Archive for the 'Beekeeping' Category

A Drone Laying Queen

June 9th, 2010

With the rain and warmer weather, this year has been good for the bees so far.  My hives are really increasing their bee populations now, all except for one.   When I installed the package of bees for the hive I remembered thinking there were a lot of drones (males) in there. I wasn’t too concerned however because I was installing a new queen right along with them. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but it’s now pretty apparent that I have a “drone laying queen.”

I thought at first I had laying workers, where there’s no queen and some of the workers began laying many infertile eggs. But you can tell that pretty clearly from multiple eggs in each cell, which I don’t have. And I have a good-looking queen in there, laying single eggs. Just not fertile ones!

What does that really mean? Simply that the queen bee in this hive is not laying enough fertile eggs that can develop into female worker bees.  She is laying some fertile eggs, but not enough. How does that happen?   Well she could be older or running out of eggs, or if the queen wasn’t fertilized properly on her mating flights. Perhaps it was too rainy or whatever, and then even though she lays eggs and looks strong, many or all of those eggs are infertile and may simply develop into drones (male bees).   Take a look at this picture (click for full-size detail):

Brood Pattern of Drone Laying Queen

It’s not as healthy a brood pattern as you would like to see.   A nice brood pattern is much tighter, and more uniform.  In the picture above there are mostly scattered brood cells, all over the frame.   And see the puffier ones that bulge outwards? Those are the drone cells because drones are bigger bees.  Look at that big drone halfway down and to the left, and compare his size to the workers. This weak pattern existed on several frames in this hive and the queen was just wandering around all over the place.    I think she’s laying both fertile and infertile eggs because there are worker bee cells and larvae in addition to all the drone cells.

Yesterday as I stood at the hive entrance I counted nearly 50% drones entering and leaving the hive right along with the workers. That’s pretty bad… too many drones simply eat all the nectar and honey stores, and don’t contribute anything.  Well they do contribute something… they say it takes at least 12 drones to mate with a queen bee for proper fertilization, so they’re necessary. Just not all the time! Yes, snicker, snicker. But that’s why in Autumn we see the drones being dragged out of the hive because they don’t need to overwinter and eat all the stores inside. The queen bee can always produce more drones when needed.

Obviously for a normal, strong hive you need countless thousands of female workers, or the hive won’t survive (or make any honey!).   Right now my drone-laying queen hive is slowly losing ground, kind of like running in place on a backwards moving treadmill without growing the worker population.

Here’s a frame from one of the strong hives.  See the much tighter pattern of brood?  Just what I like seeing, especially with the honey stores at the outside upper and lower edge of the frame.  The queen in this hive is awesome, and their population has exploded recently.

So how do I fix the problem hive?  Out with the old queen and in with a new one!  Ah, but not as simple as it sounds and there’s many ways to go about it.  I was thinking about shaking out some drone heavy frames and providing a few frames of open brood from a strong hive… with the right pheromones and fertilized brood they should be able raise a new queen.    Should. Or perhaps the hive would raise a new queen themselves, but that might not happen for a long time, or at all before the hive dies out.

A friend suggested starting a new hive or nucleus (smaller) hive with a new queen. After a couple weeks, take the old hive and literally shake out all the bees on the ground a little distance away… workers, drones, queen, everything. Then I install the new queen/nuc frames into the original hive/location, and put a queen excluder on the bottom. Voila! New hive, and all the workers from the old one will come back and join the new one.   But all those lazy honey-eating drones will be stuck outside, along with the old queen.

Sounds like a plan to me… but what do you think? How would you approach it? Isn’t beekeeping fun!

The Bees Come Home Again… and Chickens Too!

April 20th, 2010

The last few days have fostered a hale and hearty outlook for getting things accomplished. That’s what happens when you bring home a bunch of critters to take care of.    Yesterday was a big day at Fox Haven though…  I put three packages of bees into their new homes!  After losing two hives over the winter, it just wasn’t the same around here without them.   I love going to the post office to get the bees.  I call ahead to let them know they’ll be arriving, but the postal workers are sooo thankful when you show up!

 You always want to inspect the bees and make sure they did okay in transit.  There’s a can of sugar water hanging in the middle, and the bees cluster around it to feed.   They’re also in a cluster so they can keep warm if it’s cool outside.  I was pleased to see there were few losses of bees enroute, and my packages all looked in great shape.   This is what is called a “3 pound package” of bees, because it literally holds about three pounds of them.  Most of the bee farms are pretty good about filling the package with extra bees in case of losses, but it’s estimated that there’s 10,000 to 12,000 bees in each package.   Sounds like a lot, but by mid-summer a strong hive should have 50,000 to 60,000 bees or more!

Getting the bees into the hive is quite simple:  You carefully take out the queen cage, and then the can of syrup that kept the bees fed while in transit.   Then quite literally you shake and dump the bees into the hive!  I wear my bee suit and veil for protection… but the bees are not aggressive typically when you are introducing them to the hive.  That and the fact that I have misted them with sugar water a bit calms them down…   as I empty the bees onto the frames, they eagerly climb all around the new hive.  Quite a few fly around and begin orienting themselves to the new hive location. 

As I take the packages apart, I pull out the queen cage and inspect it to make sure the queen is alive.   I keep my hive tool laid across the little opening where the queen cage was so the bees don’t start pouring out.  A closer look showed all my queens to be vigorous, running around the little space inside the cage.  The black shape you see inside the cage below is the queen’s abdomen.  I use russian hybrid queens, and they are much darker than the traditional italian bee queens.


The bees on the cage feed and attend to her, although since this is a new package- these bees and the queen were just put together for the first time prior to shipping a few days ago.  While in transit they are becoming familiar with her scent, and when I place the queen cage between the frames in the hive and close it up, they will continue to become used to the queen.  Eventually they will chew out the gooey white candy substance (to the left in the picture above) that blocks her escape from the cage, and let her out.  If all goes well, she should be laying eggs within the hive in a matter of days.   

I’ll come back in a few days to check and make sure… I just don’t want to disturb them while they settle in.   If for some reason I cannot find or see the queen, or some proof that she’s alive and well (like eggs in the cells), then I’ll probably order a new queen or two through the mail.  It’s a pretty cool process.

It was a perfect day here though- not too hot or cool, and very little wind.  The bees were up and flying around in no time!   I haven’t been alone this month in welcoming bees back home again.   Warren has a neat post with a video link showing how he installed a package into one of his hives last week, and Kim writes about their journey to a country bee farm to pick up a new package of bees to take home as well.  

Once you’ve had bees, it seems disquieting to be without them.   They are so full of energy and do wonders for the local garden and flowering plants and shrubs.  I really enjoy having them around.   I also found out last year that some of my family have a history of beekeeping going back over a hundred years.  I like continuing that tradition.   

It was nice to walk out early this morning, and watch the sun rise and shine on the hives.    This may be a “split year” here at Fox Haven where I divide these hives as the season progresses.  The good news is I may be able to double my bee population.  The bad news is I’ll have to wait until next year to get any honey from them.  Patience, patience…  The journey continues!



Speaking of critters- I feel like I’m part of that nursery rhyme, except instead of five little ducks it’s,  “Ten Little Chickies Went Out One Day…”   They are chirping, eating, mess-making, running around little dudes!  Or dudettes…  For the first week I was up a couple times at night to check their brooder temperature and give them food and water.  Now they’re doing so well I tuck them in at night and they’re all bright-eyed and almost bushy-tailed in the morning waiting for breakfast.

“Okay… what did ‘ya bring me!?”


Inquisitive little things…  but at meal time they were very flighty and would nearly panick and run everywhere until just a couple days ago.    Now they seem to be getting used to the routine of “The Hand” entering their cage and changing the food and water.   They will even eat out of our hands, and a couple of them are so tame they jump on your arm right away.    The boy loves to take the barred rock pullets out and play with them- they are really calm.

I don’t have names for the eight girls and two roosters yet…  and you can’t really tell a lot of them apart aside from the white and black ones.   But their feathers are really coming in, and they are growing so big.  They’re only three weeks old! 

 No… I don’t have the coop built yet.  Or started…    Here they’re gathered around the feeder quite pleased with me.

So this week it’s time to get busy.  Or busier!   And the garden is really growing too, I’ve got take some more pictures…  Have  a good week!

Hear! Hear! Spring is Near! Persevere!

March 5th, 2010

Another beautiful week, and hopefully everyone back east is getting a little warmer weather too.   A strange few weeks this has been for me… but I can hear again! Hence the cheery title for this one. Somehow I came down with an ear infection in mid-February.  It was one of those “hurts a little” things that became a huge pain in less than a day.  Long story short, it ruptured my eardrum and clogged up the ear for weeks.    Finally this week I can hear much better, the ear is clearing up and most of all… that incessant RINGING is finally going away!   

I never gave much thought to tinitis, or how ringing in the ears could be so distracting, but wow!  It’s almost like that emergency broadcast tone on the radio, playing constantly in one side of your head.   I’ve always protected my hearing, and the thought of having to live all the time with a tone like that constantly would be quite debilitating.  I feel for anyone who suffers from that.   

The Doc said it’s usually from nerve damage from long-term loud noises and there’s not much they can do about it.  People must learn to deal with it over time. The solution?  Just like everything else…   Preventative health care!  Wear ear plugs and such when you use loud machinery, and watch the loud music!  Kids especially these days can really mess up their hearing by playing their music too loud all the time with those ear phones and mp3 players.   I’ve always said that when I’m 80 years old I still want to hear the birds singing in the forest and the the kids telling me stories. Think I’m still on track…


Aside from that I was bummed this week when I faced the fact that my two hives of bees didn’t make it through winter.   I knew something was wrong last month when I should have seen activity on some warmish days.  I had checked on them in December and they seemed okay.  I took a peek in January and I could tell they were weak… it just didn’t look like a strong population in any hive.   

Last September and October were so cool and wet that the bees barely had a chance to gather food.   I fed them like crazy as long as I could, and even wrapped and insulated the hives, but it was simply not enough.    I remember seeing quite a few of the larvae that died in late September being pushed out of the hive.  That indicated they were not able to increase their population fast enough due to lack of food or some other reason.   So finally I went and took apart the hives a couple days ago.

This might look like live bees gathered around the queen or something, but instead it’s a picture of the last stand the bees made for food at some point.  These are all dead…  and aside from a few hundred dead bees on the bottom board, these were all that were left inside one of the hives.    I never noticed a swarm in late summer, but some may have left the hive early.   And there was never any noticeable disease or mites present.   I really think it was just lack of food and the time to build up their population to keep a strong, viable cluster through winter.   Lesson learned for me… start feeding earlier and don’t count on late summer and early fall to help them build up.  

So it’s like starting over…  and a strange feeling.  I didn’t realize how I had become so used to their activity around the place.  I really miss them. Another local beekeeper lost 15 of 25 hives or so for similar reasons, especially the poor autumn weather.   But on a positive note, I should be filling three hives with bees in a little over a month.  With a little luck and a good warm flowering season, they should ramp up and be fairly strong this year.   My education continues… but never fear! We’ll persevere! Okay my title’s a little corny :)


On the insect theme, I found a strange pupal shell on the bottom of one of the hives.  I’d love to have seen what emerged from this one… any ideas? Maybe our favorite entomologist can help :)

Other than that, I need to write a little more often. Thanks for coming around now and then to say hello. I’m not going anywhere even if I do slow down at times, and somehow I think this will continue to be a really interesting year for all of us… in a good way. Stay well!


P.S. Jessica Watson rounded the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) over a week ago and is now continuing from the west across the Indian Ocean east towards Australia. She’s made great progress, yet still has a few months of sailing to go. If you like appetizers, she’s got a “tinned and dried version of nachos” that doesn’t look too bad for being nearly five months at sea!

Winter Mix of Shadow and Light

January 14th, 2010


My goodness the days are flying by.  The snow on the pond was beautiful yesterday with the shadows of the trees. And there were many animal tracks near the pond’s edge, with a few tracks heading out across the ice. The mysteries of the night…


Yesterday we enjoyed almost fifty degree weather finally, and the snow has almost finished melting. Gave me a chance to catch up on splitting wood, running a few engines and chasing the mice out of the barn.  These are the remaining oak and hickory rounds from trees cut up in summer.  They don’t look like it, but the wood should be fairly dry and will provide enough heat to get us through winter.  I didn’t expect to use so much so quickly this season.


That subzero weather last week really did a number on a few things, not the least of which is my 16 year old truck. Seems the clutch fluid must have moisture in it because the clutch froze in place and I couldn’t drive it. Maybe ice on the cables… anyway I’ll top it off today and since we’ll see 40+ F degree weather again I’m hoping it works normally.   One morning we awoke to a beautiful scene of ice crystals on the trees and shrubs.  I love how the light shimmers through the branches.


I am worried about the bees however… I didn’t see them flying around yesterday which I would have expected. Usually after an extended cold period they will be out and about briefly with temperatures above 40 degrees F.   It wasn’t warm that long yesterday however, so maybe they’re still clustered up?   I won’t open the hive unless it’s warm for a few days in a row, and we’ve still got freezing night temps.  From now through March is the difficult time of year for the bees when they really depend on stored honey.  When it’s super cold they go through those stores faster… and you can’t really feed them until it warms up a little. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Driving home at dusk the other day, the sunlight glowed beneath the clouds.


Our wintery landscape seems so far from the events taking place around the world, such as earthquakes and unrest.  Wish I could do more to help from so far away.  In a couple years when the boy is older I may be able to… for now our thoughts, prayers and donations can help in some way. 

Did you know you can use the American Red Cross’ TEXT2HELP program to donate from your cellphone here in the U.S.?   For specific Haiti-related donations, you can text HAITI to the number 90999 and it will donate $10 to the Red Cross to help with earthquake relief efforts.

Update: There’s many other organizations to help with Haiti disaster assistance, and other charitable efforts of course. Here’s a few more links to share:
The International Committee of the Red Cross
International Medical Corps
Catholic Relief Services
Save the Children
Direct Relief International
World Food Programme
World Vision
International Relief Teams
Yéle Haiti
Operation USA
World Concern
Mercy Corps
Operation Blessing International
Operation USA
Doctors Without Borders
Medical Teams International
The Salvation Army
American Red Cross

Sights and Colors in Early September

September 3rd, 2009

The mornings have been so cool and the days full of sunshine.  Everything is still green, but you can see signs of autumn coming.  By late afternoon it’s nice and warm around 80 degrees F- and all the critters are about.  Today I thought I would share a mix of sights over the past week.   One thing I’ve noticed is that all the bees and wasps are nearly desparate for nectar.   They are covering every available flower as they rush towards winter preparations.  Here the bees are taking nectar from a pink sedum.


The honeybee is one of the few species of its kind that winter over as a community.  I believe most our other wasps, bumblebees, yellowjackets, etc. die with the coming frost except for leaving one or more queens to survive through winter. Those queens find somewhere to hide and lay dormant, emerging in the spring to begin an entire new colony.

This is an early morning picture just after sunrise- the bees are waiting for the sun’s curtain of light to drape across their hives with warming temperatures and cue them to start foraging.


The honeybees must survive as a colony through the winter, depending upon stored reserves of honey to carry them through. They form a tight cluster or ball inside the hive to keep warm through shared body heat and metabolism. I’ll be making winter preparations for the bees next month- for now they are keeping very busy.

The young boy picked his little muskmelon (cantaloupe) the other day. This one ripened small, but we watched for telltale signs of light browning and beginning to split from so much moisture inside.  The plant spread out to a huge vine, but only produced 3-4 smaller melons.


But sure enough it was wonderfully ripe. We kept it in the refrigerator and he loved having it as a snack after school.  Yum!


It’s also been time to pick elderberries again.   Last year I combined elderberries and grapes to make some really tasty  jam and sauce… it’s fitting that we are on our last jars this month. Even if we’re not quite ready to make more, I pick the elderberries and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer.  Not only does it keep them from spoiling, but it freezes the little bugs on the berry clusters and makes it much easier to pick and wash them.


I went to reach for a cluster here, and found this nice Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) in the way.  The spider didn’t mind as I reached over his web to the drooping corymb of berries.   The larger berries at right are of course from wild Poke- not edible for us unfortunately, but the birds really love them!

I came across a neat fungi in the yard and got down on my knees for a close up picture. I didn’t realize I had captured the basset hound in the background.  He’s the “old man” of the place, in his eleventh year now.


And a friendly Monarch butterfly landed among the day lily leaves. It seems the butterfly had a broken wing, perhaps from an encounter with a bird.  It still managed to flap away through the air.  The monarch migration has begun, peaking in our region as they travel south about the second and third week of this month.  Here’s a couple links where you can check the fall map for monarch migration routes, and the peak migration dates for your latitude.  We don’t normally see that many- their route is too far east or west I think.  But one year I saw dozens around that timeframe.


In the past I’ve only see one species of milkweed plant for the monarch larvae to feed upon.  But last week I came across some milkweed vine (Asclepias family).  The monarch larva also feed upon this species so I was excited by the find.  However I do have mixed feelings about vines growing around the landscape- they seem to take over!  These large green pods contain thousands of big, white fluffy seeds that fly everywhere.   I recently dug up several thorny thistle plants with purple flowers- they too have fluffy seed heads that float on the wind.


Near the bee hives the oak and hickory rounds are gathering in a big pile for splitting. These are from a few trees that have died and been cut down over the past year.  The wood is still excellent for using in our woodburning stoves for winter heat.  They also make great seats for fishing!


In another garden/food experiment, I made some fermented pickles last week. These were very interesting- not vingegar cured like most modern pickle recipes, but instead they undergo natural lacto-fermentation and become true sour dill pickles like in the old days.  I’m sure a few of you make or enjoy real saurkraut, and the pickle fermentation is similar.  Here we are adding some more cucumbers to the brine.


They were really good and after 7-10 days of fermentation I placed them in quart-sized mason jars with the brine and then into the refrigerator which essentially stops the fermentation.   Lots of recipes call for boiling the brine, and then processing the pickles in a canner. You can do that for long-term storage, however doing so kills all the beneficial bacteria and the probiotic qualities of fresh fermented pickles. Next year I would like to grow better cucumbers (and cabbage) for pickling- these are more for fresh eating, but they did okay for pickles. You can google quite a few different recipes, and try it yourself!

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