Four Hive Inspections with a Sweet Ending

Delilah literally dripping with honey.

This morning I woke up and went to check in on Lili’s fierce bees. Queen Beatrice left us with five stings between us, four for Lili, including one on her face, OUCH. We also robbed two frames of honey from her hive for harvesting.

Then we packed up in the car with the smoker hanging out the window to check on my hives. My swarm hive has undergone a few queen successions. Today, the newly named Queen Hattie, seems to have herself in order. I saw newly laid eggs and a few older brood that were all wrapped up like little worms. There was not any capped brood, but I am confident that in three weeks or so, Hattie will be exploding with bees. Currently, the hive that was quite strong as  a swarm has diminished greatly in population. Hattie currently only fills about six of the ten frames. She seems to have a good ratio of honey to brood and has drawn out all of but two of the frames, so I will continue to feed her (sugar water) which will supply the resources to build out the rest of the frames and keep her from starving. However, I am told that there are still plenty of flowering plants even now in Louisiana, so she should be ok.

After the swarm, Queen LaDonna was left with very few bees to support her three box fiefdom. I am not even sure that it is still technically Queen LaDonna’s reign after seeing so many queen cells last inspection after the swarm. Of the 15 or so queen cells that I observed, some were built out of the comb, but many were hanging from the bottom of the frame. I am told that the ones hanging from the bottom of the frame are “swarm cells” where the bees are planning to rear a  new queen and then take her with them to a new hive because they are running out of space. The queen cells that are built within the main comb structure are more likely to be supersedure cells, where the bees have identified their queen as too old or not fit to carry on her duties. Since I saw many supersedure cells the week after the swarm, I believe there was unrest among the workers.

After today’s visit to LaDonna, I believe she too has sorted out the drama by either killing the newly reared queen or death by sting. Either way, I observed new eggs laid by the hundreds so LaDonna seems squared away. I robbed two frames from LaDonna but made sure to leave her with enough honey to feed all the new brood. The third box of LaDonna seemed almost empty today, but LaDonna’s numbers are improving. I did receive my second sting from LaDonna today, just toward the end of our inspection on my little pinkie finger of my right hand. Two stings in one day almost doubles my lifetime count. I have now only been stung by a bee 5 times in my lifetime, three as a beekeeper.

Our final inspection was of Queen Delilah, my backyard powerhouse. Delilah forever amazes me. For a hive that was established in early summer, I have robbed her of honey on two occasions, today being the third. Delilah had four boxes, the top two were full of a beautiful bounty. From Delilah I took 14 frames of honey (10 frames per box, four boxes), leaving her with only three boxes and four new frames that are unbuilt. After this, I have no new frames, so the frames that I replace will be drawn out, which is less work for my ladies who are preparing for the winter.

The box of honey that I will extract this weekend weighed approximately 80lbs. So I am guessing I will have at least 60 lbs of honey.

I have already had requests to sell my honey for local friends making mead and honey wine, but I am most excited about selling it to Hollygrove Market, who has requested my honey for their CSA style farmer’s market. Hollygrove has caught on quick to the urban farming scene, and has offered urban farmers of New Orleans a place to sell their surplus. They are committed to purchasing even a pound of surplus garden stock as long as it is LOCAL, and how much more local can you get?

After all this work we settled inside to stare at our collection and Leroy made braised alligator for lunch. I made corn muffins, the perfect vehicle for the sweet nectar of my working ladies.

Speaking of Working Ladies, the name for my swarm hive comes from the famed Hattie Strauss Hamilton, madam of Storyville (the oldtime New Orleans “red light district”). What better name for a queen who reigns over her worker girls? For more about Hattie Hamilton, click here: http://www.storyvilledistrictnola.com/hattie_hamilton.html.

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JP the Bee Man

For a video of my most recent escapades with the swarm, please check out JP the Bee Man’s YouTube spot here: #JPtheBeeManVideo#

And while your at it, watch some of his other videos. It is fun to see what a professional bee remover gets into on a daily basis. My swarm was obviously small potatoes!

Thanks JP!

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THE SWARM

Bees carpeting the ground in my back yard. Notice the clumps of tree limbs underneath. They must have been on a tree branch that broke during the storm.

Sunday morning, I’m talking to my mom on the phone when I walk outside and immediate notice a carpet of bees on the front corner of my yard. Something had gone terribly wrong! “Mom, I got to go. My bees are swarming. CLICK.” Add that to my list of famous last words, and my mom was probably imagining me in a cloud of angry bees.

Me though, I just instantly knew that I had done something terribly wrong. Now, I had not inspected either hive in over a month. I checked them about three weeks ago when I stole some honey and they seemed fine. I have now seen the error in my ways.

Although the word swarm brings up vivid images of those killer bee movies, a swarm of bees is actually quite placid. In preparation for a swarm, bees eat a lot of honey like packing their bags for a long voyage and since they have no home, they are less protective. So this swarm was just in a pile of bees on the ground with no particular place to go.

I called JP the Bee Man, my bee mentor Jeff, as soon as I got off the phone with my mom. He came right over to assist and with him he brought a nuke hive, which is a small one box wooden hive with only five frames and a queen catcher which looks exactly like a hair clip (the kind that has the two levers and the cage-like teeth).

Nuke, five frame hive. Knocking bees into the hive to capture swarm.

At this point I realized that under the carpet of bees there was some freshly broken tree branches from my oak tree. This, I believe, means that the bees must have swarmed a few days ago and probably fell from the tree in one of these giant storms we have been having. So we picked up the tree branches that were all covered in bees and we shook them off into the nuke hive, all the while, we kept our eye out for the queen. After we shook off three or four branches, JP spotted her! The new queen.

Bees in the nuke hive. Feeder is full of sugar water. Queen is on top in the cage.

We quickly snapped her and some of her attendants up in the queen clip and put her on top of the new hive. The point of this clip and catching the queen from what I can tell is two fold. One, we know where she is, so she won’t get lost in the shuffle or hurt somehow. Two, the bees have time to accept her has their queen.

Slowly, the bees started to move toward the queen and into the hive. Then more and more bees took flight and started to circle the hive. In about ten minutes all the bees on the ground began a mass exodus in to the hive. It was crazy to see, almost like water flowing down hill, and it was fast. In a matter of minutes, all the bees except a few hundred hold outs were in, on, or near the hive. It looked like Walmart at Christmas.

Then, on the ground in front of the hive I noticed a bee carrying another, apparently dead, bee. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the dead bee was actually another queen, so maybe there were two queens that lead this swarm and then they had a battle to the death. JP says that this queen had been dead for at least a day by his guess.

Apparently bees swarm when their hive is over crowded or they run out of room to store honey and lay brood. When they decide to swarm, they start planning. First they create a queen cell in which the queen lays an egg (apparently she is tricked into laying an egg, because if she knew what those ladies were planning she would destroy the new queen). Then the workers feed the new queen larvae “royal jelly”. So all it takes to make a queen is a regular egg and some royal jelly, an especially nutrient substance (more on that later).

All along, JP told me that the swarm was not necessarily from my hive, although I was skeptical. Following the successful capture of the swarm, JP and I inspected LaDonna and Delilah to assess their condition.

One of many queen cells found in LaDonna's Domain.

Upon inspection of LaDonna, it was evident that the swarm had come from this hive. It seemed like every frame we pulled out had swarm or queen cells on it. Some had four or five. One had a live queen that was almost ready to hatch. So here is what I had done wrong: LaDonna had grown at a rapid pace considering I had started her so late in the season. After I added the second box, I really didn’t consider that she would need much more room. MISTAKE #5: Although I added a third box to LaDonna, I had done so too late. LaDonna had become “honey bound” which means that the bees had stored all the honey and pollen that they had collected and they ran out of room for laying more eggs. By the time I had added the extra box, it was too late. The effort it would have taken to draw out all the new frames was too much and they needed the room NOW (yesterday even). They were already in the planning stages of a swarm as shown by the number of queen cells they had created. there must have been 15 or more.

Delilah’s inspection was a bit rushed because by this time it was 1:00 and I was about 2 hours late to my sewing class. It was like a HOBBY COLLISION.

Having a swarm is not the worst thing that can happen especially when you capture it and it isn’t in your neighbor’s back yard! Now I have a free hive, and my other two hives are still strong. I always said three hives was my max…

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Encounters with Beatrice

Sister Jacquelyn with a budding interest in bees.

I took my little sister out to Lili’s urban farm this weekend while she was in town. She played with rabbits, caught grasshoppers to feed to the chickens and ate an entire cucumber right off the vine. I also suited her up to go look at Lili’s bees. Our only mission was to swoop in, add a box to Queen Beatrice’s growing hive, and leave them be. I went out without a smoker, because with Delilah or LaDonna, this would have been a very simple, carefree mission. Not so with Beatrice who is named after Lili’s mother, enough said!

Lili had told me some stories about how her dog, Kayla, had been stung, and how she too got a warning when she walked too close and interrupted their flight path, and one more where her lawn guy got buzzed and stung several times when mowing the lawn. I knew that different hives had different temperaments, but I didn’t really realize the implications of all that until Saturday.

So I sent Jacquelyn over to stand behind the hive while I carried the empty super over to the hive. No smoker, although I was wearing gloves and all the proper gear of course and Jacquelyn was in a veil with pants and a sweatshirt and I instructed her to put her hands in the sleeves.

As soon as I took the top of the hive off, bees started pouring out of the hive. They were everywhere. I started to get nervous and turned back to Jacquelyn who, despite my fear, looked pretty enthused. But as I took off the inner cover, I told her to walk calmly back to the house. The bees were everywhere! I was starting to second guess a lot of previous decisions like not having a smoker to calm the bees and get them off the hive body so I didn’t squish them when I installed the second story, but mostly I was wishing I didn’t have a huge hole in the knee of my jeans.

I dropped that box right on the hive as quick as I could and put it all back together in record time, literally, this whole process from start to finish could not have been longer than 45 seconds. I wanted to get the hell out of there.

So that is my lesson for this week: Always be prepared for everything. Lili’s bees are a bit more aggressive than mine, but they are not too aggressive. Had I been prepared as we were last time Lili and I did a hive inspection of her bees, this mission would have gone fine. You also never really know what your bees have been through when you weren’t around. If bees encounter a raccoon or other animal the night before, they may still be on-guard the next morning. When hives are too aggressive though, you do have a few options, one is to requeen your hive. I am no expert at this because the only re-queening I have ever done at Hendrix was when we were pretty sure we didn’t have a queen anymore. But generally, I think you either seek and destroy your queen and then introduce the new queen to the hive, or you let them fight it out. I told Lili I would look into it so we would be prepared in the future if we ever needed to be.

I took Jacquelyn back home and we did a photo shoot in front of my bees. I was excited that she did not seem even a bit aprehensive toward the idea of bee keeping, but she does like honey! She also loved our chickens more than I thought she would. She’s gonna be an urban farmer in no time!

Tonight I am going to harvest 6 more frames of honey. We are almost out of our first stash. More to come…

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The Weird and the Lovely.


Bee babies, or brood. Notice the capped brood in the bottom center area, it is a bit more raised and dome like. This is the drone brood or the boy babies.

LaDonna inspection #2: July 3, 2010: I inspected LaDonna today and she is doing very well, I put a super on the hive body since all but two frames were drawn out and there was a lot of honey and tons of brood. Everything looked A-OK, although I still have not seen Queen LaDonna herself.

Delilah inspection #5: July 3, 2010: Short inspection as the blue sky started to pour rain unexpectedly. Lots of action. I need to do some research on the best time to split a hive because Queen Delilah is about to get too tall for me to reach if I add another box on top. Maybe if I just steal some honey in the next few weeks it will give her something more to do until I determine if I want another hive! I guess when the bees are good they are really good, but I can’t help feeling like next year I won’t be quite this lucky! I did do a little damage because I didn’t like the way they were building some of the comb. Basically instead of being flush against the frame they were building strips perpendicular to the frames that were attached to the adjoining frame. This meant that every time I tried to remove a frame I had to destroy the work that they had done. So until it really started raining, I went out and crushed all the weird comb so that, hopefully, they would build it right the next time.

Pollen storage, all colors. Notice that lovely cluster of bees, I wonder what they are meeting about.

I also helped Lili do an inspection of Queen Latisha. We  failed to spot the queen, no surprise, but her hive is just beautiful. Lili’s hive, Latisha, is not quite as active as LaDonna, even though we started them at the same time. I took a few pictures of the pollen storage. My bees seem less interested in pollen and more interested in honey, but Latisha had tons of beautiful pollen that was all different colors. The top cells that are white is capped honey.

Weird structure build in Latisha's hive. No idea what it is, but it looked harder than wax and the holes are too small for the bees.

Latisha also had some weird things going on as shown in the photo below. What is that? I know it is blurry, but the holes in the comb here are too small for bees so it just looks weird. I have never seen anything like that, it was amongst other brood cells and at first I thought it was some kind of queen cell, but I have researched what those look like and it is nothing like that mess.

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Rain, Rain, Rain

New Orleans has gotten a lot of rain in the past two weeks. Between hurricane Alex bands and the regular wet summer weather, I have not been able to open up LaDonna and see how she is doing, but I do know two things:

1. There are a lot more bees coming in and out of LaDonna’s hive compared to last week.

2. I have seen two orientation flights (which looks like a cloud of bees flying around the front of the hive), so I know there are new bees hatching and Queen LaDonna must be laying eggs.

Hope to go and see her this weekend.

Bearding is how bees stay cool, like people sweating and dogs panting at least it isn't as foolish as birds walking around with their beaks wide open.

Yesterday, after a long day of steady rain, I noticed both LaDonna and Delilah clumping out on the stoop. It was really more than just clumping, they were hanging on to each other and making a long interconnected chain of bees that was about 3 inches long and six inches wide off the end of the stoop and almost completely covering the front of the hive body (picture is a little after the most dramatic bearding episode).

I wasn’t really in a panic, but I called Jeff, my bee mentor, to ask what was up. Jeff said, not to worry, the bees were BEARDING. He calmed my concern that they were trying to swarm and explained that they were just HOT.

LaDonna (back left) and Delilah bearding on a steamy summer day.

This made all the sense in the world to me, I was hot too, and since it had been raining all day, they were probably trapped in their non-air-conditioned hive all packed in with all their sisters (more bees than usual since no one could leave the hive because of the rain). I think that would make me get the hell out of there as soon as it stopped raining too. I was happy to see that even LaDonna was bearding a bit. Just when you think your bees have gone nuttso, you learn something new. Bees are so rational, I love that.

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LaDonna Has Arrived

New hive LaDonna next to Delilah

On June 15, my neighbor Lili and I drove to Harahan, La to meet my favorite beekeeper, Jeff (who sold me my last hive). Jeff is a bee relocater who specializes in removing honey bees from people’s homes and selling the bees to beekeepers like me. This is Lili’s first hive and my second.

When we met Jeff, he had already been through an experience trying to make sure that both the hives he was giving us had queens. Apparently, he had lost the queen that was ruling over my bees and had to re-queen them with  Queen LaDonna spur of the moment. This was about 9:30pm. Beekeeping in the dark must be interesting.

When bees are introduced to a new queen, they either love her or they hate her. When they meet her, they “ball” her, which means they surround her with hundreds of bees and check her out. In turn, she sprays a whole bunch of her intoxicating pheromones to woo the ladies. If they fall for it, she becomes the new queen, if not, they rip her to smithereens.

It will be important for me to identify the queen in one of my early inspections so that I know they didn’t kill her. If I can not see her, I at least need to keep an eye on the brood because if she is laying eggs then I will know that she is alive and well, however, if she was killed, the bees might try and make queen cells to hatch a new queen on their own. The problem with bees that do not have a queen is they kind of lack the will to live and don’t really have much motivation.

On our ride back to New Orleans Lili’s hive, Latisha, was buzzing away and we had one escapee in the cab with us that I had to let out; but we didn’t panic (really). When we transport the hives, Jeff staples the bottom board to the a deep and the lid is on top. So it is just one box and a bunch of bees. The hive opening at the bottom (what I often call the “stoop”) is sealed with a perforated sheet of thin metal that is bent into 90 degrees. The holes allow the bees to breath, but not get out. When we got home, I let the bees relax for an hour or so and then took off this metal barrier so they could fly freely in the morning.

LaDonna inspection #1: June 16, 2010: I woke up very early to check on LaDonna. It is a good idea to check that all the frames are pushed to the center and there are no weird spaces that the bees will fill in with the burr comb (random comb that is not in the frames and thus makes it difficult to remove the frames when you need to).

Notice the Pierco foundation on this purchased frams. It is all one piece which makes it very sturdy even with all that honey. (Photo credit to Han Nguyen).

I did not spot Queen LaDonna on this inspection, but the bees seemed calm and I did not see any reason to assume that she was not in there. I did see a good bit of capped brood and some newly laid larvae (although I will have to look again this weekend for new larvae to prove that the queen is still around). Most of the frames had capped honey at the top and capped brood at the bottom. I guess when the bees have limited space, that is how they organize the hive. LaDonna was a nucleus hive before I got her, which means that she was already established (probably in a building) and those bees were transferred into a smaller six frame hive. Jeff told me that I may notice some rubber bands holding the wax to the frames on this hive. This is because when he removed the hive from the inside of the walls of the building, he carefully cut the comb out as well and gave it back to them in empty frames. These frames with the transferred comb may be less sturdy compared to the new frames I bought with foundation in the middle. The foundation is secured to all four sides of the frame which makes it less likely to bend or fall especially when it gets heavy with honey. Jeff just told me to make sure the comb is always hanging downward because it is strongest in that position.

This afternoon, June 17, I did witness what looked like an orientation flight. This means that some of the brood have hatched and they are making their first practice flight around the hive. It looks like a sudden cloud of bees in front of the hive just sort of hovering. The first time this happened to my other hive, I thought they were swarming, but my panic subsided as I talked to Jeff and he explained their actions.

I am glad that LaDonna’s population is growing, because right now they seem so much smaller compared to Delilah. There are very few bees on the stoop, and only a handful flying in an out at any given time. I think they will progress just fine, but compared to Delilah, LaDonna seems a bit barren.

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