Despite a run of cool and cloudy weather, and a few sprinkles on Saturday, we did manage to inspect both hives Sunday afternoon, and the difference in progress between the hives is notable.

We currently have two hives, one housing a primary swarm (rear), and one housing the afterswarm from the same parent colony (front)

The Primary Swarm Inspection

The first colony of bees we hived at the end of March arrived with a mated Queen, and was housed with some previously drawn comb.  The presence of capped brood on the 9th day after arrival suggested that the Queen resumed her egg-laying duties almost immediately.

This last week, around April 20th, the first of the new worker bees should have been emerging from their cells.  The first generation of bees to hatch in our apiary.

The purpose of this inspection was to see if there was any noticable change in colony size.  We also needed to know if the production of burr comb had ceased, or if that needed to be addressed further.

We removed the lid on the Salvia hive, and noticed a very small blob of burr comb visible through the inner cover.  As the inner cover has a hole, and bees like to fill holes with comb, this isn’t an unexpected finding.

Seeing a small amount of errant comb through the inner cover hole isn't uncommon

Fortunately, this was the only burr comb noted in the entire hive.  A drastic improvement from our last inspection!

As we removed the inner cover, we were immediately greeted with a view of our first varroa mite of this inspection.

The bee in the center has a single varroa mite (Varroa destructor) attached to her thorax

As it’s an entire post in itself, we’ll discuss varroa mites more at a later date, but these disease carrying, hemolymph sucking parasites aren’t a bee’s best friend.  That said, they are now ubiquitous in hives throughout the United States, and beekeepers who profess not to have them, likely aren’t looking close enough.  We haven’t seen very many mites so far, but it’s still early in the season, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more in the coming months.

A bee laden with pollen returns to the hive

For those of us with seasonal allergies we’ve been well aware that the pollen counts have been very high here in recent weeks…a…a…achooooo!!! Passive observations in the week leading up this inspection also suggested high pollen counts, as it seemed that every few bees arriving at the hive entrance was heavily laden with pollen.

The very first frame we pulled in the upper hive body confirmed there is absolutely no shortage of pollen in this hive!

This colorful pollen-packed frame wasn't a surprise finding after watching the volume of pollen being carried in through the hive entrance the past week

New with this inspection however was the presence of brood in the upper hive body.

Bee-autiful bee larva were seen throughout the center of the upper hive body

Lots, and lots, and lots of brood!

We were impressed at the amount of bee larva in the upper frames

Her Royal Highness has been very busy since our last inspection 13 days ago!  At that time we only found nectar and pollen in these frames.

We also noted a significant amount of capped drone brood throughout the hive.  Drone brood cells (housing male bees) are distinctive because the cappings over worker brood (female bees) tend to be more flush with the edge of the comb, but drones are significantly larger bees, and as such the caps over their brood cells are more dome-shaped.

The caps over worker brood (yellow arrow) tend to be flat, whereas the caps over drone brood (red arrow) are dome-shaped

This makes it very easy to spot drone brood on the frames.

A skim of this frame revealed a high proportion of capped drone brood

Male bees will hatch from these domed cells

We’re not going to read too much into this amount of drone brood at the moment, as there was also plenty of worker brood present.  It’s spring swarm/drone-rearing season, and the amount of drone brood produced tends to vary from hive to hive.  It may simply be that this hive produces a higher percentage of drones.  We’ll have to see how future inspections of this hive look.

More capped brood in the upper hive body frames

Most notable during this inspection, other than a tremendous increase in larva and capped brood, was the increased population of the hive.  During the first two inspections we had 8 solid frames of bees.  This inspection however we had 12+ frames of bees.  However, as the bees from the initial swarm senesce, we expect we may soon see a brief dip in the population.  Providing the Queen is healthy and continues laying though, she’ll soon replace any bees lost to advancing age.

Note the drone (yellow arrow) is a larger bee, with very large eyes compared to the surrounding workers. Also note the second varroa mite seen in this inspection (red arrow)

Scanning through the sections of capped brood, we also noted a few ‘heater bees’.  Heater bees climb into empty cells and by agitating their muscles can transmit heat to surrounding developing pupae, and regulate the temperature in the brood nest. [1]

Some cells are left empty amidst the brood so that heater bees (bottom up in the center) can help to regulate the temperature of developing pupae

Although there is still some remaining space in the comb in these two hive bodies, mostly toward the outer frames, we chose to add a third hive body during this inspection to give the bees time to draw comb, so they can continue to expand their brood and food reserves.  We plan to leave this colony alone for the next couple of weeks before inspecting the hive again, although that somewhat depends on what’s going on in the afterswarm hive.

The Afterswarm Inspection

We captured the afterswarm from the same parent colony of bees exactly 16 days after the primary swarm above.  As expected the afterswarm was comprised of a much smaller population of bees.  What we weren’t sure about was whether or not we had a mated or virgin Queen in the afterswarm colony.  We suspected a virgin Queen, as this colony has been casting multiple swarms this season, some in close succession.

The purpose of the afterswarm inspection was to get a realistic idea of the size of the colony. The bees were still clustered when they were transferred to the Nuc hive, and it was difficult to approximate how many frames of bees were present. It had been 9 days since this swarm was hived, and we were interested to see if there was any evidence of egg-laying, and to compare this colony with where the primary swarm had been at 9 days.

We saw a respectable cluster of bees just under the inner cover

When we removed the cover we were somewhat surprised at how many bees seemed to be in residence.  We’d estimated this to be a very small swarm, maybe two frames of bees, but were pleasantly surprised to find closer to four frames of bees instead.

There were quite a few more bees than we expected when we removed the cover

When we first boxed this swarm we had no frames of drawn comb left, as they were in the primary swarm hive.  Instead, we took a frame with new foundation and attached some of the flat burr comb that we’d removed from the primary hive during the last inspection.  We simply used a pair of rubber bands to hold the comb in place.  When we transferred the bees to the Nuc hive the next morning, we’d already decided it would be best to remove it, but the bees were clustered on that frame, and neither of us had scissors handy to cut the bands, so we left it.  You get one guess as to what the bees did with it.

You guessed it.  Burr comb.

The bees took the piece of comb, drew foundation underneath it, and happily attached the burr comb to the frame

They obviously didn’t approve of the rubber bands, and discarded them.

We found both rubber bands below the frames on the screened bottom board (upper right corner)

Another lesson in beekeeping.  Leave the hive decorating to the bees!

The rest of the frames however were beautifully drawn out, all the way across the hive body.  We were surprised they’d drawn so much comb already.

The frames all contained beautiful new honeycomb

The burr comb only had some nectar and pollen present, and was very easily removed.

We removed the burr comb so it doesn't become a problem during future inspections

The comb underneath was almost perfect, as was the comb on all of the other frames.

We went through each of the five frames of comb, and again failed to find the Queen.  What we also failed to find was any evidence of egg laying.  However, there were more bees than we expected, and plenty of nectar, along with some pollen, stored in the frames.  We also found more varroa mites.

A pair of festooning bees, each with a varroa mite

At the end of this inspection we added a second 5-frame medium Nuc body to this hive to give these bees more room.  They’ll remain in the Nuc at least until we can determine if we have a mated Queen.

Comparing both hives at the 9 day inspection point the primary swarm already had capped brood.  In this hive we couldn’t find eggs or larva, and the only thing being capped was nectar.

Except for the absence of eggs and brood, this Nuc colony looks great so far

As such, we’re now convinced this swarm contained a virgin Queen.

It’s not yet clear whether or not she has been able to take her mating flight, and the last few days have been less than desirable weather.  It’s believed that Queens need to mate within 30 days of hatching, or may not be able to mate at all. [2] It typically takes a few days for egg-laying to begin after the mating flight is completed, so it may still be some time before we know for certain if she’s been successfully bred.

A worker bee returns with some bright yellow pollen

We’ll re-inspect this hive in a week to look for eggs or larva.  This colony otherwise seems to be normal.  Drawing comb, and hoarding resources.   We’ve read some reports from other beekeepers that it’s sometimes taken 20-25 days to find evidence of egg-laying from swarms with a virgin Queen, so we won’t panic, at least not yet.  However, if this colony is still not looking Queen-right by the next inspection, we may consider transferring a frame with some eggs from the thriving primary swarm hive, and see if these bees will elect to raise a new Queen.

A signaling bee: some worker bees will raise their abdomens to expose their Nasonov glands, releasing Nasanov pheromone to orient workers returning from foraging missions

So, for now, the suspense in the afterswarm hive continues.


[1] Tautz, Jurgen and Heilmann, Helga.  2008. The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism. p 214-217.

[2] Root, Amos Ives.  2006. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture.  41st Ed.  p 517.