Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Tale of Four Swarms

A special guest post by Robert O'Neal, my dad and fellow beekeeper in Ohio.


I received a call from mom that there was a swarm in a tree above Baba and Dido’s [my grandparents] house. I asked how high up and she said maybe 15 feet. I couldn’t get home for a couple of hours so we really didn’t get there until after 6:00. We drove over to the house and the swarm was indeed in a tree but 30 feet high.

Big swarm, tall tree.

Luckily it was in a scrub cedar a couple of feet from other scrub cedars on each side. We got Mr. Ritchie [our neighbor] to come over and formulated a plan to cut the tree and lower it by utilizing a pulley and rope attached to the pickup.

Mr. Ritchie and my Dad scheme to get the bees out of the trees.

This worked out great at first. Mr. Ritchie cut a wedge in the trunk and as we lowered it down, it moved steadily in an arc until ….the remaining trunk broke and the bottom slid 10 feet along the ground sweeping the top of the tree in a down and inward arc that stopped when it landed on a juniper, throwing most of the bees all over the bush. Undaunted, we went inside and had Martinis.

By the time the Martinis were done, the bees had gathered again, for the most part, and with Ritchie’s help we cut enough juniper branches to reach them, gathered as many as we could into the nuc box and left it on the ground next to the bush. It was getting dark at that point and I determined I had better leave it open for the next day not knowing how many bees we gathered and how many remained.

I went back the next morning and it looked like normal hive activity with bees flying in and out. That evening we transferred the nuc box to our house where I set up a hive transferred the frames, dumped as many bees as I could into the hive body, closed it up, and then left the nuc box open to clean out on its own. I checked the hive on May 21st and found that it had a comb, honey and eggs. After a quick inspection, I closed it up and left it alone to do what bees do best.

Dumping bees out of the nuc and into their new hive.

Home Sweet Home.


A call from home: another swarm. This one was in the front pasture next to the barn.

Bees errywhere.

What to do? I told mom to get the nuc box and put frames stored in the barn into it and get it ready. Then the bees got into the barn and started investigating the hive bodies that were in there.

Trying to get in the barn where we store our extra hive bodies and frames.

She took frames and set them next to the foundation of the barn and the bees started to collect on those. By the time I got home she had lifted the frames up and put them in a hive body.

Rockin' out.

It looked like they were all going in and out of the hive and I just let it go until dark, when I closed it up and we brought it over to Baba and Dido’s house. My policy is that if we find a swarm at their house, I bring it to our house, and vice versa.

This one worked well and now mom considers it her hive. That hive has comb, honey and eggs in it and seems to be doing well on inspection on the 21st.


I was done inspecting for the day so I went back to the garden and was walking toward the barn when I caught sight of a swarm on the “magic” post. This is a wooden fence post with a small grape vine growing near it that has now attracted four swarms over the past three years- two last year that I caught and one the year before that didn’t work out.

Bees love the magic stick.

I’m basically out of hive bodies so I talked to a friend bee keeper who was down to one hive and told him if I found another one I would give him a call. I had some frames left, so I put them in the nuc box and collected the swarm. I left it on the ground so the bees would hopefully collect in it. Oddly, there were several bees at least that were pretty aggressive and kept bouncing off my veil. I was pretty careful not to stir them up too much and I thought this was a little odd. Then they began collecting on the front of the nuc box.

Bearding the nuc.

The bee keeper friend couldn’t get over until the evening and when he got there, there were many on the front and sides of the box. I suggested we wait until morning to see if they went back in and if they did I would close it up. They didn’t. They were still on the front and sides. I thought they might be too hot so I moved them into the shade and again there were some aggressive bees that kept bouncing off the veil. I looked inside and they didn’t seem to be making any comb. This was Sunday and they appeared agitated.

The bees abandoned the nuc for a while and regathered on a nearby fence post.

Time for your close up!

I set them up on a box with the front of the nuc hanging over so they couldn’t collect on the ground. They did beard some but seemed to be less than when they were out in the sun. They stayed agitated for hours. In fact, I got stung a couple of hours later in the garden 40-50 feet away. It was a bee that kept buzzing around and looking for me and wasn’t going to give up. The bee keeper friend came over that evening, put on his suit and mom put on a suit to help him. He picked it up and put it in a big brown cardboard box and taped it closed. I heard he installed it with good success and we will see what happens.


Argh! The next day, Baba called in the afternoon to tell us there was a swarm on the apple tree in front of their bedroom window.

Bees and apples, friends forever.

I didn’t have any more frames. I called the ex-bee inspector and he gave me the name of somebody in the bee club who lives near us. I finally got in contact with him and asked if he wanted the swarm. He came over with his grandson and a cardboard box with a green plastic garbage bag. Sure enough they were on the granny smith tree all bunched and happy. First, he sprayed the swarm with sugar water using a hand held sprayer, then he scooped what he could into the bag, and then holding the bag he shook the tree and the bees went wild.

I don’t think the stings bothered him too much but he definitely got a few. He then sprayed the inside of the cardboard box with sugar water and let it sit for a while to gather the remaining bees. He tied off the bag and put it in his truck. The bees left gathered in the box and after a while he took what he could and left.


In checking all the hives on the 21st, I found that two hives [the original hives] had no eggs but good population and queen cells and my feeling is at least two of the swarms came from them.

The Carniolan mix that I got as a swarm last year was chock full of bees a few weeks ago, but now has a lesser population. If I can get to them later in the week and they still don’t have eggs I am going to have to order a queen to try to save them.

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!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Weekly 101 (5/25/11)

I'm hosting another FREE PUBLIC HIVE INSPECTION at the Added Value Farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The bees are busy and they'll be ready for another inspection this Saturday, May 28th, at 11 AM. Everyone is welcome to attend and watch me work the bees. If you're feeling courageous and have a veil, you're welcome to participate and get some hands on experience with guidance from an experienced beekeeper! (Me!)

Starting at 11, I will go through a basic inspection for each hive, starting with a lesson on lighting a smoker, moving on to visual inspections of the comb and a short talk on what to keep your eye out for (with examples!), and finishing up with another short talk on what we should expect to see in the next inspection.


It's all going down at the Added Value Red Hook Community Farm, located at 3-49 Halleck St, Brooklyn, 11231.

To get there by Subway:
A/C/F train to Jay Street/Borough Hall. Exit the station and walk west to Boerum Place and Joralemon Street. Take the B61 bus going towards Red Hook. Exit the bus at the IKEA store, and the farm is across the street.
F/G to Smith and 9th Street. Exit the station to the rear of the train (there is only one exit in this station). Transfer to the B77 (right in front of the station) Take the B77 to Van Dyke and Dwight street. You'll find yourself in front of the Liberty Heights Taproom. Take a left crossing Dwight Street and proceed up Van Dyke to Red Hook Community Farm (one block walk, from the bus stop you can actually see the farm at the end of the street).

This event is taking place during the Farm's open volunteer hours, so anyone who comes out should consider sticking around for a while after the inspection to help out! I'll be sticking around for a while to answer any lingering questions and hang!

Swedish meatball afterparty anyone?

Special thanks to Added Value for hosting this, and future, FREE PUBLIC HIVE INSPECTIONS! They're doing great work, and are always looking for volunteers. If you'd like to help them out, check out their website here!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Package Installation 101: The Hivening

For many, hiving a package is their first real solo experience working with bees.

And it’s scary.

Don’t worry.

You can admit it.

You’re in a safe place here.

I mean, I was terrified the first time I installed a package! I was wearing thick canvas gloves, a full bee suit, and still I almost dropped the package as soon as the first bee landed on my arm. The entire time, I was holding the thing at arms length (so quite far away) and thinking to myself, “Are you fucking mental, Tim? The hell have you gotten yourself in to? SHIT, SHIT, SHIT! BEES!”

At least I didn’t pee myself, right?

Myself, my apprentice Emily, and 6 pounds of bees!

ANYWAYS… the real important thing to remember is that installing a package is an experience like no other. Bees in a package have been cooped up in there for at least a couple of days, even up to a week, with no chance to fly, a queen that they’ve never met before, and nothing to eat or drink but a can of high fructose corn syrup.

They’re essentially an artificial swarm and react as such. The bees are ready for you to introduce them to their new home. They’re desperate for the chance to start their work; building comb, raising brood, gathering food, and storing it all away to prepare for the long cold winter to come. You’re their hero, (wo)man!

Before you start throwin’ around the bees, you should make sure that your hive is set up properly:

1 - Bottom board
1 - Entrance reducer
1 - Hive body with all 10 frames
1 - Inner cover
1 - Top/bucket/quad feeder
1 - Outer cover

You'll also need enough 1:1 sugar syrup to fill the feeder, a pollen patty or other protein supplement, your trusty hive tool, a veil/jacket (better safe than sorry), a bee brush, a flat-top thumbtack, and a flat card of some sort. A used metrocard works perfectly.

Hives set up, and everything else ready to go.

Once you’ve gotten everything set up and ready to go, here is a step by step guide to what you’re going do. Don’t panic if the directions you’ve found elsewhere vary from mine. There is a huge amount of variability when it comes hiving packages. They all work fine. This is just my personal favourite way.

1.) Spray the mesh sides of the package with sugar syrup. This both calms the bees and distracts them by giving them something to eat. They're hungry.

A spray bottle with 1:1 sugar syrup mixed with Honey-B-Healthy, an essential oil mix.  This stuff serves as both food and  a calming agent, as it is strongly scented to help cover up any alarm pheromones released during the hiving process.

Freshly sprayed package.  All the bees are running over the mesh sides trying to suck up as much of the syrup as possible.  So good!

2.) As they're gorging on the syrup, open the empty hive, remove the cover and feeder and take out 3 or 4 frames on one side, and make a small gap between the middle (5th and 6th) frames. Put the entrance reducer in.

Frames removed to make space for the bees.  I haven't made the gap between the 5th and 6th frames yet.

3.) Pry off the small wooden cover on top of the package and, using your hive tool, gently pry up and lift out the can of syrup within the package. Use the thumbtack to make sure that the queen cage attached to the plastic strap doesn't fall into the package. If it seems stuck, rock it gently from side to side as you pull it up.

Poppin' the top.

Pulling out the feeder can.  The white stuff stuck to it is wax that the bees had started to attach to the metal.  Coop a package up too long and they'll start to build comb!

4.) Gently remove the queen cage and shake off any hanger-ons into the hive. Gently set the wooden lid back on top of the hole where the can was, and look inside the queen cage to make sure that she and her attendants are healthy.

Here queeny, queeny, queeny.

See her?  Bottom left, long, fat, and light brown.

5.) Using the corner of your hive tool, remove the cork from the end of the queen cage that has the mass of white candy/fondant in it. If you have a small nail handy, you can gently poke a SMALL hole most of the way through the candy to make the queen release easier. Using the thumbtack, attach the card to the side of the cage so that if the card were laid flat, the cage would be laying on its long skinny side.

Attaching a small stiff card.  I had metal screen handy, so I used that.  A business or metro card would work as well.

Cork in.  The bee on my finger was CHEWING on me.  It's a funny sensation.  I probably spilled some sugar syrup on it earlier.

Cork out.

6.) Hang the queen cage by the card you tacked on in the small gap you made earlier between the middle frames and gently push them together. Neither entrance of the queen cage should be blocked, and the side with the mesh should face the frame next to it.

Queen cage hung between the middle frames.

7.) Using your hive tool, start prying off the bottom and sides of one of the mesh walls of the package. If the bees get active, spray them with some more sugar water. When you're done, you should be able to lift away the mesh on three sides, like a screened door.

Emily opening the second package.

8.) Open the side, hold the package over the space in the hive that you created by removing the frames earlier, and give the package a good firm SHAKE. You won’t hurt them (bees are strong!), but avoid hitting the package on the sides of the hive. The bees should come out in one great blob and fall directly into the hive.

Shaking out the bees.  We may have missed the gap, but it doesn't really matter.  The bees will immediately start moving down into the hive.

9.) There will still be some bees in the package. Shake those remaining bees out directly on to the queen cage, vigorously.

Shaking some leftover bees from the first package right onto the queen cage.  PAY ATTENTION TO THE QUEEN, GUYS!

10.) Give the bees a couple minutes and slowly reinsert the missing frames as the bees spread out over the hive. Set the pollen patty on top of the reinserted frames and poke several holes in it with the corner of your hive tool to help the bees access it.

Reinserting the frames.

Putting on the pollen patty and pushing the bees out of the way so we can replace the feeder.

11.) Briskly brush any bees out of the way, put your feeder on (how you do this will vary according to what sort of feeder you have) and fill it with syrup. Remove any bees that have flown into the feeder as you filled it, put on the outer cover and seal the hive.

Fill 'er up!

Kamikaze bees flying right into the syrup.  Lucky for them, I'm a trained lifeguard.

Ratchet straps prevent the hive from getting knocked over by the wind.  You should use them.

12.) Shake out any stragglers onto the front porch of the hive and leave the package to the side of the entrance so that any remaining bees can find their way in.

Hooray!  All done!

13.) Check yourself and any helpers for bees (they're curious!), take off your protective gear, and have a beer.

Meg Paska loves bees, and they love her.

They also like my head.

You've got bees! Mazel tov!

In a couple days (5-7ish, depend on your timing), you should do your first SHORT hive inspection to check if the queen has been released.

If she is still in the cage, pull it out and observe any bees that come with it. Are they acting aggressive, running over the cage and biting at the mesh protecting the queen? If so, they may not have accepted the new queen yet and you should give them a couple more days to get accustomed to her scent. If the bees hanging on the cage are calm, sticking their tongues out and trying to swap food/pheromones with the attendant bees, they’ve accepted the new queen and you can release her by using the corner of your hive tool to gently pry out the cork on the non-candy end of the cage. Make sure you do this low over the hive so that you don’t drop her on the ground or force her to fly, and she should scurry right out.

Once she’s loose, close the hive back up, fill up the feeder and leave them alone for at least another week or two. Fill the feeder with fresh sugar syrup whenever it gets low, but keep any other interactions to a minimum. This is a busy time for a new colony as they are scrambling to build comb and raise enough bees to replace the old and dying ones that came in the package.

When you check back on them in two weeks, you should see a large amount of capped brood with a solid laying pattern and plenty of freshly drawn comb starting to be filled with gathered pollen and nectar.