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.

Absconded

Honeybees.  They’re good at delivering lessons to those who are arrogant enough to think that we “keep” them.  Each of the five years (happy honeybee anniversary this month!) that we’ve been beekeeping, the insects have taught us something new, forced us to ask questions about their complex biology and our competency, and humbled us with their honeybee prowess.

So what’s on tap for 2020?  For the first time, we’ve experienced the absconding of a hive.  What does that mean? Absconding is when the bees leave the hive–all of the bees, all at once, and with the queen. Why does this happen?  There are many reasons, including lack of food sources, overcrowding, heavy mite, beetle, wax moth load or ant invasion, but it’s mostly unclear why honeybees bolt.  What happened to our hive?  We haven’t a clue. 

Three weeks ago, our honeybee hive, Buzz, swarmed.  A fascinating event to behold, swarming is a normal and healthy event for a honeybee hive.  Swarming is honeybee procreation and usually occurs in spring and early summer. Swarming means is that the hive is ready to make another hive, a new hive.  The established queen sends out her let’s get out of here and find new digs pheromones, and she leaves with a fair number of worker bees to set up a new colony somewhere else, leaving the new queen with the remaining the original worker bees in the old hive.  Basically, there’s one hive, then there’re two hives, and this equals procreation.

As an aside, and since it is spring, you might hear about or see swarms, and you should understand that swarms are not dangerous.   In fact, honeybees are at their most docile during a swarm:  they’ve engorged on honey before they leave the hive (happy, contented bees), they’re hanging out (literally) with their queen, and they have no honey stores or larvae to protect.  Swarming bees are laid-back bees, more so than at any other time of their life cycle.  A swarm might look scary and has the undeserved reputation of being scary, but it’s not scary.  Photos of honeybee fans with bee “beards” are taken when the bees are swarming and not protective of anything; that’s when it’s okay to scoop up a bunch and plop onto your head.  I’ve never placed a swarm on my head or face-nor am likely to do so–but I have picked up a clump of bees in swarming mode and moved them from one place to another.  I’ve also stood amidst a swarm of our own bees.  It’s an unsettling, but incredible experience.  Remaining calm is a must and not because of any issues with the bees, per se, but because humans have an innate fear of bees (those stingers!) and that fear must be controlled if you’re going to hang out with a swarm of bees.  It’s just best not to freak out.

So, Buzz swarmed; she went into my SIL’s tree for an hour or so, then back to our oak tree.

By late afternoon, she was gone from our property.  I have no idea where the bees went, but wish them well in their new home.  Since the swarm, Buzz’s bees looked normal; there were foragers, to and fro, and by all appearances, things looked good.  We should have check the hives a week after the swarm, but rain, then cold, prevented a regular hive check until late last week.  By then, Buzz was quiet.  There were a few bees around, but not many.  Once we opened her up, there wasn’t much to see except a lot of empty comb in both brood boxes and the honey boxes.  While there were some honeycomb cells with pollen stores,

…there was no honey, no capped or uncapped larvae, and a few bees around.  I didn’t see any indication of wax moths, though there were some hive beetles.  Hive beetles are bad news, but every honeybee hive has some beetles; hive beetles (and varroa mites and wax moths) are an unfortunate part of modern beekeeping.  

Could there have been a heavy varroa mite load in Buzz?  That’s certainly possible;  we haven’t consistently checked for varroa mites since last spring; our bees are varroa resistant and the reason we’ve become lazy about checking for mites is that we never saw any.   We lost  a hive several years ago, which you can read about here, to a presumed varroa mite infestation, but it was in late autumn, which is the more typical time for a mite infestation to kill a hive.  Also, Buzz wasn’t “killed” by anything.  There were no dead bees around the hive.  There were simply no bees.

So what happened?  I’ve wondered if perhaps there were actually two swarms, the one we witnessed and another, either before, or after that one.  Other than that, all we know is that Buzz is empty, bees absconded. 

We’re not beekeeping for honey production.  Yes, taking honey is part of this weirdness, but not the reason we started beekeeping, nor why we continue;  honey is a sweet reward, not the ultimate goal.  Therefore, we don’t ignore our hives–never checking them, never heading off problems–but we’ve also learned that too much fussing, too much checking the honeybees is not necessarily best for the honeybees.  What we’ve come to understand is that these critters know what they’re doing and it’s best for them if we encourage an environment that allows their lives to be as easy and productive as possible by providing organic nectar sources, water, and the space to be bees.   We check our hives once every 2-3 weeks throughout our growing season. 

That said, they love messing with our beekeepers’ heads and have tossed a honeybee curve ball to us each and every year.  There’s always something new to learn with honeybees.

Buzz’s brood and honey boxes, abandoned and bee-less, are stacked together in the room where we store the honey extractor. 

Bee Daddy will engage in woodworking magic to repair some minor damage to the frames and the bee hive parts will likely remain sequestered in the house for a year, maybe longer.  Currently, I’m not inclined to purchase a package of bees because a new hive would require feeding with sugar water (to help them get established) which is the ONLY nectar replacement source that should be fed to bees.   With white, refined sugar in shorter-than-normal supply, I don’t want that commitment or responsibility.  If a swarm appeared nearby and was easy to capture, we’d snatch it up, but I’m not going to search far and wide for that scenario. 

We have two, apparently healthy, hives. The Langstroth hive, Woody,

…and the Warre hive, Scar.

If it was my decision, I would have chosen Scar to be emptied.  Scar is much more difficult to manage and when we take honey (which is delicious), it’s a complicated and messy process compared to any similar management of the Langstroth hives.  But that wasn’t our choice; it was Buzz the Langstroth that absconded, deciding that its hive wasn’t safe, or comfortable, or…something.  Whatever was going on with Buzz’s bees, they felt the need to vamoose–and they did. 

Honeybees.  When honeybees are a part of the garden, there’s always a new event to respond to or a different situation to make allowances for.  Learning their ways is rewarding and flummoxing and we’ll continue our education.

Honeybee nectaring on a dewberry flower.