Tag Archives: bees in spring

The Bee Whisperer

On Thursday after work, we drove a little ways south of town to help friends figure out what was going on with their new bee hives. They were fairly sure that one of the hives had lost its queen, so they had ordered a new queen but wanted some advice before leaving town this weekend to perform in a music contest at Silver Dollar City. The dad had first kept bees a couple years ago, and one of the sons had built several bee hives as part of a 4-H project. They had also helped us retrieve a colony out of a bee tree that the city had knocked down during a road construction project several years ago. Since then, however, they had lost all their bees. They decided this year to start over and had ordered four new packages from Art Gelder at Walk-About Acres.

Package bees in their shipping cases (photo from Honeyflow Farm website)

I thought about the day we went out to pick up our new queens and saw all those packages of bees.  I wondered how many of the packages were going to brand-new bee keepers and how they would know what to do with them when they got them back home. Art told us he had sold over 300 packages this year. I had never actually seen a “package” of bees myself until this spring and was fascinated to see hundreds of small wooden boxes stacked in the back building, each covered with screen and each containing a pound or so of bees. An assistant was using a large vacuum to clean up the bees that were crawling around on the outsides of the packages. While we were talking to Art, several people came and carried away 1-2 boxes of bees. It was a sunny breezy day, and we were all in good spirits and optimistic about our new packages and queens.

By now, it has been three or four weeks since our friends set up their new hives, inserted the new queens (one per hive), and then shook a package of bees into each hive body. (See Honeyflow Farm for a nice photo essay of this process.) Their bee yard looked great, with four freshly painted hives arranged on pallets behind a section of wooden fence that runs between the bee yard and the driveway. The father and his three sons (ages 14, 11, and 9) have each taken on responsibility for one of the hives, and they have named the hives accordingly. John’s hive was the one that seemed to be having problems, so we started with it. Compared to our hives at this time of year, the new hives seemed quite calm, with few bees flying around the yard, even when we had the hives opened. It was interesting to notice how they had set up their hives “by the book,” with components that Jim doesn’t typically use, such as the queen excluder, inner cover, a plastic frame for drone production, and an exterior feeder. It was also interesting to see all their hives at the same stage of development, while ours are all at different stages. Our two split hives and the swarm we caught all have small stacks of boxes (one hive body and one super), while a fourth hive has about three supers on top of two hive bodies, and the remaining hive (the one that made it through the winter in great shape and didn’t swarm this spring) already has filled six supers with honey.

While our friend worked to get the smoker going, Jim removed the cover, inner cover, and the empty super and set them aside. Then he took off the queen excluder and we all looked down into the top of the hive body and saw that the bees were building new white comb between the middle three frames. Jim noted that the bees had a little too much space between the frames and are starting to fill in with comb in a way that will make it difficult to work with the hive. Jim showed John how he usually starts inspecting a hive by prying out the frame closest to the outside edge of the box. At this time of the year, most of the activity will be in the center frames, where the queen will be laying eggs and the workers filling in the surrounding cells with pollen and nectar to feed the emerging brood. Jim removed the first frame, checked it quickly to confirm that nothing was happening there, and leaned the frame against a nearby hive. Having one frame out of the way makes it easier to inspect the other frames. Then he pulled out the next frame, noticed where the bees were starting to draw out the comb, confirmed that there were no eggs or brood in that frame, and put it back in the hive.

He proceeded to inspect each frame quickly until he got to the center frames in the hive, where there was more activity. At this point in the spring, we would expect to see brood in all stages of development, with the capped brood toward the center of the frame, surrounded by newer brood and eggs, and cells filled with nectar and pollen toward the edges of the frame. If the queen is healthy and laying eggs well, the bees will generally be calm as they go about their various tasks. Sometimes you can tell if a hive has lost its queen because the workers will be edgy and running around frantically. Although the bees seemed relatively calm, our friends had rightly noticed that there was an abundance of drone brood in this hive and an absence of worker brood, which did not bode well. Often a hive can raise its own queen if something happens to the original queen, but they need strong worker brood to do so. We saw one empty queen cell and one queen cell with brood in the bottom, but Jim was not convinced that it was viable brood and thought it possible that the bees, in desperation, might be trying to raise a queen from drone brood.

New queens arrive from the breeders in a small cage with 5-6 attendant bees and a lozenge of hard sugar to sustain them on their travels.

We had the new queen ready to insert in the hive, but we needed to do what we could to help the hive accept the queen and not kill her right away. Fortunately, it appeared that the workers had not yet started laying unfertilized eggs, as they sometimes will do. When the workers start to lay, it is almost impossible to get them to accept a new queen. A queen will lay a single egg in the bottom of every cell in a predicatable pattern, but workers may lay several eggs in each cell or may lay eggs on the sides of the cell. Since the workers are unfertilized, all the eggs they lay will turn into drones, which do no work in the hive. Once the workers start laying, the hive is generally doomed. Jim checked all the remaining frames to confirm that there was no queen and no new worker brood; then he cut out the queen cells where the workers were trying to raise their own queens. We discussed the advantages of releasing the new queen to the hive right away versus leaving her in her cage for several days to allow the bees some time to get used to her scent. Jim thought she would be fine in the cage until the family got back from Silver Dollar City early next week, so he left the corks in both ends of the small wooden cage and inserted the queen with her attendant bees and stash of sugar candy between the two center frames, pressing the cage into the wax and then sliding the frames close together. We were pleased to notice a couple bees raise their tails and extend their scent glands in the sign they often use to indicate “this way to the queen.” We hoped that meant they would accept the queen readily and start feeding her through the screen in the next coming days. Then we restacked the hive, placed the lid on top, and hoped for the best.