My goal is to be able to report back here after every colony check – or at least, every eventful colony check (and they are all eventful, right now). Obviously, that hasn’t happened! I travelled a lot in May and June, and the actual paying job that lets me buy beekeeping supplies has kept me extra-busy lately. So in the interest of catching up with current events, I’m going to summarize my last few colony checks in this entry*.
One of the things I have realized is that it takes some practice to juggle a camera while also manipulating frames without dropping them. In the interest of everyone’s safety, I skipped taking pictures for a few visits. For the most part, though — with one enormous and glaring exception, which we’ll get to shortly — my next two visits can be summarized as “the beekeeper flounders around like a bison in a china shop, while the bees do their best to ignore her and go about their business.” Honestly, I am thoroughly convinced that I have the best, gentlest, most tolerant bees in the world. They put up with so many shenanigans from me. I hope that I come to deserve them, in time!
My colony is still relatively small and weak. I haven’t seen any robbing from other flying critters, but I’m keeping a close eye on them. This is what it looks like each time I open the colony to check on them:
On May 27th, to my great delight, I saw beautiful, pearly bee larvae in the cells of the central frames. It was a day I wasn’t taking photographs, but here’s a public domain photo to show you what that looked like:
On June 10th, I was excited to see not just capped worker cells and cells with larvae in the process of being closed up, but some newly-emerged bees with powdery-white heads walking around on the comb. The queen was doing her job and the colony was growing! I found her pretty easily — no great trick, since the bees were still not drawing comb on the outer frames, so I was still working in a single brood box at this point.
When I pulled the next frame in the box, I found a lot going on, and I absolutely had to take a picture. I love how much is going on in this frame. So I think it’s time for some labels!
From left to right, I’ve added five colored circles to this photo. Oh! I love bulleted lists. Let’s do that:
- Blue: Capped and uncapped brood cells. The tops of these are fairly even with the rest of the comb, rather than protruding in a peanut-like shape, so these are worker cells, not drones.
- Yellow: Capped (waxy white) and uncapped (shiny gold) honey. The honey cells will remain uncapped until the bees have worked to evaporate most of the water content out of the nectar they’ve collected. Uncapped honey isn’t ready yet!
- White: These are brood cells that the bees are in the process of closing up. That means these worker larvae are about six days old, and the eggs were laid nine days ago.
- Green: These cells contain pollen. Well, technically they contain bee bread, a mixture of pollen with a tiny bit of honey and some additional secretions for storage. Bee bread has a high protein content from the pollen the bees have gathered, and serves as their stored source of amino acids. (Incidentally, this is a typical pattern for frames from the boxes where the queen is laying eggs: Brood in the middle, honey and pollen on the outside.)
- Red: A queen cup or supersedure cell.
And this is where the drama starts. What the bees have built in this frame is a giant cell where they can feed up a larva so that it develops into a new queen. Bees also build these when they are getting ready to swarm – but those cells are typically numerous, and hanging from the very bottom of the frame. This one is in the middle of the frame, which suggests that they don’t like their queen, and plan to manufacture a replacement for her.
It’s possible that cell is empty, and that the workers are just practicing their building skills like a kid playing with legos. I couldn’t tell whether or not there was anything in it during my visit. But I’ve heard from several experienced beekeepers that supersedure — we hatch a new queen, she goes on a mating flight, and then we kill the old queen or let her starve — is very common in bees that come from a package, like mine did.
After lots of hemming and hawing, I left the cell alone and closed up the box again. If the bees don’t like their queen, I have to assume that they know something that I don’t. (Maybe she had a poor mating flight and is not producing as many eggs as she should. The brood pattern on these frames is pretty patchy, instead of showing wall-to-wall cells with larvae in the same stage at the same time.) In any case, they didn’t ask for my vote — and they outnumber me, anyway. I felt pretty good about this decision, even in my uncertainty, and my mentor later confirmed that it’s what he would have done, too.
Speaking of my mentor, on June 16th, I spent about three hours with him in his thirteen experimental colonies, and that was a fantastically educational experience!
My most recent check to date was on June 17th. I saw my original queen again — she’s definitely maturing, her abdomen growing bigger and darker — and the queen cup was still there. I was working without direct sunlight so I still couldn’t tell if it was occupied, but it wasn’t sealed up yet, though it did look like the workers were tending it.
One thing I learned on my latest visit is that the bees and I share a common trait: We are not morning people. I tried taking advantage of the early summer sunrise and relatively cool temperatures to do a 6:00am check, and the bees were cranky. They didn’t try to sting me, but I noticed a lot more agitation and bees hovering around my veil than I usually do. (This quality only endears them to me more, and I have promised them that in the future, we won’t ever talk before they have had their morning coffee.)
Every time I’ve checked my bees, I’ve expected it to be time to put a second brood box on the hive, and yet every time, I’ve found the workers still haven’t done much with the outermost few frames of foundation, even though they are now on their second generation of brood in the center. On my mentor’s advice, I did some checkerboarding — shifting frames around to place empty frames near the center of the box — to encourage them to use their real estate more efficiently! I moved a couple of comfortably full brood frames into a second brood box, and added it to the stack. My colony looks like a real bee hive now!
Whew! And that brings things up to today. I’m looking forward to this afternoon’s check. I can’t wait to see what the bees have done with all their new space – and maybe I’ll find out whether or not they’ve crowned a new queen.
I had no idea having bees was so much like watching a soap opera.
*I also have a physical bee journal that I use to keep track of my (far less detailed) observation notes. This is what I use to remind myself what I saw when I fall behind like this on my blog entries.