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This weekend we needed to inspect all four hives for a variety of reasons, but the two hives with the highest priority were the new hives containing the bees from the packages we installed last week, as it was time to remove the Queen cages.

The last we saw the Queens they were secure inside their cages

Package Hives

The Rosemary and Chamomile Hives both house Italian bees from our purchased packages.  We had installed the bees 6 days previous to this inspection.  Our goal was to ensure the Queens had been successfully released, and check to see if there was evidence of egg-laying or hopefully, sight the Queens.  Even if the Queen cages had been opened, it doesn’t mean the Queens are present in the hive, as on rare occasions the worker bees may reject and kill them after they’re released.  In that case there’s a narrow window of opportunity to re-queen the hive if necessary.

The queen cages were hanging from the frames where we'd left them

Both package hive inspections were very similar.  We found slightly more population in the Rosemary Hive than the Chamomile Hive.  This could be either due to one package containing more bees than the other, or a result of drift, where bees orienting to a new hive may become confused, and enter the wrong hive.  Severe drifting has been known to occur when installing multiple packages in an apiary at the same time. 

As our hives are clustered close together on the same hive stand, this is why we painted each of our hives a different color.

Different color hives jazz up the apiary, but they also can help to reduce drift

Studies have shown that drift of workers from one hive to the next can be significantly reduced by making each hive unique in color, or pattern. [1]

Back to the inspection though.  Removing the inner cover of the hives we found plenty of activity in the brood boxes.  The question was had the bees consumed the marshmallow plugs we installed, and safely released their new Queens?

For each of the package hives we removed an outer frame to give us space to work, and then carefully slid out the Queen cages. 

The Queen cage was carefully removed

We could see immediately that there were multiple bees clustered at the cage entrance, and a few bees were wandering in and out of the cage, so we knew the plug had been removed. 

The exit was covered with a cluster of bees...

...but shaking the bees off the cage revealed the marshmallow plug had been completely consumed

It was obvious that the extra gap created between the frames by the presence of the Queen cages had resulted in the construction of burr comb on those frames, in both hives.

The Queen cage causes a greater gap between frames, so we expected to see some burr comb

As the comb was fairly new and soft it was easy to slide the hive tool along the top bar to carefully remove the burr comb.

The burr comb was easily removed, although this particular bee, busily slurping nectar, didn't want to leave

But what about the Queens?  We were lucky with this inspection as we sighted not one, but BOTH Italian Queens (both are unmarked, making it slightly more challenging).  It helps that we saw them in their Queen cages prior to release, so we knew we were looking for light-colored Queens.  The Chamomile Queen was too fast for my lens, but I did manage to catch a photo of the Rosemary Queen…

The Queen (red arrow) in the Rosemary Hive

Except for one frame with burr comb in each hive, the rest of the frames in the hives were being well drawn out.  As we’re supplementally feeding both package hives at the moment, there were plenty of nectar stores, but the pollen stores in the comb were low.  This is expected as pollen stores tend to increase once brood is present in the hive.  We scanned the frames and found no evidence of larva, although we did catch a glimpse of a few eggs.  We’ll have a better idea of the laying patterns of the Queens during the next inspection once we can clearly see larva and capped brood.

We wrapped up the package hive inspections by adding a second medium hive body to each hive with new foundation so the Queens will have plenty of space for brood.  As the weather has turned dreary we also added half a pollen patty to each of the package hives.  It’s probably not necessary, but we had a patty handy, and it will provide them with a pollen source if they can’t forage during this week’s wet weather.

Afterswarm Hive

It had been a couple of weeks since we’d checked on the afterswarm nuc colony that we originally captured in mid-April.  Last we saw these bees we had sighted eggs, suggesting our virgin Queen had been successfully mated, and we added a second nuc hive body to give them more room for brood production.

Until now, the afterswarm has been housed in a medium nucleus hive with 5-frames in each of two hive bodies

We estimate that the first pupae will begin to hatch in this hive around the 20th of May.  At that point the population will begin to increase significantly, so we felt that now was a good time to transfer this colony to a full sized hive.

We removed the inner cover and found the bees had already drawn out four of the five frames in the upper nuc hive body, and there was capped brood in both boxes.

We could already see drawn and capped comb in the upper hive body as soon as we removed the inner cover

We positioned their new hive on the hive stand, and removed the top box from the nuc and set it aside.  This afterswarm colony still has relatively low population.  There is continued attrition of field workers, but as no new bees have hatched, the lost population isn’t yet being replaced.  As such it’s imperative to maintain the orientation of the brood nest when it’s transferred to the new hive to ensure there are sufficient nurse bees present to care for the brood. 

The capped brood is usually toward the center of the frame (right), surrounded by a ring of pollen (center), and an outer layer of capped honey (top left)

Brood nests are typically built in a ball or oval shape across multiple frames.  The bees construct the brood nest so that they can efficiently keep the brood warm.  Disrupting the shape of the brood nest makes it difficult for the bees to cover the brood and maintain the brood nest temperature between 93-96 F. [2]

By not disrupting the brood nest shape we ensure the bees will be able to keep the larvae warm

The brood nest was moved so that the frames remained in the same position, left to right, top to bottom.  The frames in the lower nuc body were transferred to the bottom hive body in the new hive first.  Then the upper hive body was added, and the frames transferred from the nuc, being careful to keep the same alignment and orientation as was present in the nuc.  As the new hive bodies hold 8 frames, rather than 5, the new empty frames were positioned on the outer the edges of the hive body, keeping the brood nest centered within the hive.

This is our first close look at brood pattern in the afterswarm hive. The brood pattern was excellent, with lots of capped, flat, worker brood, with few holes

As we were transferring the frames though, we had a pleasant surprise.  Our first direct sighting of the Queen in this afterswarm colony!

Compare how dark this feral Queen is from the afterswarm, to the pale Queen from the Italian colony shown above

Until now we had no idea what she looked like.  Was she light?  Was she dark?  It turns out she’s very much a brunette, and quite stripey compared to the blond Italian Queens from our packages. 

The afterswarm colony is now located in the new Lavender hive, and the nuc hive box was removed from our hive stand. 

The newest, and most colorful addition to the hive stand, the Lavender Hive

Lastly, we needed to do a quick check on the original swarm colony in the Salvia Hive.  It had been three weeks since we added the third hive body, and it’s obvious even from the hive entrance that this colony is thriving.  On warm sunny afternoons between 3:30 – 4:00 PM we consistently see clouds of new worker bees taking their first orientation flights in front of the hive.  Someday I’ll strive for video, but here they are just getting started on an afternoon orientation…

The Salvia Hive was starting an orientation flight while we were transferring the Nuc to the Lavender Hive

We were curious how this hive was doing on space, and whether or not we’d need to add another hive body.  The general rule is to err toward slightly too much, rather than too little space, at least while the weather is warm.  It’s important when adding new hive bodies, especially if the hive body is destined for brood rearing, to add it to the hive before all of the frames in the existing hive body have capped honey across the top.  Conventional wisdom is that the Queen will not cross capped honey to enter a new hive body, so waiting too long can potentially restrict the size of the brood nest!

Capped Honey: If all the frames in a hive body contain capped honey, the Queen won't cross it to enter a new hive body placed on top

At this inspection the Saliva Hive consisted of three medium hive bodies, and we were impressed to find both capped and uncapped brood in the upper hive body already.  Clearly this Queen is using the extra space we provided last time, and with most of the frames drawn out and occupied, we went ahead and added hive body number FOUR to this hive! 

Overall, this inspection was busy, but it yielded the sighting of three of four Queens!  The Salvia Hive is getting so large we may never find that Queen, but she’s obviously there, as the hive is thriving.  Both of our package Italian Queens were successfully and safely released, so we’ll wait a couple of weeks before checking on them again.  We graduated the nuc afterswarm colony to the Lavender Hive, filling up our hive stand…   

If we split the Salvia Hive, we may have to build another hive stand. This one is full!

…and our bustling Salvia Hive now has three hive bodies with brood, so we added a fourth to give them room to grow.  The population in this hive has increased considerably in the last few weeks.  As we’re running all 8-frame medium hive bodies, the one disadvantage is that the hives can become quite tall as the population builds.  Egg production however should begin to slow after the summer solstice, as egg laying is discouraged by decreasing day length, but if the colony gets too large in the meantime, we may have to start thinking about splitting the Salvia Hive into two separate colonies.  We’ll have to wait and see…

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[1] Root, Amos Ives.  2006. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture.  41st Ed.  p 215-216.

[2] Seeley, Thomas D. 2010. Honeybee Democracy.  Princeton University Press.  p. 25.