Checking on the bees

With a high of 61.1º, today was the warmest of the year so far.  Here in the Willamette Valley, where it can reach the upper 50s in midwinter, it can be hard to determine when we actually start turning toward Spring.  Today felt like such a day, with unsettled-looking clouds riding southwesterly flow ahead of tomorrow’s cold front.

Sixty degrees is my cutoff temperature for working with bees, and I’ve been wanting to see exactly how the hives are doing.  They have been flying and bringing in plenty of pollen, so I haven’t been worried, but it is still exciting to find the queen and to make sure all is well inside.  I managed to take a couple of hours off in early afternoon – enough time to do a full inspection on three of our five hives.

In the hive diagrams below, each black rectangle represents one frame.  There are ten frames to a box, one or two boxes to a hive.  The color code is as follows:  yellow=honey, green=nectar/uncapped stores, red=pollen, gray=brood (eggs, open larvae, and capped larvae/pupae), white=empty.

Hive #1

Hive #1 started as a nuc last April from Ruhl Bee Supply.  These dark-colored, gentle bees produced a full super of surplus honey.  They took a hit during mite treatment in August and went into winter with a relatively small cluster.  Lately though I have been seeing more activity out front, keeping pace with #2 next door.  These bees somehow used only about 1/3 of their winter stores so far, and they are now in buildup mode with bees filling 3/4 of the hive and four frames of brood.  The big black-brown queen is easy to spot, and I actually found her twice as she moved among frames.  The one bad habit these bees have is their tendency to build horizontal and vertical bridge comb between the frames.  This results in more-than-usual crushed bees when moving frames (and fear of crushing the queen), and I scraped most of it off.

Hive #2


This hive started with a package from renowned local beekeeper Kenny Williams, with an imported yellow, presumably Italian queen from somewhere warm (California?  Hawaii?).  I shook them into a hive that died the previous winter.  For whatever reason they have always favored one side of the hive, and they have always had most of their brood in the upper box.  Because they chimneyed up into a super and left one half of their hive unfilled, we ended up feeding them about 80 lbs of sugar syrup.  They went into winter with a huge population, as if they weren’t expecting cold weather.  Not surprisingly, these bees have eaten about twice as much of their stored honey/syrup compared to hive #1, though they don’t have much more to show for it at this point.  I didn’t find the queen, but with a good number of eggs and young larvae, I’m sure she is there.  Oddly, this hive has a fair number of drones running about, and about 25% of the capped brood is drones (much of it in otherwise worker-sized cells).  I’m thinking that might be a sign that the queen is running out of sperm and laying unfertilized eggs.  These bees are also a bit on the defensive side, so spring re-queening is probably in order.

Hive #6

Hive #6 started at the end of June as a tiny one-frame swarm.  They built up through the honey flow, and we fed them syrup through early October to get ten frames filled.  At our last beekeepers’ meeting, Harry Vanderpool gave a presentation on overwintering nucleus hives, and it occurs to me that this swarm accidentally matches his formula of starting with a single frame of bees on July 1.  I feared they would eat through their stores with only one box and even added some dry sugar in midwinter, but it turns out they have plenty remaining, having consumed only about 1/3 of their supply.  These medium-brown bees are also on the defensive side, but unlike our truly angry hive (which I didn’t open today) they don’t hold a grudge; they may take to the air and try to sting but they settle back down.  I found the queen looking big and healthy, and I need to get foundation into frames so we can give them a second box in a month or so.

So…our first spring season with bees!  If it is warm enough tomorrow we might look inside our other two hives: the super-active, booming, angry bees from Trevor’s swarm and the much smaller but still healthy population of “survivor” bees from Old Sol.  Since we’ve never overwintered bees into March and April before, we’re effectively back at the start of the learning curve, looking for signs that the bees are thinking of swarming and planning manipulations to change their collective hive mind, so that we can maintain maximum populations through the June honey flow.

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3 Responses to Checking on the bees

  1. Jen Larsen says:

    Your diagrams are amazing. What an efficient way to track your colonies!

    • Mark says:

      Gathering data to make them is rather labor-intensive, as it requires taking time to write down observations after each set of 2-3 frames. I think it’s one of those ideas that seems great after a winter of no beekeeping but will quickly be dropped or simplified as things ramp up.

      • Darlene says:

        I use a small recorder when inspectiving my hives and then I go back later and make notes on my tracking pages. Works great so I don’t have to write while inspecting.

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