The Continued Saga of Queen Hippolyta I

IMG_20220919_125636578The last time I posted about beekeeping, I wrote about making a split and watching the bees rear a new queen for a new colony. That queen, Queen Hippolyta I laid a ton of eggs all summer. Her bees seemed to be slightly meaner than Queen Leslie Knope II’s bees, but the colony was strong. I could hardly ever find Queen Hippolyta (named for Wonder Woman’s mother, by the way) in the hive, so I decided to try to mark her. Thus began a chapter of Queen Hippolyta I’s reign that has been, frankly, kind of unbelievable. 

Queen Marking

On August 17th, I went out for a check of my two hives and brought out the queen marking kit complete with yellow pen for 2022 (queen marking color code) just in case I found Queen Hippolyta. Surprisingly, I did. 

To mark a queen with the kit I have, I was supposed to catch the queen in a clear queen clip, transfer her to a marking tube, shut the lid, gently push her against the screen, then mark her with a paint pen. I was able to get her in the queen clip. That step alone was fairly nerve-wracking because I was afraid that I would decapitate her or injure her in some other way. 

I tried to transfer her into the marking tube and she flew away. I caught her again, off of my arm, and tried to transfer her into the marking tube and she flew away before I could shut the lid. I tried and failed again. This time, I couldn’t find her anywhere and was afraid I was going to step on her. I started cleaning up, trying to move my feet as little as possible and looking at the ground carefully before each step. Then, I saw a cluster of bees on the wrapper from a mite treatment over by my other hive. There was the queen! Foolishly, I tried one more time. She flew away again. I feared I had really lost her, but I hoped for the best. (Video here.)

A New Queen

On August 22nd, I did a hive inspection and saw sealed queen cups. I had lost their queen and they were raising Queen Hippolyta II. On August 31st, I saw that the virgin queens had hatched. I waited a week to check for eggs and saw none. There had been some rainy days and it is getting later in the summer, so I decided to wait a bit longer to check for eggs, but I started to doubt that Queen Hippolyta II would successfully mate and start laying eggs. 

IMG_20220914_130807790Hippolyta Returns

On September 14th, I prepared to combine my two hives if there were still no eggs in The Bee & Bee. Over in my second hive, The Parks Dpt., Queen Leslie Knope II’s colony had few resources and the population did not seem very strong. In The Bee & Bee, they had backfilled the comb and had a mite treatment during the brood break (The Parks Dpt. was also treated), so they were a good candidate for combination with a weaker hive if they were still queenless. They had resources but needed a queen. 

My hive inspection revealed that The Bee & Bee was not queenright, so I proceeded with the newspaper combine. There was one big problem. When I bought my equipment last year, I accidentally bought two different sizes of hive. To combine the hives, I had to move the frames from The Parks Department (a 10-frame) into smaller 8-frame boxes so that they could be stacked on top of The Bee & Bee. It was a bit of a chaotic scene, but I was able to get them combined, remove empty frames for storage, and give them the Apivar-tainted honey that my bees made last year to get them through dearth and started for winter. 

While I was moving frames around, I looked very seriously for Queen Leslie Knope II. It was essential to make sure she was in the right box. I saw eggs, so I knew a queen was in there laying. Her brood pattern even looked better than it had in a while. I couldn’t find her, though, and it made me nervous. Before I closed up the combined hive, I checked once more on the frames from The Parks Dpt. and all of a sudden there was an unmarked queen on one of the frames. She looked just like I remembered Queen Hippolyta I looking. What in the what!?

I closed up, stunned, and went inside to look at some pictures from previous hive inspections. I am pretty certain that this queen is actually Hippolyta I. I really wish I could ask the bees some questions, but it seems like what must have happened is that when she flew off, annoyed, she went to The Parks Dpt, who had been playing with replacing Queen Leslie II all summer, and they accepted her, the stronger queen, and dispatched Queen Leslie Knope II, God rest her. I last saw Queen Leslie II on August 4th, but at no point did The Parks Dpt. have a brood break that would have indicated queenlessness. Queen Hippolyta II must have either been killed in a battle royale when she hatched, died during a mating flight, or had some other end. Now, Queen Hippolyta, I was back to rule The Bee & Bee. I never could have predicted this turn of events. (See video of the combination here.) 

IMG_20220919_130510177Queen Marked

On September 19th, I went to check on the combined Bee & Bee with my friend Allison, who was visiting from out of town. The goal, aside from showing her the bees, was to see if the bees had completed the newspaper combine by removing the newspaper between hive boxes, and then to put the boxes back in the correct order if they had. 

Everything was going fine, the bees had accepted each other, and then a medium honey super fell off my little side table. Bees were ejected from the box but overall did not seem as angry as I expected them to be after that happened. As I assessed the damage, having sent Allison across the yard in case the bees wanted to sting in retaliation, I saw a small cluster of bees behind me on the board I stand on during inspections. My heart dropped. 

As I thought, the queen was on the ground with attendants around her. I could see that she was breathing, though. I held my own breath as I gently scooped her up. She did not appear to be injured in any way. Just stunned, maybe? I observed her and the bees around her. They were loving on her and she got to her feet and moved around. I could see that her legs and wings were uninjured. She looked perfect, but she wouldn’t get off my glove. It was so strange. For the longest time, she just groomed herself and walked around. (Video here)

The bees were calm, so I called Allison back over to see the queen. I had her find my yellow paint pen in my toolbox and get it primed. It had dried out pretty well from the heat in the last month, but I gave myself one shot to gingerly mark this queen while she stood on my glove. I did it! I couldn’t believe it. Because the pen was dry, it’s not the neatest marking, and I won’t be surprised if the bees groom it right off her (they started immediately), but I got her marked, just over a month after this whole twisted story started. 

It took the longest time for Queen Hippolyta to go back into the hive. I had to transfer her from my glove to my hive tool and kind of tap her off of that onto a frame. She went in though. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that the next time I check she is still laying a strong brood pattern and yesterday was just a strange episode in her life. Long live the queen.

Rest in Peace, Queen Leslie Knope II. I really was fond of you, but with her amazing survival skills, Queen Hippolyta I has risen in my estimation.

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The Saga of Queen Hippolyta I

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Queen Hippolyta I

When a colony of bees makes it through winter and their population has rebounded, one of their first instincts is to swarm. A swarm of bees is how the colony reproduces itself. They raise a new queen, fill up on honey, and then leave with the old queen and about half of the colony’s population. There is an astounding amount of information about how bees make decisions in the swarming process found in Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Dyer Seeley. In a nutshell, they land someplace nearby, often a tree, and then send scout bees to find a new place to live. The scouts come back and use the famed waggle dance to explain the location of the new home they’ve found. Whichever bee has the most workers join them wins. The survival rate for swarms is not great—there are so many natural and manmade dangers for them—and they might decide that their new home is your neighbor’s crawlspace, so for the suburban beekeeper, preventing swarms is part of the job. If you see a swarm, don’t worry, Because swarms are homeless, they don’t have any resources to defend and are not dangerous. Call your local beekeeping association, and a beekeeper will be thrilled to capture the swarm and put them in a hive. Free bees! 

IMG_20220511_133445434 (1)One way to prevent your bees from swarming is performing a split, which is essentially an artificial swarm. When I last posted about beekeeping I was on the fence about if/when to split my hive, but decided to do it after a nudge from our friend Rachele (thanks!). I would have liked to keep Queen Leslie Knope II in the Bee & Bee for purely superficial reasons, but in order to have the best chance to prevent that colony from swarming, I moved her. The idea is to move about half of the bees over to a new hive, with some resources and empty space, so that they feel like they have swarmed, keeping them from actually running away. I performed this split on May 10th and am calling their new hive The Parks Dpt. 

In the Bee & Bee, I had to be really careful to leave frames that had fresh eggs on them, so that the remaining bees could raise a new queen. Right after an egg is laid, it stands up on end, like a grain of rice. Over the next day or so, it starts to tilt over to about 45 degrees. On day three, it hatches. Within the next three days, the larva that hatches either can or cannot become a queen, depending on choices made by the nurse bees. I held the frames up to sunlight to get the best view, making sure they had eggs. 

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Emergency Queen Cups with Larva

I checked back three days later, just to make sure that they had started raising an emergency queen, and found a frame with nine queen cups on it, and I could see larvae in a few of them. I stopped my inspection there, to prevent accidentally damaging any potential queens. More experienced and/or less nosey beekeepers might not check on their splits as much as I did. Once I saw the queen cups, however, I left the hive alone until after 15 days had passed, on May 25th. 

A virgin queen hatches after 16 days. When I made the split, I saw eggs, so I knew that they were between 1 and 3 days old. I did not know how old the eggs that the bees made into queens were, so I did my inspection in the middle of the window, in the very slim hope that I might be able to see one hatch. Once a queen bee hatches, typically, she will find all the other queen cups and sting the queen pupa inside of them, so she’s the only one left. If more than one hatches at the same time, they fight it out. In Honeybee Democracy, Seeley suggests that the workers might sabotage one of the virgins if they think the other is better.

 When I opened the hive, I could see that the queen cups had hatched and some of them had been torn open at the side. It looked very much like some kind of battle royale had gone down. I also found a couple of partially destroyed queen cups that still had queen larvae in them, just not fully developed. I gently opened them the rest of the way and was able to glimpse what a developing queen looked like at different stages. It was sad, but also beautiful, thinking about what each of those baby queens could have been, had they been the one who ultimately became queen of the Bee & Bee. Wistfulness aside, it was clear to me that, unless she had been wounded or killed in a fight with other hatchlings, the Bee & Bee had a virgin queen among them. Within four days, she would be ready for a mating flight. 

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A hatched queen cup

A queen bee leaves the hive just once (unless the colony swarms) to mate with drones. On her mating flight, she will mate with an average of 12 drones. This mating is essential to the genetic health of the colony. A queen won’t mate with drones from her own colony. Assuming she survives the flight, a queen should start laying eggs in around two weeks. So the earliest I expected to see eggs was June 2nd. 

I did a hive inspection on the 2nd, holding my breath a bit. I saw eggs on the second frame I pulled from the upper brood box. They were perfectly placed, one egg per cell. I almost couldn’t believe it. As if that wasn’t good enough, moments later, I saw the newly mated queen on the frame. It was a magical moment. Bees are amazing. This new queen is named Queen Hippolyta I after Wonder Woman’s mother. 

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Queen Pupae at Different Stages

I wasn’t able to get my camera open fast enough through my sticky gloves, so I didn’t get a photo of her that day, but today, a week later, I was able to find her again and get some photos and video. She is a beautiful queen bee and is already laying tons of eggs, taking after her mother, Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Speaking of, Queen Leslie Knope II is reigning well over The Parks Dpt. They aren’t working on swarming, are building out comb in a second box, and the population is booming. I got some video today of her laying eggs. Again, the only word I can think of is magical. I will be posting that as a reel over on our Instagram soon. 

Making this split was an utter thrill and I am so happy that the Bee & Bee was able to make a queen successfully, even with a sudden late-May snowstorm. I hope soon they ramp up comb production so that they can start making honey, too.

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Queen Hippolyta I

 

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Queen Leslie Knope II laying an egg

An Unseasonably Cold Weekend, By the Numbers

If you’re like us, you planted your flowers Mother’s Day weekend. Even with Colorado’s unpredictable springs, that date is generally in the clear for a hard frost. It has snowed as late as Father’s Day, but you have to live your life and try not to think about snow in June. We planted our winter squash, corn, and beans on May 1st because the forecast looked warm and damp. Flowers went in the ground and indoor-started veggies moved outside on May 7th or 8th. Yesterday it was 88°, but today, May 20th, we could get 3-5 inches of snow and the forecast calls for an overnight low of 28°. Tomorrow, the low is 30° and then things start to warm up to the mid-50s by Monday and 70° by Wednesday, with lots of rain between now and then. The precipitation is more than welcome, but the cold makes us worry about the garden. We take comfort in data, so we went in search of how cold is too cold for our plants. 

Here’s the breakdown of how cold affects our homestead, by the numbers. 

Bees

Our honeybees pulled through the winter, but we just split them into a second colony about ten days ago. We’re a little worried about the queenless hive being able to keep all the brood and queen cells warm enough, but the split, which has the queen and a smaller nest, should be fine. 

  • 41°: the body temperature at which a bee will die.
  • 93°: the average temperature at the center of the winter cluster, with brood present.
  • 57°: the temperature at which bees form a tight cluster
  • 45-50°: the temperature at which bees enter a state of torpor 

Dampness and wind are more likely to harm bees than the cold is.

IMG_20220520_141604464Garden

Germination and seedling growth are highly dependent on water and soil temperature.

  • 25°: hard freeze
  • 28°: for 5 hours: the temperature at which most plants will freeze
  • 32°: the temperature at which most seedlings will die. 

Evaporation will help raise the air temperature around the plants, so watering deeply in the evening can help, as can covering plants before the colder air sets in. We are using the alpacas’ pool, beach towels, tarps, outdoor blankets, old sheets—basically anything we can find—and I’m running the clean towels and sheets through the dryer first for good measure. And then I’m saying a prayer. 

I feel really lucky that I decided to plant peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants in the patio garden because I can move these more heat-loving plants inside for the weekend. I just have to keep the toddler out of them. 

IMG_20220519_200512260Orchard

Our apple and pear trees are beyond the flowering stage and it looks like many of the blossoms have been pollinated (thanks, bees!). Julio found this guide to critical temperatures for fruit trees. It looks like our trees should be okay, for the most part, and enjoy a drink from all the precipitation. 

  • 28°: the temperature at which 10% of buds will die.
  • 25°: the temperature at which 90% of buds will die.

Alpacas

  • 2 inches: how much fleece each alpaca has grown on her torso right now. 

IMG_20220520_123540163They’re wet, but probably enjoying a break from being hot. Alpacas can tolerate very cold temperatures, provided they have a windbreak.

I was in the middle of writing this when the snow started, so I had to run outside and cover the babies. Now, I’m sipping stress relief tea and praying for the garden while taking deep breaths. Best wishes to you, fellow Front Range gardeners. 

We will update here with how the forecast played out and if our plants survived.

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Sol Homestead in Winter

Miss Firecracker

Winter is allegedly a quiet time, when the garden and apiary are done for the season and I am all cuddled up reading a mystery novel. There’s always something to do, though, between the toddler, the chores, and keeping all of us living things warm, fed, and growing. 

Animals

The hens went on “sabbatical” for about six weeks and egg production is slowly ramping back up. They molted starting in November. When hens molt it can be a “hard” molting when they lose their feathers all at once and look awful for a minute before they grow back. Our hens did a “soft” molt. Aside from feathers blowing everywhere on the property and Eliza looking a little naked around her neck, you’d not really guess that they were molting. The energy needed to produce new feathers, plus the very short days probably caused them to stop laying eggs. Someone is also eating eggs if we don’t get to them soon enough. This would indicate that they might need a little more calcium in their diets. Oyster shell it is! 

Freeloading chickens Angelica, Persephone, and Peggy

The alpaca herd is doing well and getting fluffier by the day. Little Luna has grown so much. She is four months old and almost as tall as her mama, Miss Firecracker. We didn’t really notice how much shorter Miss Firecracker is compared to the other girls until Luna started to catch up to her!

We still have two 200 yd 2-ply worsted weight skeins of Miss Firecracker’s yarn left for $35 each. Send us a note in the contact tab if you’re interested!

Bees

A couple of weeks ago, we had a three-day stretch of temperatures in the mid-50s, so I decided to get into the hive for a couple of quick chores. I had seen bees out flying occasionally and I could hear them when I put my ear to the hive, but still, I was nervous that when I opened it I would find that they had blitzed through their food or that there would be signs of too much moisture or too few bees. None of the above happened. I didn’t pull any frames out, but it looks like they have most of their honey left. I added sugar to the feeding shim just in case they do run out of food (the Mountain Camp Method), as I am not planning to open the hive again until spring. If they don’t use the sugar they will just haul it out eventually, but in the meantime it will help absorb moisture.  

A big winter cluster still!

I also did a quick Oxalic Acid dribble just in case the previous mite treatments weren’t sufficient. I wanted to do it when it would be warm for a few days so that the moisture had time to dry out before it got cold again. I have read over and over that this year was an especially gnarly mite year. I think I got out there just as they were heading out for the day, which was the perfect time because they were still mostly in one place for the treatment. There was just one little hiccup. To dribble the OA in the lower deep box, I just tilted the top one up, as I was trying not to disturb the hive too much. Just as I was dribbling the solution along the last frame, the top box slipped and almost fell to the ground. It was heavy and I was holding it one-handed, but somehow I didn’t drop it or smash anyone. 

An undertaker bee at work

Once I reassembled the hive, I brushed as many dead bees out from behind the mouseguard as I could and then watched the bees coming out to relieve themselves and do their chores. I got to watch some undertakers at work. I did help them by brushing the dead bees off the landing board before I left. 

Overall, I am really encouraged by the size of the cluster and how tidy and well-stocked the Bee & Bee is looking. The average overwinter survival rate is ~40%, though, so I’m still keeping a close eye on the hive on sunny, warm days.

Orchard

IMG_20220113_154658038We are hoping to see more growth out of our orchard trees in the coming year now that they are fenced in and safe from alpaca attacks. We need to be more regular about watering them, but for now, the blanket of snow is taking care of that. Our little orchard trees have stood up to some brutal winds this season, assisted by a slight windbreak created by the barn. 

Ideally, I should have wrapped the trunks on the trees around Thanksgiving, but I got to it around New Year’s Day. Hopefully the little guys are okay. I wrapped each trunk in felt, which provides breathable protection from the harsh winter sun in the absence of leaves. They look like they are wrapped up in little scarves. I saw tiny buds on one of the trees when I was wrapping it, and that little glimpse of spring was encouraging. Colorado is not the easiest place to grow fruit trees. 

Garden

I am getting ready to start seeds in about a month, and the first order of business was organizing the seeds I have left over and the new ones I ordered on sale last month. The result was too many seeds! My big goals are to expand the pumpkin patch and get the pollinator garden blooming this year. I think the soil was too hot last year, since the beds had a layer of old horse poo under them, so I put down a heavy layer of mulch to try to cool it down. In order to make everything fit, I am expanding the container garden on the patio, using some pots left by the previous owners. In terms of seed starting, last year was a total flop, so this year I am adding heating pads and humidity covers to try to get some little plant babies growing! These additions should be especially helpful for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Any tips, master gardeners?

First attempts at spinning

Spinning

I am learning how to spin. After almost a year with little progress, I decided that I needed to put a deadline on myself to get the ball rolling, or the spindle spinning, rather. I decided to use the pretty merino fiber I had to make Christmas gifts for my grandparents. I was really pleased with how my first two yarns turned out, but I got less than a third of the way through knitting a cabled headband before I was out of yarn. That’s when I learned how to measure a skein using a niddy noddy, and discovered that I had only spun ~30 yds out of 4 oz of fiber. Yikes. I had to learn to spin thinner!

My first skein. So fluffy and pretty, but only 30 yds!

I eventually managed to spin three 2-ply 100 yd skeins of bulky weight yarn and I thought they turned out nicely. I know they are durable too, because I had to restart one knitting project three times due to some technical mistakes, and the yarn held up splendidly. Now, I am working on spinning thinner, more consistent yarn and finishing skeins so that they are not just usable, but saleable. A huge help in all of this was the book and DVD Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont and the Youtube channels MeganERisk Tutorials and JillianEve. I’m spinning every day now, for at least a few minutes and I’m enjoying it, which is a huge improvement from just a few months ago. 

Home 

Spinning thinner yarn with leftovers from Moira.

Aside from holiday festivities, things have been quiet around the house (knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, whatever it takes). We have been enjoying our repaired fireplace and trying out some new recipes. We are vegetarians, and each winter I am on the hunt for new veggie comfort food. This winter has had some real hits. 

Some of our favorite new-to-us recipes this winter have been:

In a few weeks, we will be putting up a new fence, to provide some more privacy and deaden the road noise in the backyard and pasture. That, we hope, pray, cross our fingers, is our last big house project for some time. 

What do you do during this winter season, for fun or around your own homestead? Let us know below. -Kasey 

Preparing the Backyard Bees for Winter

Winter Bees

Often, when talking to people about our bees, I get asked what the bees do during the winter. The answer is pretty amazing, really. 

A bee born in the spring will generally live for around six weeks, but a bee born in the late fall can live for up to four months. The reason for this is that over the cold months, the bees’ metabolisms slow down, preserving their energy and, as a result, slowing the aging process. 

Bees are experts at regulating the temperature in the hive. In the summer, that means bearding and fanning to cool things off. In the winter, that means sealing the hive with propolis (bee glue) and forming a cluster. Bees cluster when the outside air temperature dips below around 57 degrees. (I have sometimes seen the bees out flying when it is slightly cooler than that.) The cluster keeps the queen and any brood present at the proper temperature, between 85 and 93 depending on the status of the brood nest. The cluster needs to maintain contact with the stored food or they can starve to death even if there is plenty of honey in the hive. If it gets really cold outside, the bees may enter torpor, a sort of suspended animation in which their metabolism slows down so much that they require little fuel and look dead. Their are plenty of videos out there of people breathing bees “back to life” by bringing them out of torpor. 

Winter Hive Setup

Since temperature isn’t really a problem for bees most of the time, the really issues are 1) mites and 2) moisture. 

The Varroa Destructor Mite is the probable cause of many colony collapses because the parasitic mites deplete the nutrition vital to winter bees and also spread disease. It is vital to get the mite situation under control before the queen is rearing the winter bees so that the cluster is as healthy as possible. I treated our bees with Apivar and Formic Pro during the year. Before closing the hive up for the winter, I also did an Oxalic Acid Drip to try to get rid of as many mites as I could. I feared that the extended bit of warm weather we had, which lead the queen to keep laying a decent sized nest, meant the mites would keep breeding too. Having a large cluster is great, but as the bee population starts to decline, the mites could overtake them. So, I hope that worked. 

Colorado is a pretty dry climate, so I am not very worried about moisture, but too much moisture in the hive can be disastrous to the bees. When they generate heat for themselves, some condensation is created and some is needed. Bees, like all living things, need water. But if too much builds up, it can drip on the bees and/or lead to mold, both of which are very bad. To control moisture, I put a quilt box on top of the honey super. The quilt box (purple in the picture) has a thick layer of pine shavings from the chicken supplies that will absorb moisture. It also features screened vents to allow ventilation, another form of moisture control. Under the quilt box, I have a feeding shim (blue), which will allow me to add a layer of dry sugar (Mountain Camp Method) later in the winter as emergency feed. The dry sugar will also absorb moisture in the hive. If I put it in too early, though, the bees will just haul it out like trash. Many beekeepers tilt their hives forward about 5 degrees to allow water to run out of the hive, but I cannot figure out how to do that with my hive stand. Given the dry climate and the quilt box, I hope that this setup works.

Finally, there’s a mouse guard and it’s all strapped to gether with a ratchet strap with some heavy rocks on top. This setup held it all together during 85 mph winds yesterday!

 It’s our first winter with the bees and I have so enjoyed them this year. I really hope that they make it through the winter. The requeening late in the season made me nervous, but the long stretch of warm weather gave them a leg up, I think. I fed them 2:1 syrup along the way so that they didn’t have to break into their stores. At the last inspection, I estimated that they had about 100 pounds of honey stored, plus plenty of pollen. I’ve seen them out taking “cleansing flights” (to go to the bathroom) and dragging out dead bees on each warm day, and I get a little thrill every time. 

 Good luck, bees! I hope to see you in the spring.  -Kasey

Further Reading

Scientific Beekeeping: Fat Bees Part 1

Honey Bee Suite: Temperature regulation in a winter cluster

The Saga of Queen Leslie Knope II

IMG_20211005_101958753_HDR (2)I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that my beehive lost its queen after a Formic Pro treatment. I had suspected for a few weeks prior that the queen was getting weak, but as it’s my first year, I wasn’t sure if she was slowing down because it was summer dearth or if it was a problem. The hive had made moves to replace her before, and I thwarted them. Because she was unmarked, I did not know how old she was. Looking back, I should have either requeened the hive earlier in the summer or let them requeen themselves. When I removed the Formic strips and did a hive inspection in the last week of September, I found many supersedure cells. I stopped counting at 12. That late in the season, however, it was too late for them to raise a new queen and get her mated. Thanks to the advice of a couple of other local beekeepers on Instagram (Thank you!), I moved quickly to find a new mated queen. I couldn’t find one locally anymore, so I was able to get one shipped from California. Thankfully, she arrived safely. 

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Queen Leslie Knope I

While I was waiting on Queen Leslie Knope II to arrive from California, I had to deal with the mess in the hive. I inspected the frames to cut out the supersedure cells. I saw a lot of eggs, but at the bottom of a few frames, there were multiple eggs in a cell, all at the back. It was perplexing. For some background, the presence of the queen’s pheromones suppresses the ability of worker bees to lay eggs. If a hive has been queenless for a bit, some of the workers may start to lay eggs. The problem is that they are unmated and so they can only lay eggs for male bees—drones—whose only job is procreation (and sometimes heat regulation) so in the fall they are so useless that before winter the workers evict them entirely. A laying worker bee also doesn’t have the long body needed to lay an egg in the back of a cell, where it belongs, and she generally lays multiple eggs per cell. Once the eggs hatched and the workers capped the cells, I saw that the hive was full of drone larvae. But it had looked so good when it was in the egg stage. It is also possible that before a queen bee dies she runs out of stored semen to fertilize eggs and only lays drones. I wast not sure if what I saw in the brood nest was a laying worker or a dying queen. 

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Supersedure Cells.

Either way, I had to find and dispatch Queen Leslie Knope I before introducing her successor. If the queen was already in the hive, the bees would most likely reject the new queen, killing her. Or the two queens could do battle, possibly leaving me with the failing queen again. Queen Leslie I was on the smaller side and unmarked. I had not been able to find her in previous inspections, although I did find her in a couple of photos over the summer. I did careful searches for her on consecutive days and never found her. I also never found fresh eggs, which told me that she was likely dead already. 

Then, there was the question of the laying workers. If I had laying workers, it also increased the likelihood that the hive would be hostile to the new queen. I still wasn’t sure if I had laying workers or not. The absence of new, messy eggs leaned toward not. But, to be safe, I thought I should intervene. I read that one way to deal with laying workers is to shake the frames of bees out about 100 feet from the hive. Laying workers are usually, but not always, nurse bees who have not left the hive to forage yet. The theory is that if you shake a laying worker out away from the hive, she won’t be able to find her way back. It felt kind of mean, but the hive is really a superorganism and it’s not worth risking the whole colony for a few bees. So, I shook out the brood nest away from the hive. I don’t really know if that did anything other than making the bees angry. Based on subsequent reading I did, though, I am pretty sure that I had a drone-laying queen, not laying workers.

IMG_20211005_102708275By the time Queen Leslie II arrived, I was as confident as I could be that Queen Leslie I was no longer in the hive. Even still, I spent some time observing the bees’ attitude toward their new queen before I left her in the hive. When you order a new queen, she comes in a little cage with a few attendant bees who are there to care for her. One end of the cage has fondant for the bees to eat and the other has a candy plug that the bees will gradually eat through to release her into the hive. This slow-release mechanism allows the queen’s pheromones to circulate through the hive before she is loose, helping the hive to accept her as their queen, and not immediately ball and kill her. Usually the candy plug is reinforced with a cork, which you pull out before putting the cage in the hive. When Queen Leslie II arrived, I set her on top of some frames for a while and watched how the bees approached her. They were not at all aggressive. Workers came up to the cage and crawled around it, but none were trying to sting her through the mesh or trying to ball her. So, I left the cage suspended between two frames in the brood nest. (Full disclosure: I accidentally hung it upside down, so I had to go in the next day and flip it. If one of the attendats had died in the meantime, it could have possibly plugged the exit. Oops.) Some people encourage beekeepers to remove the attendant bees before placing a queen, as the presence of strangers can cause aggression in your workers. I read that the queen’s pheromones cover these workers too, so it shouldn’t really be a problem. Additionally, as a new beekeeper, I didn’t want to run the risk of losing or injuring the queen while removing the attendants. 

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Queen Leslie Knope II at work in the hive

I installed the new queen on Wednesday, October 6. Because it was so late in the season, I wanted to get her laying eggs as soon as possible, so on Friday, I went back to check how things were going. The bees were still not aggressive toward her and they had started to eat through the candy. I spent some more time watching them. I tested their response by brushing them off the queen cage—the brush test. They were easily brushed away, which was the result I was looking for. So, I took a small nail and punched through the candy plug. She was out. 

A week later, I did a hive inspection and there were a few eggs, but not many. I felt so anxious about the hive at that point. I was afraid that they couldn’t get a good cluster going before winter. But, the next week, my hive inspection revealed many more eggs. The drones that Queen Leslie I left behind were hatching out and Queen Leslie II had the beginnings of a healthy nest of workers. Now, a month later, the hive is booming with bees. This warm fall has helped, no doubt.

IMG_20211018_141426793_HDRIt is not unusual for hives to try to replace a new queen. During that first hive inspection after installing her majesty, I again found supersedure cells. I cut them out, and scolded my workers a bit. During the first weekend of November, I was doing a hive inspection on an unseasonable 70-degree day, and found a swarm cell—with a larva in it—on the bottom of one frame. That there was only one, and that it was there so late in the season was confusing, and frustrating to me. Before I could even decide what to do, I accidentally smashed it while moving the box it was in. My latest, and last, hive inspection showed no signs of them trying to replace Queen Leslie II, who is still laying like a champ. I expect that as the temperature drops, she will slow down. In the meantime, it has been an absolute treat to have a marked queen. I can always find the queen now and I am delighted every time I see her. 

Long live Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Helpful Resources on Re-queening

Barnyard Bees: How to Tell if Bees will Accept a New Queen

Barnyard Bees: How Bees Act When They Reject the Queen

Bee Culture: Laying Wokers. It Happens. Fix It. 

Honey Bee Suite: How to Fix a Laying Worker Hive

Backyard Beekeeping: How Many Days after Requeening Should I Expect to See Eggs

Lessons We Learned In Our Second Year

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We are having an unseasonably warm autumn where we are, with temperatures still consistently in the upper 50s. We’ve even had some days in the 70s lately, which has been great for the bees and for giving us a little leeway as we break things down for the winter. 

As we work on winterizing the garden and the beehive, it has been natural to think about what we learned this year, primarily by making mistakes or making things harder on ourselves. So, here are the big lessons we’ve learned. 

IMG_20210825_135914620_HDRBrush the Alpacas Before Shearing Them

During the first week of June, our alpacas were sheared for the first time at our homestead. They were so ready for a haircut! Before we sent the prime cuts of their fleece to a fibermill to be spun into yarn, we had to skirt the fleece—that means picking out the hay, debris, and matts. I don’t know if you know this about alpacas, but they like to roll around in the dirt and hay. They were pretty dusty and dirty and skirting their fleece was a nightmare. Kasey is still working on getting their second and third cuts ready to spin and it is just so full of hay. 

We contacted our mentor to ask him if there was anything that we could do to keep them cleaner. Some really serious farms keep their alpacas in coats so that they can’t get hay, etc. stuck in their fleece, but that is too hardcore for us. And Moira is always hot enough as it is. We also knew that brushing them could destroy the structure of their fleece, which is meant to have a beautiful crimp to it. We visited our mentor during Alpaca Farm Days and he showed us a bucket full of different brushes that we could use before shearing. If we are shearing them to spin the fleece into yarn, it is okay for us to brush them then, because spinning destroys the crimp of the yarn. Of course! So, we hope that next year that will be less of an issue for us. 

Get Beekeeping Timing Right

IMG_20210616_134653790One of the biggest disappointments we had this year had to do with the beehive. Kasey keeps our bees and this is her first year. She got the bees on May 2nd and now wishes that she had immediately tested the bees for mites and treated them, but she was new and nervous about it and it took a few weeks to get used to working with them before she was ready to check for mites. She did so the third week of May and the mite count was really high. If she had understood her options better, she probably would have used Formic Pro, but she didn’t understand that the temperature restrictions were just for the first three days. Knowing that it would soon be really hot, she instead used Apivar, adding it May 25 and removing it on July 20th. 

Apivar cannot be used with the honey supers on, because the treatment creates residue in the honey and the wax that is not safe for human consumption. When the treatment was added, there were no supers on, but there were two deeps. It was a killer honey flow this year, though, and so supers were needed after a couple of weeks so that the bees didn’t run out of room. Long story short, they filled two medium honey supers with honey, none of which was safe for human consumption. It will get fed back to the bees, but by the time the treatment was done, the honey flow was over and summer dearth had set in. So many mistakes. 

Kasey feels pretty annoyed and let down by this mistake. She didn’t plan on harvesting honey this year, but with such a good season, it would have been nice to be able to harvest a couple of frames to give as Christmas gifts. Then, in late summer, she did use Formic Pro, and the queen ended up dying. More on that in another post. The most important thing is that the bees make it through the winter, but this was a steep learning curve and the mite treatment was the only part that was really frustrating.

Gardening Lessons 

IMG_20211009_152353403 (1)The garden grew SO. MUCH. BETTER. this year overall. We grew a delicious assortment of winter squash and pumpkins, patty pan squash, zucchini, greens, some tiny carrots, green beans. The Harvest Moon Squash was a variety we’d never tried before and it was delicious when stuffed and baked. 

But there’s still room for growth (pun intended). We realized that we want more room, so next year we are most likely building four more raised beds to create a natural buffer in front of the beehive and extend the garden’s footprint. 

We also learned that our watering strategy was insufficient. Although we got many, many squash and pumpkins, our Jack O’Lanterns and corn were puny and we think that was in part due to shifting too late from the type of watering we were doing to encourage the seedlings to grow to the deep watering that the plants needed to form fruit. We will also be watering the orchard more. 

IMG_20211009_114345683_HDRWhen we cleaned out the barn, it produced a giant mound of old, old horse manure. We were able to give a lot of it away for people to compost, but Kasey also used a lot to create a base layer for flowerbeds around the edge of the horse run. The plan was to grow wildflowers there to support pollinators. Her dream is to have lush perennial wildflower garden that takes not that much maintenance. She planted lavender, sunflowers, apache plume, Veronicas, and cone flowers there. The lavender was really the only thing that grew. Everything else scorched. She needs to test the soil, but it seems like the soil is too hot. The plan is to mulch it over the winter to draw out some of the nitrogen, but it was a good lesson in checking soil PH. 

There were so many lessons this year, but these were the biggest ones. What did you learn this year through trial and error? Let us know below. 

Notes on a Bee Sting

IMG_20210720_111925228Now that summer dearth has settled in, I’ve had a lesson about honeybee psychology. 

I did a hive inspection on Tuesday and was puzzled to find that there were plenty of eggs, larvae, and capped brood in the second deep box, but wide patches of empty comb in the brood nest in the lower deep box. There was clear evidence that the hive was queenright, so I was confused. After doing some research, I understood that I was probably seeing a brood break in response to the mid-summer dearth. Sensing that resources are scarcer, the queen lays fewer eggs so there are fewer mouths to feed. That would also explain why the bees had not drawn any comb in the third honey super I had given them the week before—although they had drawn out the brood frame I had put in place of a drone frame. I decided to feed them 1:1 just to get them through dearth and to encourage them to maybe, just maybe, draw out that super. 

IMG_20210803_133307507 (1)I thought about the bees throughout my shift as a greeter at the Molly Brown House the next day, because I watched a single honeybee repeatedly fly around the front porch, where there were no plants, in search of nectar (I guess?). Bees checking and rechecking unusual places is one sign that dearth has set in. Later that night, I did some more research, deciding whether I needed 1:1 or 2:1 syrup for the hive and I asked Julio to make it for me. By the time our baby was asleep, it was almost 8:00 and, although the sun hadn’t set, it was probably too late to go into the hive. It’s fine, I thought, and besides, I didn’t even have to take off the inner cover to put the feeder in place. 

When I got to the hive, the back fence line smelled like the neighborhood skunk had been there recently. Skunks eat bees. I did not know that. I think most people think of skunks as Pepe Le Pew and not much else, but skunks have a voracious appetite for gardens, mice, and insects. Not only will they tear a hive apart to get to the honey, but they will also scratch at the bottom of a beehive and then eat the bees who come out trying to figure out what is going on. They chew them up, devouring their juices, and then spit the little bee carcasses out. Brutal. I had no reason to believe that the skunk had been bothering the garden or the bees, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bees, who seem so hyper-attuned to their environment, recognized the stench of skunk and were on edge. They were bearding dramatically over the front of the hive, too. All of these factors indicated that I should probably just wait to put the feeder in until the next day, but I figured if I did it now, I wouldn’t attract the yellow jackets, two of whom had been hanging around the hive inspection the day before. 

As soon as I took off the outer cover of the hive, I had hangry bees flying around me. I was wearing just a veil, a regular jacket, and one beekeeping glove. Not a smart move, but at least I remembered to take my rings off. I thought I’d just be in and out quickly, but the defensive bees made it hard to get the feeder in place and the box over it smoothly. Then, a sharp pain. I was stung through my pants right on the kneecap. I had the bees’ knees. 

The box was really crooked and I still had to get the outer cover in place. I grabbed a second glove and went back, but the bees were still angry. Fortunately, I didn’t get stung again, but I did get bitten by a mosquito on the bum. 

That night, as I drank my post bee sting beer, I remembered that the observation cover I’d put over the feeder box had upper vents and that created an additional gap that perhaps the bees might have to guard. I started thinking about yellow jackets and wasps I’d seen in the garden, on edge. A strong hive can defend against a few robbers, but could my hive withstand an attack? I’d have to keep an eye on things and flip that cover over when I could.

The next morning, as I left for my run, I could smell the skunk for a quarter mile up the street. What had it been up to? Had someone hit it with a car? Had the neighbors’ dogs chased it? The stink was everywhere. Earlier in the week, I had been startled by a giant bull snake while on my run. Snakes can also pose an indirect threat to a colony if they choose to take shelter in the bottom of the hive. 

Robbing insects. Skunks. Snakes. In a couple of months, as the nights get cold, mice might also decide that the hive looks like a cozy place to stay. I should probably put on a mouse guard, too. There is always the possibility of a bear, too, however remote. 

As my own anxiety about the security of the beehive rose, my frustration that the ungrateful bees had stung me when I was just trying to feed them ebbed. Seemingly every creature in the neighborhood was trying to steal their honey, their home, their very lives. Or, in the order of priority for the bees, their very lives, their honey, their home. They had worked so hard to build the nest and then to fill it with brood, pollen, and honey. Then, in comes some giant and pops the top off the whole thing just as they’re starting to settle down after a hard day’s work foraging? I’d want to sting me too.   -Kasey

(Disclaimer: I’m a first-year beek, so if any of this sounds really mistaken, please share some wisdom, fellow beekeepers!)