Three, Then Two

I last posted about my honeybee hives in April, describing with awe the drama of a  swarm out of, and then back in to, Buzz.  That event morphed into several months of beekeepers’ head-scratching and eventual realization that something wonky happened in Buzz and that our remedies to fix the wonk proved futile.  Rest assured that Scar, one of our original (Warre) hives, and Woody, our newer (Langstroth) hive,  have enjoyed success this 2017:  queens producing plenty of brood and workers creating generous amounts of comb and honey.

But it’s been a mixed-bag 2017 for our backyard honeybees.

Pollen covered honeybee on Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala).

At the beginning of spring, Buzz was queen right  (meaning that she had a healthy queen), but by April, we saw no brood, which means the queen isn’t laying eggs, which means that the hive is no longer queen right. We requeened Buzz–twice, in fact–but the hive continued broodless, and without brood, there is no new generation of honeybees to carry on the tasks of the hive.  One long-time beekeeper suggested that perhaps Buzz had developed laying workers, which happens when a hive is queenless for a period of time.  Worker bees can lay eggs, but the eggs aren’t fertilized, so no larvae develop, and when there are no new larvae, there are no new adult bees.

Honeybees need their queens.

Laying workers are a particularly difficult problem in a hive and what I learned indicated that once that situation is in play, there’s little a beekeeper can do–the bees will continue killing any introduced “real” queen, and laying workers don’t produce fertilized brood, so the stage is set for a dying hive.

By late June, we accepted that Buzz was done; the gals would live out their lives and the hive would die.  It was a sad conclusion, but we did what we could for Buzz in re-queening and were out of options.  We went about our summer life and should have checked the hive in late July or early August for any problems, but didn’t:  some travel, some stormy weekends, and some laziness all conspired to delay our beekeepers’ responsiblity of checking the hive during that period.  In late August, we finally checked Buzz and horror met us:  Buzz was crawling with the foul and disgusting adults and larvae of the Wax Moth, Achroia grisella.  The comb was riddled with creepy-crawlies, nasty frass, and blackened, mutilated comb.   There were only about a dozen bees remaining in Buzz; the lassies had no comb, pollen, or honey stores left undamaged by the moths and their offspring. We were so appalled at the sight that we immediately and completely dismantled the hive, packaging the frames in plastic trash bags for disposal and undertaking a (somewhat) cathartic wax moth/wax moth larvae killing spree.

Wax Moths are an invasive insect which do great damage to a hive, but are usually only a problem if the hive is weak.

Yup, that pretty much describes Buzz.

Poor, poor Buzz.  I guess we should have attempted to dump some of Buzz’s honeybees into Woody earlier in the summer, but we didn’t.  Up until that last few weeks, we were checking Buzz regularly and while it was clear that there were fewer and fewer bees at each check, Buzz was buzzing.  Apparently, the moths moved in during the August checking dearth, and in short order, totally devastated Buzz.

We worked intensely to rid the hideous invaders from the hive and there was no time for photos of the mess that became Buzz’s innards. The larvae, moths and resulting hive damage was gross–really gross–so we worked quickly to get the job done.  If you want a peek-n-read about this nasty-to-honeybees critter, check out this article from Texas Apiary Inspection Service.

Buzz now sits, forlorn and alone.

I moved the empty Buzz away from Scar and Woody. I didn’t want Buzz’s cooties near the other two hives. There’s nothing scientific about this, just my weirdness.

What’s left is a bit of Wax Moth webbing decorated by larval frass (poop, for the uninitiated).

The inside of the hive is downright pristine, compared to what it was when we discovered the wax moths, larvae and resulting damage.

I need to clean Buzz (vigorous scrubbing with chlorine, water, and a brush should do the trick), and once that’s done, she’ll be ready to host and house another package of honeybees with a young and healthy queen; that’s on tap for mid-April.

As for the other two hives, the news is much better.  Scar–who we thought was a queenless hive at the beginning of 2017–not only had a queen but a wildly, massively egg-laying queen!  Every time we’ve check Scar, fresh brood and loads honey met with our inspections.  During summer, we took 8 full top-bars of honey, yielding a gallon and a half of honey.

Yum!  After crushing the comb and dripping the honey into jars, I always set out the crushed comb for the bees’ slurping pleasure.  There’s plenty of  honey that I can’t get to and I don’t want it wasted.  The honeybees should have it as because they’re the heroines of honey.

Anything with the goo of honey is fair game to lay out for the bees!

The honeybee version of Black Friday!

It doesn’t take long for honeybees to strip the comb of any available, edible honey, leaving dry comb which I dump into the compost bin.

By late afternoon, the comb is dry, the honey is gone.

 

This year we’ve kept our promise to be vigilant varroa mite inspectors and undertook four varroa checks in all three hives.

After shaking a half-cup of guinea-pig honeybees with powdered sugar, we pour them back into their hive, where, due to their sugary coating,  they become everyone’s BFFs.

Scar won the prize for most varroa mites.

Varroa mites are tiny, oval, and red-brown in color. The powdered sugar on the bees, combined with the shaking of  the bottle, sloughs off any varroa attached to bees. We shake the sugar onto a white plate, spritz with water, and count varroa mites.

Even so, there were not enough varroa in any hive check (there must be over 3% varroa found per total population of bees–yes, some math is involved here…),  to require treatment, which is definitely a win for the honeybees and their keepers.

The honeys (and occasional buddies) enjoyed leftover powdered sugar!

A paper wasp joins with the honeybees in nibbling spilled powdered sugar.

 

The honeybees have had a busy year.  What have they done in their spare moments when not tending brood and  producing comb and honey?  Performance art, of course!

Silly honeybees!

So closes our fourth full year of keeping–and learning about–honeybees.  We remain entranced with them, marveling at their work ethic and swooning at their honey. We confess an affection for them (even when we get stung!) and an appreciation for their life cycle and place in our eco-system.

 

Honeybee on a Plateau goldeneye (Viguiera dentata).

I’m grateful for their year-round work and partnership with me in the garden.

Honeybee on Gulf penstemon (Penstemon tenuis).

 

Swarm!

Don’t get excited, it happened four weeks ago and didn’t change much, though it was fun to watch.

Honeybee hives procreate by swarming and the swarming season lasts from spring into summer.  Swarming is the natural, normal act  of a queen leaving a hive, taking upwards to 70% of the workers with her in order to establish a new hive in a new place–that is how honeybee hives reproduce or procreate. Many people are frightened of swarms, but in fact, honeybees are at their gentlest when they swarm:  they have no home, honey, or brood to protect and are docile as they and their queen look for new real estate.  If you’ve ever seen photos of people with bee beards, those bees are swarming and are not in the least scary, they just look scary.  (Really dude? Insects–with stingers–on your head?  What are you thinking?!)

I mentioned in Sugared Bees, Anyone? that we found supercedure cells (emergency queen cells) in Buzz, so is that where the swarm came from?

Nope!

I don’t think so, anyhow…

What I witnessed weeks ago was an energetic and buzzy bunch of bees vacating the hive in droves, wings vibrating and roaring, and bees filling the air.

(Please excuse the lame video.  This swarming business was totally unexpected and once we (and they) were deep in, I hastily tuned to my camera’s video recording, which I’ve never used.  As if that’s not obvious.)

Within a few minutes, the bees clamored around a limb of the Red oak tree under which Buzz resides, where they clustered together with a measure of calm and quiet for about 20 minutes.

Snuggled up

Then, after a respite of tree-hugging, the bees were once again airborne, reversing their flight direction,

…and eventually, crawling back into the hive.

What??

The whole event, from the first mass of bees leaving the hive, to stragglers marching back in, lasted about an hour.  It was awesome!

But was it a swarm?  The bees left the hive in swarm-like fashion, but returned to their home base.  I think that’s a honeybee hive procreation non-starter.

When honeybees swarm, it’s the “old” queen who leaves to establish a new hive. leaving a new queen and some workers, both queens-n-workers ready for honeybee action and hive building.  That’s all fine and good, but in our Buzz, the “old” queen is a queen that we purchased last June who is marked (with a white dot for 2016–yearly color markings are an industry standard), and whose wings are clipped.

Clipped wings, folks.  She can’t fly.

So what happened?  Did she leave the hive with the worker bees and go into the tree?  Or, was it all some sort of honeybee joke?

We have some theories, but we don’t really know.

Once queen cells (the normal ones, not the supercedure ones) develop,  beekeeper wisdom is that the bees will swarm and there’s nothing that a keeper can do to prevent it.  My experience (which is limited) suggests otherwise. We’ve pulled off queen cells before and added space for the honeybees to grow and have avoided the natural process of spring hive swarming.  We attempted to do that with Buzz two weeks prior to the non-swarm swarm, but apparently, mis-timed or mis-applied our swarming-fix. So the procreation pheromones revved-up, the bees engorged on honey, and the word in the hive was GO!

What happens to a queen who can’t fly off with her workers, the ones that she messaged through her pheromone directive that it’s time to fly the coop? Maybe she waits at the front door, waving at them to come back, or perhaps, she plops off of the landing board and onto the ground, where her attendants surround her.

Lots of bees pouring out and onto the ground.

And might this be that clump?  The clump of buzziness was there for the duration of the tree-bound bees, but they crawled back into the hive with the others at the end of the adventure.

Bees clumping on the ground and near the entrance of the hive.

Fewer bees,

… and fewer still. They’re almost all back into their hive.

Imagine the bee-conversations taking place on that tree branch as the swarming workers are awaiting the arrival of their queen:

Do you bring Queen Buzz?

No!  I thought you had her!

I thought Beatrice Bee or Brittany Bee escorted her out!

Did we lose her?? Where is she?!!  Where’d she go?!!  Did one of those dreaded Summer Tanagers eat her?

Oh, man–look!  She’s still on the ground–what do we do?! No queen on the branch, what’ll we do?

BUZZZZZZZZZ!   I guess we’d better get back down there, Queen Buzz must have changed her mind.   Bummer, I was really looking forward to new digs.

And with that community decision, back into the hive they all went–presumably, with their brave, but clipped, queen.

What we know is that there was one “old” queen (who can’t leave the hive and who, for whatever reason, wasn’t  laying eggs) which is why there were supercedure cells in Buzz. What we saw when we checked a week later, was a brief glimpse of a queen–unmarked and presumably victorious over the others who would have also emerged from the supercedure cells–who disappeared down into her realm of hive frames.

Unfortunately, since that event, here as been little-to-no-new brood in Buzz. Obviously, the old queen is kaput and apparently, the new queen is not interested in fulfilling her queen gig–or she’s kaput too.  Maybe she just couldn’t find the right guy, or guys.  To save this hive, we ordered a new queen who will be delivered in early May.  I need to forewarn the new postman.

Woody hasn’t swarmed, but like Buzz, apparently had a queen who decided that egg-laying is for the birds after her initial early spring egg-laying frenzy.  Fortunately for us, BeeWeaver’s headquarters is in a neighborhood 15 minutes from my house and I was able (with a whining email to an accommodating and kindhearted apiary owner) to acquire a new queen for Woody.

With two new, strong queens, both hives should thrive–making bee babies and lots of honey.

These honeybees–they’ve produced much drama and no small amount of comedy this spring.

Honeybee forager working a Gulf penstemon bloom.

So it is when honeybees share the garden.

Sipping water from a birdbath.