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.

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Inside the Layens hive.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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