Monday, February 28, 2011

Busy bees and getting ready for spring!

With the weather 76 degrees on Sunday, I knew it was time to do an in-depth inspection of my two surviving colonies, the first real inspection of 2011. When I opened the orange hive, I noticed what looked like a tower of bees over the frames in the top chamber. The bees, in their quest to go higher, had started building comb up to fill the space where the shallow super sets and where the bee candy was located. That was my cue to reverse the hive boxes to put the brood nest together and move some frames around to give the queen room to lay.

As I got down into the frames, here's what I found. As you can see, the queen is already busy laying. I found capped brood and larvae all through the frames scattered around the hive, so she's been all over the place. I decided to move the brood frames together in the bottom chamber, while moving the honey frames to the top chamber. This should remedy the urge for them to build up and over the top frames. I didn't see eggs this trip, but I'm very confident the queen is in residence.

Take a look at this frame from the orange hive. You can see that the queen is laying all through the frames, even those that have honey at the top. As I mentioned earlier, I took all of the frames that held brood and combined them in the bottom chamber, then moved the honey frames together at the top. While March weather can be fickle, the long term forecast for my area doesn't show any really severe winter weather, so I think they should be okay. By the way, the orange hive is full of bees. With the warm snap, I figured they will get the urge to build swarm cells soon. Now I'll have to keep an eye on this colony and do a split when I can get my hands on a new queen.

Here is a frame from the green hive. I only found two frames with a small brood pattern, so its obvious that this queen is behind her sister queen in the orange hive. This queen, while robust when she first arrived, has been much slower than the other two colonies. But I have to give her credit that she's kep this colony going although the numbers are much lower than the other hives. I am considering replacing her with a Minnesota Hygienic and using this queen for a nuc. I honestly believe that she can't produce enough to keep the colony going full force, and if I don't replace her, the bees will.

Deciding that I need to "beef up" the green colony, I took one of the many frames of brood from the orange hive, and put it in the green one. I thoroughly shook every bee from the frame and then moved it over to the neighboring hive. The bees in the green hive were still in the bottom chamber with the brood, and there was plenty of honey at the top. Unlike the orange hive, I did not alternate the boxes in the green hive. Instead, I moved all the brood frames together in the lower deep -- adding the frame from the orange hive as a supplement. Now this should help the numbers in the green hive, and I can move more frames from the orange hive as needed.

Once I moved the brood frames together in the bottom deep, you can see that the bees congregated there. And I replaced some of the frames that were above them and unfinished with drawn comb from the yellow dead-out hive. And I have drawn frames that I'll use for my package coming from Dadant this April. It will just be less work for them when they get here and make their home in the yellow hive.

After putting both hives back together, I slid the orange hive over to where the yellow one sat. The returning foragers did a fine job of finding their way home. That's because the bees stood at the entrance and fanned their scent outward to their returning sisters. When I checked a little later, not one single bee was on the concrete blocks wondering where their home went. Overall it was a successful inspection, and I'll keep a check over the next month to watch for swarming indicators. Hopefully I'll be able to make a split before the ladies hit the road on their own!

Bee safe!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Anatomy of a dead hive...

If you read my last post, you saw that my big mother hive, the yellow hive, died without warning.  I was suspicious that the colony died of starvation, but wouldn't know until I did a thorough exam of the inside.  So with the weather being in the 60s for the last few days, I decided to take the hive apart to see what I could find.  And sadly, what I found confirmed my suspicions.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me say that just the other day, I noticed quite a few bees flying in and out of the big yellow hive.  I started to question if the bees in the yellow hive were really dead or if they were just cold and in some type of suspended animation.  Maybe the warmth had stirred them from their slumber and they were now alert and back to being honey bees?  But sadly, I learned that I was right all along and the colony really was dead after all. 

As you can see in the picture above, there is plenty of honey left in the yellow hive.  You can see where the bees ate their way along the honey frame from the bottom.  And the two surviving hives, the orange and the lime, knew there was honey here.  The bees I saw flying in and out of the yellow hive were robber bees from the neighboring hives who knew that a honey gold mine lay next door.  It was easy to tell they were mine because the robbers were darker Carniolans, while the deceased inhabitants of this hive were yellowish colored Italians.

Here is the frame where I found the dead cluster.  Looks are deceiving.  While they look alive and just standing there, they're very much dead.  Its as if they just died where they stood...frozen in time forever.  When I raked the dead bees away, you could see dead bees inside the cells, head down, trying to get food.  While there was plenty of food in several of the frames all around them, and candy patties just above them, they didn't move because of the cold and that caused them to starve to death.

The dead monarch lies among her daughters.  You can see the dead queen here, easily identified by the green dot on her back (indicating she was of 2009 stock).  This cluster on the left was in the same clump of bees as above but they were on the opposite frame.  As you can see, the queen was in the middle of the mass and died where she stood along with her daughters.  I will miss this queen and wish all of mine were of the same dynamic quality she was.  As I mentioned before, she was a terrific layer and kept this colony going with beautiful brood frames ever since arriving in 2009.  

A sure sign that the colony starved.  Here you can see that the bees, trying to get food from the cells, died head down.  These bees were covered by the bodies of their sisters who died where they stood.  It baffles me that the bees didn't move over one frame where lots of honey waited for them.  Instead, they died trying to get what was left out of these cells.  I didn't try to remove the bodies from the cells and will leave that for next colony that moves in the yellow hive weeks from now.

The good news, I have a package of bees coming from Mark Bennett at the Chatham, Virginia, branch of Dadant and Sons in early April.  With the frames in the yellow hive already drawn with wax, and honey still available too, it will give the new colony a leg up on establishing themselves.  And I plan to split the orange hive this spring too, so I should have plenty to keep me busy.

Until next time, "bee" vigilent in keeping your colonies alive until the spring thaw which I hope is very soon.  Until then, you have my very best wishes!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The silence of the hive...

The yellow hive is silent.  That's because all life inside her has ceased.  Suddenly and without warning, all of the life and activity that makes a honey bee colony exciting came to a cruel and abrupt end.  And I've thought about it extensively since I discovered it days ago.  Needless to say, it has broken my heart.

Last Thursday night, I decided to go check the hives by "listening" to them.  As many old-time beekeepers will tell you, you may not see a lot of activity around a hive in winter, but you can always listen for life inside.  While many beeks will put their ear to the hive and tap the sides it to arouse the colony, I use a medical stethoscope instead.  Just as a doctor will listen for signs of life through his stethoscope, I listen for life with mine too.  The stethoscope works well because you can put it all on the sides of the hive and better find where the colony is positioned.  Plus you don't have to do all of that bending and stooping to put your ear to the boxes.

I listened to the orange hive first and heard the distinct sounds of buzzing inside the top brood chamber.  Then I moved to the green hive, and while not as loud, I could hear the bees in the top box.  But when I moved to the yellow hive, the strongest colony in my yard, I could find no sounds anywhere.  I moved the scope to the sides and the front and back, and no matter where I moved it, there was no noise of any kind.  That's when I immediately knew that something was seriously wrong.

Not being able to stand it, I carefully opened the top of the hive...and my heart sank.  I could see dead bees all in the bottom, and a small cluster in the middle of the frames at the top -- all dead.  There were no bees anywhere else.  Trying not to panic, and thinking they may be so cold they couldn't move, I closed the top and went inside the house.  But in my heart, I knew they were all dead.  I was so upset that I sent my friend Jared a text message with the news.  I guess I just had to tell to someone.  After we talked, I decided that I would check on the next warm day which would be over the weekend.  The forecast was calling for temperatures in the low 50s, so I knew I would get the chance to look inside.

On Sunday, the temperature rose to 54 degrees, so I went out to look further.  My suspicions were correct, the colony was dead..I only found one lone bee crawling around between the frames.  While I didn't dismantle the hive because I want to do a more intense examination later, I could see that they apparently starved to death.  The honey was gone from the middle frames while there was honey left in the frames to the sides.  And while there was a candy pattie directly above them, they didn't move one inch from the cluster, so they apparently starved.  It was the saddest sight I've seen in my beekeeping experience.  

This was my first colony of bees.  This is the colony I cut my teeth on to be what I hope is a better beekeeper.  This was the only colony I harvested honey from.  The queen was a champion because she was an excellent layer and the workers kept a great hive.  They were extremely gentle and it was true delight to work this colony.  Plus it was just a month ago that they were alive and thriving. 

And then all of a sudden, poof, they're all dead.  

This experience has taught me a valuable lesson.  No matter how confident you feel about your bees, never take it for granted that they'll be around in a week or a month from now.  While you may see a lot of life outside the hive, you need to know what's going on inside the hive too.  Outward appearances can be deceiving.

Unfortunately its too late for my bees in the yellow hive.  As soon as its practical, I'll move their honey to the other hives to keep them going for what's left of this winter.  And I'll introduce a new colony to the yard this spring.  Life will once again come to the now silent and desolate hive.

Goodbye, girls.  I'll miss you.  Pleasant flights!

*Note: The bottom picture is from the fall of 2009 when the yellow hive (it was still white then) was making food stores for the winter.  As you can see, the workers did a terrific job of making honey, and the queen laid an excellent pattern.