Quiet in the Kitty Hive

Non Birding Bill and I are watching Cabal (the beekeeping dog) while everyone is away--If you don't regularly read Mr. Neil's blog, the last week has been hilarious--Maddy, his 12 year old daughter has been guest blogging their adventures on a movie set in Budapest. Check it out, she writes exactly as she talks. She's crackin' me up, this one is my favorite.

Well, on to the saga of the Kitty hive. If you remember from last week, she was showing signs of swarming or a failing queen by building lots of queen cells. If queen cells are on the bottom of one of your frames, that means she's feeling crowded and the old queen will stop laying eggs, and then fly off with half the hive. If the queen cells are on the middle of the frames, that's a sign that the current queen is failing and is about to be superseded. We had mostly queen cells on the bottom frames and a few in the center. We removed as many queen cells as we could find and added a third brood box, hoping that room for expansion would encourage them to stay. We decided to wait a week and see what was happening.

Non Birding Bill and I went out to the Kitty hive and opened the box. It was quiet...too quiet. There was not the usual buzzing. We took out two center frames and they had not drawn out any comb at all. Not a good sign. We opened the second box, still quiet and the bees were totally calm. One of the most important beekeeping tools is the smoker, it helps keep them calm. We really didn't need it. The bees were as calm as the were when we first installed them...there were also noticeably fewer. We had our answer, sometime in the last week, the Kitty hive had swarmed. The old queen left, taking half the workers with her. The other half was left behind to start with a new queen.

Taking out more frames we found queen cups, the start of queen cells, the workers probably started those after I had ripped out all of the queen cells I could find last week.

I also found queen cells that I had missed. Can you find this one? Look at the top of the photo right in the center--there's kind of a vertical peanut shell structure--that's a queen cell. If you recall, this was the hive that kind of doubled up on each frame--the cells were away from the frame, so the bees had brood on the outside and between the cells and the frame--I wonder if that contributed to the feeling of being overcrowded? If you still can't see the queen cell, here is an up close shot:

I started to think back to the last time we were at the hive, last week when we first discovered the queen cells, quite a few bees were covering the side of the hive--they were much further along in swarming than I realized. Ah, hind sight is twenty twenty. Now, what will I do. I tried to find the new queen, but we couldn't. However, depending on when she hatched, she could be out on her three day "maiden voyage". A newly emerged queen is a virgin. When she hatches, the workers show her around the hive and she seeks out any remaining queen cells and kills them--it's kind of a Highlander thing--there can be only one. This takes about three days. Then she flies off for another three days to a "drone congregation area". Seriously, this is what the drones live...and die for. She will go up in the air about a half mile and find a few dozen drones to mate with (each drone she accepts will die in the copulatory act). After three days of sex and killing, she will return to the hive full of sperm and begin laying eggs.

In that time, I have to hope that nothing bad happens like a phoebe or great-crested flycatcher eating her before she comes back from her mating flight. There is some unhatched brood, but there haven't been new eggs for awhile. I'm kind of at a crossroads: do I start a new queen or do I work with the old queen? Which ever way I go, is there enough time for them to build up enough food and workers to survive winter this far north? I also wonder if I just shouldn't have left the queen cells last week.

Searching bee forums, I did what I could, but I should have caught this much sooner. My mistake was not checking the bottom box after adding the second. I thought that if I had let them alone, they would construct faster. Although, I did learn that even if I had caught it early, my methods of stopping a swarm still might not have worked. There are even some valiant efforts I could have tried, but probably wouldn't have, like finding the queen and cutting off her wings, making her flightless. If she couldn't fly, she would fall down on the swarm flight and the other workers would have been forced to stay. I don't think I could have the heart to cut the queen's wings.

As I look at the frames that are completely empty of brood, I feel that I have let this hive down with my inexperience. NBB was very excited--he was looking at this from a more scientific angle. He found the whole swarm process and the change in the hive's behavior fascinating. As I kept feeling like a failure, he kept marveling that our bees were now out in the wild--starting fresh and perhaps this healthy line would help build up the population that is so in trouble in North America. Our main goal was to have bees for pollination and well, the swarm couldn't have gone far so they will continue to pollinate Mr. Neil's yard--we will just not be managing it or getting any of the excess honey. So, for now, I will check Kitty daily for eggs, signs of the new queen. If there are no eggs in a week, I'll order a new queen.

The Olga hive, our former problem child is right on schedule and is ready for honey supers--honey for us to collect for our own purposes. Go Olga! Look at this frame full of honey! We took a small taste--it was awesome.

I walked the woods to see if I cold find signs of the swarm. Swarms don't go too far from the hive. There are quite a few hollow trees nearby, so they could be near. I watched the hives to see where the bees were flying off to. From this photo, they start from each hive respectively, and then fly up and off to the upper left corner of this photo. They clear the tree line and then go on. I tried following the bees, but was stopped by waist high stinging nettle.

I started following the creek. I was feeling very down, NBB had a hard time understanding it. It's understandable that there will be some problems your first year as a beekeeper, but I wanted to get everything right. Our class instructor even advised us to get two hives in case something goes wrong, and from what I've read, swarming happens to the best of beekeepers (although usually the second year, not with a new package). I'm bummed, I feel I've let our beekeeping operation down. But on a deeper level, I think what was really bothering me was a sense of rejection. The Kitty bees didn't care for the hive and took a bunch of their workers and left. A bunch of stinging girls left me and moved on. It's middle school all over again.

And then I heard this (it's about 32 seconds long). Can you identify the bird singing:

It's a song I haven't heard for a long time. I've never heard this species singing in Mr. Neil's woods before (this has been a good year for them, many more reports on the local listservs than usual). We used to get these in the woods where I lived as a kid in Indianapolis. It was the first bird I tried to id based on song--without the help of bird identification CDs--or records as we used at the time. My mom and I spent an entire Saturday morning chasing this bird down trying to see what made such a beautiful song. It took us a long time, but finally we caught a glimpse through the leaves of a robin shaped bird, with black spots on a white belly, and brown back: a wood thrush.

Hearing this song reminded me of how much work it was to id this bird. We'd heard it for several days before we had the chance to really track it down and find it. It took a long time, and a lot of work--that's how it was early on my birding life. And it's a good reminder of how it will be with my beekeeping life. I will make mistakes, and bees will do what they want to do.

Thanks, wood thrush, for the reminder and for making one of the most haunting melodies a person can ever hear in the summer woods.