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.

2016 Honey Harvest — So Far

Twelve frames of honey — so far.

I spent about two hours this morning in one of my beehives. I’ve got nine of them these days and need to open each one before September month-end to harvest excess honey and begin pre-winter care. In all honesty, the sooner I get the honey out, the better off I’ll be; I know how hard it is to extract honey once temperatures drop.

This Morning’s Bee Encounter

The hive I did this morning has two supers: one deep and one medium. It’s extremely crowded; the bees don’t seem to fit inside — many of them are clustered on the front of the hive at night and during the day. I thought it might be because they were preparing to swarm, but when I opened the hive, I didn’t see any queen cells. What I did see, however, was that the medium super on top was filled with ten fully-capped honey frames. Wow!

Capped Honey Frame
Capped honey frame. This is what honey looks like when it’s ready for harvest. It’s capped with wax that needs to be scraped away before extraction.

I took six of them. I was only going to take three, but as I worked with the bees, they got really pissed off and, in turn, got me really pissed off. I had to go back to the house to put on boots after getting stung on the ankle through my thick socks. While I was there, I fetched three more empty medium frames and swapped them for full ones.

Part of the reason they got so angry is my fault — I’m a hands off kind of beekeeper so there’s lots of burr comb to scrape off when I finally get into a hive. And in preparation for winter, I’m dusting them with sugar. That means taking every single frame out and sprinkling home-made powdered sugar on each side. Dusting the bees with powdered sugar is a chemical-free way to help reduce varroa mites; as the bees clean the sugar off, they also dislodge mites which fall through the screened bottom board and can’t get back up into the hive. I can’t use off the shelf powdered sugar because of additives; instead, I grind regular sugar to a powder in a blender.

I debated adding another super to the hive, but with six new empty frames, it didn’t seem to make sense. Besides, the only equipment I have left is a deep super with frames and I hate to put deep supers on top of mediums, especially this late in the season.

This Year’s Harvest So Far

A view looking down into my extractor with two medium frames in place. The frames spin to extract honey by centrifugal force. The extracted honey runs down the inside of the extractor and accumulates at the bottom. A valve allows the honey to be poured out.

The six medium frames I pulled out today are only part of my harvest so far. I also pulled two medium frames and four deep frames from hives back in July. Together, that could come out to 5-6 gallons of honey.

Because it was warm and because I have a new extractor I was dying to try, I decided to start extracting honey today, too. The extractor is a budget model with a hand crank that holds two frames at a time. But, as you might imagine, I wasted no time automating it. I bought an adapter for my drill and use it instead of the crank handle to spin the frames. When the frames are well balanced, it works very well and I can get some good speed going. But when they’re not, there’s a good amount of wobble at high speeds. This is something I’ve learned to deal with over the years.

When the level of honey in the extractor reaches the bottom of the frames, it needs to be poured out before I can extract any more. I managed to get the six frames I pulled today extracted and start on two more.

Capped Cells Uncapped Cells
A closeup look at full/capped (left) and uncapped/extracted (right) cells on a honey frame.

Straining Honey
From the extractor, the honey goes into a series of two stainers that strain away the wax cappings, which is what you see here.

Because I use an uncapping fork instead of a hot knife, there’s lots of wax in my extracted honey. Right now, I’m waiting for it to get through the two layers of strainers and into my storage bucket. I hope to extract the rest tomorrow. I’m hiking in the morning, but should be able to do it in the afternoon.

And yes, I’ve seen Hive Flow. But no, I don’t think it’s a good idea for serious beekeepers. Too complex, too costly, and too likely to fail. I would definitely love to chat with someone who has been using one for at least a year, though.

More Bee Stuff to Come

This is just the start of harvest for me.

Although I have two trips scheduled over the next week or so — when cherry season ends, I don’t spend much time home — I hope to get into the other eight hives early in the mornings when I get back. I really hate sweating my brains out in a bee suit on a hot summer day, so I go in when it’s cool, even though that’s when most bees are “home.” My comfort trumps their rest. They should be glad I don’t open them weekly or biweekly like so many backyard beekeepers do.

The last time I open the hives for the winter will be in October. That’s when I’ll check food stores, add more honey frames if necessary, and give the bees some medication for varroa and nosema. I don’t insulate my hives, but I do make sure they have good ventilation for the winter months. Last year four out of six hives survived the winter and one of the ones that didn’t make it entered winter pretty weak anyway so the loss was no surprise. If 50% of my hives survive each winter, I’ll be in good shape each spring.

Buy My Honey!

I sell my honey in jars suitable for gift giving. Buying my honey is a great way to support this site and my beekeeping activities. You can learn more at Maria’s Malaga Honey.

I’d like to expand my beekeeping activities — especially after this very good year. But I’ve learned that I can only support 3 to 5 hives on my property, due to dry summers with little forage. This summer was unusual because it rained a lot though July and there were more wildflowers for a longer period than usual. I think my garden helped, too — the sunflowers were seriously out of control here. So I have five hives at home and four on a trailer up Squilchuck Canyon, not far from a cherry orchard where there’s lots of water and wildflowers/flowering weeds. If I expand much more, I’ll need another trailer and another place to put my bees for the summer.

Something to think about.

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.