This is the tale that began in 2006 in my first year of beekeeping in Atlanta, GA. ...there's still so much to learn.
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I've been keeping this blog for all of my beekeeping years and I am beginning my 18th year of beekeeping in April 2023. Now there are more than 1300posts on this blog. Please use the search bar below to search the blog for other posts on a subject in which you are interested. You can also click on the "label" at the end of a post and all posts with that label will show up. At the very bottom of this page is a list of all the labels I've used.
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I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here.
Along the way, I've passed a number of certification levels and am now a Master Beekeeper Enjoy with me as I learn and grow as a beekeeper.
I am cautiously optimistic. I walked to the community garden and this is what the hive looked like:
New hive facing away from the community garden in opposite direction of the nuc hive next to it.
The tall hive (tall because of the two medium boxes used to surround the Boardman feeders) is the absconding hive that I moved yesterday.
The bees were calmly flying in and out. I lifted the top and they were taking honey but there was plenty left in the largest jar. I think I am going to leave them alone until tomorrow and then consider adding a frame of brood and eggs. I hope they will stay and they looked like they were making this their home, but clearly I am not in the bees' heads, so tomorrow they may leave again.
In search of information about absconding, I went to my favorite source: Mark Winston's The Biology of the Honey Bee. I have had bees abscond before in my fifteen years of beekeeping. I had a colony, overrun by small hive beetles, with all of their honey slimed, abscond a few years ago. I had another colony abscond in the face of approaching forest fires in N. Georgia in 2016. I've had them leave for unknown reasons in 2013. Although in 2013, someone had been doing electrical work with a jack hammer just feet from the hive for several days in a row.
On two occasions, the one at my house yesterday and in 2013, I saw the bees making preparation to abscond, carrying out white larvae, and attributed it to their being hygienic about varroa.
But here's what Mark Winston says about it:
"Absconding can be defined as the abandoning of a nest by a colony which forms a swarm and presumably reestablishes itself elsewhere. Absconding swarms differ from reproductive swarms in that few or no workers and no adult or viable immature queens are left behind in the original colony. Absconding from feral nests is generally either disturbance induced or resource induced." (Winston, Mark, The Biology of the Honey Bee, p. 218)
Absconding is not the same as putting a swarm in a colony and having the entire swarm leave. For example, once I hived a swarm in a top bar hive with a screened bottom board. They left and gathered on the ground rather than be in that hive. I put them back in the hive and they left again. Then I put boards under the screened bottom board, closing out the space and light. This time they stayed. They were not involved in planning absconding.
Resource-induced absconding, according to Winston, happens during the dearth when nectar and other resources are scarce. We are in a dearth in Atlanta right now. When absconding happens because of a disturbance like the forest fire in the mountains in 2016, the bees don't prepare as well. So those bees left behind frames and frames of what turned out to be prize-winning honey. But for absconding like my bees were planning yesterday, lots of preparation is involved.
Winston says that sometimes for weeks ahead of time, bees prepare for absconding due to a resource shortage. They reduce brood-rearing about 25 days before they leave and "rear no new larvae in the 10 - 15 days preceding absconding." (Winston, p. 219) If the queen lays a few eggs during this time, the workers eat them. They appear to time their absconding to happen just after the last brood has emerged so the result is that they leave with lots of new, young bees to help start the new colony.
Just before going, they engorge with honey (way more than if a hive is preparing to swarm) so that all that they leave in the hive box are wax combs. Winston suggests that they consume the pollen which then stores protein in their fat bodies and hypopharyngeal glands. He also says that unlike swarms, the bees don't send out scouts ahead of leaving. Instead they fly long distances (as much as 100 miles) before scouting for a new place. They will fly through areas of poor forage to find somewhere with a source of food for them before settling down. And they often settle in what Winston calls "interim locations" in their search for a better living situation.
So this doesn't bode well for my moved almost-absconding colony, although the community garden has vast resources for them and it is very close to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. And maybe my jars of honey in the interior Boardman feeders will suggest that food is available. I am going to walk the dog to the community garden and see how they seem to be doing. They were orienting yesterday, but they would have to orient to any interim spot as well.
Thank you, Mark Winston. Whenever I have a question about how the bees function, his Biology of the Honey Bee has the answer. Every beekeeper should own and read this book:
While that poem is obviously location-related, in Atlanta, it applies well although most of our swarms which are definitely worth a silver spoon (or much more - after all, they are free bees) usually occur in March and April. Definitely we don't typically have swarms in July.
So imagine my surprise when I looked out of my window at 6 PM on a Friday night to see my survivor beehive swirling by the thousands up in the air. I was too panicked to think to video the event, but I thought is this robbing? I didn't think so because there were no attacks as you usually see in robbing. But it is JULY. So I picked up the hose and set it on shower and sent water straight up into the air and disrupted the swarm.
I called my friend Julia who gave me the hive. She said that the man whose survivor bees she split to create this hive has swarming all season long. I do know that Russian bees often swarm throughout bee season.
I just did a split to control the varroa mites at the community garden, so I wanted a queen cell. Great, I thought, I'll go in this hive in the morning and get a queen cell. Even if I lose these bees, I'll have a queen with their genetics.
Eventually the bees settled down on the side of the hive. And as night fell, they all were back inside the hive.
First thing this morning I went outside, lit my smoker and proceeded to open the hive. I made a video below.
As the video notes, there is absolutely nothing in any of the honeycomb - no brood, no honey, no nothing. And there are thousands of bees in the hive. These bees were absconding, not swarming.
Bees abscond when they think something is wrong with their home - sometimes it is that there are too many small hive beetles, sometimes they don't have enough food and have no hope for forage or feeding, sometimes their hive is damaged and they don't feel safe. Who can know the mind of the bee? But all beekeepers - inexperienced and experienced - have dealt with absconding, even if they didn't define it as such. A beekeeper may tell me, "I went to the hive and all the bees were gone. I have no idea what happened." If there is nothing left in the hive, the bees absconded. When they leave, they take all of their supplies, all of the honey.
I had noticed that a new box I put on this hive had a broken corner and the bees were forced to guard the broken corner as if it were an entrance. Maybe they didn't feel safe in the hive. The hive was in shade much of the afternoon and maybe there were too many small hive beetles. The hive had lots of honey when I last inspected but we are in a dearth and maybe they saw no hope for enough food for the future.
When I replaced the new box with one that wasn't broken, I noticed that the bees were carrying out larvae. At the time, I thought how great that they were such good survivor bees, carrying out defective or infected larvae. But that wasn't what they were doing. They were carrying out larvae because they were leaving/absconding and wouldn't be in the hive to care for their young - so they got rid of them.
When I recognized what was going on, I thought they are looking for a new home. What if I move them and give them a new home? Maybe that will keep them in my apiary. I love these survivor bees and the sister hive of this hive is at the community garden. I could move them there. While I began preparations to move this hive all by myself, I put a Boardman feeder inside the hive with a jar of honey to feed them, if that was the motivator.
I started at 8:30 and it was 12:30 before I was completely finished with this project. I took two plastic nuc boxes that I have and filled both of them with bees. I did this by shaking each frame off into the boxes. Then I had to shake each box. I looked for the queen but I never saw her and I never saw the bees with their rear ends in the air sending out nasonov....but I was VERY busy. Still, I don't know if I had the queen or if she were in the grass somewhere.
Bees do give tale-tell signs - like if the queen is in a corner, all the bees will start moving toward that corner or if she is in a box, they will easily go into the box. This whole process was like catching a swarm except that I was moving a hive as if they were a swarm. But I never saw any of those signs. So I thought I would get a frame of brood and eggs out of one of the community garden hives when I got there to help them make a queen if she didn't make the journey or was injured in the process.
I was by myself and had to make six or seven trips to and from the car, carrying equipment, cinder blocks, and/or bees each time. By the time I got to the last step of putting on the feeder and the surrounding boxes, I felt light-headed and faint. It was hot as blue blazes, as my mother used to say. I didn't get a frame of brood and eggs from another hive and just hoped for the best. I may go up there tomorrow and add a frame of brood and eggs. Doing that will make it OK even if the queen didn't make the trip or survive the trip. The frame of brood and eggs will inspire the bees to stay in the box. And will give them the resources to make a new queen.
At the end of the move, this is how the hive looked:
The entrance is actually on the other side of the hive, but I didn't think of that and kept treating the hive as if it were facing this way. You can see bees all over the hive and the area. You can see the community garden nuc hive to the far side of the new hive.
At around 3 PM at the end of the afternoon, I went back to the community garden and found the bees doing orientation flying and acting like they were comfortably home. I realized that the notch in the inner cover provided a door for robbers to enter where the bees are feeding on honey, so I stuff grass into it before I left.
Hopefully they will live well and prosper, but after all that work, they may still abscond tomorrow! But I will go in the morning and add a frame of brood and eggs from the sister hive next door to them.
As a side note, because I did this move in the day time, there were at least a thousand bees left behind who were circling in the area where their home used to be. I finished at 12:30 and at 1:30 this afternoon, there was a fierce thunderstorm. When I drove back into my driveway, the thousand bees were clinging to the hive to the left of where there hive had been and as the rain fell, they moved in with their neighbors!
Riding in my father's car when I was young was like inhabiting a library of information. An unabridged dictionary was always in the car to settle any word identification discussions. He was a bird watcher, so there were stacks of field guides with Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds on the top of the pile. He was also interested in mushrooms, so there were books about mushrooms. My mother loved and could identify any wildflower or tree, so for her the car contained tree identification books, Gray's Manual of Botany and the three books that comprised Britton and Brown's Illustrated Flora.
Britton and Brown's three books were a botanical key so you could identify an unknown plant. I vaguely remember that you had to determine if the plant had leaves that were opposite or alternate and whichever answer you gave led to the next question and the next until you finally determined the identity of the plant.
If you had the answers to each question, you could get closer and closer to its actual identity.
Wouldn't it be helpful to have something like that to figure out what might be wrong with your bees?
Jamie Ellis and others (Dewey Caron, Debbie Delaney are among the authorities who contributed) have created TheBEEMD - now on the web. What it intends to be, as I understand from listening to the latest edition of Two Bees in a Podcast, is like WebMD for bees. I think it's like my mother's botanical books - a key for identifying bee troubles by following a set of questions and answer choices which lead you to possible solutions. On the podcast they suggested that we go online and put in a common situation and see where it takes us. I tried but unfortunately used two situations that maybe they didn't see as problematic enough to put in the database.
I am often asked at this time of year about bearding and if it means something is wrong or that the bees are about to swarm, etc. So I put that in and it didn't go anywhere, but maybe they didn't consider that a problem. Then I looked for the difference in robbing and orientation - another question I am asked a lot -and that isn't there either. The answer that leads you to robbing says seeing wax crumbs on the landing in cool weather, but we see wax crumbs in extremely hot August here when robbing has occurred. The BeeMD answer helps you understand what evidence indicates that robbing has already occurred, but doesn't clarify what robbing looks like. I would like it to have both.
So here's how the experience goes. First I have to decide what part of the bees/beehive is the area of my concern:
So for the purposes of exploration, I chose Internal Hive.
Then I saw:
So I chose unidentified worm. I was hoping to see how they determine the difference between a wax moth larva and a small hive beetle larva. Here is what I got:
Now, you'll notice they don't have a photo of the small hive beetle larva. On the podcast, they said they had a hard time getting enough/the appropriate photos. There are tons of photos on the Internet of small hive beetle larvae and there are ways to distinguish them from the wax moth larvae, but I imagine there were issues of a proprietary nature. Also some of the areas are incomplete. When I chose "Honey" as my area of concern, there were no questions, no answers, and no diagnoses. I wanted to see if they addressed a box of honey as a barrier to the queen or if they addressed wet-capped vs. dry-capped honey.
I think BEEMD is a work in progress but a really helpful tool if you want to understand how wax moths take over when a hive has died or if you are worried about being queenless, for example. It provides pretty good descriptions of bee diseases. And they want feedback so if you can't get the answer to the problem you are observing in your hive, click on Contact us and fill out their feedback form.
BeeMD feels like a project in its infancy with miles to go to be the comprehensive tool that it has the potential to become.
Here's the edition of Two Bees in a Podcast where they discuss TheBeeMD: