Bees Bearding, Preparing to Swarm or What?

Again, it’s probably normal behaviour for honey bees, but I haven’t seen it before so, as usual, I’m concerned. I checked out the hives first thing this morning and noticed an abundance of wasps flying around. It was also after the first frost of the season. I mention these facts just in case they’re significant. Other than the wasps, there was little activity. I checked the hives again around 11 o’clock when both would be in full sunlight (they only get a couple hours of direct sunlight at this time of year) and there were bees everywhere. Hive #2 looked great. Orientating flights, foragers coming and going. No complaints. But the bees in Hive #1, which haven’t been too active in the past week, were pouring out of the hive. Not flying around much, just walking out of the hive and hanging outside on the entrance board in a thick carpet of bees.

Bees clumping on board board. (Sept. 27, 2010.)

This photo shows them clumped together on one side of the entrance, though the entire entrance board was covered with bees. It’s now about an hour later and they appear to be coming and going as normal, though they still seem to be favouring one side of the entrance.

Does anyone know what would cause the bees to gather in large numbers around the entrance like that? I heard the buzzing of some angry-sounding drones. Maybe they’re all getting the final boot today. I know sometimes bees will hang outside the hive on hot days, but it’s only about 12 degrees out there. It’s not that hot. Anyway, I’m just curious (I’m not alarmed). Here’s the video:
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Wasps, Frost and Condensation

I saw the first frost of the season on the ground this morning. I also saw the bees stretching their wings outside the hives, but when I went out and checked, what I thought were bees were actually wasps — at least ten of them swooping around the entrances of both hives. I lifted off one outer cover, too, and noticed the inside of it was full of condensation.

I couldn’t do much about the wasps, but I put a screen in place of the outer cover for twenty minutes while the cover dried in the sun. I’ve seen the condensation build up over the past week. I take it as a sign that I need to prepare the hives for winter soon.

September is an eventful month for beekeeping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Let me list the reasons why:
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Foundationless Frames Can Mean Lots of Drones

I’m not so worried about all the dead drone pupae I found outside one of my hives for the past two days. It was spooky and gross and unnerving, but it’s much less alarming now that I know what’s most likely going on.

Brood comb mixed with honey comb on a foundationless frame. (Sept. 16, 2010.)

I introduced some foundationless frames to my hives when I added the second deep. The results were fantastic. Fully-drawn comb full of honey. Beautiful. What I didn’t know is that bees that haven’t drawn natural comb before, will start off building drone comb, as shown in the above photo taken earlier today during a full hive inspection. I found two foundationless frames with large sections of drone cells, and on at least one frame, most of the drone cells appeared to be recently emptied.

Some info I got from beeuntoothers.com:

    Bees will naturally raise about 10-15% drone brood. In a hive where only worker foundation is used, the bees are always squeezing some drone brood here and there… Given a totally empty frame, they will try to make up for the lack of drone comb all at once. If the beekeeper removes this comb and puts another empty frame in its place (in an attempt to keep the drone population down, and perhaps to remove varroa), they will again draw drone comb. Instead, if the drone comb is migrated towards the outside of the broodnest and an empty frame is added, they will eventually start to draw brood comb… and nothing is more beautiful than fresh, freely drawn comb.

So now I know that it’s normal for bees that have just been introduced to foundationless frames to start off drawing drone comb. I assume the drone population will eventually level out. They’re all going to be dead in a week or two, anyway, when they’re kicked out of the hive for the winter and their old cells are used for honey stores.

So that’s one mystery solved. But why would so many of the drone larvae pupae get discarded from the hive?

I looked around online and found part of my answer at beesource.com/forums (which I may sign up to soon). Someone on the forum noticed a large number of what appeared to be dead drone pupae outside the hive entrance, just like we’ve seen for the past couple days. Some of the responses were informative…

September 18th, 2010: I’ve rewritten the next two paragraphs.

Originally I thought the drone pupae got hit with some relatively harmless chalkbrood. Foundationless frames initially produce more drones than conventional frames. That means there’d be more drones around to be affected by the chalkbrood. Therefore, more drone pupae discarded in the clean up. Another possibility was water getting into the hive and chilling the brood. Hygienic worker bees will clean out any cells that have been damaged, whether the damage is from disease, cold or from a silly beekeeper banging the frames too hard. But none of the above explains why only drone brood would be affected. A possible explanation:

Sudden cold snaps — like the cold snap we had last week that lasted a few days — can trigger worker bees to chew out the drone pupae to make room for winter stores. Fall is the time of the year that drones are kicked out of the hive anyway, so what’s the point in the colony nursing more drones that will only get the boot as soon as they emerge from their cells? As mentioned in one of the comments for this post, bees are pragmatic. They don’t mess around when it comes to the survival of the colony. If for any reason cells need to be cleaned out, drones (and their pupae) are always the first to go because drones are not vital to the survival of the colony going into winter. I did a full inspection of the hive shortly after discovering the dead drone pupae, and as far as I could tell, there are more than enough drones around to mate with a late-season queen if need be, and the colony is in good shape. So there was really no need to keep most of the drone pupae around. It’s a cruel world, but the bees know what they’re doing. They’re just getting ready for winter.

Foundationless honey comb. (Sept. 16, 2010.)

The colony looked healthy during my inspection — the bees and the comb look great. I saw brood comb and honey all over the place. I noticed two frames still haven’t been drawn out (one with foundation, one without, both on the edges), so there’s still plenty of room for the population to grow. And there was so much honey, I’m seriously thinking about adding a honey super for a couple of weeks to prevent the queen from becoming honey bound. But I don’t know. I hope to have a conversation with Aubrey at Paradise Farms this weekend so I can sort out everything I need to do with our bees for the next six months. This beekeeping racket is tricky business.

P.S., Read the comments for further details on how all this played out.

December 23rd, 2010: I recently learned through a comment that our bees are a hybrid of Italians, Russians and Carniolans. Russian honey bees react faster — and more dramatically — to environmental changes. The cold snap we had at the time may have triggered a wintering response in the bees, which is natural for Russian bees because they stop rearing brood early in the fall anyway.

January 24th, 2011: I found a well-informed article at Honey Bee Suite about this topic: Foundationless colonies raise more drones.

Piles of Dead Pupae

It’s normal for a colony of honey bees to discard all the male drone bees before winter kicks in. Quoting myself: “Drones are male bees whose only purpose is to mate once with a queen. If they don’t mate, they just hang around the hive and get fed. All the drones are kicked out of the hive to freeze to death as winter kicks in because they’re useless over the winter.”

I knew I would eventually see a large number of dead drones outside the hive once the weather began to cool off. But I didn’t expect to see anything like this…

Dead pupae cleared from the hive over night. (September 15, 2010.)

It’s been cold and wet for the past few days and I guess that was enough motivation for the queen in Hive #1 to say, “Clear out the drones!” I hope that’s all that’s happening. I hope they’re simply cleaning house and removing all the drone pupae before winter kicks in. I was expecting to see piles of dead drones outside the hive one of these days, but piles of dead pupae? It’s a bit sickening, don’t you think?

It’s a bit frightening too. In all the research I’ve done, I’ve never ever heard of anything like this happening. I hope all I’m seeing here is the annual cleaning out of the drones. A disgusting, unnerving variation of it, but nothing to worry about. I hope.

I’m calling the one and only local beekeeper right now to ask about it.

September 16th, 2010: See the next post for all the answers: Foundationless Frames Can Mean Lots of Drones.

December 23rd, 2010: I recently learned that our bees are a hybrid of Italians, Russians and Carniolans. Russian honey bees react faster — and more dramatically — to environmental changes. The cold snap we had at the time may have triggered a wintering response in the bees, which is natural for Russian bees because they stop rearing brood early in the fall anyway. Drones and drone pupae are discarded when the bees are preparing for winter. Everything I was freaked out about was probably natural behaviour for honey bees bred with Russian genes.

February 12, 2011: From page 76 of The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum: “If, during the season, a dearth occurs and food income is limited or nonexistent, the colony will, in a sense, downsize its population. They preserve worker larvae the longest and remove the oldest drone larvae from the nest first. They simply pull them out and literally eat them outright, conserving the protein, or carry them outside. If the shortage continues, they remove younger and younger drone larva.” That makes sense. All these dead drone pupae were discarded during the fall dearth.

Why I Like Foundationless Frames: Reason #1

Drawn and partially-drawn comb look much prettier on foundationless frames. Here’s what some partially-drawn comb looks like on a frame with black plastic foundation:

Partially drawn frame from Hive #2. (August 28, 2010.)

Here’s a half-drawn comb on a foundationless frame:

Now don’t tell me that ain’t way prettier.