The weather this spring has been a little off, and less than ideal for bees.  The temperatures have been below normal, days often overcast, breezy, and late season rains have thrown hives all over northern California for a loop in recent weeks.

We attended an all day beekeeping class this weekend, and at the beginning of the class it was mentioned that a number of commercial beekeepers this spring in northern and central California, after a failed black sage and citrus honey crop this year, have been forced to feed their bees.  Even those that don’t routinely feed their bees found themselves suddenly scrambling to provide their colonies with emergency nutrition, or risk losing their bees to starvation.

Bees should have no shortage of food during the spring nectar flows

Beekeepers don’t expect to lose hives in June, but some beekeepers apparently reported losing hives during the recent foul weather.  It’s not that the weather was especially bad per se, but when the weather conspires against honey bee foraging during the peak of brood-rearing season, colonies can suddenly find themselves short on resources.  This can hit strong colonies, with large amounts of brood, especially hard.  This is exactly what we observed in our Salvia hive two weeks ago, where despite the apparent strength of the hive both in numbers of bees, and amount of brood, the larder stores we’re almost empty. The consequence was significantly increased defensiveness in our apiary.

What if the bees can't forage? To feed, or not to feed...

There’s some degree of controversy in regards to feeding honey bee colonies, especially in natural beekeeping circles.  Some won’t feed regardless, opting for the thrive-or-die approach to keeping bees.  However, from our perspective, if a dog couldn’t reach its food dish, would we just watch and let it starve?  Or would we place the food where the dog could reach it?  We don’t want to feed our bees excessively, but in part as a result of human incursions, bees don’t live in a perfect world, and as beekeepers we’d rather be proactive, and assist our bees if necessary, rather than sit back and watch them starve.

We had stopped feeding our primary swarm hive, until we noticed they'd run out of stores

Our decision to resume feeding all of our hives in the hopes of decreasing the defensiveness of our colonies certainly seems to have helped.  Yesterday’s inspection was much more civil, the bees much calmer, and there was significantly less need of the smoker.  Peace and quiet seems to have been restored to our apiary, at least for now.

Nectar stores were scant during the last inspection, but with feeding have improved significantly

We took a quick cursory peek in all the hives yesterday, primarily to determine if any of the hives needed additional space for brood-rearing, or food stores.  We were encouraged to find more nectar and honey stores, but we also found something very interesting in both swarm colonies…

Queen Cups

The Salvia hive was populated from the primary swarm we captured in March that contained a fertile Queen.  The Lavender hive was an afterswarm from the same colony containing a virgin queen.  By the time the Lavender Queen was finally laying eggs, the Salvia hive had a one month head start on brood rearing.

The difference is that Salvia is now twice as large as the Lavender hive.  What was interesting though, was up until now, we haven’t seen any Queen cups in either hive.  As Queens, especially from primary swarms, are often superseded within weeks of establishing new colonies after swarming, we expected we may see some Queen cups soon…but yesterday, we found them in BOTH of the swarm colony hives.

This Queen cup in the Lavender hive is at the bottom of a frame, and often called a 'swarm cell'

In the last two weeks, for reasons known only to the bees, both colonies decided to start making Queen cups at the bottom of the frames of comb. Conventional wisdom is that cups on the bottom of a frame are destined to be ‘swarm cells’, Queen cells built in preparation for swarming, and that Queen cups further up the frame are fated to be ‘supersedure cells’, cells made in preparation for replacing an aged, ill, or injured Queen [1].

This Queen cup, in a friend's hive, was built higher up the face of the frame, and is often called a 'supersedure cell'

In reality though, any Queen cup in a hive can be used for either swarming or supersedure.

The presence of Queen cups in a hive however isn’t necessarily cause for alarm.  Weak hives don’t swarm, so the presence of cups suggests that the colony is relatively strong, which is good news.  Some races of bees are renowned for maintaining Queen cups in the hive, as a sort of ‘hive furniture’, where they will use them if a need arises.  The cups may be there one week, and deconstructed the next.

The Salvia hive had numerous Queen cups on the bottom of a number of frames

If however the Queen has laid eggs in these cups, and there are developing larvae present, or the cups have been capped (turning them from cups to cells), a new Queen is imminent, setting the wheels in motion for the supersedure or swarm.

At the moment it’s unclear if our swarm colonies are simply rampant cup-builders, or if they’re preparing for a supersedure or swarm.  Regardless, the first thing to check as beekeepers is whether or not the Queen has room to continue laying eggs.

The Queen cups in Lavender and Salvia were all empty

Two weeks ago, empty frames abounded in both of these hives.  Now though, as a consequence of feeding, and the improved foraging weather, the bees are storing honey and nectar again.  In Salvia it seemed clear that they were filling every nook and cranny possible with nectar and honey, although pollen reserves are still quite low.

The Salvia hive had much more nectar in the hive compared to the last inspection

The Lavender hive was similar, and the outside frame had some especially tall comb built where there was some capped honey.

Note the height of the honey comb on the left. When you can't build up!

They’ve also continued to expand the brood nest.  As such they had succeeded in filling the combs with brood, nectar, and honey, all the way to the outside frames on the upper hive body.  Generally they ignore the outside frames, but yesterday they were crammed full.

The top hive body was empty, but the next box was full to the outside frames with brood, and nectar

The brood nest is somewhat football-shaped, across multiple hive bodies, and constructed in rings. The outer ring is comprised of honey stores.  The center ring is usually pollen, and the inner ring, or core of the nest contains the eggs, larva and pupa that will become new bees.  A problem arises if the outer ring of honey becomes capped all the way across the top of the brood nest, a condition known as being ‘honey-bound’.  If that happens the honey acts as a barrier.  The Queen won’t cross a capped honey band to lay eggs, and the worker bees themselves are reluctant to move past it.  This is why it’s important during nectar flows to ensure you’re staying ahead of the bees by adding supers.

The clue something wasn’t quite right was that even though there was an entire empty hive body on top of the swarm colonies for the last two weeks, the bees had barely touched it.  They’d built out the box below all the way to the outside frames, but they hadn’t moved up to the empty supers we left them last time.

After removing the top cover, a few bees were seen on the screened inner cover in both Lavender and Salvia, but on inspection, the frames in the upper hive body were still undrawn foundation

What was interesting was the complete absence of Queen cups in either of our package colonies, Chamomile and Rosemary, both of whom are moving up into the new supers we left them last time, and drawing comb.  Our suspicion is these potential ‘swarm cells’ in the swarm colonies are a result of crowding.

There are various methods employed to encourage the bees to utilize space in new boxes.  Bottom supering, or placing a new hive body below the upper brood box is one method.  By dividing the brood nest, the bees are motivated to use the new frames quickly.  However, this should be done using frames of drawn empty comb, of which we have none.  Our choices were limited because our new frames are all undrawn foundation.

Bees tend to draw comb from foundation best at the top of the hive.  So instead of bottom supering, another method is to simply reverse the two uppermost brood boxes.  By moving the top brood box down below, the band of honey at the top of the brood nest ends up in the middle of the brood area, breaking the honey-bound condition, and clearing a path to the empty super above.

Three hive bodies with a normal brood nest configuration (left), and after swapping hive bodies (right)

The bees don’t want the honey in the center of the brood nest, so they are strongly motivated to move the honey back up to the top of the hive.  With a new empty super on top, the hive is now larger, and the bees should now draw new comb from the foundation, and relocate their honey stores to the previously empty upper hive body.  This frees up space in the center of the brood nest for egg laying again, and the bees are subsequently less crowded.

This is what we did yesterday with the Lavender hive to encourage the bees to move up.  Leaving them scrunched together would increase their impetus to swarm.

For the Saliva hive our approach was a little different.

The uppermost occupied hive body in the Salvia hive was wall-to-wall bees, brood, and honey

These bees were just starting to draw comb in the upper box, but barely.  Our last inspection of this hive was quite invasive, and we didn’t want to disrupt the bees that much again at the moment, if it wasn’t necessary.  Instead we took an outer frame of honey, and two frames with mostly honey and very scant brood from the edge of the brood nest, and placed it in the center of the relatively untouched upper hive body, making sure any brood was positioned above the brood below.  This is not something we’d do in cool weather, and wouldn’t move brood in a weak hive, like our Chamomile hive, as it’s imperative that there are sufficent nurse bees to tend and cover the brood.

Because there was brood to the outside frames, it was difficult not to move at least a little brood

In this case though the weather is warm, and the population in this hive is robust, to say the least.

We returned some empty frames to the box where we’d removed the full frames to help create a passage bewtween hive bodies on one side.  By placing brood in the new upper hive body, the bees will need to move up to tend the brood, and in turn should be more motivated to draw the new comb in that box.  We’ll have to wait and see how well this approach works.  With as many Queen cups as were in this hive (we stopped counting after a dozen), we’ll need to keep a close eye on this colony over the next couple of weeks, and can make adjustments as necessary.  If any of the Queen cups are capped in subsequent inspections though, we may find ourselves doing an impromptu split!

As for feeding, now that the sun is shining, and the weather is warming up, we thought we could stop.  However, the weather has affected the bloom cycles of a number of plants this year, and at the moment there is little in bloom here beyond the monkey flowers, which the bees don’t frequent much, and the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica), which is in peak bloom now, and although relatively harmless to native pollinators, its nectar is toxic to European honey bees, and humans. [2]   I found a few bees foraging on these flowers this morning, perhaps bees from our own colonies?

Don't be fooled, these beautiful flowers, from the California Buckeye, can cause significant harm to weak bee colonies

We’ll cover plants that are toxic to bees in a later post.  However, during our class this weekend, the advice we were given, which makes a lot of sense, was to offer an alternate nectar source during peak Aesculus bloom to help dilute the effects of the toxin in our hives.  Once the Aesculus flowers fade, which are adjacent to our property, the supplemental feed can be removed.


[1] Root, Amos Ives.  2006. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture.  41st Ed.  p 792

[2] United States Forest Service: Species Profile – Aesculus californica