A girl worth waiting for!

IMG_4425We know our kids have to learn the realities of life. Sometimes the family fish dies, before we can make it to the pet shop to get an identical one to slip in the bowl. (Hang in there Norbert, awesome beta fish of ours, we really like you!) The seeds they carefully plant and tend never come up, and we secretly plant new ones. It is heartbreaking to see them feel sad, and as parents we often try to fix it. We had almost reached that point this week…

Our littlest beekeepers wanted their own hives, so my husband pulled splits from our hives to start a nucleus (nuc) colony for our 7 and 11 year olds. A nuc has several frames of brood, eggs, and larvae, stolen from a larger, stronger hive and placed in a small hive. The nurse bees on the frames can use the fresh eggs/larvae to raise a new queen.

Pretty cool huh?

The girls raise the queen by building a special queen cell around the chosen egg and then feeding the larva extra portions of royal jelly. Royal jelly is milky white, protein rich food for baby bees. Worker bees are fed royal jelly for only three days, but the queen gets it throughout her development. (Thank goodness I’m not a baby bee, because I sampled some and it tastes terrible! Very acidic. Nothing like yummy honey!) The extra royal jelly makes the larva develop into a queen, with ovaries, rather than a typical worker bee. A pretty neat (and useful) trick, isn’t it?

Maylan's Queen LarvaThe photo below shows a queen cell built out from the existing cells on the frame. If you look inside the opening on the cell, you can see the developing queen larva inside. The nurse bees feed her for 8 days until it is time to cap the cell with wax and allow her to develop. They may build several queen cells in hopes of getting a healthy one to emerge and mate successfully.

For whatever reason, big sissy’s hive took off like a rocket. Her queen emerged, flew out to mate, and returned to lay eggs like crazy. Little brother’s queen, on the other hand, never appeared. For weeks, he’s been checking his hive for signs of a queen. Each time we’ve added fresh eggs for them to try again, but still no queen to be found. We hypothesize that his queen flew out to mate, and met with some untimely demise on her mating flight, but we can only guess.

imageWe had almost given up hope. A plan was in place to stealthily sneak out and combine his hive with another nuc with a healthy queen. With fingers crossed, last night we peeked in one last time to check how things were going, and lo and behold, there she was. I only got a quick shot of her because the girls were a little annoyed with the red cover on my cell phone. Thank goodness the little guy’s hive has a queen, and we didn’t have to bee sneaky! The right girl is always worth waiting for, and this one is a beauty.

Y’all bee sweet, cause the royal jelly is not!


Snow Day!!!

IMG_20160122_104049711_HDR (1)Here in the NC Foothills, we don’t get a lot of snow. So when it happens, we go, well, a little nutty. Ah…the dream snow day… sleeping late and easing into the day with a warm cup of coffee… catching up with my facebook friends… cuddling in on the couch with a pile of magazines and a snuggly blanket. Maybe a little sledding or playing outside and then coming in for some warm cocoa. Sounds pretty dreamy, doesn’t it?

In my real world, snow days usually include searching the house for someone’s snow pants, rounding up matches to gloves, locating warm socks and convincing kids that long underwear makes life better. Sometimes by the time I get the third one completely outfitted in winterwear, the first one has already decided to head back inside, only to leave a trail of soggy mittens and drippy boots all over the wood floors.

Guess what y’all?!?! The bees have it all figured out! In the winter, the girls combat the cold weather by snuggling together in a tight ball called a cluster. The inner part of the cluster is the warmest spot, and that’s where the queen bee gets to hang out. As the bees on the outside of the cluster get chilly, they make their way to the inner part to take a turn warming up. The rotation of bees makes sure that no bee freezes. The queen bee stays in the middle of the cluster, snuggled up the whole time.

The bees create heat by flexing their flight muscles, but they do it without moving their wings at all, kind of like us shivering to keep warm. The colder the weather outside the hive, the closer the bees snuggle together. On warmer days, the cluster loosens up a bit and moves to another area of the hive to eat the stored honey in different places. The more bees in the colony, the warmer the cluster will be, thanks to more bees flexing thier muscles and creating heat. Small bee colonies have a hard time staying warm enough through a cold winter.

Thermal ImageBee Culture magazine has a neat article that provides a glimpse inside the hive using thermal imaging. The warm cluster of bees shows up as a bright red area compared with the rest of the colder air in the hive. The bees don’t waste energy heating the rest of the hive.

So the bees make it through the winter by snuggling up close and sticking together, taking turns in the warm spot of the cluster, and making sure their valuable queen is protected and warm at all times. Not a bad plan to keep their colonies from freezing. So as the storm drops snow outside our door, I’m going to follow their lead and snuggle up too. Y’all BEE SWEET and stay warm.

Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch…Sweet Talking Our Queen

Can you spot the queenWhen I was in high school, Where’s Waldo was a popular character. People spent hours looking for the guy in a red and white striped shirt, carefully camouflaged but in plain view. Finding the queen in a hive is like that. There’s one in the photo above. She’s a lot like the rest of the girls, but if you look closely, there are a subtle differences. She bigger than the worker bees, and her abdomen is long and pointed. That point makes it possible for her to deposit an egg inside the tiny cell of the wax honeycomb. Her wings are short compared to the rest of her body. After her mating flight, she spends most of her time inside the hive laying eggs, so wings are not a major need for her. (More about the “birds and the bees” in a later post. It’s fascinating! Okay, that made me sound a little weird, but I was a biology major in college. Creation amazes me!)  Normally it’s GREAT that the queen stays in the hive, all safe and sound, but remember we had to get these girls out of our front porch column. To do that we had to get the queen out, and to get the queen out, we had to outsmart her.

Sounds easy enough, you say? I mean her brain is pretty tiny. What could be so hard about that? For starters our bees had to learn to fly in and out through a specially built hive box. This is where that whole civil engineer (let’s build something to fix this thing) came in really handy. IMG_0534Instead of flying in and out like normal, my husband built an attachment that the bees had to navigate on their way to find food and water. They hated this! They found an opening along the other side of the column to come and go. We tried filling that crack with latex caulk, but they just ate their way out. One tiny, bee bite at a time. They were determined not to use that adapted entrance. After multiple trips up the 20 foot ladder, surrounded by unhappy bees, silicone caulk finally kept their back door closed. After that, he adapted a traditional hive box that attached to the tunnel for them to fly through as well. The hive box was filled with frames of foundation (wax sheets molded with guidelines for building honeycomb) in hopes of enticing the queen and her workers to move out of our house and into a home of their own. It was going to take more than a deluxe apartment in the sky to get her movin’ on up.

So if you want to catch a mouse, you’ve got to bait the trap. In this case, instead of peanut butter, we used fresh bee eggs and larvae from our existing hive. IMG_0884 (1)If you look really closely in the photo, you can see teeny, tiny worm-like things in the bottom of the honeycomb. Those are baby bee larvae. Now don’t panic, they keep the larvae separate from the honeycomb that stores the honey. After the queen lays an egg, the worker bees spend about a week feeding the larvae. When the baby has gotten her allotment of food, the workers put a wax cap over the honeycomb cell and allow the baby to grow. It takes about 21 days for the egg to hatch into a newbee…not a scientific term there, y’all…don’t be throwing that out, trying to impress your friends with your new found entomology knowledge!  The smell of fresh bee eggs and larvae, makes the queen curious. I mean, if somebody continually left babies in your attic, you’d eventually go check things out, right?  In truth, she gets upset when she thinks another queen is laying eggs in her house, and she comes out to investigate. We had to keep watch to catch her in the act. Once we found her in the new hive, we placed a device called a queen excluder in the tunnel between the column and the hive box. The excluder kept her stuck in her new home because she was too big to fit back through the holes. Thank goodness! We were on the home stretch!

IMG_0896 (2)We had to wait another month after the queen was out to give time for all the eggs and larvae in the column to hatch and reach maturity to fly out. A one-way bee escape placed between the column and the new hive kept the bees from going back in the old hive. Operation Outta Here was a success! Now the bees could be safely moved…well as safely as you can move a hive of refugee bees from the top of scaffolding. From start to finish, it took several months to lure all those silly bees out of our house. Much to our neighbors disappointment, this was just the tip of the iceberg on that blue scaffolding though. Complete restoration of our front porch is still a work in progress, but that’s a topic for a completely different blog!

So what was inside that cozy hive?IMG_1437 Well, bunches of beeswax and loads of honey! The really sad part is, we had to throw it out! Normally the undertaker bees carry the ones that have passed on to that “great field of clover in the sky” straight out the front door of the hive. In this case though, their door was at the top, and most of the dead bees fell to the bottom of the column to rot. The smell of that many decomposing bees is less than pleasant, and it left the honey and wax with an harsh scent. Ick! But it was still amazing to see the long sheets of honeycomb carefully glued to the ceiling of the column. Let’s think about this. Once a year you, an intelligent human, try to hang a banner from your ceiling announcing little Suzy’s birthday, and it takes six pieces of tape, two thumbtacks, and a stapler to hold it up for a party that lasts about 3 hours. These honeybees, who are less than an inch long, can glue tiny pieces of wax to a wooden ceiling, in the dark. These bits of glue hold up a six foot long, heavy chunk of honeycomb, filled with honey or baby bees. No wonder my engineer husband is amazed by them!

So now you know how we became beekeepers, but I’m pretty sure that it’s the bees that keep us! From this crazy beginning, Bee Sweet Bee Farm now has ten hives. We are continually amazed at the humble, hardworking honeybee, and we hope you will be too. Please take a moment to follow our blog. We’ve got more stories to tell, and “maybee” you’ll learn a thing or two along the way. Until then, Bee Sweet!

Oh! Did you find the queen? In case you missed her, she’s near the bottom of the frame, just slightly off center to the right. Some beekeepers mark their queens to make them easy to spot, but we prefer a challenge!