Update on our Honeybees….

I haven’t had a chance to write much these last few weeks. It’s not because I’ve had nothing to write about, indeed it’s quite the opposite.

After running the Zumbro 50 mile in Minnesota several weeks ago, my family and I spent 10 days in Alaska, then I ran a 26.2 mile marathon in the Medicine Bow Range in south-eastern Wyoming.

That trip was then followed by another trip a week later to north-west Wyoming to spend several days visiting Yellowstone, the Tetons and Jackson Hole.

This-coming weekend I will be traveling to California to pace friend Dave Elsbernd at the Western States 100.

I haven’t had a chance to write because I’ve been too busy out doing things!

I will have a lot to write about, if only I get the time!

Since hiving our bees earlier this spring, I have been checking on them every couple of weeks.

The first season is always the most difficult. The bees have to forage for pollen and nectar, secrete wax, build honeycomb. The queen has to lay lots and lots of eggs to replace worker bees dying of old age while building up the population of the hive so it can be strong enough tio survive on its own. There is much to go wrong, not to mention the chance for bees to get bee diseases such as Nosema or be attacked by parasitic mites.

Fortunately, where we live in the mountains, it is remote enough that we don’t have to worry much about pesticides.

Yes, it’s hard to be a honeybee. Some beekeepers lose up to 20-30% of their hives per year.

As I am not doing this for a living, it is more important that our bees are healthy and happy. We are not expecting to get any honey this year. Any honey that the bees make will be left for them to use for food over the winter.

Of our five hives, one had a queen that either was not accepted or died.

Now bee breeders guarantee their bees and will replace a rejected or failed queen. The problem was that this was discovered right before our ten day trip to Alaska. It is one thing finding a neighbor to feed the dogs, horses and chickens, another thing to find someone able to recieve a new queen and introduce her into the hive.

So what did I do?

Right before I left for Alaska, I put in some comb with eggs and young larvae from another healthy hive into that hive without a queen. Where drones (male bees) come from unfertilized eggs, females both queens and worker bees come from fertilized eggs.

If a new queen is needed, the bees know this. They can raise another one on their own from a fertilized egg (ie female egg) or young larva that is a few days old.

So how to the worker bees go about raising a queen from an egg that was otherwise destined to become a worker?

They feed the chosen larva a diet of Royal jelly, which is a secretion produced from glands on the head of young worker bees. A worker bee larva recieves Royal Jelly only the first few days of life whereas a queen larva (and later the queen bee herself) is fed Royal Jelly indefinitely.

After we returned home from Alaska I rechecked the queen-less hive.

Sure enough, their were a few queen cells present. A queen cell looks like a small peanut of wax sticking out from the comb. Female eggs (queen or worker) take three days to hatch but the queen grows much more quickly. A queen cell is capped at day 8, pupates in the cell and then emerges out of the cell at day 16. A worker  cell is capped at day 9, and emerges a a new worker bee at day 21. Drones are even slower growing: egg hatches at day 4, the drone cell is capped at day 10 and then the neew drone emerges at day 24.

After the young virgin queen hatches she must mate. Mating of honeybees takes place outside the hive on a warm sunny day.  Before doing so, however, she kills off all her rivals. A hive can have only one queen.

Most of the time one virgin queen hatches before all other. She goes through the hive destroying her unemerged rivals. Occasianally, two young queens emerge at the same time, resulting in a fight to the death.

Then, from day five through day ten after emerging from her cell the virgin queen takes mating flights. She is chased by drones high up in the air and may breed with as many as 8 to 10 drone while in flight.

After breeding the drones’ genital parts are ripped from his body forcibly. He falls to ground to die.  Even though this takes place many feet up in the air, witnesses have reported hearing an audible “pop.” I have never witnessed it myself and I am not sure if I would recognize it if I did.

The queen then returns to the hive, never to breed again. All sperm is stored inside her available for fertilizing future eggs for the remainder of her life. A queen may start laying eggs as soon as 3 days after mating.

After confirming queens cells, I closed up the hive. I returned a week later to confirmed that all the queen cells had emerged.

But there were no eggs. Now I would have come back to check on the hive again in a few days to confirm that not only had the queen(s) emerged but successfully bred and begun laying eggs. A hive cannot survive for long without a queen.

Unfortunately, this coincided with our trip to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The bees had to wait until we returned home.

Upon the completion of our trip, I checked on  the hive again. There were newly laid eggs in the cells.

But something was wrong. Instead of there being one egg per cell as there normally would be, some of the cells had three or four eggs. There was drone larva developing where there should have been workers…

This was bad…

Queen bees secrete a pheromone that signals her presence to other bees in the hive. However, when a hive is queenless for too long, the ovaries of some of the worker bees begin developing. They begin laying eggs. However, since workers are sterile females, all their eggs will be unfertilized. Hence they can only develop  into drones.

A hive with laying workers is doomed. There is no cure. Simply introducing another new queen will not work. Most of the time they will not accept her.

It is better to prevent laying workers than to try to manage after it happens. Once it does occur the best thing to do with a hive with laying workers is to unite it with another hive that has a healthy laying queen.

So that is what we did.

Nathan and I geared up and lit our smoker. We use smoke to calm bees.

When honeybees smell smoke, they instinctively run to the honeycomb to fill their stomachs with honey. Remember in the wild bees live in trees. If there was a forest fire, bees would have to leave the hive literally flying for their lives. They would try to carry as much as honey as they could with them. Of course, similar to humans and other animals, a honeybee with a full stomach is much calmer, lazier and less aggressive.

Smoke also likely disrupts the alarm pheromone secreted by guard bees to warn other bees to get ready to defend the hive.

We started the smoker with newspaper, then keep it burning with old pine cones and rotten wood. Nathan pumped the belows to keep it burning. Because we live in an area with extreme fire danger, we put the smoker into a metal bucket when not using it to keep it from falling over and the hot metal from touching dried grass pine needles and other flammable materials.

We discovered today that a dried out horse apples smolders with a thick yellow smoke. And no, the burning horse apple does not smell like burnt horse poop. We do have a lot of the stuff lying around from our four-legged hayburners. We already use it in our garden. I never would have imagined it’s good for making smoke in a bee smoker.

The one hive with laying workers was as suspected. Drones were developing in the worker cells. Time to unite with another hive.

If we just put the two hive together, the bees would fight. Possibly the healthy queen in the other hive could be killed. So we introduce them slowly. Normally we do this be putting a single sheet of newspaper between the two hives. By the time the bees gnaw through the newspaper, their scents have mingled and they consider themselves to be the same hive.

Not wanting to take any chances,  I decided to proceed even more slowly. I put a wire screen between the hives and put the laying worker hive on top. In a few days, I will do the newspaper trick.

So now we are down to four hive instead of five.

No problem.

Actually the united hive will now be our strongest hive in the apiary (place where beehives are kept). With the pheromone from a healthy queen, the laying workers will either stop laying eggs or be removed from the hive by other bees.  Instead of having to go through all the work of build comb from scratch in a new hive body (wood box where the frames with comb are hung), it is already there for them to use.

So what happened to the queen they had raised?  Maybe a bird ate her while on her mating flight? Maybe she was injured or died while fighting with another virgin queen?

There is no way to know.

We went on to checked our other hives. Nathan decided to not wear gloves today as he was not going to manipulate the bees as much as I was planning to.

As I finished up with one hive, he was already puffing a few puffs of smoke into the entrance and then removing the cover from the next hive.

I was impressed. It was only his fourth time or so working with bees and already he had the process down.

I have been feeding a sugar syrup made from 1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water. In order to secrete way and build comb, the bees must have honey or sugar syrup.  Although the sweet clover is blooming and ther is nectar to be harvested, I did not want to take any chances… if the bees don’t want my sugar syrup they won’t take it. But if they do, then I’d rather have it there for them. Sugar is cheap compared to the cost of having a hive die and having to replace it.

We use a feeder that is placed on the top of the hive. Sugar syrup can be poured into it as needed without disturbing the hive very much. I removed the feeders to be cleaned and sterilized. After a while there is a tendency for mold to grow in the feeder, potentially making bees sick.

Honeybees have enough to contend with, we don’t need to make it any harder for them but feeding them bad syrup.

Healthy Brood Comb

Two of the other hives looked well. There was comb capped over with developing new worker bees. In a week or two this hives will be thousands of bees stronger. Eggs were seen in empty cells, confirming the presence of a healthy queen (or at least a queen within the last three days, as eggs take that many days to hatch).

One of the other hives, previously strong and with a healthy queen, however, was now without a queen.

What happened? Again I do not know.

Perhaps she failed or maybe I accidently squished her as I was looking at the hive the previous week?  That is unlikely as I am very careful almost never injure or squish any bees if I can help it.

Not wanting that hive to end up the same as the other laying worker hive, I make sure to put in a comb with young larva and eggs from one of the other hives.

We are not planning on any trips in the next few months, so I will be able to check on this hive more frequently than the other one. Hopefully a new queen will be raised, she will mate and return to successfully start laying eggs in the near future.

If not, then I guess we will be down to only three hives.

Nathan and I also put slotted racks on the bottom of the hives. A parasite that has decimated the US honeybee industry is the destructive Varroa mite. Although there are chemicals to be used for treatment, many of these mites are now resistant.

Plus, I try to garden as sustainably and close to organic as I can, why have a different philosophy with our bees?

Instead of a solid wooden bottom board, I have wire mesh screens. Part of the Varroa life cycle involves falling to the bottom of the hive. With a solid bottom board, the mites can easily climb back up and find another bee to parasitize. With the screen, they fall to the ground and die. The wooden slotted rack goes between the screened bottom board and the hive, it give the bees a little more space to cluster and a little more protection from the wind blowing up through the screen.

I will write in more about our experiences managing parasitic bee mites through more natural sustainable methods in future posts.

Anyway, Happy Father’s Day everyone. Jeanne and Nathan have a picnic and fly-fishing trip planned for me this afternoon, so it’s time for me to wrap it up.

I will post more in the future.

Take care and be well.

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2 responses

  1. Best wishes for all your Queens to remain healthy and Queenly! What a process. looks as if you are running really well again as well!

    June 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm

  2. Interesting new hobby. I just saw your reference to zumbro, next time you do an ultra in Mn, drop me a note as I would be happy to pace or cheer you on. I had been planning on volunteering there but it didn’t work out. Looking forward to your future posts.

    June 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm

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