Friday, September 12, 2014

A Swarm in July

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly. 
 -- Old English saying
There are a number of variants to the saying above, bu all the variants are clear. May and June swarms = good. July swarm = not good.

Lucky me, my hives started swarming in July. BTW, one variant of the saying is "A swarm of bees in July, let them fly,"  but I can't do that.  That's how I ended up going from 2 colonies to 5 in a span of about 4 weeks. All five are pretty small, though, because of their late start, which began just before our summer dearth. One of them is doing quite well, though. Three are acceptable. The last one, Hippolyte, was (more on that past tense in a minute) performing miserably.

Last week, I started feeding Hippolyte extra syrup hoping she'd rally, but after a week, she actually looked worse. Her numbers were even lower than before. No stores to speak of. I didn't see any chewed comb, but I have a feeling she was being robbed before she could even cap any honey/syrup. Why? If you've been following my blog, you know that I started dyeing the sugar syrup I feed the bees to see how it gets used. Well, I started seeing a little bit of red syrup in Peach, and that's the one colony that I haven't fed at all, so I know those naughty girls have been robbing someone. Also, I saw a few holes in the bottom of Hippolyte, and bees were passing through it. A few were being mobbed on their way in, so I put 2 and 2 together.

With nighttime temperatures down into the 40's now, I decided I really couldn't wait much longer for Hippolyte to pick up steam. I had to pull the plug on her.

Tuesday morning, my DH asked what I was going to do with the queen, and when I told him, he remarked, "Wow, when you have livestock, you have to be a little ruthless."

Queen Hippolyte's last moment.
I feel so sad seeing her babies gathered around her.
Ugh. I justified my need to pinch the queen -- I had two choices. Option 1: She died, and the rest of the colony got combined with a stronger one. Option 2: She died along with all of her children.

Rationally, I know Option 1 is the kindest choice, but I was still miserable about it. Not having the courage to whack her immediately, I committed high treason against her majesty in the most cowardly manner possible -- I popped her into a small plastic container and then stuck her in the freezer. Hopefully, the cold lulled her to sleep before she died. However, to add insult to injury, I will probably use her as swarm bait for my empty Warre next year. Ok, that really is ruthless.

Within minutes of removing her from the hive, her babies began making the most horrible din. They were positively roaring. I could feel their anguish and confusion. It was terrible, simply terrible listening to them mourn for their mother.

Hippolyte had three empty combs that I stuck at the back of Peach. If they get filled with honey well and good. If not, the comb will still provide some insulation for the nuc. Austeja got the few remaining combs with brood.

Fanning to let her sisters where their new home is
All afternoon, Hippolyte's returning foragers buzzed wildly looking for their home. Alas, it was gone. I had removed it. They all appeared to be begging their way into the neighboring hives. Since they were carrying nectar and pollen, they were admitted entry. Hopefully, this will make all the remaining hives stronger.

Oh, look! This one still trusts me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Something Cool I Learned about Bees

The amazing thing about bees is that there is always something new to learn. My new discovery yesterday was that the African Honeybee or AHB (A. m. scutellata), that bee that we all dread here in the States, is threatened in in its South African homeland. Apparently, South Africa is also home to another species of honeybee called the Cape bee (A. m. capensis) that is able to take over AHB nests due to an ability called thelytoky.

Image of Cape bees from

Thelytowhat? Yeah, I had to look that up, too. I learned that thelytoky is a kind of parthenogenesis in which female are produced from unfertilized eggs.

As you may know, in honeybees, diploid eggs (fertilized eggs that have two sets of chromosomes) are female bees. Haploid eggs (unfertilized eggs with one set of chromosomes) become drones. When an unmated European worker starts laying, she lays haploid eggs only. This is not always so with the Cape bee, which has a frequent rate of  thelytoky (pronounced thə-ˈlit-ə-kē). Once in a while, this trait occurs with the European honeybees that we all know and love, too, but it's a very rare occurrence with our bees.

According to Wikipedia, "Not all (Cape bee) workers are capable of thelytoky - only those expressing the thelytoky phenotype, which is controlled by a recessive allele at a single locus (workers must be homozygous at this locus to be able to reproduce by thelytoky)."

I'm not a fancy scientist or anything, but hopefully, I've retained enough from biology classes to explain it more simply (though with far more many words). Diploid organisms have two sets of chromosomes. Every chromosome has two genes and consequently two alleles that control various physical attributes of the organism. (Alleles are variants of genes. I heard an analogy that explains alleles like this: Think of a gene like a shoe. An allele would be a kind of shoe -- sneakers, dress shoes...) When the alleles are the same, that trait is said to be homozygous (e.g., wearing two sneakers). When they are different, the organism is heterozygous for that trait (e.g., wearing a sneaker and a flip flop).

Some alleles are recessive, some are dominant. The dominant trait is the one that gets exhibited in the observable characteristics of that organism (i.e., phenotype). For example, alleles for black or brown hair are dominant. The ones for blonde or red are recessive. So if someone has one allele for brown hair and one for blonde, they'll end up with brown hair. In order to have blonde or red hair, a person needs two recessive alleles.

In some cases, phenotypes are controlled by multiple alleles. For example, eye color is one of these things. Have you ever noticed the wide variety of eye color shades in people's eyes, though? Just look at blue eyes. Some people have intense deep blue eyes. Other blue eyes are more pale and watery. Some are in between. Some are mixed with green, and so on. That's because eye color is influenced by multiple alleles. Other physical characteristics are caused by just one pair of alleles. I think I remember a professor saying that baldness was one of these, but don't quote me on it.

In any case, Cape bees that are capable of thelytoky have two recessive alleles at that one crucial spot in their DNA strand, so these girls are capable of laying eggs with two sets of chromosomes -- just precisely what's needed to produce workers and queens.

But why do Cape bees need this feature??? I don't remember which article it was now, but I read that the Cape area is quite windy, which leads to a low return rate from mating flights. Thelytoky allows A. m. capensis to create backups. Amazing!

The thing about the Cape bee, though, is that these laying workers use pheromonal mimicry to sneak into AHB hives where they lay eggs which are cared for by the resident African bees. Unfortunately, the mature Cape bees are underrepresented in the hive's foragers (I don't know what they do exactly), but they continue to expand and take over the colony. As fewer AHB workers are laid, the number of foraging African bees dwindles. Ultimately, the hive reaches a tipping point where there are too many Cape bees for the AHB to support, so the colony dies, and the Cape bees fly off to infest a new host.

Once again, I'm flabbergasted by the weird and wonderful life of bees.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Inspection Notes: Feeling like the worst beek ever

The goldenrod is in full swing now. Lots of Japanese knotweed, Joe Pye weed, and asters as well. However, as of last week, I still wasn't seeing a lot of honey being put into storage, so I started feeding the girls a little (about 3 quarts for all the colonies except Peach who got none and Austeja who took only 2) because for the most part, I wasn't seeing any stores or much brood. It seems to have made a difference in what I saw in the hives this past Tuesday. So I've decided to check on them every day and feed, feed, feed until I feel comfortable going into winter.

My daughter and I went for a hike yesterday not too far my house.
The fall flowers were spectacular.
I feel like the worst beek ever because I really got sidetracked by some consulting jobs that I took on this spring/summer, company, and vacations. Except for some frantic hive building and splitting, my poor bees were really neglected this year. Perhaps if I'd coddled them more post split, the colonies would be a lot bigger by now. However, I really didn't feed very much, and a dearth hit while I was away on vacation for two weeks, so they haven't really built much comb since their splits. Currently, they each have about 8 combs apiece, except Peach which has 9 and is building a 10th.

Unfortunately, this fall is proving to be just as hectic as spring and summer, and I've been procrastinating when it comes to taking care of the bees. It's been months, and I still haven't made a roof for Peach or Persephone. I still need to build a platform for the nucs to sit on. I still haven't even finished painting Persephone or Josephine (the empty Warre). My littlest one starts preschool a couple days a week soon. Fingers crossed, I'll have some time coming up soon, but I'm not counting on it. All this busy-ness is really making me think more seriously about getting into Warres next year.

Anyway, despite my neglect, the bees, if not thriving exactly, are getting along fine for the most part.

Bubblegum -- Lots of eggs and brood. Lots of pollen. Starting to put away honey/syrup in the honey area. As an aside, I've begun dying my syrup ungodly unnatural colors this year like blue, green, and red. I figure that if the dye from an M&M factory didn't wipe out all the bees in France, a bit of food coloring isn't going to kill mine either. (Ok, it's probably not great for them either, but maybe some hyperactivity would be a good thing this fall. More red?) I did this because I was curious to see how the syrup was being used/stored. For example, how much of what was being stored was honey vs. syrup? Would they store syrup patches all by itself? Or would it be jumbled together with the honey? Would the girls move the syrup around from comb to comb? Etc. Etc. Inquiring minds want to know. Anyway, the photo below shows what I found.

Blue "honey"
You can see a bit of blue in the comb, but considering how much syrup they received, it doesn't seem like they stored much of it. My guess is that they've been using most of it for brood or just to support their daily caloric needs. BTW, in case you're interested, for the most part, it does seem that they store syrup and nectar in different cells. Also, it does appear to me that the honey and syrup are stored in groupings of adjacent cells (at least three cells in a grouping), though they don't mind storing them on the same comb. questions arise. I can envision a series of experiments on this in the future.

Also, I gave her a quart of syrup on Tuesday. By Wednesday, only 1/3 - 1/2 of it was gone. I guess she's finding nectar and preferring that.

Persephone & Austeja -- A lot of pollen & a little bit of honey starting to be stored away. Lots of brood, though. I feel like some heavy feeding should see these two through the winter -- if they'll take it.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, Persephone had consumed only about 1/4 quart of syrup. Austeja -- well, it turns out I'd forgotten to give her any syrup. So I added a jar on Wednesday, and I guess she felt slighted because as soon as I opened her up, a guard shot out and stung me.

Comb from Austeja

Hippolyte -- Such a disappointment. No stores. Just a few measly honey bands on the brood bars. Very little brood. I was starting to think that a regicide and a combine were in her near future. There were so few bees, but I still couldn't find the queen. There were some nice eggs, though, so she had to be in there. I decided to give her a lot of syrup (1 quart jar and a half-gallon jar.) I figured that if I didn't see some real improvement in 3 days time, the queen's rule was going to come to a very abrupt end.

Unimpressive brood comb from Hippolyte

Wednesday afternoon, the entire quart jar was empty and the half-gallon jar was about 1/4 empty. So maybe this colony was just really, really hungry. I'm still waffling on the idea of combining her though. Even if she gets intensive feeding, I'm still not entirely sure she'll be able to build up enough strength in time for winter. What do you guys think? Any thoughts on this one???

 In any case, her reprieve has been extended until next week.

Peach -- I love this colony! I saved her for last, and I'm so glad I did because she let me end the inspection on a high note. Every single comb was filled with bees or honey, and she was busy starting a new comb. Just the fragrance standing when standing near her is amazing. I truly hope she makes it through to spring. It would break my heart to lose her.

Her numbers are good, too, because she's begun bearding. I've actually had to open another entrance for her.

Honey, honey, honey!

Some young'uns
Start of a new comb
The one other thing I did for all the hives was move any empty bars near the entrances to the back. I also moved any partial combs to the end. I know, I know, I should have done this a while ago, but better late than never.

How are your hives doing?