Beekeeping and Honey!

Losing a hive July 29 2014, 0 Comments

All the books and blogs tell you that you will loose a hive. They all say it will happen to you at some point: either by some mistake you make, from starvation or dehydration or some catastrophic failure from an outside factor...

Well, this last week it happened to us. And it really sucks.

We were finishing up our winter inspections of the various sites around Perth surrounds, and had headed out to site. The hives seemed a bit quiet, and even the property owner had commented on how quiet one hive seemed. After we set up the table, equipment and lit our smoker, we opened up the first hive. The super was pretty quiet, and as we started looking into the brood box we knew there was a problem. There was almost no brood (larvae that has been sealed off to metamorphose into bees). What brood was there was scattered and there was almost no lavae and NO eggs. We saw the Queen on the third frame and she looked well - the workers were deferring to her when she stopped walking on the frame. If the workers had rejected the Queen they would be either aggressive to her, or ignore her when she walked close by.

We quickly closed up the box after inspecting the other 7 frames and put the super back on. We decided the leave the super on for the time being because we were uncertain about why the Queen wasn't laying.

Over to the other quiet hive, and we only saw a couple of bees go in and out. The moment we opened the super we knew something was very wrong. The smell was unusual - stale and slightly musky - and along the tops of the frames, instead of the usual small amount of free comb and propolis, there was wax moth. Alot of it. With a sinking feeling, we pulled out a couple of frames there was no presence of bees on the frames. Pulling the super off, the brood box was worse - no bees and full of wax moth eggs. No signs of diseases, no mess on the bottom board, and less than 100 bees.

With the weakness in the first hive, and this hive completely gone, we packed up, gave a brief explanation to the property owner and decided to go directly to our Guru Beeman and ask his advice. On the way there, I Googled wax moth to find out why it was present in the hives. Having only read about it in books, seeing it reality was terrible and I couldn't remember whether it was a cause of hive failure or a symptom. It turned out wax moth can only gain a foothold in a hive that is severely weakened or dying. They will take advantage of ill health and slow/non present guard bees. The moth will lay eggs in the comb, and use comb and honey to develop from egg to moth.

After explaining the history of the hives, and the current situation of the hives, our Beeman told us that in his opinion; it was 99% certain that an outside factor was responsible for the demise of the hives, namely chemicals. Although it was a strong hive by the end of summer, this particular hive had a small die off in the summer, and another last spring. It recovered from both of these, and after explaining to our Beeman what the die-offs were like, he told us it was certainly not dehydration (as we had assumed) but over exposure from poorly applied pesticides. He explained that with some pesticides, the guard bees can smell it on the forager bees, and won't let them back in the hive. Others they can not smell on them and that is how they make their way into the hive (or they have been ingested and are laid down into the honey). Very soon, the Queen is exposed to a chemical and if she is damaged, the hive can die within 3 weeks. Sooner if the chemical is actively killing off the bees. If the bees brush up against the chemical, they will pass in onto many bees inside the hive if they are allowed to walk it back in, because bees are very tactile. They crawl all over each other - they clean each other and walk over each other and even pass nectar from themselves to other bees (like mother birds feed baby birds). This is why diseases and chemicals spread so easily within a hive.

This all happened quickly, within a few weeks and these strong hives have become extremely weak hives. Our Beeman listened carefully to our story and told us that in his experience of decades of beekeeping he had had more problems with pesticides in 'hobby' farm areas (or semi-rural) than in full agricultural areas. He suggested that because full-time farmers are more heavily regulated, and better educated as part of their livelihood, they tend to use chemicals differently than hobby farmers. Closer to season, closer to dusk, less liberally (because they have to spend so much money on it!) and if they have pollination services attached to the farm, they move hives away during spraying times.

In any case, Mr Beeman told us to feed up the alive Queen in the remaining hive and try and limp her along until Spring. There are no Queens available to re-Queen with during winter, and we can't weaken another hive by giving them a frame of brood to get them to raise another one. The bees are only producing enough bees at this time of year to maintain enough workers to get to spring. Feeding sugar syrup may entice the Queen to think there is a honey flow and re-start her laying. Mr Beeman also suggested crossing our fingers.

Mr T went out a couple of days later to collect the dead hive and reduce the live hive to one box (less energy to keep 2 boxes warm) and feed up the ladies. He said that there was a small amount of eggs on one frame, so hey, maybe the finger crossing worked...I'll keep you posted...




How much honey do you get? April 17 2014, 2 Comments

This is a question that I get asked very frequently!

The only other question I get asked more you get stung alot? My answer to that one is 'not as much as you think!'

But the answer to 'how much honey do you get' is always a tricky and complex one, and I always feel like I am copping out when I say, 'well it depends'. Mainly because it does depend. It depends on the previous winter, the current weather, how much rain there has been in the last six months, and that week. It depends on how windy it is, what pressure systems are around, whether it is cold (under 20 degrees), or hot (over 33 degrees).

Previous winter: If the winter was a cold and rainy, then our big crops such as Marri or Wandoo (Red and White Gum respectively) will be all set to flower early in the 'season'. The beekeepers season in Western Australia is about September to March/early April. This is the time the bees are busy and the flowers are many. If the winter is like the one we had in 2013 - very cold and windy, but no rain - then most of the Eucalyptus delay in flowering, or do not flower at all, like a family favourite - Wandoo, which only has a secondary flowering period in March this year.

Spring: This is the time when the weather is warm, the Queen is revved up and laying up to 1000 eggs a day! Not my cup of tea, but thankfully I just have to worry about my 2 little eggs ;-) Now, if you have a spring like 2013, wet and cold and very windy this means that the bees are preoccupied with warming what brood there is. It also means there is no pollen in the flowers as it is being washed out, so there isn't food to feed new brood. As it takes energy to warm the hive, and more energy to fly in windy, cold conditions, if bees can't get enough feed during this period, they miss out on their chance to capitalize on the honeyflow during early summer.

Summer: 2013 saw summer start with a bang, and go on and on. And on and on! Usually in WA, we see a few days at 35+, then drop down for a bit, then back up. This year, we had weeks on end of over 34+. Bees have to keep hives at 32-34 degrees all year round, and in the heat of 34+, this means they spend all day carting water to air-condition the hive. With the delay of big flower crops such as the Marri - which usually flowers in November - but didn't start until late January, many hives were light on stores. Many beekeepers had to feed over the summer, because there was no nectar or pollen for the bees. This is very unusual, as feeding periods are normally winter if needed.

At the moment: This year lots of keepers are finding that the harvests are late, if at all. Yields are down from the previous two seasons. I am taking honey only from my strongest hives, and only looking at supers that have more than 5 frames full in them, taking only 1 or 2 at a time. This means that my ladies will have stores all through the Autumn, and enough to tide them over the Winter.

So, how much honey do I get? The short answer: it depends!

Cast in 'The Hive' - Part 3 'The Workers' September 02 2013, 0 Comments

The Directors, Executive Producers, Screen Writers, Casting, Stunt Co-Ordinators, Location Managers, Production Designers, Art Directors, Set Designers, Head Carpenters, Accountants, Props Master, Costume Directors, Make-up Artists, Cinematographers, Sound Mixers, Dolly Grips, Gaffers, Film Editors, Sound Editors and General Lacky... :-)

IntroducingBee enmasse: The Worker Bees

The Worker bees do pretty much everything! They are the bees you see in the flowers flying around. They are the bees that work themselves to death in about 6 weeks in Summer and die on the wing. The Workers are fuzzy, yet sleek, medium in build and wing size. Once a female Worker eats her way out of her cell in the comb, she is 'born' and her life begins by cleaning out her cell. From there she will share with her sisters a range of duties including:

Housekeeping, Undertaking, Nursing, Queen Attendant, Nectar Exchanger, Fanning, Engineering Comb, Guarding the Hive Entrance and then Field Work.

In her lifetime, a Worker will make approximately 1/8-1/4 teaspoon of honey in total. She visits between 50-100 flowers per trip. She works in the hive until that last week or so of her life, and then become a forager outside of the hive. After about 8-10 days of this, she will usually die from exhaustion. When you see a bee in a flower, lwiki Waggle_danceook at her wings and if you are very observant you will see how tattered her wings are. The older a bee is the more her wings are dull and broken. New bees have glossy, perfectly shaped wings and as they mature, their wings reflect how hard they work.

Worker bees can communicate with their sisters in a very clear and concise manner. If she finds an exceptional amount of food (pollen or nectar) or water in summer, she will 'dance' for the bees at the hive entrance. This is called the waggle dance, performed in a figure 8. It will show the other bees the direction on the food, the amount and the distance away from the hive.  The length of the inside line between the top of the loops will show distance, the angle of the 8 compared to the sun at North and the hive, and the intensity of the dance will show the amount of food. A very fast, tight 8 shows a lot of food; a more relaxed 8 shape shows less food. This is why you can suddenly have hundreds of bees buzzing around a open soft drink can in summer when you only saw 1 bee!

Cast in 'The Hive' - Part 2 - 'The Drone' August 21 2013, 1 Comment

What does a Drone do in the hive? Nothing! Well, not alot. The Drone is named for the Old English meaning - 'loafer'.  Which he is.

DroneCo-Starring: The Male Drone Bee

The Drone is a boomba of a bee. Plumper than a worker, with thick heavy wings to support the frisky business in the air, and big bulbous eyes all the better to see a Queen on-the-wing with. He spends his time at a 'Drone meeting area' hanging with his bro's, waiting to smell out a Queen who wants some nip-nip wiggy wiggy! Each day, he saunters home where the workers feed and clean him. Should the Drone actually manage to get his end in, he comes to a nasty end. Should the poor unfortunate male get to copulate with a Queen, his penis spurs will engage with the Queen's inside wall and will be ripped out of the Drone. He then falls to the ground and take about 4-6 hours to die from his blissful injury. The Drone's appendage will continue to pump inside the Queen until she engages with another male (allowing her to collect ALOT of sperm!) What a fate?!drone getting an ouchie

Alternatively, he can chill with his bros all spring and summer and never see a Queen. This means that come winter, the workers get pretty fed up with his loafing ways and reckon that over winter they shouldn't have to feed and clean up after some guy over winter when they are busy keeping baby bees alive. So, after the temperature drops for more than a couple of weeks, you can see the ladies dragging the again, unfortunate Drone out of the starve to death with the smell of honey and the promise of warmth and protection just a foot away!

It is kinda like watching 3 or 4 women dragging out of their share house that bloke, you know the one, The Drummer... The Drummer who 'is in a band', who smokes dope all day with his mates and doesn't flush the toilet OR take out the garbage! And as he's been dragged out he's yelling 'no, no, I promise, I'll change... I'll start paying rent, I'll put down the lid...I'll stop drinking from the carton...noooooooo...'

Poor Drones! Drones make up about 10-15% of the hive population. Interestingly, studies have been done on hives where Drones are totally removed the hive becomes less productive, more fractious and generally unpleasant. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!

Cast of 'The Hive' - Part 1- 'The Queen' August 15 2013, 0 Comments

Out and about in the community running our honey stall at markets, I often get asked about who does what in the hive. Questions like 'is the Queen the Boss?', 'what do the boy bees do?', 'how do they produce different flavoured honeys?'...This post is about trying to sum up some of these questions.

Starring: The Queen BeeQueen

The Queen of the Hive is about half as big again as the worker bees. She has a sleek, shiny abdomen that has paired ovarioles numbering about 150 within her large ovary. Some say she is waspish in appearance, as her wings are smaller than a workers', as is her head. However, she does not have any of the waspish tendencies such as twitching and edgy movements.

Once the Queen has hatched from her cell and has done a small orientation flight, she will go on her 'mating flight'. This entails flying around and emitting a 'come hither boys' pheromone. Once the boys do 'hither' along, she has copious amounts of...copulation with as many males as she can (usually about 8-20!).  She then heads back to the hive to start her life of Queenly state.

After her day of passion, the Queen becomes pretty much like the Queen of England. She produces a pheromone called the Queen Substance. This is spread around the hive, and basically tells the workers that 'everything is fine, go about your business'. This is very much like the Queen waving at the people from the Balcony- Yes, dears, everything is fine, go back to your lives! [insert calm wave here]. And now she starts laying eggs. Lots of them. Up to 1500 a day in the peak of spring! She doesn't clean herself, or feed herself. The Queen has a retinue of worker bees who attend her, and spread the Queen Substance around the hive, and direct the Queen to comb they want her to lay eggs in. She remains in total darkness (except during an inspection from a beekeeper ;-) and lays eggs for the next 2-4years! When she is judged by the hive (or beekeeper) to be too old, she is deposed, in fact, laying the egg that will be the new Queen... and her own doom!

Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Address

(Photo Source:

First Split February 14 2013, 0 Comments

Over the spring we noticed that our first ever hive, dubbed the very original name of 'Hive 1' was getting very full. As in VERY full. Even on the 'cooler days' there were bees all over the front of the hive, and at 2 full depth supers already on the brood box there was no way we were going to repeat the lunacy our first summer and go to 3 supers! As novice beekeepers we made the mistake of supering up, but failed to harvest at the same time, which lead to the problem of a huge summer hive with no space. Having read in the books about this magical solution, we added another super, then another... You get the picture, and by the end of summer, trying to do anything with Hive 1 was near impossible.

Emerging Worker BeeSoooo. After reading more, and some free advice from the local beeman - 'oh, ya don't need more than 2 supers' (you know what they say about free advice) we got them to a manageable 2 supers over 'winter'; you know when it is supposed to rain but doesn't (I have read about winters in books too) and waited for the activities of spring.

All through the spring we held our breath as we buzzed around the garden with our new nucleus and a caught/then hived swarm - dubbed, you guessed it, Hive 2 and Hive 3! And miracle upon miracle they didn't swarm. Even though alot of the bee books say that queens under the age of about 3 don't tend to swarm, the worry was there with such a strong hive. Finally, we plucked up the courage (probably bolstered by our successful removal of a hive out of a wall - Hive 4 - which is a story for another day) and decided to do a split.

Following the 3-P rule of preparation, preparation, preparation we picked a good weather day (only about 35degrees) and hopped to it. It started with removing the two supers from Hive 1, reducing the faces (exposed area of bees ie if the lid is off, that is an exposed face of bees), and opening up the brood box. BTW, a related side note. When getting a queen excluder - don't cheap out. Get a metal one that won't going to bend when it warms up. In Australia, the summer heat is HOT (we have had so many over 35's that I have lost count!) and the plastic ones bend. Add all the propolis the girls slather about and the excluder gets struck on the middle brood comb frames. As you go to lift the super from above, the frames stuck to the excluder, lift at the same time. This is NOT recommended! Your queen is most likely on these centre combs and if they get dropped, you run the risk of damaging her.

Anyway, back to the split-story. We decided to do a 4/5 frame split, leaving the queen in Hive 1 and taking about 1/2 of the brood combs to the new hive - Hive 5. We took 2 egg brood frames, 1 capped brood frames and 1 mixed brood. The egg brood is so the new hive can raise up its own queen. These must be less than 3 days old. This is because all bees are the same at this stage and can become either a worker or a queen bee, whereas at day 3 where their food changes and the nurse bees treat them differently. Once the hive realizes that there is no queen present (no queen substance can be smelt throughout the hive) they begin to raise a new one from the eggs on the frames, building a peanut shaped casing around a selected (or several) cells. We took all the house bees on those frames too, and shook quite a more bees into the new box too to add to the hive strength. Giving the new hive a variety of brood combs meant that there would not be so much of a gap between the raised queen's new bees and the old bees that would soon be passing. Summer is a hard time for the ladies; they tend to only last ~35 days and with a gap of about 18 days of no laying, there is a gap of about 2 weeks after the new queen starts laying.

It was fascinating to watch how despondent the bees became in the first three days without a queen - milling around on the alighting board, weaving back and forth on the sides of the box. It was like they had no sense of purpose that is so obvious with a 'normal' hive. Once the queen cells were built we saw renewed efforts in cleanliness, gathering behaviours and guarding the alighting board once more. At least, this is what we think because of course, we couldn't check inside the brood box to see if this was the case (with such upheaval if we had done an inspection, the bees would most likely have abandoned the attempt to re-queen themselves and absconded/swarm)Raised Queen CellsAbout 8 days later we carefully cracked open the boxes, and to our delight, there they were - beautifully made queen cells. Unsure whether we should remove all but one, we left them and I hopped online to ask the other beeman about them. He suggested removing all but one, and I intended to... well you know what they say about intentions. Anyway, several days later, all the queens had emerged and upon inspection  we found new eggs in the brood comb...

This weekend we will confirm Her Majesty by actually sighting her... how exciting!

Collecting a Swarm - we know what we are doing... September 29 2012, 0 Comments

TC got a call from a work colleague this afternoon - 'mate, you know something about bees, right? My friend has a hive in a tree, what should he do?' 'Why, call the crazy-bee-lady, of course!'

We raced out to John Guilfoyle Beekeeping Supplies on the chance we may be going to get our first swarm...and told not to fall off the ladder when we do it! Heading off with a new super, bottom board and lid, we braved peak-hour traffic toward the suburb we may be required to be! While TC drove, I googled 'tips to collecting bee swarms'! Ten minutes later, I get a call from Mr L who says that he has a bee swarm in the backyard and he is very relieved when we tell him we are happy to come and get it straight away.

Upon arriving and shaking hands with Mr L, we admire the beautifully shaped swarm, measuring about 30cm long and 20cm across. They had hung up in the outer branches of a small tree in the yard.  Deciding to borrow a ladder, I set about laying out my quilt cover (unfortunately my nice one, but the only light colored one we have! Ahhhh, the sacrifices we make!) and TC set the ladder up and started pruning the branches back. Contrary to all the information I had read, these bees were not docile and dopey... they were guarding the swarm rather fiercely, and were not impressed that we were disturbing them.

After a quick debate about how we would proceed, we were ready to give it a go. I held the plastic box up under the swarm, and TC did the big, sharp shake. Presto! A bucketful of bees in less than a second. Watching our feet, and advising (yelling ;-) at Mr L , T1 and T2 to get inside - there were LOTS of angry bees buzzing around - we flip the box upside-down, propping up the front to let the workers make their way in. Luckily we must have dropped the queen in the box with the initial shake, as the workers start making there way into the box. TIP: use a dark box, to encourage them in (most like a hollow or hive), not a transparent one (yes, we had to use a blanket over the box to darken it!!)

After an hour of waiting for them to hang up in the box, and an unfortunate sting under TC's eye, we bundle up the box with the quilt and into the car. No loose bees in the car during the drive home (yay for us!). We decide to leave the bees in the car for the night, and 'hive' them in the morning.

After researching the two main methods of 'hiving' we decide to give the 'traditional' method a go.

Traditional Hiving: Create a ramp from the alighting board of the the super to the ground. Lay a blanket on the ramp and drop the swarm on the bottom of the ramp. After a few minutes, some bees should go check out the new spot, and after inspection, start fanning on the alighting board. Fanning is when the workers turn their bottoms facing away from the hive entrance, expose their Nasonov gland and beat their wings very fast to distribute the 'we are here' pheromone that is coming from the gland. This tells the hive it is fine to come on up the ramp. They then parade in a very orderly fashion, into the hive.

Modern Hiving: Opening up the super, removing about 4-6 frames, dumping the swarm into the super, replacing frames and putting the lid on and bobs-your-uncle.

So, come morning, we all suit up and set up the ramp. After making sure the car hadn't been over run with bees, to our delight it wasn't, we carry the swarm box to the ramp, do another big shake, and deposit probably about 3kg of bees on the ground. True to the 'guidelines' a few bees wander up the ramp, inspect the box and come out and start fanning. Slowly, a 'beeline' starts up, and after about 20 minutes, there is a brisk line heading into the new brood box. It was quite a magic sight to watch.

Mission accomplished!

Or so we thought....

After coming back from some errands, TC meets me at the top of the drive to tell me that the swarm is now in the neighbours backyard in one of their shrubs! So, suits back on, and after assuring the neighbours we had 'done this before' (yeah, once!) we hacked the tree off at the ground, and did the modern method of hiving - shaking them into the half empty super.

Siting them back in our yard, we sit and watch them for a further hour to make sure they are maybe going to stay. Watching them on and off all afternoon, they start behaving more like a hive and do not hang up again...

Time will tell if they stay for good. Market day tomorrow, so we will have to hope they stay put for the day!