When the queen’s away the bees will play…

After waiting a week to find out what our bees did next, it rained. Then it poured. So it seemed the Mystery of the July Queens would have to wait.

Last week Emily and I made the unexpected discovery of five queen cells in Rose’s hive. The jury was out on whether our bees were planning to swarm or trying to replace Queen Rose who was MIA for a second week.

A break in the clouds came and we rushed to the apiary to find we were the only ones mad enough to visit the bees on such a blustery day. I was expecting to find very grumpy honeybees, because our little ladies don’t like the rain. Instead, we found them behaving quite strangely.

Someone forgot her umbrella – instead of flying in and out, our bees were clustered at the entrance of the hive out of the rain.

Emily thought they might be fanning their wings to create warm air vents, keeping the baby bees in the brood toasty and dry.

Fascinated, we lingered a little too long and forgot basic beekeeping 101 – don’t block the entrance of the hive. When we moved away there was a little dark cloud of bees hovering behind us, patiently waiting to enter the hive with their pollen loads. We made them wait in the rain, how awful!

We decided not to disturb Queen Rosemary’s hive in unsettled weather and moved on to Queen Rose’s hive. A ray of sunshine penetrated the dark canopy of the apiary, so we took a look inside hoping that our bees hadn’t swarmed.

Our ladies were there, along with a bright golden New Zealand intruder.

Can you spot the golden New Zealand honeybee among our darker British bees?

I suspect she is one of Albert’s bees who bribed her way into our hive with some good pollen.

Three of the five queen cells were no longer there. I can only imagine the dark turn of events during the week: a new queen, or two, hatched and tore down the cells of her rival sisters in an act of royal genocide. There was no sign of Rose and I suspect her crown has been passed. We’ll miss her – she was a good queen who gave us happy-tempered, hard-working bees. But such is life in the hive.

We found two remaining queen cells heavily covered in workers. I wondered if they were ‘taking down’ these cells, but Emily thought they might be trapping the unhatched queens as an insurance policy should the new queen not survive her mating flight. ‘Trapped queens “quack” in their cells,’ said Emily. ‘To tell the workers to let them out.’

It was then that we remembered beekeeping 101 again – don’t open a hive for a couple of weeks when you suspect a new queen has hatched. A hive inspection could upset a queen returning from her mating flight and, not settled in the hive, she may abscond. Drat! In our curiosity to see if our bees had swarmed or chosen supercedure, we forgot that. That’s why our bees have queens-in-waiting – as insurance against our blunders. Silly beekeepers!

As we finished our inspection we came across yet more strange behaviour. Look what our bees have done, the little weirdos!

A rainbow of pollen on the honeycomb (pink arrow) but why are our bees eating holes through the wax (blue arrows)?

They had eaten tiny little holes through the wax. They are not supposed to do that! Perfectly round, I caught a couple of workers peering at each other through a peephole like these were the best thing ever. Perhaps this is what happens while the queen is away – anarchy. Does anyone know why our bees would do this?

More rainbows of brightly coloured pollen in the honeycomb suggests where our bees get their honey. Blue pollen may be from poppies.

It's a bit blurry, but peer closely and you'll see a worker carrying a basket of blue pollen. This might be from a poppy.

As we closed the hive, someone sped past and dropped a red dollop of propolis on the frames we had just cleaned. The culprit was a blur.

Hey! We just cleaned that. The culprit is caught on camera.

The forecast for the rest of the weekend was rain and more rain, so Emily topped up the feeder with syrup and the usual suspects clambered excitedly to drink manna from heaven.

During our inspection, we noticed that some of our bees had white stripes on their thorax, which wouldn’t rub off with our fingers. We found this same phenomenon on bees flying into other hives at the apiary.

White-striped honeybees that have collected pollen and nectar from Himalayan balsam – more clues about the origins of the honey from our apiary!

When bees forage on Himalayan balsam the white pollen rubs their back and leaves a white stripe that they can’t clean off. This also happens to wasps. So if you see a bee or wasp flying around with a white stripe, you know what flower they have just visited.

Not to be confused with white-bottomed bumble bees.

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8 thoughts on “When the queen’s away the bees will play…

  1. I follow Emily’s blog and i thought they were just moving the wax around because there wasn’t enough nectar coming in for them to make their own. But looking at this picture it looks more like they’re just making passageways to get through during winter. They’ll chew their way through honey stores so the cluster can travel easier through the frames. They can pass into a different part of the hive easier if they can go through the window instead of having to go all the way up over and back down the chimney, or up through the basement, if you get what I mean.
    I like the pictures and informative little arrows!

    • I hadn’t thought of that, but it does make sense. One of the experienced beekeepers at our apiary, John, puts a hole through the centre of his brood frames before closing the hive for overwintering. He hopes it helps bees to travel to honey sources easier and to not get lost and die of cold. Your blog is great! How long have you been beekeeping? Emily and I have had quite a few adventures with our bees this year – swarms, queen cells, missing queens and runaway queens, but fortunately no rioting bees! We are giving our hives Apiguard now and will start feeding them fumidil in September to protect against varroa and nosema in winter. How do you overwinter your bees in Washington?

      • Hmm… I might have to do that. I use frames with foundation, so the bees can’t chew through it. I’m thinking about getting a second hive and trying the Top Bar method, but in a different style. I forget what it’s called… here, give me a sec to search through my Favorites… A Warre Hive. It’s like the Kenya TBH, except it’s upright, like the Langstroth. Same principles as the KTBH, different orientation.
        I started beekeeping last year and due to inexperience on my part (and a lack of stores in the hive) my bees died. I got them at the beginning of August and they didn’t have time to build up their stores. They might’ve made it but I broke up the brood nest too early, wanting to prevent a swarm. That was at the beginning of April and the bees froze as a result. They hadn’t filled in a whole box yet and had no stores of any kind. I got a second batch of bees a month later and they’ve been doing wonderfully. I had a swarm scare a few weeks ago. Thankfully the bees decided against it since there seems to be a dearth during August.
        I’ve heard of some people wrapping burlap and other insulation-like materials around their hives during winter, but my thinking is, why raise bees that can’t handle the climate their living in? I understand the bees would be in a rotting log or a thick old tree which would provide them with more insulation than the thin walls of their hive, but I think they should be able to handle it. And I’m the same way with mite control and the like. My bees last year also had mites, as well as an intestinal disease (which I think also played a part in their death), but all I did was spray them with sugar water when I worked the hive. That way they’d be busy cleaning themselves while I was working, which in turn encouraged them to get the mites off of themselves.
        So I guess I really don’t do anything to prep them for winter. I figure they’ll know what to do better than I will.

      • I started beekeeping last year too and lost my first hive due to nosema (intestinal disease) the following spring. Mine was the biggest colony at the apiary and I gave them treatment for mites and disease according to apiary guidelines, but they were still lost. I think sometimes it is just luck. You may be right to get a second hive. Many beekeepers thinking is that you have a better chance of bees surviving winter if you have more than one hive! Cliff at our apiary has a top bar hive, but mostly we use the National. We don’t insulate our hives as, like you say, the bees do a good enough job of keeping each other warm – I have been told it is more important that they stay dry, so take care of insulating materials that can cause condensation in the hive. Albert puts garden netting inside the roof as an extra layer of insulation and that stays dry and warm. If it snows, that is a good insulator! All the hives in our borough are treated with Apiguard for varroa in August and then fumidil for nosema in September to make sure there are no untreated hives locally that could infect treated hives. As varroa is a result of trying to breed the European honeybee with the Asian honeybee in the 1970s, I guess it’s our fault Apis mellifera now suffers from it, so a little helping hand with mite control can’t hurt. We also treat our hives with oxalic acid in December to protect against varroa, but these treatments are only really effective if all the hives in the area are treated at the same time. I can see how the sugar water would work – I bet your bees enjoyed that! We sometimes spray them with lactic acid, which is harmless to bees but burns the tongues of varroa so they can’t feed and fall off the bees! This is done at any time of the year when a colony’s varroa count appears to be high. Emily and I have had a few swarm scares this year and two weeks ago found a new queen. I wonder how well she will have mated, only next year will tell. We have called her Queen Lavender! I look forward to seeing photos of the Warre Hive, I have never heard of that before!

    • That’s what it was called. Nosema. I’ve got a horrible memory. That’s what last years bees had. The inside of the hive was always smeared with yellow-brown gunk, and my neighbors cars were covered in it. This year’s bees have been much more productive and much healthier.
      I’d rather have a second hive so I don’t have to pay another $100 to get bees for a third time. It’s slightly ridiculous how expensive bees are. Especially considering they flourish when left alone. It’s not like there’s any real work on the part of the beekeeper. A second hive would just be easier I think.
      Yeah! I loved watching the icicles form on the hive last winter because the bees were melting the snow on the roof. I whish I had taken a picture.
      I was told (by the guy I bought my bees from the first time) that the condensation is good for the bees because they can collect the water to drink. And this may sound naïve but I thought bees got everything they needed from honey and pollen. Well and propolis. I know they collect water during the summer to cool the hive and thin down honey that’s gotten too thick, but I didn’t think they actually drank it.
      I remember reading about that somewhere. And the Asian bees aren’t bothered by the mites right? Isn’t it a… what’s the word… when both parties benefit from each other? Oh this is going to bother me. I’m sure I’ll think of it hours from now and come back and post it. It’s going to drive me nuts.
      That’s another reason why I want to get the Warre hive though. The roofing is its own box, which is filled with insulation and reduces the condensation in the hive. You can fill it with anything from packing peanuts to fallen leaves. The base of the roofing is cloth, so the bees can adjust how much air flow goes through it by covering it in propolis. I hope I can get one (I might be adventurous and build it myself) but I’ll have to convince my mom first, since she’ll be affording it. I’m only 17 and have no job. Not a good thing when I’ve got such an expensive hobby!

  2. Hi there! Sorry for the late reply, it has been a busy week. I have tried to put together some information for you and some links that I hope will be useful.

    Nosema is horrible. It is a parasitic fungus that lives off European, and more recently, Asian honeybees. All hives have nosema spores to some extent all year round. It is the levels that need to be controlled (like varroa levels need to be controlled). Nosema causes dysentery and if bees have this in spring and summer, they can more easily fly out of the hive and do their business! Nosema is particularly harmful to the colony in winter because they fly out less. The dysentery and cold, wet weather combination may cause bees to do their business inside the hive. Obviously faeces inside the hive is not hygienic. Cleaner bees will then lick it up in an attempt to clean it, and other bees will walk over it, and the disease spreads. Bees that start dying in greater numbers inside the hive over winter make it harder to clear the hive floor and the entrance may become blocked, which in turn further spreads disease… Bit by bit, nosema can lead to a catastrophe that kills the colony over winter.

    Defra have a great page on it and free information downloads (you don’t have to be a member to get the pdfs). The link is here: https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/beebase/index.cfm?pageid=191

    At the apiary, we feed bees sugar solution in September and in the last feed of the autumn, we mix a medicine called Fumidil B. This helps to greatly reduce nosema spores and protect the bees overwinter from the effects of dysentery.

    However, if the colony is weak and already ailing at the end of the summer, and varroa (mite) counts are high, Fumidil might not work. It sounds like you have a lovely healthy and strong colony to see you through winter. That’s great!

    The success and survival of a colony is a combination of factors – and, you are right, mostly nature decides! If you get icicles on your hive this winter, please take a picture. I would love to see them!

    Yes, bees have to fly out of the hive to drink water and collect it to bring back to the colony. Funnily, they are very fussy about their water source! They will only collect slightly dirty and murky water, from puddles or cow pats if there is a local farm! They have a clever filtration system in one of their stomachs that filters the impurities out of the water before they regurgitate it for the colony to use! Bees are also rather fond of laundry and, if you have neighbours, will land on sheets hanging up to dry and suck the moisture from them!

    Our association website has some web pages on what bees eat and why that you might like! http://www.ealingbeekeepers.org.uk/page20.htm

    The Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) lived with varroa for thousands of years as a parasite that fed off its host, but didn’t kill it. Then people took the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) to Asia where it picked up varroa. A. mellifera hadn’t built up natural defences to varroa over centuries, so the parasite tends to weaken European honeybees to the extent that they can’t fight off other diseases as well and they die. A suspected cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD). There is an interesting forum I’ve been following on varroa on the British Beekeepers Association website: http://www.bbka.org.uk/members/forum.php?c=2&f=21&t=4759

    There is so much to learn about honeybees and beekeeping, I have been doing it for two years and only just scratched the surface. Emily and I are always amazed how much the beekeepers at our association know after 20 years or more! If you have a local association, it would be great to join because it is a source of support – and it’s sociable! The best book I have read on beekeeping is by Ted Hooper, ‘Guide to Bees & Honey’, it has pretty much everything you need to know when you first start out with a hive. Be careful when you buy books on beekeeping from the UK though, as sometimes there are specifics and seasonal things that don’t apply to the US. Ted’s book has some great all-round knowledge about bees that you can’t go wrong with.

    A Warre hive sounds really interesting. Please do a post if you build it! Emily and I are not so good at the carpentry side of beekeeping, we can just about make our own frames! My post on our pathetic attempts to build frames at our apiary with an audience might make you laugh! https://basilandbees.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/beard-of-bees/

    Emily and I also follow quite a few beekeepers on Twitter, and that has been really helpful for hints and tips from other beekeepers. You can find us and the lists we follow there:
    http://twitter.com/#!/EmmaSTennant
    http://twitter.com/#!/Emily_Heath

    These blogs on beekeeping are good too:
    http://www.allotmentbeekeeper.co.uk/
    http://likerockpools.wordpress.com/
    http://www.surreybeekeeper.co.uk/

    I am looking forward to hearing what your bees do next!

    • You’re talking to someone who has rather serious memory problems (today I went to the store with my mom to buy groceries, and the second I got through the door I forgot which store I was at [things like this happen to me ALLLL {please underline and triple bold that} the time]) so there’s really no worries! To be honest I read this a few days ago but didn’t have time to respond and only just had time to check it.
      Yeah, they had it pretty bad last year. This year’s bees seem pretty unaffected by it though. Thanks for the info and the link! I really should join my local Beekeepers Association, ‘cause I have no one to talk about these types of things with!
      Let me see if I can’t find one up on my blog. I know I have a picture up with the hive covered in snow… I’ll have to look for it later.
      The bees love drinking the water out of my leaky hose faucet outside. Unfortunately the only time it’s leaky is when I’m using the hose, so if I need to turn the water off I have to stand there for a few minutes for a break in the bees to turn it off quickly.
      Ooo, another link. I’ll definitely read up on this as soon as I’ve got a day I’m not so busy (and it’s not so late!).
      So can the Asian and European bees not breed? It seems like there should be a new hybrid of the two that can handle the mites and make as much honey as the European. I don’t know much of anything about the Asian honey bee. Maybe I’ll do some research on that on my next empty day…
      Thanks for all the info! I’ll definitely be doing a bunch of research with all of these new topics.
      I think I will be making a Warre hive. The trouble is that it’ll be at my aunts and I won’t be able to watch it… I suppose I could move my current hive away and keep the newer one. And she plans to keep the bees after I leave for school or move away or whatever, so having the common langstroth hive might be better for her. Ah well, we’ll see what happens! Thanks again for all the info and help!

  3. Pingback: Reflections on a year in beekeeping | Basil and bees

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