The New Woody

In honor of the World Bee Day 2022 I thought I’d post about our most recent addition of honeybees: meet “new” Woody!

Last summer our honeybee colony, Woody, weakened (for unknown reasons) and was invaded by wax moths, which you can read about here. Since it was late in the season and too late to hive a new colony, we dismantled the physical hive and were left with only one hive, Bo-Peep. Over the course of winter, Bee Daddy cleaned and refurbished damaged hive parts and built some necessary new ones in preparation for a new colony of honeybees which arrived in late April.

Here’s our newest honeybee colony, packaged up, strapped in the car, and ready for the trip to their new home.

In this scary-to-most-people package are 10,000 worker bees and a mated, clipped-winged queen. Actually, the crew of honeybees aren’t frightening at all and are quite gentle. Even if a bee escapes the package, it hangs around its sisters and queen.

Pheromones are powerful things.

Since we began beekeeping, we name our hives after Disney/Pixar characters and the last couple of hives were Woody and Buzz and following those, Woody and Bo-Peep. If you know the Toy Story movies, you understand that Bo-Peep and Woody belong together. Am I right??

Here’s the new hive for Woody: a brood box ready with sugar water for feeding bees and building comb. The bees will forage for nectar and pollen immediately, but the sugar water helps the colony get a strong start. We’ll feed them for a couple of months, maybe longer, depending upon weather conditions.

The round metal circle at the top of the package is a can with sugar water; there are holes in the bottom to feed the bees while they await their new hive. About 2/3 of the sugar water was gone by the time we hived Woody. The queen is in a “queen cage’, in the package, but separated from the workers. She is constantly spewing out her pheromone vibes, assuring the colony’s devotion to her and to one another. The cage has two holes on either end of the little box, both of which are plugged with small corks. In this photo, the hole on the bottom is also covered by a strip of yellow tape, which I removed. I then removed the cork, revealing a plug of candy, which the workers and queen will eat through, physically releasing the queen within a few days into the hive to begin her life’s work.

We stapled the queen cage to a frame fitted with commercial wax, called foundation; this is where the bees will build their comb.

Bees don’t need foundation to build comb; they build comb because they’re driven to build comb. But giving them a base onto which they comb makes it easier for bees and the tidy frames allow for efficient checks of the hives. Extracting honey is also simplified with well-combed frames.

The gals are checking out the queen cage.


The photo isn’t clear, but if you look closely, you can see the elongated abdomen of the queen in the cage; she’s about 1/3 longer than the worker bees.

To hive a colony, we placed four brood frames with foundation in the brood box. The queen cage is attached to the center-most frame and the package of workers is placed in the open area of the box. That’s it, the colony is hived and we close it up!

We checked Woody about five days later and the queen was out of the cage and in the larger population of bees and they had already combed some of the frames and there was honey in some of the comb cells. When we checked, we removed the package and added more frames. Honeybees are in the hive doing all the things required to build their colony: caring for the queen, cleaning the hive, removing sick/dead bees, caring for eggs and larvae when they appear, foraging for nectar and pollen. As of a check earlier this week, half of the frames were combed, with plenty of capped and uncapped brood in that gorgeous new comb.

While beekeeping is complicated, it’s hard for me to imagine having a garden without honeybees, and for that matter, plenty of native bees, who are more than worthy of their own special day. Pollinators of all sorts are vital to the beauty and value of a garden and of the wider ecosystem.

Go bees!

No Rest for the Honey Obsessed

Winters here in Central Texas are mild, punctuated from time-to-time by cold snaps which typically don’t last long. This winter has been historically warm and the honeybees have remained busy with their obsessive collecting of nectar and pollen for the hive. Before winter made an appearance last week, there were still a few blooms available and the bees were all in. These little gals are collecting pollen from the pretty pink flowers of Purple Heart, Setcreatsea pallida.

At the last blooms of Forsythia Sage, Salvia madrensis, these two are sipping nectar, using a process called nectar stealing or nectar robbing. This is a foraging activity where an insect doesn’t crawl into the flower to nectar, but instead bites or pokes a petal and sticks its proboscis through, directly sipping nectar and bypassing pollination. Interestingly, until this year, I hadn’t seen honeybees on this sage, only native bees, particularly the Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.

Before the sage’s bloom cycle was ended by the blast of cold last week, honeybees, alongside one or two Mexican Honey wasps, Brachygastra mellifica, and a couple of small skippers, were the main pollinators visiting these yellow lovelies.

The blooms are gone now, the plants freezer-burned and dormant. In my garden, there is little for the bees to forage on. Honeybee activity slows during winter, but they still need to exit the hive to pee and poo and they’re driven to forage for whatever they can find in this flower limited period of the year.

When we last checked the hive in mid-October, Bo-Peep’s second (top) brood box was honey-bound and its honey box (the top-most box) had several frames of honey, but it wasn’t full. That’s probably enough honey until spring, especially given the protracted blooming in autumn and winter. Even so, I always fret in winter: do they have enough to sustain through winter and when do I add some supplemental feedings?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to open a bottle of honey and let the bees have at it. It took them one full day and part of the next to clean up the trays where I’d poured the gooey goodness, but like good girls, they cleaned their plates. That’s a quandary: should they get dessert? After honey, what would that be?

You might wonder about the sticks on the platters. I place sticks across the honey so that the bees have something to crawl on as they’re eating. Otherwise, at least a few drown in the gooey goodness. Sad, but at least they die happy.

For January and February, once a week or so, I’ll be mixing a bottle of sugar water (a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water) as a feeding supplement. If the hive was larger and more established, I probably wouldn’t bother, but I suspect Bo is just young enough to need some extra feeding during this time before the first spring blooms appear. I won’t feed more often than once per week because I don’t want to encourage the queen too much, so that she decides its time to get busy with new brood and ramps up for spring egg laying. That’ll come, but I prefer to delay that until mid-to-late February. That said, the queen will do what weather conditions and her DNA demand and she probably won’t consult me about her decisions.

By the time I got around to taken a photo, Bo’s bees had emptied the bottle.

With cooler temperatures, I finally covered the bare ground of the bee ‘yard’ with a thick layer of newspaper, topped with an equally deep layer of pea gravel. Going forward, when we check the hive(s) after a rain, we won’t come away with mud-bound shoes.

Instead, there’s always at least one rock wedged in the treads of my shoes.

It’s always something.

The Big Move

My back garden forms an odd, pie-shaped situation and for the past decade, has become increasingly shady, especially in the back corner section of the garden.

These two photos are several years old and most of what is blooming in the shots either no longer exists or doesn’t bloom due to the shady conditions. Some bloomers here include Turk’s caps, with their summer tiny, twirled flowers, a Mexican Honeysuckle bush, whose orange flowers appear when the mood strikes, a leaning Frostweed which blossoms as it reaches for autumn sun, and a few small, shade-tolerant perennials and grasses. This darkened corner is best suited for foliage and, as of March, the beehives.

When Bee Daddy built the Langstroth hives five years ago, I see-sawed about which would be a better spot for the two hives: in the back, shady corner, a generally out-of-the-way spot, or in one of the opened graveled sections of the main part of my back garden.

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I opted for the main area of the garden, and while that wasn’t a mistake–it was easy to work around the hives and they received some nice bits of sun–I’ve come to accept that it’s better to have the bees tucked in a part of the garden where no one but yours truly ventures.

In autumn, I decided to move the hives to the back section of my garden. Really, it was only one hive that needed moving, because Buzz absconded last spring, the hive sitting empty for the year. Picking up and transporting Buzz’s truncated hive–base and roof–was a snap. In the new beehive spot, I also expanded the limestone border between the negative space and the garden, enlarging the beehive area a bit. I intended to mulch or gravel, but February’s snow storm and the months-long cleanup which followed, plus a bum back to boot, rendered that segment of the project incomplete before the two colonies of bees moved in, Woody in March, the new one in April. I added a few more shade-tolerant grasses to the garden itself.

In this photo, taken in January, you can see short little Buzz sitting all alone in its new cul-de-sac of the neighborhood, while tall, stout Woody, remains in the original spot.

There are about 17 feet between the two hives. Our plan was to suit up and smoke Woody sometime after the first couple of winter freezes, then move Woody 2 to 3 feet a day for 5 to 6 days. It’s best not to move bee colonies more than a few feet at a time because bees use visual clues and pheromone signals to exit the hive and return. If hives are moved too far, too quickly, bees are lost.

After the move, the two hives would then sit side-by-side in their shady, corner garden. I knew that as we moved Woody, we’d need to traipse across some plants, but accepted that the few evergreen plants bothered wouldn’t be particularly damaged. The awful February storm made one thing easier: all my perennials, even the so-called “evergreens” were knocked back completely. So after I pruned all the plants to the ground that were in the hive’s pathway, it was time to move Woody.

What fun.

The big move progressed reasonably well for the first 4 or 5 days. The hive is ponderous and awkwardly tall with its two brood boxes and two honey boxes. Bee Daddy did most of the “heavy lifting” while I skootched the hive along, keeping it vertical. The last day was, for whatever reason, the worst. It was chilly, which should have made it easier because the bees are slower in cold weather, but it took us longer to get the hive set and leveled in its new place. When working the hives, I wear a full bee suite, with veil, and Bee Daddy wears jeans, boots, and a jacket with a veil. As we were finishing up, Bee Daddy’s bum fired up in pain; he realized that he’d forgotten to put a belt on his jeans and, well, you can guess what happens when the jacket rides up, the jeans slip down, and bees find a way into clothes and onto bare skin.

Poor Bee Daddy.

Ouch! Itch!

In April, we hived a new colony and renamed the hive Bo-Peep. If you’re familiar with Pixar’s ‘Toy Story’ franchise, you’ll know who Bo-Peep and Woody are–a great pair!

Drat! I wish I’d had the time to mulch before we moved the hives. The weeds are going to drive me nuts this growing season!

Both hives are thriving. We continue to feed sugar water to Bo-Peep, as she’s still combing out the frames, but she’s almost done so the supplemental feeding will end soon. Bo’s queen is laying eggs and she appears to be off to a good start in colony life. Soon (we should have already done it!), we’ll remove one of the two full honey boxes from Woody and add an empty one for them to fill during the course of the blooming season. Then we’ll have another gallon or more of honey to process; we already have an embarrassment of riches in that category.

From both a garden aesthetic and a practical positioning, I’m glad the hives are in the back of the garden. The bees don’t care where their hives sit as long as there is plenty of nectar and pollen available, and honey to make and hoard.

In our subsequent hive checks, Bee Daddy hasn’t once forgotten to put on a belt! Lesson learned!