Tales of a home beekeeper
The first two years of keeping honeybees were easy. “Work them” periodically, which basically means looking for signs of a healthy hive. Harvest honey and honeycomb twice a year. This spring that changed.
Unbelievably, our hive swarmed five times and that was just the beginning.
“Oh no, not again,” I’d say, looking out my window in April.
There would be a black spiral, some 10-20,000 bees, whirling dervishes, and a deep buzz. After about 10 minutes, they’d calm down, latch onto (hopefully) a low tree branch in my yard, and wait.
Scout bees return to the swarm with new hive location possibilities. Although the queen is at the center of the swarm, she doesn’t make decisions for the hive. According to Honeybee Democracy (Thomas D. Seeley, 2010, Princeton University Press) the swarm decides using a consensual process. Rowan Jacobson, in his account of the recent fate of the honeybee population (Fruitless Fall, 2008, Bloomsbury Press) calls the decision-making “hive mind.”
Before leaving, whether because the hive is too crowded or it’s in the colony’s genetics to swarm, the queen prepares several “swarm cells” or “queen cups.” If a beekeeper sees these peanut shaped cells that hang from the bottom of a frame in time, decisions can be made to prevent, or try to prevent, a swarm. Nevertheless, often at year three, a hive will swarm. It’s nature’s way of reproducing a hive.
Honeybees are social. They live in hives with 20-60,000 bees. In preparation for swarming, a third to a half of the colony gorges on honey, which is why they are generally docile when swarming. Those who remain select their new princess from perhaps several options. She will, after her maiden or nuptial flight and their acceptance of her, become their new queen.
The drones, as the males are called, are about 10 percent of a healthy hive. They leave the hive every day and gather with drones from other hives at a drone congregation area. There they wait for a princess to fly by. The strongest drones, typically 20-25, are the lucky ones. They mate and then die. “The Bees” (Laline Paull, 2014, Harper Collins) is a fun summer read that anthropomorphizes life inside a hive, starring Flora 717 the sanitation worker, and includes vignettes about this mating and congregating behavior.
Having mated, the queen returns to the hive to lay eggs. According to Marina Marchese in her delightful book “Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper” (2009, Black Dog & Leventhal), in the summer, a queen lays an egg every 20 seconds day and night with a 20-minute break.
When our mother hive swarmed the first time, we caught it and hived it. The subsequent four occurred over the next two months, and we gave them away. With that great a loss of bees, the mother colony didn’t survive despite our interventions.
They grew weaker and eventually were robbed in June. Forager bees can travel three to five miles looking for a nectar source. When they spot a weak hive, they attack. A battle ensues and if the hive is too weak, which ours was, the honey is taken and many defending bees die.
When we put the hive down, I saw that the colony had also been too weak to keep the hive clean. Hive moths, always around in minor form, had taken over. Building an ugly, gauzy pattern of destruction, they lay their eggs in the comb, much like the cuckoo bird, which lays its eggs in another bird species’ nest.
Nevertheless, we had our second hive – from the first swarm – which looked healthy in June and July. There was a good brood pattern (egg, larva and pupa life stages of a bee) in the brood nest, and 10 percent drones. Hoping we might be able to get some honey this year, we added a shallow super (called a honey super) on top and waited for the hive to get stronger.
Our calculations were off. We should not have waited one month to check on them again, but we did. When we looked in August, not only was there no honey in the shallow honey super, the foundation wax had melted on top of the deep super in the heat wave, with no wire to keep it in place. There was no brood, no queen and 30 percent drones — evidence of a sick queen or a laying worker.
This was another doomed colony unless we intervened. We introduced a Carniolan queen in her plastic cage with three attendants. The next afternoon, the hive almost got robbed — further signs of a weak hive.
We decided we needed to add a frame of brood. This way, if the queen lived, there would be some nurse bees, the first job of a new bee, to take care of the new queen’s eggs. We were able to find such a frame within 24 hours of introducing the queen.
When we opened the hive to put the brood frame in, having smoked it to calm the bees, there she was, still in her cage. The sugar plug that keeps her in there had been eaten away — a good sign. The hive seemed to have accepted her; they were crawling in and out of her cage.
We gave her a little pelt of smoke to usher her out. She left, sniffed the propolis (bee glue made from tree sap) on top of the frame as she walked, regally, and turned to take one last look of light, and descended into the darkness of the hive.
Will the colony survive? We’ll be checking in a week to see if there is new brood. If not, we’ll try a few more management interventions, or, take the capped honey, put the hive down, and wait until next spring to catch another swarm.
Easy summer uses for honey and honeycomb
Replace the brown sugar with honey in your tomato based barbeque sauce.
- Drizzle several tablespoons on top of a stone fruit breakfast salad.
- Serve honeycomb with slices of the season’s first Gravenstein apples and a favorite cheese, for desert or fruit/cheese course.
- Serve honeycomb with last year’s walnut crop for desert – it tastes like baklava without the butter and flaky pastry.
- Drizzle honey over French vanilla ice cream with second crop figs.
- Add honey to warm milk in the middle of the night if you can’t sleep.
About Ann and beekeeping
It takes a village to raise a hive. Ann M. Evans keeps bees with Steve Stombler, a long-time beekeeper. She’s on the board of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute, of which Amina Harris is director. Special thanks to Amina’s husband, Ishai Zeldner, both of Z Specialty Foods in Woodland, who provided the queen in the above story, which came from Rick Shubert of Bee Happy Apiaries in Winters. Jamie Buffington graciously shared the brood frame from her strongest hive, our third swarm. Ann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.