in the top middle is a hunk of burr comb, which the bees make to fill in spaces they deem too open. What are these bees up to? The ones with their heads in the cells are most likely depositing pollen or honey for storage. The others could be doing any number of jobs. Maybe they’re talking about the hottest new nectar source.

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As usual, one of the main goals of this inspection was to find the queen and make sure she was alive and happy. When we picked up our third or fourth frame the bees got much more agitated, and sure enough it was because we’d exposed the queen. I took this picture that looks like it would have been fantastic if I’d managed to focus the camera. Just look at that sunlight seeping through! The queen, though fuzzy, is the large, light yellow bee in the center with the white dot on her back.

Try squinting – it looks almost passable.

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Since everyone was so upset about about us bothering their queen, we decided to leave them alone after this. We didn’t see eggs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. And even if they’re not, that may just mean the queen has yet to go on her mating flight. She’s had some bad weather keeping her indoors.

But now the sun’s out and spring and love are in the air, so she should be able to go out and find a dozen nice gents to kill as she sucks their semen into her body where it will be stored for several years.

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Isn’t nature beautiful?

I’ve also published this on my personal blog. Pop on over if you want to see stories about soap, mead, and my ramshackle little container garden.

Happy as a Bee

I was pretty worried about the bees.

We moved them in on a cold, wet day, and the days after just got colder and wetter. We’d planned to peek in on them on Saturday, but because of the cold we pushed it back to Sunday, which was also cold. And wet.

It was a bad week for bees all around.

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Despite the weather, we had to check on our queen. My parents were visiting, so my dad acted as photographer and my mom, to her credit, spent her Mother’s Day standing in the drizzle watching me play with bees.

I did make her brunch afterward.

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The bad weather had me worried. I’d gone down the day after installation and didn’t see a single one. Normally after moving into a new home, the workers will fly around and around the entrance orienting themselves. The temperature was in the 40s, though, when no sane bee would leave her home. It made sense not to see them, but I didn’t like that I couldn’t.

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I put my ear up against the side of the hive – I thought that if I could hear buzzing, I’d at least know they were alive in there. But I couldn’t hear a thing. I was prepared for the worst.

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But I didn’t need to be! The bees are not only alive, they’re productive! They’ve already started drawing out comb!

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The queen is alive and has been naturally released from her little cage. We spotted her crawling around on a frame.

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They haven’t taken very much of the syrup – the jar was still mostly full. We’re not overly worried, though, since we started them with a few frames of pollen and honey from last year. It makes sense that they’d want to eat that before sugar water.

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Since it was raining, we closed up shop as soon as we found the queen. One of these days it’ll be nice enough to do a real inspection. For the time being, we confirmed everything we needed to – the queen was free, she’d been accepted, and the workers were working. We put the syrup jar back in place and popped the lid on top.

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I was down just this afternoon, and the bees were flying around happily. They weathered the storm and should have a warm, sunny week ahead of them.

If you’re in the garden, stop by and say hi!

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From a safe distance, of course.

I’ve posted this on my personal blog too. Go check out my adventures outside the garden.

The Bees Are in Their Bee House

You heard it here first – the bees are hived and happy.

Early this morning the bees were in Georgia, their home state. Then they were loaded into the back of a truck and driven to Wood’s Beekeeping Supply and Academy, where we picked them up.

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Here they are! Three-thousand happy little guys. I’m just kidding – they just got shaken out of their hives to travel 2,000 miles to a cold, wet place. They’re probably far from happy.

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These six in particular must have spent the entire trip clinging to the outside of the package.

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The weather was threatening rain all day, and as luck would have it the heavens opened just as we picked our bees up. We wanted to get them in, though, so we worked very quickly. I poked some holes in the lid of my bee syrup jar. We turned it over, and after a few seconds of dripping, the vacuum seal held. The bees will be able to pull the syrup out when they want it, but it won’t just drip all over them.

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Finally it was go-time. David grabbed the bees and we booked it over to the hive.

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We set them up in our state of the art weatherproof environment.

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And we set to work. Technically I was in charge of this installation, though Kim had my back. Using the hive tool I pried open the lid of the package and pulled out the syrup can. The bees travel with a can of syrup so they stay fed on the road. That’s why they’re so clustered around the top of the package.

With the can out of the way, I could get to the queen. She travels in a much smaller mesh cage with a handful of attending bees.

IMG_4134She has to be kept separate because the bees in her package aren’t actually part of her colony. Queens are reared separately and put into these cages with a few bees who’ve grown up with and know her. But the 3,000 others are miscellaneous bees from other colonies. They’re literally shaken into the package and given a queen at random.

Bees don’t take kindly to random queens – in fact they go out of their way to kill them. That’s the reason for the separate queen cage (that, and making her easy for us to find). If she weren’t kept physically separate from the strange worker bees, she’d be dead before they left Georgia. Give her a few days, though, and she can spread her queeny pheromones and adopt this new colony as her own.

The key is keeping her in the cage inside the hive, so the colony can’t kill her before they get used to her. The cage comes with a pre-drilled hole in the side, plugged up with a cork. We pulled the cork out to reveal a second plug made of candy. Bees can’t chew through cork, but they’ll jump at the chance to eat some candy. The process takes a few days’ time – just long enough for them to fall under the queen’s sway. By then the queen will have a clear path out of her cage and a hive full of loyal subjects.

I hung the queen cage between two frames in the hive by nailing the attached yellow ribbon to the top of a frame. You can clearly see our queen in the topmost circle with a big white dot of paint on her back.

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The queen in place (you can see the yellow ribbon laid across the frames), it was time to dump everybody else into their new home. I took three frames out of the center of the hive body to make room. We sprayed the bees with some bee syrup to calm them down (because they focus their attention on grooming) and clump them together (because they’re really sticky). Since it was a cold day, we went very light on the syrup so as not to chill them.

Also to help the clumping process, I gave the package a gentle but firm whack against the deck to knock them all down onto each other.

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And then I shook them out. That’s all it takes – a little bit of shaking and maneuvering, and the majority of them dropped out through that hole and into the hive.

I very gently replaced the frames (don’t want to squish the bees below!) and put the inner cover on. On top of the inner cover we placed a second deep hive body to surround the inverted bee syrup feeder (lifted up on pieces of wood to give the bees room to get to the holes) and the package. Not all of the bees came out, and they’d have a very bad time left out in the cold and the rain. We covered everything up with the telescoping outer cover and got out of there.

On Saturday we’ll go back in to check on the queen and make sure she’s been released and welcomed. If she hasn’t been released, we’ll let her out. If she hasn’t been welcomed, we’ll panic and try to find another queen.

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Until Saturday, it’s all up to the bees. I hope they’re warm tonight.

I posted this on my personal blog, too. Go check it out.

Bee Syrup

The bees are coming tomorrow!

The dandelions and most of the trees are in full bloom here already, but it’s good to give the bees some low hanging fruit to eat, at least until they get settled in and draw out all their comb.

What I’m affectionately calling bee syrup is just white sugar and water, mixed together at a 1:1 ratio. To facilitate mixing, I’m boiling the water first.

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And pouring it into a big old jar. This jar used to hold 4 lbs. of olives and is just the right size to hold 10 cups of water…

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Mixed with 10 cups of sugar.

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The solution that I got has a wonderful viscosity to it – check out those ripples that form in the wake of the spoon!

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My bee syrup is made, and now I’m just waiting for it to cool. Tomorrow I’ll use a hammer and a small nail to poke a few holes in the lid. This way, we can turn the jar upside down and rest it on top of the frames in the hive. A vacuum seal formed by turning the jar over should keep the syrup from all leaking out of the holes at once – instead the bees will be able to draw it out through the holes when they need it. We’ll surround it with an empty deep hive body and put the lid on top to prevent robbing from other bees. Basically our hive tomorrow will have two boxes – one for bees and one for food.

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I’m not putting any holes in the lid until I get this thing transported to the garden, though. Covered in syrup is no way to start a hive installation.

I’ve posted this on my personal blog, too. Go check it out for stories on my adventures beyond the garden.

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