Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hive Check: Week 1

After a new package of bees is installed, the bees spend the next couple of days drawing out comb, orienting themselves to the location of their new hives, and eating their way through the candy plug in the queen cage to release her.

A lot of people wonder why you would want to delay the release of the queen. Wouldn't it just be better to let her out of her cage so that she can start laying immediately?

The answer is yes, it WOULD be more efficient (and easier), but you really can't. The problem is that packages and the queens they are shipped with are foreign to each other. Package producers shake out loads of worker bees from a populous colony into a wee little box and then add a caged queen from a different hive, or even from a different apiary. Since they come from separate colonies, the workers recognize the new queen as an usurper and may try to kill her if she is released too early.

For the first couple of days after the queen is added to the package, if you were to pull out her cage you would see the package workers gnawing at the mesh protecting her, trying to get at her and remove her from the hive. Delaying the release of the queen by forcing the workers to eat through the candy plug allows time for the new queen's pheromones to spread throughout the hive. After several days, the workers will be so used to her scent that they will begin to recognize her as one of their own and will attempt to feed and groom her through the cage.

We (my apprentice Emily and I) gave my two new packages their first inspection last Saturday to check their progress and to make sure that the queen had been released properly. For a hive so recently started, it’s best to keep your manipulations to a minimum and avoid major disruption. A little bit of smoke in the front and under the feeder, a quick check/removal of the queen cage and a quick look at the center frames is as much as you want to do.

Fort Greene and a film crew.

Opening either hive, we saw few bees on the top bars. A package contains only 10-12 thousand bees, so at this point they aren't very crowded and most of them are hard at work on the comb to make room for food and brood.

Where the bees at?

Pulling out the queen cages, we found beautiful combs attached to each with a mass of bees festooning and building more. The extra room between the frames needed to accommodate the queen cage breaks bee space, so the bees attempt to fill it with comb immediately. After shaking off the bees, we checked and confirmed that the queens had been released.

I'm stealing your queen cage!  Neener, neener!


Festooning is both a cool behavior and a cool word.

Beautiful new comb.  Too bad it's not where I want it.

We saw the queen in one hive but not the other, but saw no signs of brood in either. We’ll be checking the hives again this weekend (Week 2) to confirm that she is laying well. Once we know the queen is good, we'll let the bees work for another week or two without interruption, feeding them whenever they’re low.

Normally, I would leave them untouched for at least two weeks, but because I want to show what is happening inside the growing hive at regular intervals, I will probably open at least one hive a week for progress checks and sweet, sweet pictures.

This is just where I want it.  Notice how they are drawing out the comb from the top center, just as they would in a natural hive.

Yes, I need a haircut.

I did my first post-installation check of the Added Value nucs last weekend. Since nucs are already established colonies, I did a full check, flipping through each comb, checking for population, food stores, brood pattern, any signs of diseases/parasites, and the queen.

Smoke, smoke, smoke.
Smoke, smoke, smoke.
Smoke that hive now.

Hive 1 seems to be doing extremely well. There were bees working all frames, the brood pattern was tight and solid with plenty of brood at all stages, and the population was growing rapidly. One of my helpers spotted the queen and she seemed to be in good shape. I spotted no signs of brood disease or parasites, and they seem to be bringing in quite a bit of nectar.

Hive 1.  Bees on all frames.  Check out the gorgeous patina on those middle left frames.  They must be at least a decade old.

House bees working nectar in the outer frames.  They'll fill from the top down.

Great brood pattern.

You can thank her for it.

Hive 2 isn't as solid. The population was larger than that of Hive 1, but the queen seems to be weak. The laying pattern was spotty, with bullet brood drones interspaced in between worker cells. If the queen doesn't settle down, she is going to get replaced. I only spotted a few eggs and that worries me, but in the short term I will transfer some young and emerging brood from Hive 1 to buoy the population. Other than the issues with the queen, the hive seems to be doing relatively well. They are also bringing in a huge amount of fresh nectar and are nice and docile. No stings this week!

I shook the bees off for a better look at this spotty brood pattern, workers mixed with bullet brood drones.  This queen will probably have to be replaced.  We'll make a swarm lure out of her!


  1. i did enjoy this very informative post. but the caption of the last picture in regards to replacing the queen sparked GREAT curiosity about her royal highness. how is she selected? how is she replaced? can she ever be dethroned? what happens in the event of facing a competing rival? is she born big boned or does she grow that way after months of incessant mating? please oh pLEASE TELL US, WE HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW!! thank you in advance for heeding this formal request for information.

  2. How do you make a swarm lure out of a queen?