Lessons Learned

The spring started out strong in the Whiting Forest hives. Lots of healthy bees. The novice in me thought that was incredible and we should have an easy season! Well it is incredible these days to have that kind of survival rate, but what I didn’t know were the ramifications of a strong hive coupled with a really heavy nectar season. This was the first year that the orchard was in bloom with hives in place resulting in an unexpectedly large amount of nectar being brought into the hives. This took both Elly and me by surprise.

Here are the steps we have taken this spring to keep our hives buzzing.

Of the three hives at Whiting Forest, two were highly active and populated. Early in the season, we split each hive by putting 3 frames of bees and brood with a couple of frames of food into a nuc box (nuc = nucleus hive). To each of these we added a purchased queen and after a few weeks they were ready to populate their own 10-frame hives. Both of these were very successful. Here is a photo of the nucs as they are left to grow. The entrance to the nuc is in the opposite direction as the entrance for the original hive to prevent the bees from returning back home. At this time, we added one super each to the original hives.

After a few weeks, we realized that effort did not take enough ‘steam’ out of the original hives to quench the swarming instinct. The foraging bees were backfilling the brood frames with honey – essentially as new bees emerged, the foraging bees filled the open cells with nectar and pollen, leaving less and less room for the queen to lay. This is the exact scenario that pushes swarming behavior. We found swarm cells (the hive making a new queen to replace the one that will soon leave to find a new home). They strangely look like roasted peanut shells.

As responsible beekeepers we couldn’t let this behavior go unchecked, so we had to make 1 more split from each of the two strong hives. This time we decided to let them attempt to raise their own queens. We had plenty of queen cells and should have some good success. In theory, if you move a frame with queen cells and nurse bees, they should be able to successfully raise a queen and keep on growing.

One hive worked perfectly as planned, the other, well….we unknowingly took the original queen to the nuc with some queen cells. This can happen easily, but the problem it caused was that the original hive no longer had a queen (but it too had queen cells left and could raise a new one). Additionally, the original queen in the nuc still wound up swarming!! At least she didn’t take as many bees with her.  

During all of this, we also checked our original hives for varroa mites. Yes, as the hive starts to grow, the mites reproduce in the brood cells and it is imperative to keep the population of parasites at a manageable level. Elly treated the hives with a formic acid treatment. This treatment is particular in that it needs temperatures between 50 & 85 degrees. Unfortunately, after our treatment, the forecast changed and became over 90 degrees for a few days.

Partial label verbiage for formic acid mite treatment.

At some point in this process, we ‘lost’ another queen…she was there during one inspection, the next time, there were no signs of an active laying queen – no eggs or young larvae. Our beekeeping expert suspects a loss of the queen possibly due to the change in temperature coupled with the mite treatment.

Now how do you fix this??

Interestingly enough (and good thing for us), these populations seem to be fairly flexible. After combing through 60 frames of brood chamber and ascertaining if we were queenright in each hive, we were able to take a frame with eggs from one hive and give it to another to allow them to raise a new queen.

Overall, we have been having a successful spring. It has been a heavy nectar flow during June so vigilance in making sure we have ample space for the bees to deposit nectar as well as raise brood.

What would we do differently:

  • Next year our plan will be to put on honey supers EARLY so that when the orchard is in bloom, there is plenty of space for honey – and possibly two supers each.
  • We may consider trying different techniques to split any successful hives
  • Possibly using a different product to treat mites if the weather is anywhere near 80 degrees to avoid unanticipated temperature spikes.