Last Thursday I woke up to find that one of the bee hives was upended and the honey comb scattered on the ground. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The other two hives were untouched. What could have done that? Then I saw a big pile of scat ( poop ) on the ground in front of the mess. There was no doubt…. a bear had come into the yard, found the hive, tore it open and ate about 1/3 of the honey. I quickly set the hive back up and surveyed the damage. About 5 combs had fallen out and landed as a unit on the ground and were undamaged. I quickly fired up my smoker, put on my veil and carefully put the combs back in the hive. It was so cold ( about 32 degrees out) that the bees were practically motionless on the combs. I sealed up the hive as best I could, and put the top on it. I have no idea if the queen survived. I collected the broken combs and took them inside to harvest the honey out of them. I asked around and fellow beekeepers told me that I must relocate the hives right away because once the bear knows there is food in an area, it will come back each night until all is eaten. I borrowed my neighbors truck and my friend Jannine came over to help me move all three hives to her yard, about 6 miles away. We had to wait until dark when all the bees had returned to their hives… so there we were… struggling to carry these heavy hives to their new location in the dark of night. ( the full moon was a big help ! ) Sure enough, the bear(s) returned again that night, and for the next two nights looking for more food. I noticed that the bird feeders had been pulled down from the tree branches as well. It’s autumn…bears are hungry and looking for food to fatten themselves up for their long winter hibernation. Can’t really blame them. Just have to deal with them. I’ll keep the hives at their new location and probably bring one back to the yard in the Spring. I doubt if the colony survived the attack. I’ll check on it later this week to see if there is any activity. If there is no sign of the queen, then the colony is doomed… the remaining workers will just die off. I’ll put the combs into the two good hives , clean out the old hive and get new bees next spring. That’s nature for you!
A couple weeks ago my friend Geoffrey came over to help me collect honey from the three topbar hives in my yard. The rule of thumb is to leave about 12-13 bars of comb in the hive to give the bees enough food to last through the winter. Two of my hives had just 13 full combs ( brood and honey) so I left them alone. (The hive can hold 30 bars.) I’d rather leave more honey in the hive than risk them starving. The third hive had 19 combs,, but many of the end bars were only partially built and filled, so we just took out two nice full combs. We took them inside where I cut the comb into squares and put them into special plastic containers. I put the rest of the comb into a colander, gently broke it up and let the honey drain into the below. I ended up with 6 containers of comb honey and 6 jars of honey. Not bad for a year that started off so poorly…. a late frost that wiped out all the spring fruit blossoms followed by a severe drought that lasted through June. Next year, I expect to harvest a lot more, but one never knows what might happen. It’s a challenging environment for raising bees here in Northern New Mexico.
It’s been unusually hot and very dry here this year. We’ve had virtually no rain and temperatures have been in the high 90’s for over a week now. This puts a strain on the bee colony. Bees fan the hive to keep it cool, like air conditioning. But when they are unable to keep the hive cool, they will “move outdoors onto the front porch” and that cools them off, not unlike us in the summertime. This is called “bearding” and it usually happens in the afternoon as temperatures rise. The bees move back inside as it cools off in the evening. Check the hive to see that they are not overcrowded….if so, you will need to make a split. If they have plenty of room, then don’t worry, it’s just their way of chillin’ during a hot summer day.
I’ve received a number of questions about the queen rearing procedure. One of them was “Why don’t the worker bees try to defend the queen and attack when you pick her up?” Good question! First of all, the bees are by nature quite docile. They are bred not to be aggressive. If we notice that a colony is getting somewhat hositle, we remove the queen and replace her with a new one, who hopefully will produce nice calm offspring. Then there is the fact that the worker bees are programmed to defend the hive, rather than the queen. After all, they can make a new queen within weeks, but the real treasure for them are the combs full of developing larvae and the rich stores of pollen, nectar and honey that has taken months to form. Any predator that tries to get into the hive ( bears, raccoons, skunks, humans, etc) will be met by a fierce resistance of stinging bees to drive away the attackers. That’s where the smoker comes into use. A few quick puffs at the entrance and then again over the top of the combs will make them think that a fire is nearby. This will then divert their attention from the beekeeper ( the predator) to the honey, where they will concentrate on drinking up as much as possible in the event that they will have to abandon their old hive and establish a new one in a different location. So with the bees attention on other things, the beekeeper is easily able to get into the hive, find the queen, mark her, replace the cover and move away in a short time.
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Got a call the other day from my bee mentor, Steve. He said he was ready to inspect all his mating nucs and collect the successful queens, Remember that we had first “grafted” very young larvae, put them in to queen cups and placed them all into one queenless hive. The worker bees, sensing that they didn’t have a queen, began to feed all of these ( and there were 60 of them ) with royal jelly to make for themselves a new queen ( guess they can’t count…. haha) After a week we went back in and took out 24 queen pupas and put each one into a small queenless nuc of just two combs. Within days the queen would emerge and IF the bees accepted her, and IF she was able to fly out and successfully mate and IF she found her way back to her new home and IF she is able to begin laying eggs, then we would have a good queen. We opened up each of the 24 small nucs; some had no queen, but some had what looked like there was a queen laying eggs, but as we inspected closely, we could see that there were many cells with 2 or 3 eggs in them… a clear sign that a “laying worker” had developed..not a queen. ( and that’s another story)
It can be difficult finding the queen, but after a while I got the hang of it . She is a bit larger and her abdomen is much longer than a worker bee. When the queen is spotted, Steve reached in a picked up the queen by her wings. ( the Queen bee will not sting) and transferred her to his other hand by gently grabbing her around the thorax with his thumb and forefinger, exposing her back. Then he dabbed a bit of red paint from a paint pen ( found at any craft store) on her back and placed her in a special queen cage. ( why red? ….that, too is another story) I was able to help him by handing him the marker and cage at the appropriate time, speeding up the process. For each nuc, Steve recorded what we had found. He will then go back another day and return the queenless frames back into the hives from which he took them out of.
I found this video of queen marking on YouTube…….. www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4Sb6J_uY3E
About halfway through this process, I found a queen on one of the frames Steve was holding, and he said, OK, why don’t you mark this one? I took a deep breath, reached in. grabbed her wings, marked her and put her into a queen cage. Just like that. ( it’s a good thing I didn’t have time to think about it) I did a couple more and got better at it. We ended up with 12 queens. They will be fine for a day cooped up in their little cages. Steve will take these queens out to his hives and use them to replace old, weak queens to to add to a hive that had lost their queen.
Queens cost about $25 each from a commercial apiary ( not including shipping costs) so it is a real cost savings to be able to rear your own queens, especially if you have a lot of beehives. I have just three hives, and know that I know how to do this, I might just try to make a couple for myself. For now, my three queens are doing well.
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.
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.
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.