Monday, April 22, 2013

The basics: birds and bees or bees on the dole?!

Before there is a nectar flow going in this mid-Atlantic area in the early spring months, the bees are hard-pressed to find enough nectar to eat and store and make into honey.  These early blossoming flowers are more about producing pollen (the male sexual gamete, ie. sperm, of the flower), which the bees place in their pollen sacs and take back to the hive and store for nutrition and development of the brood. So, although they are getting pollen, (if a freeze has not killed the flowers) you must feed them sugar syrup that you make to keep the hive going until the nectar flow is in full force.

In my area of Western Maryland, the pollen sources arrive early and before nectar -first as flowering maples, then crocus and dandelions; then wild yellow mustard; this occurs typically from January’s end through Marches’ beginning; (we were late this year, and so we seem to have adjusted everything by about a month in occurrence).  The stone fruit trees, like plums, cherries, and peaches, as well as pears follow and are flowering now in mid-April; they provide some nectar for the bees, but also pollen.  Crab apple and Hawthorne blossoms will be next to follow.  The apples follow these; and then the Autumn olives after that by April's end; locusts, roses, wild blackberries and raspberries will open in May through June, and finally the summer clover will be in full force from the end of May through most of July.  

This flower parade represents the normal progression of blooms and food resources for my girls in this area.  It all of course totally depends upon the temperature and the rainfall.  A drought and heat wave will inhibit a nectar flow, just as a freeze and severe cold will. 

The definition of nectar is - A sugary fluid secreted by plants, esp. within flowers to encourage pollination by insects and collected by bees to make honey. Nectar is an ecologically important item, the sugar source for honey; nectar secretion increases as the flower is visited by pollinators. After pollination, the nectar is frequently reabsorbed into the plant. The main ingredient of nectar is natural sugar (i.e., sucrose (table sugar), glucose, and fructose).
So, nectar is a sugar-water mixture that the flower makes; the amount of water in the nectar depends upon the blossom.  Different flowers have evolved different-sized nectaries, and nectary / pollen stalk (or anther) arrangements.  Nectaries are the "bars", the places where the bee or bird or moth sticks its mouthparts or beak to sip upon the drink.  Many flowers have evolved to have deep nectaries with large volumes of tasty nectar, and bees, butterflies, moths, or hummingbirds will spend lots of time on these. 

Some flowers have developed “landing pads" (petals) and brilliantly colored flowers and symbols or designs that point to where the nectary is for the animal or insect to hone in to this nectary for a sip.  Certain flower colors attract more than others.  Bees are fond of blues, purples, and similar variations toward the uv (ultra violet) spectrum of light. 

Why would flowers evolve such a display for the bees?  Well,  basically it’s all about sex.  The plant wants to reproduce, the flower is the mating organ for this to happen.  The nectar is a reward for the bee, as it picks up the male flower’s sperm-the pollen on its anthers, and delivers it to another flower’s female part, the stigma (that has the sticky nectar), to trap the grains of pollen. 

Some flowers are wind pollinated, some bird or bat or small mammal/rodent pollinated; but many are bee pollinated.  Some crops are exclusively pollinated by honeybees, for instance the almonds of the San Joaquin Valley in California MUST be pollinated by honeybees!  And, big bucks are involved with commercial beekeepers trucking their bees out to California for this purpose.

A true nectar flow will begin with the apple blossoms appearing here in my area and going through the summer months with the clover blossoms.  The clover will dry up by the end of July and the nectar flow will be over until the fall flowers (goldenrod and asters mostly) begin to blossom in September; again, this is dependent upon rainfall and temperatures; a fall nectar flow may go through November at times.  (But, I do not harvest honey in the fall, as the bees must have at least 60 pounds of stored honey in their hives to get through the winter months in the mid-Atlantic.)

I digress. Back to the spring nectar flow where we now find ourselves...Once the apple flowers are open, feeding your bees sugar water "synthesized nectar" will no longer be needed.  Most beekeepers keep calendars of flowering blooms in and around their beeyard areas, and of course, they try to plant for flowers the bees will visit and use.

The bees will tell you when they are thirsty or not for feeding them.  I put my hivetop feeders on with their floating wooden slats that ride up or down inside with the volume of the sugar syrup.  The bees need these floats to stand on while drinking the sugar water, or else they will drown in their attempt to get a nectar sip.  (Their wings become coated with sugar water and they can’t fly, or they cover their spiracles-paired breathing tubes on either side of their abdomen-and suffocate.)

It will be obvious when the bees are hungry and you should feed.  The minute they get a whiff of the sugar syrup, they line up like little piggies at a trough and start drinking. They shove and displace one another just like little piggies at a trough or at a nursing sow!

Each time you open the hive to check the volume of feed remaining, you will see it diminished if they are hungry, or not, if they are getting enough wild flower nectar from flowers in the yard.  If they are no longer taking the feed, you may (and should) take the feeders off of the hive.  If you do not take the feeders off, you will develop what I call social welfare bees; yes, bees on the dole! 

You need to practice tough love parenting at this time!  Your girls will say, “Why should we leave the hive and work for flower nectar when this pretty good stuff is right here in front of us in the hive?!”  Kick them out!  Or, they will actually become lazy.  Lazy bees are a sad sight, and do nothing to promote the old addage of busy as bees!

You think I jest! One year I had a hive that wanted to just drink sugar syrup.  There was a nectar flow, but they only drank the syrup in the feeder.  I realized, it was time to make them leave the hive and work for a living, as 50 lb bags of sugar at Cosco are rather expensive!  (They are also rather heavy to lift and it takes time to mix the syrup!)  So, I kicked the girls out by removing the feeders; they soon got the message.  Work or else!  This is a commune, not a welfare state!

Why do beekeepers feed their honeybees?
1) To stimulate the queen to lay as many eggs as she can in the spring months.
2) To build up honey reserves for the winter in late summer (August) and early fall months; (a hive must have at least 60 lbs of honey stored to make it through the winter in the mid-Atlantic of the US.)
3) To complete successful overwintering in the late winter / early spring months.

What do beekeepers feed their bees?
Sugar syrup
1:1 sugar to water syrup (in spring)
2:1 sugar to water syrup (in fall)
Fondant a thick solid almost cake icing mixture (winter and early spring)
Pollen substitute patties when pollen is scarce (late winter and early spring)

Never use high fructose corn syrup.  Mix your own sugar syrup.  As I say above, I buy 50 lb bags of granulated sugar at Cosco.  In the checkout line people always ask me if I'm a baker....I tell them, "No, I just have a sweet tooth."  It works, as I shop in West Virginia!
This time of year use 1:1.  (In the late summer and early fall use 2:1 to prep to store feed for the winter months.)  I mix up 1:1 sugar to water syrup.  I add a pinch of cream of tartar to help ease of change from "nectar" to honey, and I also add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (not white distilled).  The vinegar cuts down on mold growth in the feeders.  Although, when the girls are thirsty and standing at the feeder sides and slurping it all up, it seems vinegar is not really needed.  

At this point, unlike earlier feedings during installation (see previous blog post), I do not add the antibiotic Fumigilin B to the feed syrup.  I see no more signs of dysentery or distress in the hive. Everyone seems pretty happy.  They are in fact busy as bees!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cherries delight; it's a bee safari!

It's spring!,... at long last.  We have now had four above 70 degree F days and my girls are loving it!  Actually, the humans are, too.  Convertibles and shortsleeves abound.  This is a good day to peak inside the hives. But, first, I see the girls making beelines to and from the cherry trees and other various flower sources in my yard and back to their hives.

A closer walk by the  cherry tree blossoms reveals both a lovely fragrance and the fact that my girls are not alone.  My front yard cherry tree has become a veritable entomological safari for a hymenopterist (someone who studies bees, wasps and ants).  The tree is literally buzzing with tiny sweat bees, several kinds of bumble bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees, paper wasps of two types, and carpenter bees all happily buzzing within the blooms.  They don't even notice me.  (As a beekeeper and an entomologists, I keep track of all the native pollinators as well as my honeybees, and I try and encourage their existence.)

Mason bees are actually the super pollinator workers of this region.  They are not a social bee.  They live singly in holes, but as a group.  They work a longer day than honeybees (up before sunrise and down after sunset) and pollinate lots more than any other native bee.  They look something like a honeybee, but are less yellow and smaller.  One can buy a mason bee house (a collection of bamboo cross sections) and hang it on a Southeastern wall to encourage them.  Soon the bees will find it.  It is extremely active today.

I walk to the backyard and see that various bees and wasps are also on the peach blossoms that have opened.  It too seems popular with the bumblebees and wasps as well as my girls.

I crank up the smoker.  Smoke is used to calm the bees.  Although very little smoke is needed on a day like today.  Sunny, and most workers are out and happy; stings are unlikely.
The smoke makes the bees think their hive is on fire and they engorge themselves with honey in case they must take off and make a new hive somewhere.  This seems a little cruel to me.  But, it does benefit me in the long run.  Their distended little abdomens are then in no shape (literally) to sting! So I can work as long as I need. A puff is all they need.  You don't want to give them emphysema!

I crack open the lid, and the sound is a lowered pitch and happy humming noise this time!  In tune with the happy spring day and universe.  Yes!  This is a good sign.  Everyone who is able to fly is out and about checking out all the recent blooms that have seemingly opened overnight.  I move some frames and see what I've been waiting eagerly to see; there are capped egg cells.  They are gorgeous.  They look just like a perfect tan pie crust grandma used to make!  Someone has been laying eggs!  There are also eggs in open cells and various stage C-shaped larvae in others.  The hive is increasing in numbers.  Hooray!  And, there she is!  She's beautiful.  The queen is alive! I rejoice in my own little Easter event!  The old beekeeper was right!


Monday, April 8, 2013

Wise old beekeepers are worth their salt!...The beewhisperer responds.

I like to think I know what insects are doing after about 23 years of spending a career as a Ph.D. Entomologist.  True, I’ve been beekeeping now for only about 7 of those 23 years, but I’ve worked with social insects (ants, termites, bees and wasps of all sorts) in a variety of settings, and I like to at least think I can anticipate their behavior. 

What always interests me is how the insects throw you a curve ball sometimes, and do not read the books or literature; it keeps it very interesting.  I learn something new every season.  And, it’s never ever dull. 

(This is also a reason to keep two hives and not one if you are new to beekeeping.  Each hive will have its own separate personality - dependent on the queen - and can be very different from the other.  And, then there is the matter of potentially losing a queen and the whole hive collapsing as a result.  Good to have a back-up!)

When I’m truly stumped, I go to someone with more experience than I.  For beekeeping, that is usually an older beekeeper who has done this for about 40-50 years!  This guy never wears gloves or a beesuit; he does use a veil and smoke, but he seldom gets stung at any time of the year or season!  I’ve personally nicknamed him the “beewhisperer.”  When he does happen to get stung, he’s grateful, in that bee stings (if you are not in that 1% of the population that has anaphylactic reactions) mount a wonderful  immune response that is known to assist with a host of ailments, including: arthritis, MS and other diseases; they are even thought to help prevent cancer.  (A future blog will have to address the medical benefits of the hive, from honey and pollen to stings!)

So, since I’ve been concerned about what would happen in my hive with this really bizarre cold weather we have had, I called the guy.

Rule no. 1 in beekeeping: Know your limitations!  Never be unwilling or afraid to ask for help!  There are no dumb questions.  All beekeepers are generally eager to share their advice and experience. 

I explained the situation to him.  In a nutshell (both for review and for those of you who have sped read the blog to date…), I installed the hive package and queen on Saturday, March 23rd.  (The bees installed were from Georgia; but, I live in Western Maryland; these Southern belle bees were no doubt shocked.)  On Monday, March 25th, we had had a late season and very unusual snowstorm.  Temperatures dropped into the low 20F’s at night and got up to only the upper 30F’s during the day. There was also a vicious North wind blowing about 10-25 mph.  This weather lingered for a week.  On the following Saturday March 30th, I opened the hive to discover the queen was out of her queen cage, but I saw no sign of her.  There was also no evidence of her presence such as eggs or larvae (called brood). 

What to my horror I’d seen instead, were 4-5 supersedure queen cells!  These are emergency queen cells and typically only made when the queen has died or is on her way out.  I assumed the worse.  Now you, the reader, are caught up. 

Thus, my call to the wise old beekeeper.  I asked him, “do I need to buy a new queen immediately and have her shipped overnight?  Or do you think the supersedure cells will emerge ok and a new queen be developed? Or should I combine this now weakened hive with the healthy stronger hive that does have a queen who emerged.”

(I have on purpose failed to mention that fellow beekeeper Trevor’s hive has a queen!  I’ve not mentioned this mostly because I’m very competitive and was so appalled and embarassed that mine would die and that his would survive;  I’ve been doing this for 7 years and he is a brand new beekeeper!   Ok. I admit it! I was really bummed! He of course was convinced his superior beekeeping skill and recent classroom learning  
experience made for his success.  “I have to let go of this”, I kept telling myself; there really is no room for competition in beekeeping, and besides I want his girls to survive.  He told me he’d share.  But, the prospect of his hive surviving and mine dying and his hive being there all summer long in my yard staring me in the face as a constant reminder, was well, more than I could stand.  It really stuck in my craw.  "I suppose I’m learning something from this," I thought. "Let it go.")

“Hmmm”, the old beekeeper said with his drawl and brought me back to my senses-he hails from Georgia himself, and I could just picture him scratching his beard.  "Well, it’s hard to say precisely, but I’ll bet you she’s still in there and is ok."  Really?”, I asked incredulously. 

“You say you got her from Georgia?” “ Yes sir,” I replied. “ Well, there’s been times I’ve seen it where they are disturbed or upset and just make supersedure cells to make supersedure cells," he said, with some authority provided by experience.  “Even if the queen is ok,” I asked?  "Well, yes, they are from Georgia, and you’ve put them in a snow storm and cold weather in Maryland, and they’re just perturbed and upset," he said. 

“Perturbed and upset,” I echoed into the receiver.

“So, I’d say the queen left the queen cage successfully, and laid a few eggs before the temperature fell.  The workers have fed those larvae royal jelly and they are now pupating as presumptive emergency queens on the ready.  The problem is that they wouldn’t be ready in time to save the hive likely if your queen really is gone.  Once they emerge, they need about 12-14 days to become reproductively competent and take their mating flight.  The problem is that there are no drones out there to mate with.  It’s been too cold.  You’d need to order a new queen to save the hive.  You could combine it with the other good hive, but I have 100 queens on order ready for purchase this next week.  Why not check your hive this weekend, when the weather is good, and tell me what you find.  But, again, I’d not be surprised if she’s in there!”

“Oh, thank you so much, sir!,” I hung up in a much happier frame of mind.  And, suddenly, I just had a good feeling he’d be right and all would be well with my hive after all.

Now, my interest is really picqued!  Do you suppose she has survived and is really in there?  It’s too cold to find out today! I can’t wait for a warm day (hopefully tomorrow?) to see.


Honey bee Zen, or Pipe if you are upset!

We all need order and a force greater than ourselves in our lives; most of us need someone to look up to for guidance in our daily routines of life.  Someone who communicates (through pheromones or otherwise) to us that life is well and our tasks are meaningful.  Absent that leader or force, we tend to go astray, or try to make it on our own; things stop humming along; perhaps we think we can become that leader, but we don’t quite have the skills to be in a position of authority. Perhaps in so attempting to become that absent leader, it goes well for a short while.  But ultimately, when we aren’t looking out for our sisters and our community as a whole, the wax that threads through our lives and our community becomes unraveled and even diseased, and the whole neighborhood collapses.  The universe is akilter.

Have you ever been in a disturbed or queenless honey bee colony?  It’s very easy to detect, even for newbie beekeepers!  You crack the lid off of the hive, and the noise hits you first thing.  This is not the familiar happy humming.  This is a higher pitched annoyed buzzing sound, called piping.  “What's happening to us or where is our queen? Where is our mom? I’m very upset!”  But, the noise is amplified by each individual,, make that about 3,000 times for a newly installed spring colony!)

Bees beat their wings to make the familiar buzzing noises you hear from them.  They know when the queen is present, happy and healthy.  When something is wrong or she may be diseased or dead, missing, or disturbed, the colony goes on high alert in their attempt to recreate a new queen as rapidly as possible.  This new higher pitched noise called piping is then heard.  And, supersedure cells, or emergency queen cells are then made; (interestingly by workers feeding the larvae royal jelly from glands in their heads).  But, it take almost two weeks for a new queen to metamorphose from larva to pupa and then emerge from an emergency queen cell; and then, she needs to become reproductively competent and take a mating flight and mate with the male drone and find her way back to the hive.  This early in the spring their are not that many males out there.  It's been way too cold!  During this wait time, things are out of balance for the colony, and the piping is heard.  A happy healthy hive is all about the queen and her happiness and health.  An unhappy one complains, and you hear it.

Along with this piping noise, there is a noticeable change in worker bee behavior in a bad hive.  The guard bees truly are on high alert, and fly at anything coming into or near the unsettled hive.  Not only are they more protective, they follow anything that comes to the hive and disturbs it.  This is more bravado than anything else, especially in the spring months.  But, without a queen and happy bees, one is more likely to be stung or followed around the yard after being in the hive to do work.  Some guard bees will be very persistent and buzz you for close to an hour after you are in there.  One really ought to stay out of the hive at this time and not disturb them!  Let the supersedure cells do their thing and develop.  Hope for the weather to break and for a newly emerged queen to take a successful mating flight.  Then, hopefully, all will be well once again.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Return to open the hive; the queen is dead S.O.H. (Hive)!

The Saturday (before Easter) arrived at long last!  Saturday was our first gloriously beautiful spring day in the mid-Atlantic with temperatures in the upper 60'sF and sunshine.  It was predicted to be the best day of the weekend, as rain was coming on Easter.  Yes, this will be a good day to finally open the hive and peer inside and check the queen and the frames of workers to see what has occurred with our very bizarre recent March snow storm last Monday. 

I was so hopeful and eager to know what was inside, but I wanted to wait until the temperature rose a bit more to open the hive; (the temperature should really be about 55F or higher to open the hive for any amount of time.)  If all was well, there should be eggs present and a vibrant queen walking around with a very swollen abdomen full of eggs to be laid; at least, in my almost 7 years of doing this, that has always been what has occurred.  But, I've never had a snow storm follow my bee hive installation before.  I've been very worried about this weather.

In the mid-morning, I checked my thermometer on the porch; it read 44F.  It was due to get warmer, so I decided to wait until about 2-3pm to go into the hive.  (Mid-afternoon is always a good time for new -really all -beekeepers to get into a hive, as most workers will be out of the hive and foraging at this time, and so it is easier to manipulate/work the frames and therefore easiest not to kill as many bees, but also there is less chance for a sting to you as a result; opening and working in a hive very early in the day or late in the day at or after sunset, or in cooler temperatures means more girls are at home to defend their stores of honey, pollen and brood!) 

Although still cool and early, I did run down the terraced steps of the backyard and down by the creek to peer as to what was happening thus far at the entrances to the hives.  Activity, yes, good sign!  I sat on the bench by my hive to watch the rising morning sun as it warmed the hives and resulting activity increased. 

First a few guard bees at the door and a few young workers testing their wings and doing scouting/learning flights navigating out and back.  Then, here came the mortuary bees.  I watched as they carried out dead carcasses of their sisters; they struggled to both fly and carry them to about 3 feet in front of the hive and drop them there on the black tarp; then they returned home to grab another deceased sister.  (Keep in mind these bees are small and their sisters are equal-sized.  The male drones are slightly larger in size.)

Bees are very clean, and will try and keep the hive as hygienic as humanly (beely) possible.  The removal of the dead workers and also dead drones is a full time task for the mortuary bees.  By doing this, and dropping the carcasses at a distance from the hive, they prevent the attraction of flies, rodents, skunks, dermestid beetles and other secondary pests.   They also remove diseased or parasitized members in this fashion. Thus, they keep the hive as disease and parasite and pest free as possible.   (A future blog will have to describe the roles different worker bees assume during their lifespans.)

I sat and suddenly saw one small mortuary bee dragging out a very large dead drone bee; (drones are  few in the hive at this time of year; these are only here because of my ordering and installing the package from GA; normally there are no drones until the queen lays some; now I see maybe why.  These workers are so small this time of year as they are new and young and the drone is so big.).  She was trying so hard to fly with him.  She made it to the landing board and tried to take off.  Plop! She fell immediately down to the ground with the much heavier drone bee.  She sort of staggered her way back onto her feet.  I laughed out loud!  (No one was there to hear me, but it was so funny looking! Very entertaining.)  She had taken on a Herculean task.  I heard her say, "Well, that will just have to be his final resting place.  Oh, well, R.I.P."  And, back into the hive she flew to continue her tasks.

Fellow beekeeper Trevor called to say he'd be out later in the day to check his queen's status in his hive.  I needed to check mine sooner, as I had errands to run on Saturday afternoon, and Walt and I wanted to go to supper.  I assured Trevor there was activity at his hive and that I saw his bees bringing in both crocus and red maple pollen.  (I was gazing out my window as I talked to him, and I looked at my red maple, and whereever there was full morning sun on it, there were little maple flowers and there were bees; our girls were in these flowers, picking up pollen, but only where the sun was shining on them.  They were flying back and forth from the hives in the backyard to the top of the red maple.  Another good sign, I thought! 

But, very strange signs, too, I simultaneously thought.  My maple usually flowers in late January or early February and is the first pollen source available in this area for the honey bees.  Here it is end of March and these flowers are just now opening?!  Wow.  We are way behind schedule weatherwise.  In fact, it appears we are at least a month behind on blossoms.  Come to think of it, the spring peeper frogs are just starting to sing at night in the marshy areas along the Potomac River a block away, and they are way behind too! They usually start singing their mating songs the first week of March.   And, then I notices, hey, that's a junco sitting on that maple branch in my yard!  They are supposed to be gone northward by now!  (Juncos are birds that ride the cold fronts that come through and are a good indicator of coming cold weather changes.)  Where are the robins?! And, where are the next nectar and pollen sources, the dandelions and skunk cabbages?  Apparently, they are a week or two away. Hang on girls!  One day it will be spring here.

You will find that beekeepers keep very specific journals and diaries and calendars documenting flowers and their blooming dates, and other natural phenomena, as well as of what's happening within the hive.  It's interesting to compare year to year and over time.  You can almost predict events within the hive by the animals and flowers you see. There should always be a pollen source (and hopefully during the nectar flow time of late spring to mid summer) a nectar source available.  I plant flowers in my own yard to keep my bees happily in pollen and nectar hopefully all season long from January until November.  (And, as you might suspect, each flower's nectar produces a different kind and tasting of honey that also has a different identifying characteristic color to it. More on this in a future blog.) But, in the late winter/early spring the girls (and in fact, all social insects-termites, ants, bees and wasps) need pollen for their queens to have protein to make yolks for the abundance of eggs she will be laying.  Maple provides this first bit of pollen protein in this area.  Dandelions typically follow shortly afterward.  I've seen no dandelions yet in my yard.

So, at last it was 2 pm and the temperature read about 59F.  The sun was high in the sky and the girls were flying in and out happily. No wind.  I tied Clifford to the apple tree, and I grabbed my beesuit, my bucket of hive tools, and I went down to my hive.  I decided against any smoke for this bout, as the bees in general are gentle this time of year. I donned my hat, veil, suit and gloves, and ensured no open spaces existed that would allow any girls entering near to my face.  (Stings in the face are not fun.)  I grabbed my red hive tool, and I cracked open the roof of my hive.

I opened up the top cover and looked inside.  The syrup can was there, the now empty of sugar syrup baggy was there with propylis around the edges, and there were workers running around and flying up to check me out.  I removed the can and the baggy and extra empty super that had surrounded them.  I removed the outer frame to be able to move the other frames.  (I have a nifty frame hanger to place these on while I do this.)  I began to reveal and check the other frames. 

Hmmm, no pulled out wax comb, thus far, and no eggs or brood.  Maybe when it is colder like this it takes longer?  I've never had it be so cold before.  Then I got to the two frames holding the now empty queen cage.  Well, she's obviously out of the cage; that's normal a week later.  The sugar plug has been devoured and all attendants and queen are gone.  I pulled out the cage and put it in my pocket.  (Because of the pheromone scent lingering on it, some of the workers flew immediately to my pocket!)  But, then I pulled the frame out where the queen cage had been hanging. 

Uh oh!  Oh no!  There are supersedure cells here!  Four of them to be exact.

A supersedure cell is found in the middle of a frame of beeswax.  It usually diagnostically indicates that the worker bees have determined something is very wrong with the queen or that the queen has already died, so they are now trying to make a new queen as quickly as possible.  (These are not queen swarming cells which are found at the bottom of the frames and later in the year as the hive gets larger and more complicated demographically needing space.)  This instead is an all out emergency response to save our hive by the workers. S.O.H.!!!!!!!!!

I know this sounds bizarre!  But, what in nature isn't full of intrigue?!  The workers take an egg (or two, or here, four) turned larva and feed it a substance called royal jelly secreted from a small gland in their little worker heads-its near the antennae- to convert a sister who would have otherwise been destined to be a worker now into a royal queen.  A queen cell forms.  It take almost two weeks for a queen cell (supersedure or swarm either one) to develop into and emerge as a new queen.  This queen is not fertile.  She must then take a mating flight.  She flies to a local drone mating field, and flies high and fast and the drone that can best keep up flying with her mates her.  He then promptly explodes and dies in mid-air; his body parts fall back to the ground! (Nature can be cruel!)

The mated queen flies back to the hive and begins to lay eggs. The hive is again happy.  Now, all of this presupposes that a) one of the 4 supersedure cells emerges ok as a queen-the others will be stung to death by her to prevent her being unseated from her new throne, b) there are existing drone mating fields with drones waiting to mate, c) a mating occurs and she returns to the hive.  Remember for drones or queens or workers to fly, the temperature must be at least 50F according to the text books.  (Warm enough for the thorax muscles to warm-up and be able to innervate and fly those wings!)

The weather forecast for the next five days does not look good.  This stinks! It is to be in the upper 20sF or low 30sF at night and in the low to mid 50'sF during the day, and with a lot of wind, 15-25 mph each day.  Rain on two of the days.

So, it's a waiting game again.  Patience is required on the part of the beekeeper.  Nature cannot be rushed.  I have a few options. 1) Let the supersedure cells emerge and hope the weather breaks so that the queen and drones can fly and find one another to successfully mate.  2) Quickly order a new queen to install, or 3) If Trevor's hive has a healthy queen, I can combine our two hives in a special way so that mine would be accepted by his.  But, he would need to agree to want to do this.  What to do?

I feel so down.  In my 7 years of beekeeping, I've never had an installed queen not take to a hive!  What happened?!  (I've also never installed to have a snow storm hit two days later either!)  The fact that there are four supersedure cells suggests she likely did come out of the queen cage successfully and attempted to start laying eggs ok, but then last week's snow storm and extreme cold temperatures were too much for the cluster to keep up with to keep her warm.  She succumbed.  Does that mean any queens resulting from her supersedure cell eggs might also be too weak for this area? What to do?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Vibrating to stay warm!

Saturday afternoon while still sunny, I grabbed a beer, and I sat my bench by the hives laid my Saint bernard mix, "Clifford," at my feet to watch the bees taking their scouting and learning flights to familiarize themselves with their new neighborhood.  It really is amazing to me how quickly they learn.  They were installed about noon, and by 4pm they were flying in and out and a little more distance with each flight; and someone had found the crocus pollen in the front yard and communicated that back in the hive.  So here came some of the girls with loaded pollen sacs of a orangey yellowy (almost egg yolk colored pollen); a bit had dropped off at the entry to the hive.  These were all good signs that things were setting up nicely in the hive.

The hardest part for a beekeeper post installation is to wait to see if things will go well.  New beekeepers especially often "jump the gun" to take a look inside.  When it's cold, you really do not want to open the hive and lose the warm air they have generated, and yet you are concerned that they have enough to eat to keep the hive warm.  (An amazing fact is that they can keep the hive at 93F all winter long as long as they have enough honey or feed to make energy and keep going. They form a cluster around their queen and vibrate their thoraces -plural of thorax- to generate heat. The thorax is the middle section of the insect to which the 6 legs and in this case 2 pairs of wings attach.) 

You also don't want to risk losing the queen you have purchased and placed with her attendants in the queen cage in the hive.  The workers, who until recently were all strangers, are getting acquainted with each other and with her pheromone (a hormone like substance to communicate who is who, and that she is queen); if she leaves the cage too soon, she will not be recognized and will be stung to death. Then you have no queen!  Not good.  But, if all goes well, the attendants to her in the cage with her will slowly eat their ways out of the sugar plug, feeding her along the way; she cannot feed herself-she is just made for egg laying-and the attendants eating the candy plug creates an opening.  After 4-7 days, she is released.  She just walks out of the opening into her new royal realm.  The attendants sadly will be stung to death as they exit, but she will be accepted as her royal majesty if all goes well.

So, although Saturday was a gorgeous spring day-sunny and in the mid-50's, Saturday night turned cold; I watched the temperature drop to 25F and prayed that my girls had drunk enough sugar syrup to have enough energy to vibrate their thoraces all night and keep her warm (and themselves within their cluster.)  As I watched the mercury drop, I remembered a few tricks one can employ to keep the hive warmer.  1) On the back of the hive is a slot through which you can insert a corrugated IPM mite drop bottom board over the screen bottom board. This would provide some insulation and prevent their having to work so hard to heat the space. 2) You can prop the back of the hive top cover slightly open with twigs to allow ventilation, so that as the workers vibrate their little thoraces, the warmth they create will rise to the top, but humidity will escape and not condense and drop back down on the clustered queen.  A cold moist hive is a terrible thing.  Fungus and disease can occur as well as chalk brood (frozen eggs and larvae). 

Sunday was cold and overcast.  But, at midday it was around 44F, and these girls must not read the insect and bee specific literature.  (They are not supposed to be able to fly until it hits about 50F.  But, here they were, fewer in number, but out scouting about for short flights, and then tucking back into the warm hive.  A good sign. They were also "bringing out their dead."  This reminds me of the Monty Python movie scene where the woman says, "I'm not dead yet!"  Well, if you are a vibrator on the outside of the cluster of bees trying to keep her majesty warm in the center, you are likely to be one of the first to go in this valiant act of self sacrifice.  Recall this is a socialist society. It's not about the individual here (unless you are queen, and it's good to be queen!); it's about the society as a whole.  A loss of a few workers is ok.  (This is also very hard for some beekeepers to accept; especially new beekeepers.  I know as I go through my hives, I can't help but kill a few while moving frames and lids to check overall health, etc.  I always apologize, "oh, I'm so sorry."  And, when one stings me, I say, "now why did you go and do that.  You know you are going to die now."  It's hard to overcome our Westernized individualistic mentality. Anyway, I digress....

So, Monday arrived and what a surprise! It brought a late unusual March snow! (5 inches).  Will my bee girls survive? Will the queen survive?  I really didn't know.  Will the baggy of sugar syrup freeze?  Is it dense enough to freeze at a lower temperature than 32F?  I sure hope so.  Snow lay around the hives and about all the vegetation.  It was the heavy wet snow, and I figured this might be good for insulation.  The temperature hovered from about 31F to 37F.  "Welcome to Maryland in March, girls!," I said.  "We're not in Georgia anymore!, " I heard them shiver in reply!

I thought of one more thing I might do to help them out.  In winter months as established hives get low on honey, beekeepers sometimes will feed their hives fondant.  Fondant looks like very thick white cake icing (but is not! don't use cake icing!) and is mostly made of sugar.  You can homemake this, google a recipe on the web, but I had purchased some last fall and had frozen it; so I thawed it out now. 

As soon as it was thawed, I placed two big globs in each of the hives.  I only opened each hive momentarily.  Don't want to tax the bees or lose the warmth they have generated.  It did feel warm.  Good, I thought.  Now, we wait to open until Saturday to see if the queen is out and all is well.  Ugh...I hate the waiting.