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.

Scar No More

Bee Daddy and I have hosted honeybees in our garden since April 2014. Our first two hives, the Warre hives Scar and Mufasa, provided sweet honey, pollinator entertainment, and a foundation of education about honeybees’ life cycles and quirky bee habits. I should add that honeybee education is on-going; those critters always present new and interesting issues which challenge their human colleagues. We lost Mufasa to a varroa mite infestation in December 2015, which you can read about here.

Scar continued honeybee life with little interference from its human admirers. The Warre hives were always difficult to maintenance, so we mostly let Scar be. If it was honey-bound, we’d take some to open up space for the bees to continue their obsessive honey-making, but otherwise we left it alone and busy with its bee goings-on.

In autumn I recognized that Scar was declining and I figured that if we enjoyed a typically mild winter, Scar would either rebound in spring, or not. What I didn’t expect was the week-long freeze, accompanied by a half-foot of snow with attending ice, and a couple of nights single-digit temperatures–snowpocalypse.

Poor Scar. It was so weak and had so few bees to keep itself warm, that during the frigid temperatures the remaining bees froze.

When we opened our two hives for the first check of the season a few weeks ago, all of Scar’s honeybees were dead. Huddled in between frames, clustered together on honeycomb, and dropped to the bottom of the hive–all of Scar’s bees were dead.

As sad as the sight was, for both Bee Daddy and myself, the most poignant was the clusters of adult honeybees over the brood, some capped, some uncapped. Even in their last moments, they were protecting the next generation.

In the photo below and toward the bottom right, you can see some bees with their faces at the opening of the cell. Those are emerging, newly adult bees. The rest of the reddish covering on the honeycomb cells are capped brood.

In this photo you can see adult nurse bees, bums up and visible, as they nurture the larvae in the individual cells. Looking carefully, you’ll notice milky coloring in some of the cells. Several show just a dab of milky coloring, while in others, the milky bit is more pronounced. Those are honeybee larvae.

We’ve taken what little honey there was, only netting about two quarts. With Warre hives, we must crush the comb for the honey to drip and it’s impossible to get all the honey. We have four containers with crushed comb and honey which we’ll lay out for the bees at a later date, when there is a dearth of blooms. The bees from our other hive(s) will slurp the honey, creating their own with it, and continue their hives’ lives.

We’ll remember Scar as a remarkably sweet little hive of bees. We almost (almost!) didn’t need smoke to calm them, they were so easy to work around.

Our remaining Langstroth hive, Woody, is full-to-bursting and very active. We’ll soon remove some frames of honey, as they had so much left over after winter. Woody is so full, I expect a swarm at some point and that’s normal spring behavior and just fine: more bees out in the world! In late April we’ll also be getting another “package” of honeybees, a queen and 10,000 workers, thus bringing us back to our two-hives standard.

Just like everything else, death is a part of beekeeping. It’s always sad to lose a hive, but it is part of beekeeping and part of gardening.