The “b” stands for “bitch”

Let me tell you something about bees. They can be real bitches sometimes. This is a swarm today from a hive I just checked four days ago. No swarm cells, plenty of room to roam. And here they are, swarming out this afternoon. Then, just after that swarm had landed, another swarm quite literally started from the hive right next to that one. That one likewise had an inspection four days ago. These two hives were the one I thought had gone queenless but had not; they turned out to be strong, vigorous hives. Perhaps too strong and my lesson learned: obviously we are doing something right here because we have strong bees. Obviously I am doing something wrong, and next season, instead of looking for signs of impending swarms, I will just go ahead and make splits without waiting, knowing now that they are incredibly hardy.

First swarm Mar 29 2015


Having said that, they are also sometimes incredibly annoying. The second swarm went not just to the same tree, which would have been very convenient, but to the very same branch, which is not. The combined weight of the two swarms bowed the branch to the ground as you see in the second picture.

Second swarm Mar 29 2015

I set up two boxes and tried to separate the clumps to attempt to get a queen in each box, but missed. The bees from the second box went into the first after I dumped them into that second box, resulting in a gigantic batch of bees in the first box. So, I improvised a little. I took several frames from the full box and shook them into the second, hoping like hell that one queen was now in the second box. Then I put a queen excluder on the first box and put the second box on top, with the top cover propped open. This way, the queens cannot pass through between the boxes, but the workers can. What I am hoping is the fanning the bees do at the entrance of the stack (at the bottom) and the fanning at the cover (at the top) will call all the workers into their proper spaces. If this works, I can then just remove the top box off to its own place, and presto: both swarms captured. We will see how that works.

Here’s a closer look at the two swarms sharing the same branch.

Combined swarms Mar 29 2015

That is a fair number of bees, yes. I’m hopeful they’ll stay.

Hive inspections

Today was hive inspection day at the ranch. Inspections are necessary to gauge the health of the hives, making sure they have not gone queenless (and if they have, are they making a new one?), checking for mites or small hive beetles, ensuring they are bringing in adequate pollen and nectar, that there are larva and capped brood, and seeing if they have enough room to expand – a crowded hive is one that will swarm.

Swapping boxes


This hive is quite healthy, and one I was concerned about possibly swarming. In the top brood box, there were plenty of larva/capped brood, the foragers are bringing in pollen and nectar, and all is well. I wanted to check the lower box, so pulled the top one off. In the lower box, there were some empty brood frames, and some capped brood, along with stores. Since bees tend to move upward, I decided to swap the top and bottom boxes, putting the main action on the bottom, and leaving the top box for expansion. I didn’t find any real indicators of a potential swarm, but now that we’re moving into the real season, I’ll be keeping an eye on them, as with the others.

Future honey

This is a frame from the super (the honey storage area) on this same hive. They have drawn out the comb and this will be future honey, once the cells are filled, the liquid is dried to a certain percentage of moisture, and then they cap it.

The foundation on this frame is thinset. I hate it, and so do the bees. Fortunately, we don’t have a ton of it in use. As I find it, if possible I’ve been swapping it out for a new frame with a foundation called Rite Cell, which is plastic with a beeswax coating. I’ve found the bees will often not fully draw comb on the thinset as seen here, and that it is not sturdy enough to handle the weight of a frame full of honey, brood, and pollen. This one I could not replace immediately due to the brood on it, but I moved it into the top box of this hive, so when the brood hatches and they start using it for stores, I can swap it out (leaving the frame leaned up against the hive so they can retrieve their stores and move them back into the hive).

Thinset foundation

Once the larvae reach a certain age, the bees will cap them off. When they mature, the new bees will chew through the capping to let themselves out. On this frame, we can see some larvae in the process of being capped.

Capping larvae

The pollen the girls are bringing in is a delightful mix of colors, testament to all the various things blooming in our area.

Pollen colors 2015

Some of the pollen is neon orange – could it be from the neon cheese plants Kraft grows for their mac & cheese?

Neon orange pollen 2015

We also found a new bee breaking out of its cell.

Birth of a bee 2015

This is what we like to see: good brood (some already out, obviously), with an arc of pollen that isn’t really visible here, and the outside arc is capped honey.

Brood frame

These are queen cells – one capped off, two others in progress. Queen cells can be a sign that the hive went queenless, but not before there were eggs suitable to be replacement queens, or that there is a possibility of the hive preparing for a swarm. Generally in the case of the latter, we will also find drone comb attached to the bottoms of the frames in the upper box, and affixed to the tops of the frames in the lower. This frame, shown upside down here, had no drone comb at the bottom, only one section of drone comb on the bottom of the adjacent frame, and they seem to have plenty of room for brood and stores, so I don’t think this is an imminent swarming. It may just be a safeguard, or they may want to replace the existing queen for some reason, like poor laying. I didn’t really see any bad brood patterns in any of the boxes, but who can read the mind of the bees and what they think they want to do? What this means overall is that I’ll need to keep an eye on them and check back on them in about a week.

Queen cells 2015

The bees in this hive drew out some truly funky comb in the shape of an arc, and another piece perpendicular to the foundation. It does not appear the queen cared all that much, as she laid eggs in both and the bees capped them right off. Bees can be so weird sometimes.

Weird comb patterns

This frame had a bit of comb drawn and nectar in some cells, but was otherwise unremarkable and almost empty. I did not originally see the queen on the frame, and didn’t expect her to be there. Looking over the photos, though, she and her entourage were on the frame.

The queen and her entourage

Did you find her? Here she is (black arrow) with her attendants (red arrow). They have their butts in the air and are flapping their wings to help spread the queen’s pheromone.

The queen and her court


We looked through all the hives, and found no mites and no small hive beetles. The captured swarm hive is expanding itself nicely, and has drawn out six of the right frames in the box. The two hives I initially thought had gone queenless are both working to draw out comb in the additional brood boxes I put on them toward the end of last month. Things are looking good in the bee yard!







Mowing it down

In past years, when it was time to mow the orchard/bee yard, I would give the hive stands a fairly wide berth until right at the end of mowing that area, then drive the tractor as quickly as possible in front and back of them about ten feet away. I did this without a suit on, because there were few hives, and the speed generally got me past them and away before they figured out what was happening. This resulted in much less area to whack to knock down the grass and weeds in that ten foot area before and behind them (suited, of course), but was still kind of a pain. Obviously, getting nearer to the hives with the tractor would be much better, efficiency-wise, leaving much less area to have to manually whack. The very first year with bees, I did run up right across the areas directly in front of the hives, as they were young hives, and there wasn’t much danger in doing so.

Now, with six very active hives, another hive likely to come from a split of one of those, and more bees coming, efficiency is definitely key, as is spending as little time possible annoying them with motors or vibrations. After all, I want them to be able to focus on their work pollinating, collecting pollen and nectar, making new bees, and generating honey. So today, I suited up, climbed on the tractor, and started mowing, running right up in front of the hives. The girls were supremely pissy about this: bees boiled out from every single hive, some coming to knock against me and the tractor, others forming up on the landing boards, and some flying around in front of their homes, ready to attack in force. Suiting up: excellent decision!

At one point I hopped off the tractor to pull the two new hive stands out of the way to mow under them, and when I turned to climb back on, there were bees buzzing around the tractor, attempting to communicate their displeasure to it about its motor, and the vibrations from the blades disturbing their piece.  On the down side: it can be a little hot in the suit, even on a cooler day like today. On the plus side: I swept a couple of bees off the seat before I climbed back on, so no stings in the butt (or anywhere else), and the orchard/bee yard is mowed right up to and behind the stands, leaving much less to whack, and that just right under each stand.

Next project: digging out the grass from under each stand, laying landscape fabric in, and topping it with mulch. My desired end result: no whacking necessary around the stands at all. Easy and efficient is the name of the game, particularly with the brutal summers we have.

Easter egg hunting, ranch style

Not really easter eggs, but what you find sometimes when weeding out and prepping a bed for the new season.

Not really eggs
Not really eggs

This particular bed is one I went through previously, digging potatoes at the end of the season – that month or so that we take a short break. I know I missed a few, but I also intentionally left a few seed bits in place, to see how they would do without any attention.

Answer: not bad at all.

New potatoes March 2015

I collected about five pounds or so of two types of potatoes, all told. About half were of a size and not sprouting to be separated out for us to eat. The other half will go back into the bed tomorrow, and I’ll dig it all up again in just under three months.

Lots of potatoes




Calling it corny

The “official” spring is not here, but after another 90F+ day yesterday, I’m calling winter over. Mother Nature may kick me in the butt for doing so, but it’s time to once again tilt at my personal windmill: I’ll be planting the first round of corn at the ranch this week. We’ve been here since the middle of 2007, and didn’t really plant anything that year. Since then, here are the results for the corn:

2008: planted, but the native soil was too weak, since most of this area used to be pine forest. Poor germination, poor growth.

2009: incorporated manure and topsoil into a plot of the native soil. Better germination, still poor growth that stalled at about the one foot tall mark.

2010: no crops, thanks to another round of cancer to beat back.

2011: good germination, steady growth. Trampled by deer, as it was in an unfenced area.

2012: moved the sowing to raised beds. Zapped by multiple tropical  storms as it was beginning to tassel.

2013: sown again in raised beds. Good germination, good growth, tasseled out, fair pollination, some pushover from storms that caused a good number to lodge. Winter squash and beans sown with the corn (the “three sisters” method). Corn earworms got into a lot of the ears, and total harvest was half a dozen ears. No harvest of the beans or squash, as neither produced.

2014: sown again in raised beds. Good germination, growth, okay pollination. Winter squash sown underneath. Got sick during a visit from relatives, couldn’t keep a close eye on it, as the illness hung on and on for over a month. The corn survived most of the storms, but no harvest.

2015: will sow again in raised beds, but without any complementary planting. I intend to use some stakes and string to create a matrix for the corn to grow through, to try to keep it upright during our summer storms. Since corn is wind pollinated, and here, the wind is often fierce enough to blow the pollen away out of the plot, the plan is to help the pollination by hand. We don’t have a thousand acres of the stuff to capture all the pollen being blown around, which would just leave the perimeter planting as an issue if we did have that much  in the ground.  That means monitoring for the tassels being fully open and anthers to start forming. Once this happens, and I can see the pollen, I’ll start cutting the tassels and brushing them over the silks of the ears that will begin forming at about the same time the tassels are ready. Hopefully, this will be just the thing to get over the Sisyphean hill that has been corn planting at the ranch.