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 got home from helping my friend with bees she tried to rescue from the airport at 5:30 PM today.
When I left at 3:00 there were bees in my carport all over some stacked hive boxes there to be painted. I thought maybe a swarm was moving into the stacked boxes. My shed where I store all my bee equipment was getting a lot of activity too. I even left the door cracked to the shed because there were so many bees visiting the interior that I didn't want to leave them in there. And an empty hive box was getting lots of visitors.
It's April and the height of swarm season in Atlanta. If you are a seasoned beekeeper with unoccupied equipment in your bee yard, it's not unusual to see scouts or to get a swarm interested in your empty properties.
I came home and took my dinner out to the back deck to eat outdoors. I watched the hive while I ate, and noticed that there was still some activity - scouting - going on at the hive. I had almost finished my dinner when I heard a loud whirr and looked up to see a swarm moving into the hive.
The whole process took a mere 15 minutes so I filmed it all - it's kind of calming to watch the bees claim a home for themselves. These are truly free bees. They didn't cost me anything in terms of time, effort, preparation or money. Enjoy the video:
A fellow MABA beekeeper got a call from a commercial beekeeper in Alaska yesterday. The beekeeper was calling to report that a huge order of packages had been rerouted in error from Sacramento to Atlanta instead of Alaska. Makes you wonder, doesn't it, if the cargo handler could read - the only thing Atlanta and Alaska have in common is that they both start and end with the letter "a."
So hundreds of packages of bees which should have been in Alaska three or four days ago arrived at the Delta cargo building yesterday. Many were dead. The beekeeper who got the call, Edward Morgan, arrived at the airport and assessed the situation. The bees would not make it until they could leave again at 3:30 on Monday (today) to continue to Alaska and the ones surviving would surely not make it alive to Alaska.
An emergency email went out to the members of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers that if you could and wanted to try to save these bees, they were yours for the taking. Just come to the airport. My friend and partner in beekeeping at SPARK Elementary, Meghan, took her daughter and went down to the Delta Cargo building. They brought home fifteen packages of mostly dead bees.
The packages were nailed together in groups of five and wrapped in soft window screen wire.
It must have been so hot in that cargo container. Only the bees in the end packages showed any signs of life. One difference in Atlanta and Alaska is that it is already pretty hot here and the bees must have died of heat, crammed into that container.
The package facing us in the photo was the only one of the fifteen with a fully live queen. We checked the queen in every package - all were dead except for one other. That one barely moved. We exchanged the cork in her queen cage for a marshmallow and when she began eating it, she perked up.
We put the fully live queen in between the frames in a hive box and set up a hive box over a telescoping cover to catch all the dead bees. We poured the live and dead bees out of the package.
The live bees are in the hive and the package box sitting on top of the hive. The bees you see there are all dead - the ones in the telescoping cover and the ones on the ground. It was heartbreaking.
A few of the fifteen packages looked like this with a few live bees clinging to the screen:
And caged queen after caged queen looked like this:
Meghan kept the dead queens to put in alcohol to make swarm lure.
In the end, the bees moved into the large hive with the queen. You can see them moving into the hive.
The marshmallow-feeding queen went into a nuc box. The bees on the nuc box are clustered over the queen cage. Meghan moved the hive down into her yard and left the nuc box open on the driveway near the now all-opened packages.
We put two opened packages with the most live bees facing each other above the frame with the queen (we added another to the configuration in the above photo). We figured with a live queen maybe most of those bees left in the packages would go down into the nuc box by morning.
This was a terrible loss and tragedy. However, at least twenty beekeepers went to the airport to take bees to rescue. All were not lost, but thousands of bees suffered death in this awful situation.
Footnote: This horrible incident was covered by the New York Times on Sunday, May 1. I didn't know until I read the NYT article that the bees were unable to access their food/liquid because all of the packages were upside down, meaning the syrup in the cans would not be coming through the holes in the bottom of the cans. When Meghan and I went through the packages she brought home I was struck by how full the syrup cans all were.
I still am holding virtual hive inspections and think it is a good value. In person is great, but COVID has taught us that you can learn a lot by asking questions on Zoom as well. This is the hive inspection that I shared last week on Wednesday on Zoom. We start with my top bar hive and then look at my Langstroth hive in my daughter's yard. It ends with a hive that is in the last throes because of a queenless situation and an overtaking by the small hive beetle. I included it so you could see what it's like to lose a hive like that. This hive was fully functioning and doing well three weeks ahead of this inspection.
When a swarm issues from a beehive, the bees gather around the swarming queen on a bush or tree and cluster together. They aren't just resting and they aren't settling in for the long haul. Instead the swarm is sending out scouts every minute to find a new home for the hive. As the scouts return to the swarm, they dance on the surface of the swarm and campaign for the place they think would be a good home.
Tom Seeley explains in Honeybee Democracy that the dancing scouts are trying to convince other bees to go scout out the place they have found. If the convinced bees visit the new home and like it, they return and campaign to get others to go. If the bee doesn't find the place appealing, she returns and doesn't name call or belittle the choice. She doesn't bully the bees who want to move to the new place. She just doesn't campaign for it or try to get any of her sisters to go and visit.
In the end, some new home place will have convinced enough bees in the swarm that it is a good place to resettle. The swarm rises from the tree or bush and flies to the new place and moves in.
But if a beekeeper comes along and captures the swarm, we interfere with honey bee democracy. We have autocratically decided that our hive box is where this hive should live.
Sometimes the bees don't agree.
I have an apiary site in the community garden at Morningside in Atlanta. Like many community gardens, this one is on Georgia Power land and huge power lines run over the hillside apiary site. Georgia Power "maintains" the land because it belongs to them. I put maintains in quotation marks because they do not go near the beehives and the grass grows very tall there.
I don't think the bees like the power lines. I have housed three swarms on that hillside over the years and not a one of them stayed.
Most recently I caught another swarm on April 4. I think it was from my own hive. I have a very large hive that has now swarmed three times. It had some beautiful queen cells in it - huge. One had opened and the others seemed to be left untouched. The first swarm I took to Morningside and they didn't stay.
I think the second queen was in a small swarm about fifty yards from my house. My neighbor who didn't know I would come to get it, promised it to someone else, but I feel pretty sure they were from my beehives. By the time the person she called returned to Atlanta, the bees had left for parts unknown.
As I was driving home from out of town on April 4, my neighbor called me to report that he had seen a huge swarm swirling around in his backyard (just over the fence from my hives) and that it had landed in a shrub across the street. I was about an hour from Atlanta and told him I would rescue them as soon as I returned if they were still there. They were and here is the capture in my new box from Hive Butler:
I decided to house these in a hive in my backyard, about fifty yards from their original hive and this time I put a queen "includer" under the hive between it and the opening to keep the queen in the hive for a day and discourage them from leaving. It then poured rain the entire next day and I couldn't remove the queen includer until Wednesday (almost 48 hours later). I was worried that the bees would still leave, but they did not.
Instead I discovered an odd phenomenon yesterday (April 11). In front of the hive was this ball of bees. I sat down with my veil on and took a tiny stick and tried literally to get to the bottom of it. But the bees were determined to keep this ball going and stung me and wouldn't let me interfere. I noticed that the bees in the hive were continuing to fly in and out with high numbers and regularity. They did not feel pulled to gather with the ball of bees on the ground. Here's what the bee ball looked like:
From the cinder block corner in the upper right, you can see how close they are to the hive. As I disrupted them a bit with the stick, I thought I saw a queen bee but can't be sure. My theory is that like many secondary swarms, this one left its hive with more than one queen. Possibly both queens left to mate and this one was the second one to return. The bees now have a mated queen in the hive and the bees don't want two, so they are balling her to death.
Note: Sometimes hives do have two queens but typically when that happens, it's a mother and a daughter. These two would be sisters. (Need to do more research about this.)
This morning I went out, hoping to find in the grass whatever dead thing they were on top of, and this is what I saw:
The ball is still there - not as active. I expect that some of these bees are dead. Maybe later today I can get to the bottom of it, but I still think what is under the ball is a second queen. I'll know more when I inspect the captured swarm hive in about a week to see if they have a functioning queen.
Bees often ball to death intruders in the hive - like hornets - but I haven't seen hornets yet this year and I'm betting on this being a queen.
Meanwhile, aren't bees the most interesting creatures in the whole world?
At 2 PM the next day (today), the cluster/ball was much smaller. I took a stick and stirred up the bottom and indeed, it was a queen bee. If you have any doubt as you look at the photo (she is curved into a C shape), you can see that her wings end and her abdomen extends about 1/3 longer than her wings.
We'll know for sure next week when I inspect to see a laying queen, but I'll bet I do and this is the second queen in the swarm who managed to leave to go get mated but was balled to death to keep her from becoming the queen of this colony.
From this angle you can see how much longer her abdomen is than her wings.
I brought her inside and she is lying in state on my computer desk. Rest In Peace - she certainly didn't plan for this ending.
Every bee hive tells a story. From the minute you approach the hive for an inspection, the story begins. Watching the bees fly in and out of the hive is the first part of the story. You can read the story of the hive in many ways before you even open the top.
What do you see?
Are the bees regularly and rapidly flying in and out in large numbers?
Does a bee leave almost at the same time as another enters the hive?
Are they bearing pollen?
Do you see any drones?
Is the energy busy and peaceful or is there fighting at the front door?
While this isn't a choose-your-own-adventure story, each observation leads us down a path to the next part of the story.
If the bees are flying in and out in large numbers, you know that your hive is busy and the bees are doing their jobs, whether they are collecting water, pollen, nectar or resin for propolis, they are hard at work. You also know that you have a good number of bees in the hive.
If the bees are leaving and flying in at about the same rate, you still know that the bees are working, but the lack of high level of activity may make me worry about the numbers of bees in the hive and wonder ahead of opening the hive if this means there's a queen problem or that there is another reason the bees haven't built up as fast as the hive with large numbers. (This, BTW, is a reason to have two hives at least so you have grounds for comparison.)
If the bees flying into the hive have pollen on their legs and there are lots of them (a bee with pollen every five bees or so) then you are likely to have a laying queen. It also has to do with the time of day. You'll notice with your own hives when the pollen comes in. My hives are more likely to be bearing a lot of pollen in the morning. However, I have had a queenless hive where bees still bring in pollen to feed the brood still developing after the queen has died.
If you see drones, that tells you two things. If it is early spring, drones flying in and out of the hive means it is time to make splits successfully. Why? Because in order to succeed with a split, the new queen has to get mated. She can only do that if there are drones flying. Later in the year, drones flying is a sign of an ongoing healthy hive which produces workers and drones and all are doing their jobs.
If there is fighting at the front door, it's probably late summer and a robbery may be starting. Bees don't fight with their own sisters, but invaders are a different story. Without even opening the hive, you know you need to take preventive measures - start a sprinkler, put on a robber screen. But many new beekeepers confuse the activity of orientation with robbing and these are two very different events. In orientation, the bees fly out of the hive and turn around to look at it. Then they fly back in and do it again. They are learning how to recognize the hive so that when they are foraging, they can find their way back. The hive looks really busy, but not angry.
Here's a video of orientation flying:
This is an old recording before I had a good camera, but here's what robbing looks like - you'll see it's much more violent than orientation:
These days I am creating monthly crossword puzzles for the GBA newsletter. This month I made one up about installing a nuc or package since many people will be getting their nucs or packages in April. You can work the puzzle online! See how much you know, and good luck - it's not terribly hard in any month, not at all like the New York Times crossword.