Italian Queen - Beatrice

When Beekeeping Goes Wrong

When Beekeeping Goes Wrong

Sometimes it isn’t smooth sailing in the bee yard.  There will be times when things go wrong. The key is not to panic and make it worse by showing fear in the face of a hive full of angry bees.  Yes, easier said than done but you can do it if you focus and stay on task.

This week, nature and my bees decided they would supply a teachable moment.  So strap in my fellow beekeepers!  It was a wild ride in the bee yard this week.  Let’s first talk about what this week’s inspection revealed in my hives.

Hive Acquitaine

(Queen – Eleanor; Race – Italian)

Hive Acquitaine
A frame with the queen, Eleanor.

I’m even thinking of painting symbols on each hive front to match the name.  I’ve heard that this helps the bees better orient and return to the right hive.

So what news have we from Hive Acquitaine?  Actually, the hive is beginning to show real progress.

Adding that one frame of brood and nurse bees seemed to do the trick, with more consumption happening in the top hive feeder as well as a greater population of bees than the last few weeks.  The brood pattern is solidifying into something like what you would expect to see in a healthy colony.

Eleanor’s In Charge – Long Live the Queen!

Eleanor is now regularly laying eggs and the amount of uncapped larvae has increased significantly.  When the new nurse bees begin to hatch from the  additional frame of brood, this colony will really get a jolt in population.

The colony has not yet drawn enough comb on the frames in the single deep box so they will remain in a single deep until such time as they finish drawing out comb on a few more frames.

I have discovered that some small ants have discovered the top hive feeder and have drowned in the solution.  So, I will be deploying cinnamon around the hives to help with ant visitors.

Finally, this week there is a significant reduction in the amount of remaining sugar syrup in the top hive feeder.  I hope this trend continues.  I suspect that will continue to happen and should help them in drawing comb on frames.

Other than my ant pests, I found no other pests in the hive.  Small hive beetles did not make an appearance during this inspection so it looks like so far I have escaped any real problems with pests.

Hive Olympus

(Queen – Hecate; Race – Carniolan)

Hive Inspection
Inspecting Hive Olympus

Hive Olympus will figure heavily in my post this week, but first you need to hear how Hecate is doing in this hive.

Hive Olympus was actually a bit ornery during their inspection today.  So it was a challenge to find the queen and check everything.  The medium box that I put on this hive two weeks ago now has drawn comb on about half of the ten frames.

The workers are filling the medium frames with honey and here and there the lone pollen store. Everything looked simply perfect in these frames.  But, Hecate has not risen up to this box and laid any eggs yet.

For the most part, Hecate has taken residence in the middle deep box where she is remaining quite active.  And this week illustrated just what a productive queen she is going to be.

At least one frame illustrated what a good queen can do.  Hecate is unrivaled in her egg-laying ability.  She has proven in a few short weeks that she knows how to lay eggs effectively and is going to yield some incredible brood patterns.

What I have read about Carniolan queens is very true.  They can very quickly ramp up production to increase population in the hive.

Repositioning Deeps and Estabishing a New Order

The bottom deep box, the original brood box, has some remaining brood yet to emerge By and large, the workers have filled these deep frames with honey.

And these frames are HEAVY!  My bee mentor says that you can take full honey frames out and freeze them for later and give them empty frames to draw comb on so the queen has an additional place to lay brood.  I have also considered switching the positioning of the deep boxes to force the queen to move up.

It is likely I’ll have to take both approaches.   I had to refill the top hive feeder as the workers had drained it yet again.

Hive Florence (Queen – Beatrice; Race – Italian)

Beatrice and Brood
Beatrice on the brood frame looking for a new location.

Hive Florence continues its population dominance in the bee yard this week.  Yet again, the workers managed to consume all of the sugar syrup in the top hive feeder.  Rain was beginning to threaten as I began the inspection on this hive so I had to move pretty quickly.

The medium box has 7 frames of drawn comb now.  The comb in this box is filled with honey.  Again there was no brood present in the medium box.

The deep box revealed a hive with more growth to come.  I found a beautiful brood pattern containing eggs, larvae of multiple ages, and tons of capped brood.  But, then came the shocker!

I discovered four queen cups across three frames in this deep box.  Three of the queen cups were quite readily visible.  Hidden inside some drone comb, I found the fourth queen cup.  Indeed, this queen although small would have likely emerged in a few days.

I culled all of these queen cells and cups from the colony but it is apparent that I am going to have to do something to forestall a swarm from my largest colony.

Incomplete Hive Inspection – Are There Other Queen Cups?

Again, this colony has steadily attempted to raise queens which is both concerning and exciting.  It appears that I will have to use some of the same tricks planned for Hive Olympus to slow things down and make this colony uninterested in swarming.

My bees seem to like making my life interesting.  Unfortunately, the rain began just as I completed reviewing the 10 frames in this deep box. I was unable to find Beatrice and could not inspect the last and oldest deep.

I am hoping there are no queen cups in the oldest and original deep.  If there are, I will likely have an emerging queen this week and a swarm event.  As soon as I return, I will ready the nuc for another resident swarm stopping experiment if necessary.

I had to make a new sugar syrup mix after the inspection to completely fill the top hive feeders for these two hungry colonies.  Which leads me to some questions I have about feeding new colonies.

  1. Everything I have read is that bees will stop taking the sugar water after honey flows begin.  But, my bees have not stopped.  In fact, they continue to eat sugar syrup like there aren’t any good alternatives.  Is this a sign of a problem with my colonies?  With the flow of pollen and nectar to the colonies?
  2. Could my use of Honey B Healthy, Super Plus, and Vitamin B Healthy causing my bees to prefer my mix to the very real sources of nutrition they have available to them?
  3. Is there some reason that new nucs installed as new colonies would take sugar syrup all of their first season in my bee yard?

Some Parting Thoughts from the Bee Yard

Across all of my three colonies, I only found one small hive beetle.  That doesn’t mean that more aren’t present but it does mean that the bees are healthy enough to keep them in check.

I intend to perform a new Varroa Mite check next week to determine if I am at treatable levels of infestation.  As mentioned last week, I will be treating with Apivar.  Remember, Apivar is a long-term treatment that can only be in use when honey supers are not on the hive.

It is likely that the only way I will forestall a swarm will be to locate Eleanor and move her into the nuc with brood and food.  My bees seem determined to create a large bee yard in my first year as a beekeeper.  I love my little charges but ladies, give me a break already!!

Considering how much this colony loves to make queens, I may purchase a Queen Castle.  I could be developing a great little sideline business opportunity.

Now that I have a few months of experience under my belt, I am ready to start pursuing beekeeper certification in North Carolina.  Our state legislature just passed a law for a grant to beekeepers for purchasing supplies, but you must be certified.  The first level of certification only requires a written test and an oral hive inspection examination.

By the end of summer, my goal is to be certified as a journeyman beekeeper.

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, in spite of our hard work and care, things just go wrong in the bee yard.  When things go wrong, our first inclination is to panic. Panic is exactly the opposite of what we need to do.  This week I got to experience what happens when things go wrong in the bee yard.

The last few weeks I have been having a very hectic work travel schedule.  As a professional services consultant, I travel to colleges and universities all over the country implementing event management software.  In the past five weeks, I have managed four onsite visits with clients.

So needless to say when I started the hive inspections yesterday I was already exhausted.  What’s worse, I had a rough ending to last week’s travel so I was unhappy and out of sorts.

To anyone that will say fatigue and general emotional feelings will not affect how your bees relate to you, I have to say that you are foolishly mistaken.  I believe full well that Hive Olympus could sense my fatigue and my general irritation levels.  And boy did they respond in kind!

The inspection proceeded just like any other inspection in the medium box.  But the bees were a little more agitated than normal.  After I finished with the medium, the deep box went fairly smoothly and I located Hecate on the 9th frame in the upper deep.

And Then It Happened

I proceeded down to the last deep in this colony.  Fatigued, I was breathing heavily and just about worn out.  Working with one of the very heavy and packed frames in the bottom deep, I managed to crush a bee under my glove and it stung my glove.

That single sting set off a frenzy among the bees in that deep.  Probably three to four hundred bees flew up out of the deep and started attacking my suit.  I knew that the only hope I had was to close up the hive and leave the area.

Workers clustered on my gloves.  They were flying around my veil.  They were head butting my veil and hood.  In the space of less than 5 minutes, they had stung my right glove more than 40 times, my hat at least 6 or 7 times, and various stings on my left glove and my beekeepers suit.

The beepocolypse followed all the way to the garage and forced me inside to get them to depart safely back to their hive.  What caused the beepocolypse in my bee yard?  Elementary my dear Watson!  It was caused by bee pheromone, specifically the alarm pheromone.

The volume of buzzing this colony put into its battle royale with its keeper was breathtaking.  So what mistakes did I make doing this hive inspection?

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. . .

When things go wrong, they tend to compound and enhance each other.  My mistakes were many and varied yesterday:

  1. I was too fatigued and tired to do a hive inspection yesterday afternoon and that fatigue made me less gentle when handling the frames.
  2. Feeling like I was racing against the clock to squeeze the hive inspection in between rain showers and  in my busy travel schedule for June caused me to crush a bee and trigger the alarm pheromone from her sting.
  3. Instead of stopping and smoking the spot of the sting, I kept working the hive further exciting the bees.
  4. The sudden attack of the bees caught me off guard and as a result I only sped up my work with the hive and that speed made me further agitate the bees.
  5. My panic at the onslaught of an angry hive added a mixture of fear and irritation to my already high levels of irritation and anger.  The worker bees fed on that and sensed it.  The more I worked with them the angrier they got.

Lesson Learned

I did learn a few valuable lessons from this experience.

This event has caused me to have a  greater respect of just how quickly a hive can turn against its keeper and that wearing protective clothing is an absolute must.

I also learned that when you’re extremely fatigued the better part of valor is to just not do an inspection.  Naturally, my inspection revealed some really important things that I needed to keep Hive Florence from a potential swarm.  But, that was made at the cost of dozens of bees lives and a less-than-successful afternoon in the bee yard.

Coming Next Week

Next week I want to talk about what I look for when I do my hive inspections as well as what I do to keep track of my inspections.  Good recordkeeping is an important aspect of successful beekeeping.

I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with hive inspections as well as more happenings in the bee yard.

Until next time, happy beekeeping!

About Keith Stiles

Keith is a contributor to PerfectBee, documenting his story to the realm of beekeeper.A native of North Carolina, Keith travels the country working with colleges and universities implementing event scheduling software. When he's not on the computer and working with his clients, helikes to tend to his flowers, singing with the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir and the Haywood County Community chorus and - of course - enjoy his bees!

7 thoughts on “When Beekeeping Goes Wrong

  1. Unfair! The requirements for me to become a Journeyman beekeeper in the Oregon State University program are much greater than those in North Carolina. Dang!

    Ok, so I’m teasing Keith. More power to you and I hope you get the certification soon. Maybe someday the programs across the nation will be standardized. Until then, I hear good things about the N.C. program and I think you will serve you well.

    • Yes, it would be nice if there were consistency among the programs but I guess each state will have its own standards.

      I’m hoping to work on it in July and August.

  2. Hey Keith,

    Very informative post this week. I appreciate all of the detail you put into your posts. The obvious care you give to your apiary and its inhabitants is clear and the way you describe the progress of each hive is terrific. Love the little details and your names for each colony. I especially like the idea of painting symbols on your hive to help orient your bees to the correct hive. Whether it works or not, who knows? My single hive should probably have the Moorcock Chaos symbol on it given that I have very little idea of what is going on in the hive right now. Which brings me to my two questions. I’m also a novice beekeeper and this is my first year as well.

    1) We stopped providing our hive sugar water pretty early on after we installed the colony from the nuc. In the literature I’ve read and from what our mentor tells us, the bees get a taste for the sugar water and can become lazy if a ready source is always available. When we took it away, the lack of sugar water didn’t seem to have any deleterious effect. It difference in approaches seems curious to me.

    2. Our mentor also told us that what’s going on outside the hive is a pretty good indicator of what is going on inside and has advised us to limit our inspections to once every 3-4 weeks. At first, this was difficult. I really love to get in the hive and see what’s going on, but see how active and productive our foragers are gives me comfort. We’ll be inspecting this weekend for signs of swarm, mites, beetle and other issues, but I’m curious. How often do you inspect?

    Again, love the blog posts.

    • Ethan, thanks for such a thorough response. I think that there are numerous schools of thought on provision of sugar water and frequency of inspections. For instance, my bee mentor has said keep feeding until they stop taking because you are assisting them in their first year and they haven’t been any bit lazy about foraging. I’m thinking as much comb as my bees are drawing they need all the help they can get. On inspections, I inspect weekly and I have to say if I had waited three or four weeks I would have had multiple swarms by now. I think that 3-4 weeks is far too long between inspections. A queen cup or cups could appear as a cell, grow to a cup, and be capped and emerge in that time period and then you have a real fiasco. Active and productive is good but not getting in the hive you really don’t know what is going on internally.

      Glad you are enjoying the blog posts.

  3. Keith, if you want to stave off swarming try “opening ” the brood nest. Take a frame, or three and pull them up a box, replace with empty frames. It will get them occupied drawing comb and give them some elbow room!

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