Free Bees, Courtesy of Migratory Beekeepers

Catch a swarm without even trying.

The cherry trees are blooming in the Wenatchee area and that means the bees are back.

Every year, thousands of beehives are shipped to the area and placed around orchards to pollinate the flowers. Apricots are first — although there aren’t many apricot orchards in the area. Then comes cherries and then apple and pears. The season has just started and it should go on for at least a month.

My friend Tina and her husband Bill have a cherry orchard in Malaga, not far from where I live. Although they usually keep one or two of their own bee hives, that’s not enough to pollinate their entire orchard. So they rented about 30 hives, which were delivered the other night, likely right from California. (Migratory beekeepers move bees at night when they’re all inside their hives.)

The other day, Tina excitedly texted me that the bees were swarming. Turns out that they’d found her empty bee hives — her bees had not survived the winter — and a swarm had moved into one of them.

If you’re wondering what all this means, you might want to read a post I wrote back in 2013, “Bees: Capturing My First Swarm.” It explains why bees swarm and what’s usually involved in capturing a swarm. But Tina didn’t have to do any of the work. The bees just moved into an empty hive on their own.

I told her she should put other empty hives out to see what else she could catch and she said she did. Then I asked if I could put one or two of mine out. After all, if more than one colony was swarming, it would be great to catch as many of them as we could. Great for the bees, since they’d get a new home easily. Great for us because we’d get free bees. And it didn’t affect the migratory beekeeper since the bees were going to swarm anyway. If we didn’t catch them in our beehives, they’d end up somewhere else.

Keep in mind that buying bees usually costs about $100 to $150 per colony, depending on how many you get and how you buy them. And where you buy them from, of course. Since it’s common to lose 50% of your colonies over the winter here, a lot of folks spend a lot of money buying new bees. I replaced 6 colonies one year and swore it would be the last year bought bees. Now I make new colonies through splits and try to catch a few swarms every summer.

So yesterday I cobbled together two complete hives with ten frames each. Each hive has a mix of frames from a failed colony — three of my eight colonies died or disappeared over the winter — and frames from extracted honey. There’s lots of room for a queen to lay eggs and lots of room for incoming bees to store honey and pollen. And even a little honey to get them all started.

It’s kind of like finding a roomy apartment, fully furnished with just the kind of furniture you like, and a fridge with food in it.

I put one hive near the one Tina had already caught and another right near where half the rented bees were set up. And then I left.

Today, I dropped off some spare equipment to help Tina set up a few more hives. Not complete setups, but hive boxes (also known as supers) and tops. She’ll still need bottoms and frames.

Free Swarm
In less than 24 hours, bees had moved into my empty bee hive.

This afternoon, Tina texted me: “Look what you got!” And she sent a photo of the hive I’d placed near hers with bees all over the front of it.

It looked as if a swarm was moving in.

I texted back, asking if I could pick it up on Friday morning so they’d have enough time to settle in. She agreed. Then I suggested that she put a box where I had that one when I moved it. Maybe she’d catch another one.

Robber Bees?
There aren’t enough bees around this hive box to assume a swarm has moved in. When I pick up the other one, I’ll take a peek inside this one.

She sent me a photo of my other hive, too. There was some activity around the front, but not much. Robber bees, perhaps, or maybe some bees just checking it out. Maybe she’ll send another photo tomorrow.

My beekeeping season has been off to a slow start. It only recently stayed in the 40s at night and we still have cool, rainy days. I checked the hives when I got home from my winter trip, just to see how many survivors I had and to seal up the dead hives so the other bees wouldn’t be tempted to rob. When I bring the new bees home, I’ll spend some time opening up my hives, shuffling frames, and seeing if I can spot the queens. I’ll do hive splits on my healthiest hives — I know that two are going like gangbusters — and put the splits on my little bee trailer. But rather than put four occupied hives on it before taking it up to Wenatchee Heights, I think I’ll try leaving one of them empty, just to see if I can attract any other migrants looking to settle down in the Wenatchee area.

Bees: The Case of the Missing Queen

You don’t have to see a queen bee to know she’s there.

I started my beekeeping hobby in June 2013 and have been blogging about it periodically. If you’re interested in reading the other posts in this series, follow the Adventures in Beekeeping tag. Keep in mind that the most recent posts always appear first on this blog.

Lately, the North Central Washington Beekeepers’ Association‘s mailing list has been flooded with a rash of panicky reports from members that claim they have a queenless hive. In nearly every case, the beekeeper has made this determination because he or she simply has not seen the queen.

Fortunately, you don’t need to see the Queen among the rest of the bees to know that there is a queen in the hive. I say “fortunately” because I rarely see the queen in my hives, yet I know that she’s in there.

At the beginning of this season, I obtained two nucs and four packages. In each case, I introduced the queen to the rest of the hive by prepping her queen cage and letting the other bees release her. (And yes, I know a “real” nuc should have an established queen — how I got these is a story in itself.) So I know I started with a live queen in each hive.

Queen Bee
Image of queen bee by Pollinator on Wikipedia. Used with permission; Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Yet on my first inspection, I found no sign of a queen in two of my four packages or either nuc. I thought I had a disaster on my hands and started researching how I could get new queens quickly, before the colony died, without driving to Seattle or spending a fortune.

In this case, my slow response paid off. I inspected the “queenless” hives again and found evidence that there was a queen present, even though I didn’t see the queen. All the hives are doing well; I didn’t have to replace any queens.

Now I don’t want to suggest that I’m an expert — I’m not. This is only my third year as a beekeeper and I never even completed the beekeeping course offered by the group. Yet it seems to me that there’s one pretty positive indicator that a queen is present, even when you don’t see her:

Are there eggs?

Pretty simple stuff. If there are unhatched eggs, you know there was a queen in the hive within the past three days. Why? Because it take three days for an egg to hatch.

Now yes, it’s true: when a hive is queenless it is possible for workers to lay infertile eggs. But how often does that really happen?

If you don’t see eggs, are you looking hard enough? I never saw a bee egg until this year. Why? Well up until this year, I had my contact lenses set up for near and far vision. Unfortunately, although I could see okay near and okay far, I didn’t see well either way. So this year I decided to use the contacts for far vision and wear readers for close vision. All of a sudden I could actually see tiny things again! Like bee eggs! So if you’re 40+ years old and your close vision isn’t perfect, don’t expect to see bee eggs without a pair of glasses to help. Put them on under your veil.

Black foundation also helps. The tiny white eggs — much smaller than a grain of rice! — show up much better against black than yellow. Mann Lake and other beekeeping supply houses sell black foundation just for this reason. See for yourself here.

If you still don’t see bee eggs, look for freshly hatched larvae. Those are only a few days old. If you see some tiny larvae today and look again a few days later and see more around the same size, there probably were eggs in there that you just didn’t see. And a queen laid them. Thus, there is a queen in the hive.

Right now, I’m caring for seven hives. I don’t do hive inspections as often as I should — I only get in there about once a month — and this year I’ve probably only done about twenty hive inspections. Yet I’ve only seen a queen four or five times. And in two of my hives, the queen is marked!

Remember, there are thousands and thousands of bees in each hive. If you’re set up with two or more supers and twenty of more frames, do you honestly think you’ll be able to spot the queen in an 30-minute inspection? I don’t. And although I keep an eye out for her as I examine each side of each frame, I don’t waste time searching for her.

It’s more important to assure that the colony is healthy with plenty of brood and food stores than to look for the boss lady that makes it all work.

That’s how I look at it anyway.

Bees and Mites

A TED talk with great bee footage and some clarification.

My friend Megg tagged me in a Facebook post that included a link to a TED talk titled “A Thrilling Look at the First 21 Days of a Bee’s Life.” If you haven’t seen this yet, you should watch it. It includes the most amazing footage of a bee hatching from an egg and developing from a larvae to an adult bee.

Watch it now. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that amazing?

But I do need to set the record straight. During the presentation, the speaker, Anand Varma, says that beekeepers use chemicals to treat for mites. Although we can use chemicals, not all of us do. There are other non-chemical treatment methods. I use a combination of drone frames and screened bottom boards.

  • I’ve blogged about mites and drone frames:
    Bees: Installing Drone Frames
    Bees: the Drone Frames Really Do Work
    Bees: More about Mites

    Drone frames encourage the queen to lay more drone eggs, which the mites prefer because they have a longer gestation period. I then kill the developing drone larvae and the mites with them by freezing them (or feeding them to my chickens). I can reuse the drone frames.

  • Screen bottom boards replace the solid bottom of a hive with a screen that bees can walk on but mites fall through. Once they fall through, they can’t climb back into the hive. Sticky boards can also be used beneath screens to catch the mites and count them to estimate infestation levels.

A third technique I’ll try this year is using powdered sugar. You dust the bees with sugar and they clean each other off. As they clean off, the mites fall off and, if there’s a screened bottom board, they fall thought and exit the hive.

I believe that consistent and proper use of all three methods can reduce mite infestations without chemicals.

So while genetically engineered bees might be one solution that could be better, beekeepers have other cheaper and easier options available to us.