What Makes Friendly Springtime Honey Bees Turn Mean?

My healthiest honey bee colony, one that was always full of mean bees but has been playing extremely nice so far this year, is back to being mean. Any slight vibration on the hive and the bees come pouring out. I’m not sure what reactivated the mean gene, but these bees are definitely not playing nice anymore.

Q1402, back to being mean. (June 10, 2016.)

Defensive bees just beginning to pour out of a hive. (June 10, 2016.)

Things that may have triggered the mean gene (and I’m just making this up):
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A Failing Queen and Hope for The Future

What follows is an example, from my own experience as a small-scale hobbyist beekeeper, of what’s involved in keeping bees and keeping them alive and well. This is nothing compared some things I’ve had to deal with before, but the point is that beekeeping takes time and effort and close attention. It’s not all about the honey (though the honey helps). So anyway, I says to Mabel, I says…

One of my little honey bee colonies is toast.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

The queen is failing. She’s been on the way out for a while, but now she’s fading fast, laying small, spotty patches of brood over three or four frames, the entire brood nest contained within half of a single brood box (a single deep). The cold weather we’ve had for the past two weeks (well below 10°C / 50°F) hasn’t helped. I did a quick inspection yesterday and found a few patches of capped brood abandoned in the bottom deep, abandoned probably because it got so cold the bees were forced to cluster up top.

Some abandoned brood. (June 07, 2016.)

I’ve never seen that before. Not good.

I reduced the hive to a single deep and put the abandoned brood frames in with the regular brood nest. I put on a jar feeder with honey. I don’t have high hopes.

Then there was one.

Then there was one.

It’s possible the queen doesn’t react well to cold temperatures, that she needs a good warm spell to get into a strong laying cycle. But I doubt it. Now that I’m feeding them, maybe the bees will create a supersedure queen. But I have my doubts about that too. If there’s no improvement by next weekend, I’ll probably remove the queen, if she’s still alive, and add whatever is left to one of my healthier colonies.
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Swarm Prevention by Not Overfeeding and Making Room for the Queen

In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. That’s why the first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones. I could be wrong about all of this, but from what I’ve seen with my bees, it’s true. A colony won’t swarm without drones.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in my local climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.

This video is from an April 2013 post.
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Beekeeping Workshop: A Full Hive Inspection

The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I was ready put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, longer than my usual videos, because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.


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How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year

For any first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland (or a similar climate) wondering what they might find during their first hive inspection of the year (which usually falls somewhere between late April and mid-May), here’s a video of my first hive inspection in 2011 that shows a fairly healthy colony coming out of winter, one that allowed me to steal a boat load of honey from it later that summer (though I may have had to feed it for a few weeks to give it a boost; I don’t remember).

I found honey on the outside frames, some pollen mixed in and then capped and open brood spread out over five or six frames in the middle. I might have been concerned with one or two frames of brood (though queenright colonies with zero brood as late as May 15th isn’t unheard of) but five or six frames of brood during the first week of May is pretty good for my local climate. (None of my colonies are doing as well this year. They’re still recovering from The Attack of The Shrews.) The hive body underneath was more or less empty.

These days I’m usually much faster with my inspections, but overall the video demonstrates how I still inspect (and reverse) my hives every spring. I have a more detailed video in the works, but for now I’ll break it down like this (assuming we’re dealing with a 2-deep Langstroth hive and it’s a warm, windless sunny day somewhere between 11am and 2pm):
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Do You Know Where Your Cluster Is?

I have a quick and easy method for inspecting my hives when it’s freezing cold outside like it is today. I take a quick peek under the hood to see how high the cluster has risen. It literally takes three seconds. Not much danger of chilling and killing the bees. When the cluster is so high that the bees are covering most of the top bars, it’s time to give them some sugar. Why? Because in my experience, the bees head to the bottom of the hive once the weather turns cold and gradually work their way to the top as they eat through their winter stores of honey. Usually the higher the bees are in the hive, the less honey they have and the closer they are to starving. (Usually, not always.)

A cluster of honey bees running low on honey. (Dec. 31, 2011.)

A cluster of honey bees running low on honey. (Dec. 31, 2011.)

All of my colonies live in 3-deep hives. Most of them seem to have between one and two deeps of honey to keep them alive all winter. Even though that’s more than enough honey, I have considered dumping sugar in all the hives just to be safe. But I think I’ll wait and see what happens. It would be wonderful to get through a winter without having to feed my bees, though chances are I’ll get paranoid and give them loads of sugar even if they don’t need it. My plan, if you can call it that, is to give them sugar perhaps even before the cluster is covering most of the top bars. As of today, though, nar a cluster is to be seen. And I hope it stays that way for the next few months (not likely).

Here’s a detailed copied-and-pasted entry from my beekeeping journal to illustrate what I’m talking about.

First up, 1505, a colony that was inadvertently started from a supersedure cell in July. The first sign of brood soaking in royal jelly from the naturally mated queen showed up around August 10th and I fed the colony sugar syrup until the end of October. It’s not what I would call a fully established colony, though not bad considering it’s only three months old.

No sign of the cluster in Q1505 and I think it's been deep for a while. (Nov. 11, 2015.)

No sign of the cluster in 1505 and I think it’s been deep for a while. I like it. (Nov. 11, 2015.)


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Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.

Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb and propolis that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier, more difficult and perilous for the queen.

Messier — because comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.

Difficult — because frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful maneuvering to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.

Perilous for the queen — because any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.

I’ll try to update this post in the future with more detailed photos that illustrate what I’m talking about. For now, though, here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)


Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
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What Does Fresh Brood Look Like?

Fresh brood looks like this (click the image for a closer view):

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)


I was planning to pull up a frame or two of brood from the bottom box to make sure the queen expanded the brood nest up (a lazy edition of pyramiding), but I found fresh brood on the second or third frame that I inspected. The queen didn’t need any help from me. So I put everything back the way I found it and left the bees alone.

I also filled the frame feeder on the nuc and added a pollen patty.

The Piping Queen Revisited

I forgot to post an update about the possible Piping Queen I heard in a queenless colony a while ago. (It’s a longer-than-usual but detailed post that might be interesting for beekeepers who’ve never encountered piping or even heard of it.) The update: I pulled a frame from the hive six days after I heard the piping and found a frame full of royal jelly.

Brood cells full of royal jelly. Signs of mated queen (I hope). (Aug. 10, 2015.)

Royal jelly found in a hive that’s been queenless for more than a month. (August 10, 2015.)


Royal jelly isn’t a guarantee that I have a well-mated queen. I could have a laying worker or a drone-laying queen. But I’m taking it as a good sign. For now on if I hear piping, I’ll assume that a good queen is present. A shot in the dark: The virgin queen mated the very day I heard the piping. (I’ll update this post if it turns out the queen is a dud.)
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They Killed Their Queens (Continued)

Here’s a brief recap of the saga known as They Killed Their Queens: Mated queens (in standard cages with candy plugs) were added to three splits about 25 days ago which were checked five days later (July 18th) and the following was found:

Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells. Today (18 days later): A naturally mated queen, because Life Finds a Way. Happy Ending #1, or as good at it gets anyway.

Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly. Five days later: Fresh eggs and supersedure cell gone. Happy Ending #2.

Fresh eggs. Signs of a mated queen doing alright. (July 23, 2015.)

Fresh eggs. Signs of a mated queen doing alright. (Click image to enlarge.) (July 23, 2015.)


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