Bee Mama Missive: Dark or Light?

The girls are at it again!  Buzzing, foraging,

…occasionally stinging (only when I invade their space), and making masses of ooey, gooey, delicious honey.

Not long ago, in response to the bees filling up their second boxes and working diligently on combing out their third boxes, Bee Daddy and I decided that it was time to extract some honey from the hives, giving the ladies a bit more elbow room to do their bee thing.

We checked both  Mufasa and Scar and all seems well.

In fact, they’re growing quite a bit this summer; lots of capped brood and squishy larvae in all sizes.  Both queens are laying eggs out the wazoo for the next generation of workers and this generation of  workers are moving the honey production (and everything else they do) right along.


See these dark, round beetles on the side of the box and scattered amongst the bees on the top?

They’re Small Hive Beetles, Aethina tumida, an invasive pest of honeybees and scourge of honeybee keepers.  They were obviously skedaddling away as we smoked and opened the hives.  I didn’t even see them in the photo until I was placing the copyright, but the devils were there, planning their evil takeover of the hives.   I’ll be posting more about them another day, but I just wanted you to get a good look at these bad bugs.  BAD BUGS!!

We opened the hives in late June,

…and saw lots of bee activity and comb galore.

Gorgeous, honey-filled comb!  I’m hungry.

When we extract, we always leave some full comb and rearrange the bars so that there’s one full bar with comb adjacent to another bar without full comb, in a checkerboard fashion. This gives the girls room to maneuver and work on combs throughout the box.  The checkerboard also allows us easier access when checking the hive.

Because our Warre hives use top bars and no frames, our bees make interesting comb at times.

This comb looks like the girls just came out of geometry class after learning  how to make circles, and wanted to practice and show off their new skills.

Extracting comb is messy.  When I do it, anyhow.  This time, some honey spilled. These gals went down in a goo of glory.

A few bees went for it and, well, a sad end, but what a way to go!

As I gain experience with this beekeeping nonsense, I wised up and rather than cutting the comb and stuffing it into resealable bags, covering myself and everything else in honey, I’m now using reusable plastic containers.

Duh. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before, but my life is now easier on extraction days.  Equipment readied,

…and here’s the final product.  Ta da!!  We extracted just under one gallon of honey.

Can you guess which is the spring honey?  If you shouted  The left one!!  The left one!!  (and your family members are now looking at you with concern), you’d be right.  Other than bees take honey from different flowers at different times of the year,  I haven’t quite nailed down the reason why our spring honey is lighter and more liquid than the fall honey.  The jar on the right is the last of the fall honey, which we’ve almost finished, and it’s remarkable how different the two kinds are.  Of course, I know what the bees are foraging from my gardens, but they travel upwards to three miles, so I have no idea of the entirety of what makes up the honey product  Funny story: at one of the first beekeeping meetings we attended, another beekeeper mentioned that a local university will test for nectar sources of honey samples.   A friend sent honey to this university and the top nectar source was a non-native plant (I don’t recall what) and the second source was cannabis.  A woman raised her hand and asked where she could buy that honey.

Honey does taste different–depending upon nectar sources and time of year.  Both the fall and spring honey from my darling bees is exquisite–it tastes nothing like what’s  sold at stores.  The fall is richer and thicker and the spring is lighter, more fluid.  I’m guessing that there’s some evolutionary reason behind the thicker fall honey.  After all, the bees create it to sustain themselves during the long winter and it makes sense that fall blooming flowers might have a richer nectar component than at other times of the year.  But truthfully, I have no idea. I’m just going to enjoy both spring and fall honey, weight gain notwithstanding.

After I crush the comb and extract the honey, I always leave it out for the bees to clean up.  They’re quite efficient and gobble every last drop of honey I missed.

To quote from a favorite movie of mine, said by the character played by James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story  The queen will have bread and honey at the usual time.

Bee Mama Missive: Honeybee Love

As good beekeepers, we follow advice from those who know more than we do–which includes the vast majority of attendees at the monthly Austin Area Beekeepers Meetup.  The advice this month was to open hives, check out the gals, see if they’re starving or if there’s honey left over after winter, and institute swarm management.

That term sounds like something you’d hear in a leadership management course.  Ugh.

Swarm management.  It’s basically crowd control.  Perhaps more accurately, a kind of birth control. A honeybee hive is a superorganism.  A superorganism is a collective of individual organisms which work together as a whole, where the individuals cannot survive without the collective.  The way a hive procreates is to divide itself by swarming into a new hive.  A new queen is anointed, she leaves the hive, taking workers, maybe as many as half the workers, with her to happily settle in a tree hole or ceramic pot, as happened in the garden of a friend of mine.  Swarming is not something we want for our bees. At some point in the future, probably next spring, we plan to hive our bees into one or two Langstroth hives, eventually ditching our Warre hives. That’s not happening this year–we don’t have time to build new hives.

So as part of our swarm management responsibilities and because it’s simply time to see how the ladies are faring, we opened our hives to check for any leftover honey stores, to see if our queens are laying eggs with resulting larvae, and if there are any queen or drone cells developing.

On Valentine’s weekend Bee Daddy and I donned our bee suits,

…fired up the smoker,

…organized our honeybee paraphernalia and got to it.

As a refresher, our hives are Mufasa and Scar.

For those of you who are parents of a certain age, these names will be familiar–from the overplayed Lion King movie which was released in 1994 and by 1995 was on DVD (remember those?) and that a little tiny girl watched while Mommy held the new baby brother.  At least, that’s how it was at our house.

The names were given (in the case of Scar) for obvious reasons–oops that table-saw blade pulled the wood right out of Bee Daddy’s hand, leaving a scar on the wood and a partially numb finger on the Bee Daddy.

Yes, there was lots of blood and a long afternoon visit to our local Emergency Room.

Mufasa is so named because that’s the obvious next choice.

This was the first full hive-check in quite a while as we haven’t opened the entirety of each hive since re-queening last July. This February examination was a complete physical, if you will.  Mufasa was first on our list of hive appointments.  We took off the top box and there was only empty comb.

I knew that already because I’d peeked in there occasionally on the warmer days of winter.  Mufasa has always been our smaller, less hardy hive, so I wasn’t surprised or disappointed that the bees hadn’t mustered the numbers to honey-ize the top box.  Off it went, stored for later use in the season. If all goes well–good flower production and pollen/nectar gathering in conjunction, we’ll pop it back on later in the season.

Then we checked the second, or middle box.

A side story:  In September, as we checked our hives, a comb with full, capped honey broke, which I decided to leave in the box as is, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy to extract once the bees reconnected it to the box.  You can read about the dropped-comb incident here. Now after winter, the time of reckoning is at hand–we must carefully cut each top bar with comb, to check honey stores and brood development. And that check includes the cross-comb developed from the dropped comb.

Oh, the stress of it all.

After slowly and carefully cutting away the comb from the sides and the bottom of the box (which directly attached to the bottom brood box), we were very happy with the results.

Mufasa’s second/middle box was moderately full of capped honeycomb, with some empty ready-to-be-filled comb.

We removed the cross-comb and cut the comb off a couple of the top-bars.

… and bagged some rich honeycomb for later honey extraction work in the kitchen.

We left some comb with honey and some empty comb so the bees have honey on cold rainy days and room for brood and more honey stores–whatever is their preference. Both of those goals are in keeping with swarm management–give ’em room to grow, so some of the more rebellious members of the hive don’t have an excuse to leave home.

Finally, we checked the bottom, or brood box and what good news for Mufasa and tangentially, for us!!

Whoop!! Queen Mufasa (the name suggests a little gender bending there–Mufasa was a dude lion, Queen Mufasa is a queen bee), is ramping up for spring, laying eggs and the larvae are growing and developing. You can clearly see that there are capped and uncapped larvae.

What a great queen she is and how ’bout those workers, eh?

The development of adult bees occurs in stages and is driven by pheromones according to what hives need: workers, drones, or queens.  Capping instigates the final stage in development–what emerges two to three weeks after the egg is laid is an adult bee.  All of these are workers (because of where they’re located and how they’re capped) and the hive will need workers once spring nectar flow begins–in about three weeks.  The timing is perfect!  We didn’t see any queen cells, which is a good sign. Queen cells develop on the sides or bottom of the comb and are larger and oblong–very different from what the photos here show. That no queen cells exist signifies that the bees are content with their queen–she’s healthy and laying eggs and everyone, it appears, is down with that.

We closed Mufasa,

…grinned, did a little dance and high-fived each other, then moved onto Scar’s examination.

It was, essentially, more of the same.  Lots more.  In Scar’s top box, all eight top bars were full of capped, glorious honey.

Heavy, heavy bars of honey.

We removed all eight, cut the comb, bagged it and stored the box for later use.  The second box was similar, though some comb was empty.  We left some full honeycomb, as we did with Mufasa.  The brood box was also full of good news.  Like Mufasa, Scar contained capped and uncapped brood, no queen cells, and stored honey.

I’d call the examination of both hives a good day at the office.  Both Mufasa and Scar have a brood box and a secondary box for expansion.  If the year goes well, the bees will produce enough brood, honey, and comb that we’ll add another box in late summer or early fall, just like we did last season.  I don’t think that far ahead though–there are too many factors and variables in beekeeping.  For the present, in late winter, the immediate future looks good for both hives.  Fingers crossed that success continues into the new year and growing season.

Time to clean up and,

….what do I do with all that honeycomb????

Bee Mama Missive: Honey Flow, Honey!

My honeybees have been busy bees this autumn. They’re all over the fall blooming perennials like Goldeneye, Viguiera dentata,

...and Frostweed, Verbesina virginica.

And let’s not forget how much the honeybees (and everyone else, it seems) work the Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum.

As well, honeybees adore the blooms of Coral Vine, Antigonon leptopus.

When I walk into the back garden, day or night,  the fragrance of honey drifts from my hives.  Mmmm.  Breathe deep. That honey-strong fragrance indicates that there is a honey flow happening and it’s been going on for a while.  Honey flow occurs when there are blooms galore and plenty of nectar to gather and honey is busily bee-ing made.

Recently, we checked both hives and Scar’s three boxes are full of comb and

Mufasa has been the weaker of the two hives, but its two boxes were also full of comb and honey and ready for a third box.  So we prepared another set of top bars for Mufasa’s third box. We melted down some frozen comb from the July honey extraction,

…to add to the bars. This little track of wax will help the girls start their comb-building.

Before adding the third box to Mufasa, we sneaked a peek to assure that all is well. The comb in Mufasa’s second box is heavy with honey and larvae.

However, If you look closely,

…you can see how the comb is undulated–sort of wavy-gravy kinda comb,

…not neat, tidy and vertical comb aligned with the bars as it’s supposed to be.

This, dear readers, is an example of poor beekeeping management.  In early September, while checking Mufasa, one of the combs broke off of the bar.  Unfortunately with the Warre type hives that we built, this easily happens.    I made the beekeeper’s executive decision to place the broken comb back into the box, as best I could, rather than removing the comb and the honey.  If it was earlier in the growing season, I would have removed the comb and extracted honey and the bees would simply rebuild–after all, that’s what they do. But the latest broken comb incident occurred late in our growing season and I didn’t want to take honey from the bees.  So, I dropped the comb in, knowing that they wouldn’t repair it as perfectly as it was originally built. Given that our beekeeping  goals are not so much about the production of honey for us, but for the bees themselves, it’s a reasonable decision to make.

Assuming our hives survive winter, my best amateur guess is that there will be honey left over and we’ll extract it then, along with the wonky comb. With our Warre hives, when we take honey, we have to take comb too, as there is no straightforward way to extract the honey without crushing the comb.  It’s simply how the design works. Next spring, the hive will have the whole growing season to rebuild and restock their honey stores.

We added the third floor to Mufasa a couple of weeks ago and when recently checked, the bees completed two bars with comb and honey.   That’s fine and expected; they’ll build more comb over time.


I’ve continued observing a few Small Hive beetles in both hives, which you can read about here, but not many and not every time I check.   When I opened Mufasa this past week, I saw and killed what looked like two Wax Moth larvae.  Well, I knew they would invade eventually.  I opened both hives and didn’t see any webbing that is indicative of a mass infestation of the Wax Comb moth. Whoop!  But I am popping Mufasa’s top off most days to check–just in case.  In one of the articles I read about the Wax Comb moth, the author suggested that if the beekeeper kills the moth larvae, then drops the dead larvae into the hive, it teaches the bees to kill the larvae as invaders.  I have my doubts about that particular management practice, but that’s what I did–not because I’d read to do that, but because I was grossed out and offended to see the two larvae crawling along Mufasa’s hive.

Bee Mama is protective of her little bees.

We’ll  thoroughly check both hives at least one more time before true winter sets in.   Both hives have plenty of honey stores (fingers crossed) for the winter and we’ll see how they fare.

The bees continue their work.  Foraging,


…sipping at their local watering hole,

….and being bees.