The buzz on the bees…

Though this year has been loaded with all sorts of new projects, we haven’t forgotten about the bees.  Here’s a glimpse into what’s going on right now in our bee yard.  We are hosting a lot of bees!

Winter Survival & Spring Beginnings

We started and ended the winter with two hives of bees.  This was quite a success, as we had all sorts of problems last year.  During winter, survival of a hive depends upon the bees having enough stored honey to eat, as they seal up the hive and don’t fly to collect pollen and nectar when it is cold (plus, there is not really much pollen and nectar to collect during the winter months).  Through the winter, we also feed the bees with sugar syrup.  Additionally, there need to be enough bees in the hive to keep warm in their cluster.  So much can go wrong in winter.

Our post-winter hives were overloaded with bees, so Mike decided to split them.  Splitting hives consists of creating new colonies by taking frames of brood, honey, and comb and putting them into new boxes with a new queen.  The goal of splitting was to hopefully avoid a swarm, in which we may have lost half or more of our bees (last year, we had a hive swarm multiple times in a row, until we eventually found the boxes empty).

We drove to Vacaville one Saturday morning in April to pick up our new queens from Honeybee Genetics, as well as three packages of bees to start two new hives for Mike’s friend, Brett, and to start a colony in the experimental Layens Hive that Mike built to test out this year.

Package of bees.

Home and commercial beekeepers generally use Langstroth hives.  As I understand it, this type of hive box was developed in order to allow humans to easily manipulate the bees, move frames around, and harvest honey.  There are vertical frames inside of the boxes, and bees use these frames to build their comb – where they lay their eggs and store their honey.  This is not necessarily the most bee-friendly way of keeping bees.

Commonly-used Langstroth hives.

Experimenting with the Layens Hive

Being interested in learning more natural styles of beekeeping, Mike decided to explore other hive designs that would more closely mimic a colony’s natural home.  Wild hives of bees don’t live in boxes.  Instead, they build nests in tree trunks and other enclosed natural spaces.  After researching options, Mike decided to build a Layens hive.

Exterior of the Layens hive. Mike built it!

Unlike the Langstroth hives, where the nest is broken up into multiple levels, the Layens hive allows a colony to build its nest in one open space, similar to what the bees would do in the wild.

Inside the Layens hive.



Mysterious Queen Cells 

During our inspection of the Layens Hive, we found that the bees had created two queen cells near the bottom of one of the frames.

Queen cell.

There are two general reasons why the bees would want to create a new queen: (1) they are preparing to swarm, and need a new queen to take with them; or (2) they want to “supersede” the current queen, who may not be doing her job of laying enough eggs to ensure survival of the colony (no pressure!).  Swarms generally happen in the spring, so Mike thinks that these cells may be supersedure cells.  Time will tell…

Bee Behavior

On an ending note, here are some examples of other bee behavior:

Bearding: On a warm day, it’s not unusual to see bees cooling down by “bearding” on the outside of a hive box.


Burr Comb:  Generally, bees build very organized comb inside of their boxes, in straight vertical lines from the top of the frame.  Sometimes, they rebel (or, act according to their natural tendencies…) and build freestyle “burr comb.”  This is fine for the bees, but annoying for the beekeeper – maybe they are trying to tell us that they don’t want us messing around with them?



July: An Impatient Month.

I feel a little bit like the woman on those Mervyns commercials from the early 1990s.  Only instead of standing in front of the store saying “open, open, open,”  I’m staring at my tomatoes, saying “ripen, ripen, ripen.”  Mike assures me that tomatoes ripen more slowly on the mountain due to the temperature fluctuations, so I shouldn’t get discouraged by plants not meeting the “days to maturity” target.  But, I’m still impatient and anxious.  We’ve noticed blossom end rot on a few of our plants, which I hope we remedied by adding lime to the soil (which helps decrease acidity and allow for calcium absorption).

Our nine tomato plants, one giant squash, giant marigold & cosmos are overwhelming the space of our garden boxes.  Based on his past experience gardening in this space, Mike had no idea that our plants would grow so big.  By the time we noticed that the squash was strangling the cosmos and a few of the tomatoes, we couldn’t disentangle them.  I decided to cut back the squash to free the other plants, which may or may not have been a good idea…stay tuned for the fate of the squash.

We harvested some wild plums and I made some jam and chutney.  Our stone fruit yield this year is much less than the past few years.  We think that it rained at the wrong times in the spring – either the bees couldn’t pollinate, or the blossoms blew off of the trees.  We have a prune tree with fruit on it, and a dwarf plum that seems like it’s struggling to ripen.  We had apricots one one of our three apricot trees, but left them on the tree too long and they rotted from the inside – how sad!

Creatures of all kinds seem to be drawn to Mike’s property.  Maybe it’s because he doesn’t use chemical pesticides.  Maybe it’s the shade of the redwood trees.  Maybe it’s all of the places where little creatures can hide and feel safe.  Of all the creatures who call Mike’s place home, my very favorite are the California quails.  So, you can imagine my horror when I accidentally disturbed a quail nest a few weeks ago while I was cleaning up a few things.  The mom fled the scene in a flash and my heart sank when I saw a small clutch of unhatched eggs.  I covered it back up and worried.  This past weekend, I asked Mike to look to see what happened, fully expecting that the mom hadn’t come back and the eggs hadn’t hatched.  But, luckily, we found a small clutch of hatched eggs.  This has been a good year for quail on the mountain – we think that at least 3 clutches hatched on Mike’s land alone.  Seeing all of the baby quails running around after their parents is just about the cutest thing ever and never fails to make me smile.


Bees of all kinds are loving the cosmos that we planted with the tomatoes.  We’ve not only seen our honey bees on them, but also native bees and bumble bees.  Here’s a bumble enjoying the pollen.


Lastly, we (knock wood) haven’t had any fires nearby yet this year.  But, the smoke drifting into the area from other fires has been making for spectacular sunsets.  I say the only good thing about fire season is the beautiful sunsets resulting from the smoke in the air.  Sending up immense gratitude for the first responders who so bravely put their lives on the line to battle these horrific fires that have become the norm of late here in the western United States.