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Placing the comb into the carrying box. It's not a full comb of brood but enough to keep her bees busy.

Placing the comb into the carrying box. It’s not a full comb of brood but enough to keep her bees busy.

Placing a damp towel over the comb to keep the humidity up around the brood

Placing a damp towel over the comb to keep the humidity up around the brood

Jannine placing the comb into her hive.

Jannine placing the comb into her hive.

My good friend, Jannine Cabossel has a topbar hive, and a couple weeks ago she went in to check it out and noticed that there were no larvae or brood in the combs.  Earlier this Spring, the colony appeared to be fine but something must have happened to the queen. She could not find her and there was no evidence of egg laying.  Perhaps the sudden cold snap after a couple weeks of nice weather did her in. Without any brood to care for, the remaining worker bees were listless an disoriented.  She needed to get a new queen, but there were none available locally, so she ordered one from Honey Bee Genetics out of California….but it wouldn’t arrive for at least a week.  What to do?   She was afraid that the remaining bees would just dissipate and die off before the queen arrived.  The colony was already reduced in number considerably. She called up our been mentor, Les Crowder and he offered to give her one comb of brood so that the developing larvae would give the bees something to do until the queen arrived. The larvae also give off a scent ( pheromone)  that helps focus the bees into their regular pattern of duties.  I offered to give her another comb of brood for her to add to the hive the day before the queen was to arrive.  We arranged to do that today, as she got word that the queen would come in tomorrow.  I opened up one of my hives, pulled out one bar containing some honey, larvae and capped brood and brushed all the bees off of it.   I didn’t want to introduce foreign bees into her hive, as they could probably end up fighting each other.  I  put the comb in a box that I jury-rigged to hold the comb in the normal position and placed a damp cloth over the comb to keep the humidity high around the brood ( they would die quickly in our dry air here).  I drove over to Jannine’s place and she was ready to receive it.  She placed it next to the other brood comb.  Tomorrow, when the queen arrives, she will put the queen ( in a special cage) between the two combs and then hope that the bees will accept her as the new queen.  The queen comes in a small cage with a sugar candy plug.  The bees can feed her through the cage.   It will take the bees about three days to eat their way through the candy plug and release the queen.  By then, her pheromones will have spread throughout the colony and the bees will most likely accept her.   She will immediately begin laying eggs and the hive will begin to repopulate itself.

This was a close call…… hope this intervention will help save her bee colony.

After collecting the larvae, putting them in the plastic queen cups ( the process is called grafting) and then putting the frame into a  queenless hive, we waited 10 days for the larvae to develop. The nurse bees sense that they are without a Queen, so they take good care of the potential queens, feeding them lots of royal jelly.   Queen bees take 16 days from egg to emergence.  It was important to take a very young larva… perhaps only one or two days old , so  by day 10 ( about  8-9 days after we grafted the larvae into the plastic cups) the potential queens will have formed a pupa and the queen bee cell is sealed over for protection.  The queens will emerge about 6 days later.   I went back to the hive with Steve to check on their development.  Out of the 60 larvae that we grafted we counted 24 capped queen cells. They look like large peanuts.  6 of the larvae that I grafted were successful!   I was pretty excited about my success until Steve said that he usually gets a 75-80% success rate and the big time professionals get 90 – 95%!  Takes lots of practice and a keen eye.

Successful queen cells

Successful queen cells

The day before we checked on the queens, Steve had prepared special hives…small units with just a few combs and no queens. Steve calls this a mating nuc.  We took the queens ( still in their cells) to the hives and put one into each hive by pressing the wax cell into the comb.  When the queen emerges, the bees will hopefully accept her and begin to feed her.  A week later she will be mature enough to leave the hive for a mating flight.  The workers will escort her to an area where a large number of drones congregate each day ( the bee equivalent of a singles bar) and she will mate with up to 10 different males.  Hopefully she will find her way back to her hive and within another week, she will begin laying eggs.

Attaching queen cell to comb

Attaching queen cell to comb

Placing comb back into the mating nuc

Placing comb back into the mating nuc

We will leave all this up to the bees, returning to the hive in about three weeks to see if this whole process has been successful.   I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Queen Rearing

I spent the afternoon with my bee mentor, Steve Wall who showed me how to begin to raise my own queen bees.   Queen bees can live 3  to 5 years, but they are the most productive in their first two years. The bees in the colony are sensitive to the strength of their queen and as she gets older or dies, they will naturally replace her. It is the worker bees that produce the queens. How do they do that?  Well, all fertilized eggs that the queen lays are female and therefore are potential queens. For the first 3 days after the egg hatches in to a tiny larva, it is fed a special substance called “royal jelly” . This stimulates the development of the larva. After three days, however, larva destined to become worker bees are no longer fed this royal jelly and instead are given a lower grade food of pollen and nectar. Their reproductive organs do not develop and they turn in to into sterile worker bees. .  Only those larvae that reside in specially built “queen cells” continue to get royal jelly . Being fed royal jelly will continue the development of their female reproductive organs and the result will be a fertile queen bee.

We can use this knowledge then to get the bees to make a number of queens for us.

And this is how to do it:

1. Select a comb that  has a lot of open brood ( larvae ) in it. This is where the queen has been actively laying eggs.

Comb with open brood

Comb with open brood

2. With a special tool…like a thin pen with a flexible blade at the end…. gently scoop up a very young larva…it must only be 1 or 2 days old. ( see how small it is?  This takes a lot of patience and good eyesight and practice!

Collected larva

Collected larva

Steve looking for larvae

Steve looking for larvae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Carefully place the larva into one of the “queen cups”.  This mimics the special “queen cell” that the workers make to hold the special egg that will develop into a queen. We used commercial plastic cups.

Plastic "queen cups"

Plastic “queen cups”

4. Once all the cups have been filled ( we transferred 60 larvae…. Steve did the first 40 and I followed with the other 20)  the bars are placed back in to a new  hive that has had the queen removed from it .  The workers now will sense that they have no queen and will begin to feed these new larvae royal jelly , as they are in what the workers think are “queen cells”in order to produce a new queen for their colony.

5. It takes 10 days for the larvae to develop and form a pupa( cocoon) . That will be May 3. At this time we will open up the hive and see how many of the 60 larvae have made it to this stage.  If we are lucky we may get 10 – 15 .  Fingers crossed!

I’ll report on our success and the next series of steps to take.  Stay tuned!

Good reference books to read if you are considering this:

“Successful Queen Rearing”: Dr. Marla Spivak and Gary S. Reuter. University of Minnesota Extension Service publication.

Queen Rearing Essentials. Lawrence John Conner

The Beekeepers Handbook, 4th Edition.  Diana Sammartaro and Alphonse Avitablile

How many bees????

Apricot blossoms and bees

Apricot blossoms and bees

The apricot trees have just finished blooming and now the cherries are starting to bloom. ( Apple trees will bloom later) There are so many bees that the the trees are literally humming!  Walking past a low branch I stopped to observe the bees as they busily climbed in and about all the flowers.  I was startled to see 4 different kinds of bees on just a few flowers!  Besides the honeybee, I recognized the small Blue Orchard bee, one of the most common native bees around. But the other two?  One was a bit smaller than the honeybee and the other, about twice a large. What were they?  I did a search of native bees in the area and found out that there are over 500 species of bees just here in New Mexico!

http://aces.nmsu.edu/ipm/documents/native-bees-booklet-final.pdf

Further investigation uncovered the fact that there are over 4000 native bees here in the U.S.  Amazing.  If you want to learn more about these bees, check out this great bug site:  http://bugguide.net/node/view/475348

As it turns out, these native bees do most of the pollinating of our trees and plants, as the honey bee is an import from Europe and Asia. Did you know that a honeybee doesn’t know how to pollinate a tomato or an eggplant flower,  while some native bees are masters at this?    More on this later………

Bees in winter

Yes, I haven’t posted anything all winter. That’s mainly because there really hasn’t been anything to write about.  The bees have been hunkering down keeping warm and protecting the Queen.  There were periods of time when it got down to zero and stayed in single digits for days on end….. brrrr!   But both hives seemed to have made it through the winter.  Now when it gets above 50 degrees, they venture out for “cleansing flights” and I can see them in action. Yay!  ( Bees won’t excrete while in their hive, so they have to hold it until it’s warm enough for them to fly out. ) It’s still too early to open up the hive ( don’t want to chill the girls ) and assess the strength of the hive, but so far, so good.   I’ll give them another month before I check out the hive.

But I have been busy with bees…. bee art, that is.  I have been experimenting with making glass tiles. I cut the glass and then lay a stencil on top. Then I sprinkle black glass frit ( finely ground glass) over the stencil and carefully lift off the stencil. Then it goes into a kiln and is fired until the grit melts and fuses to the glass tile.  I think they came out pretty good for a beginner!  I have made a couple of them into night lights. Perhaps I’ll fuse a whole bunch of them together to make a large honeycomb!

Glass bee tile

Glass bee tile

So that’s what a beekeeper does in the winter!

First Honey Harvest

Went out yesterday to see how much honey the bees had produced and how much I could take from the hive.  Both hives had built up 13 combs… a little less than half of a full hive.  I inspected the bars from the far end first.  The first two combs were incomplete and filled with pollen and uncapped honey.  The next  four were completely full of capped honey. Just beautiful!   Then came the brood comb…with honey at the top and larvae below.  Finally ( at the entrance) there were  two fully capped comb.   I left them there as it not only provides insulation over winter, it’s a natural place for bees to feed from. I took one of the full combs out from each of the hives and placed them on a cookie sheet, as I didn’t want to break up the comb. I didn’t want to take any more, as I wanted them to have a good supply of honey for the winter.   They are continuing to make honey, so I will take one last look next month to see if they have replaced the one I took….maybe I can get in a second harvest.

Honeycombs

I had purchased jars and plastic boxes from Dadant and Sons, so I got them out, took the combs into the kitchen , and cut out 4″ x 4″ squares to put into the plastic boxes, then threw all the remaining comb and honey into a strainer, broke it up with a wooden spoon and let it strain out into a bowl.

Straining the honey

A few hours later, I poured the honey into small hex jars ( 9  1/2 oz size).  And that was it.  When I weighed the amount of honey, it totaled almost 9 pounds!  Amazing.

9 pounds of honey

Ooops! Broken comb.

Broken comb

It was so hot last month that one of the combs fell off the bar.  The bees have been cranking out a lot of honey and this comb was so full and the comb was so fresh that the heat caused it to drop off.  I figured something was wrong when I saw a big cloud of bees buzzing outside the entrance…. I had to reach in a pull out the comb. What to do?  I figured that perhaps if I made a pouch or out of bird netting I could replace it back in the hive.  I stapled one side of the netting to a bar, laid the broken comb onto it, folded the netting back up to the bar and stapled it ….pulling the comb close up to the bar. This way I could lift it up and replace it.  All went well.  This is one of the negatives of using a top bar hive…. there isn’t as much support for the comb as with the traditional Langstroth hive. Haven’t gone back in to check it out yet, but next week I plan to harvest some honey, so I ‘ll see how they reacted to my emergency repair!

Repaired comb

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