A Swarm – or Bees for Free (almost)

I received a call on Thursday afternoon from Deb Schmalshof up in Cumming, GA who said she had a swarm of bees on the side of an old abandoned house about 8 feet off the ground and wanted to know if I was interested in capturing it.  She further explained that a colony had been living in this house for at least 4 years and this was not the first time she had seen the colony swarm. My initial thought was that if in fact it was a swarm, that it would probably not be there long before flying off to a new location. The fact that she said the colony had been there for 4 years intrigued  me as I would like to include “survivor” colonies into my operation, so I said I would come to take a look.

After a 30 minute drive to Cumming we arrived to find that the “swarm” had gone back into the house. There were still a lot of bees on the outside, but it definitely did not look like a swarm. Their behavior though was very gentile and there was absolutely no aggressiveness displayed- which is one of the characteristics of a swarm.

Deb said that the house was scheduled to be demolished and would not mind if I tore into the siding to see if I could capture the bees. In fact, the bees needed to be rescued before the house was torn down.  She offered me a crow bar, hammer and eventually a power reciprocating saw to access the bee colony. And here is what we found:

The comb filled the wall cavity between the studs and was over three feet long. It had definitely been there for a while- but was in remarkably good condition. While removing it I could find no brood or honey, but there was a LOT of bees. I finally concluded that there had definitely been a swarm, but rather than coming from the house, they were actually entering it to take over the comb that another colony had constructed. I had brought a cardboard nuc with me with a couple of frames of drawn comb with honey and pollen. After spraying the bees with sugar water with a spray bottle, I proceeded to gather bees on the remaining comb and bee brush and shake them into the nuc box. This went on for some time until I had a lot of the bees in it. There was absolutely no way to see if we had the queen in the box and the bees were not acting like we did. Normally if you capture a swarm queen all the bees will follow her into the nuc or hive or clump up around her where ever she is. We had a few remaining clumps of bees that I brushed into the box.

After transferring most of the bees I could into the nuc, I decided to leave the nuc there in the opening overnight, hoping that the drawn comb and honey and bees we had in the box would attract the queen (if we didn’t already have her) and remaining bees. I propped it up with a handy push broom and step stool.

I returned the next morning to retrieve the box to find almost no bees outside it. After arriving home, I proceeded to install the nuc into a full 10 frame hive body. I installed a couple of drawn frames containing pollen and honey from another hive at the house and 3 more frames of foundation. When I opened up the nuc box I was greeted with bees looking at me from between all 5 frames and the inside cover full of bees. After applying a little smoke I transferred  each frame from the nuc to the full sized hive body after checking it for the queen.

And lo-and-behold, there she was on the frame of partially drawn comb! The swarm has got to be happy in their new furnished  home, complete with a stocked pantry.

Thanks to Deb for the pictures and concern for the bees.

Update on the Update of the Queens

I don’t know if any of you noticed on the beehive webcam that the workers in the observation hive had torn down the queen cell that I had given them on April 15th. There had not been enough time for the queen in the cell to have matured, so I suspected something else was up. After seeing this, I had a feeling that we actually had a queen even though after a thorough earlier searches, I could not find her.

As I mentioned before, virgin queens are found in places that you don’t normally expect to find them and it is not uncommon for a virgin queen to hide on a side wall of the hive and not on frame. So I must have overlooked her in my earlier searches. I checked the observation hive yesterday and found a queen! There was no brood yet and her abdomen had not yet swelled, so she may still be a virgin.

I will check again later in the week to see if there is brood present in the hive. Once there is brood, I will mark her and place her up in the observation area. I have a troop of Girl Scouts coming over later in the week and I would really like for them to be able to see her and some brood. If she is not ready in time, I will probably take her and the rest of her colony and put them into a nuc at my bee yard and place another laying queen and her colony into the observation hive for a while.

Update on the Queens

Yesterday I checked on the observation hive queen to see if she had started to lay. Unfortunately, I could find no eggs, brood or sign of her. We have had a lot of severe weather here in the Atlanta area over the last several days, so there is a good possibility that she either got lost and perished in a storm or was eaten by a bird. In any event it is back to square one with the observation hive. I have inserted a frame that has a queen cell that I harvested from another of my hives. The beecam is now focused on that so we will see what happens there.

On a brighter note, I checked the mating nucs at the river and found 10 of the 12 nucs had brood. I actually found and marked 9 of the 12 queens with a beautiful, distinctive fluorescent green dot on their thorax. In the two that did not have brood, I inserted a frame of very young brood from another established colony, so if in fact they are queenless the colony can attempt to raise a new queen of their own.

We Have Queens!

The temperature warmed up today to almost 70 degrees F. after the overnight frost and snow showers yesterday. Talk about confusing weather for the bees! I was able to get into the observation hive today and the twelve nucs I started on April 1st with grafted and natural queen cells to see if the new queens had emerged. To my amazement, I found the virgin or possibly newly mated queen in the observation hive and all twelve mating nucs. In the observation hive, I found her in the lower chamber, below the queen excluder, which is where she needs to be to take her mating flight/s where she will hopefully mate with 15 to 20 drones in order to ensure that she will be a successful monarch.

I was also amazed to find all 12 queens in the mating nucs that I started on April 1st. I was very pleasantly surprised that all successfully emerged from their cells as not all the queens survive to emerge. Secondly, I was fortunate to be able to spot the young queens as they don’t look much different that the workers and move around the comb and hive rapidly and are found in places that a laying queen normally does not go.

I am going to leave all the queens undisturbed for at least a week to be sure that they have taken their mating flights and will wait until I see eggs or larvae in the hives before trying to move them into full 10 frame hive bodies and attempt to mark them. The mating flights come with significant peril as they run a gauntlet of birds and dragon flies to find the drones to mate with. I will report back in a week or so to let you know how many made it.

A Honey Harvest Report

This is the busy, exciting  time of the year for beekeepers. Yesterday in addition to looking for the new queens in my mating nucs, I checked on the progress the bees were making on filling the honey supers that I had previously installed on some of the stronger hives on March 25th and also added a few more to hives that were ready.

They are just beginning to fill the frames in the supers with a very light, almost water white nectar. Since most of my frames have drawn comb, it doesn’t take very long for the bees to fill them with nectar and the challenge is to keep adding empty supers on top of the full ones.  When the bees put the nectar into the cells it is between 40 to 70% moisture content. They then dry it to reduce the moisture content by fanning it with their wings until it is around 17% and then they put a wax capping on each cell, indicating it is “ripe”. At this low moisture content it will not spoil or ferment and will last for centuries.

The very first honey I harvested last  season was very light in color with hint of licorice flavor – very unique and very delicious! That was followed by a darker, fruity tasting honey that the bees gathered from the tulip poplar trees and blackberry bushes. I expect that will begin to harvest this first light honey around the first or second week in May depending on the weather.

I also installed a swarm trap yesterday to hopefully catch any swarms that might emanate from one of my hives. The trap is the size of a five gallon bucket and made from a paper mache like material. It has a 1 1/4 inch hole in the bottom for the bees to enter. A pheromone capsule is placed in the swarm trap to attract any bees with swarming on their mind. I caught a swarm last year in this trap in this same tree. I have modified the trap with a roof made of 3/16 inch plywood that I glued to the top cover as the original cover was beginning to deteriorate from the weather.

Can You Find the Queen?

As I reported yesterday, I spent time trying to verify that each of my mating nucs did in fact have a queen that had emerged from her queen cell that I had installed on April 1st. I was successful in finding all 13 of them. Their challenge now is to survive their mating flights.

To give you an idea of the difficulty in finding a young queen among all the other bees – try to find as many of the queens as you can. There is only one queen in each picture.

A New Queen?

A few days ago I installed a new frame into the viewing area of the observation hive along with five additional frames of young bees down below. The colony was without a queen. The camera was focused on a natural queen cell that was capped off.

We watched for several days hoping to see her emerge. Today, April 7th, she has apparently emerged as the workers are tearing the cell down. You can watch their progress on the webcam.

I have not been able to find her on the frame in the viewing area, but she may be small enough to fit through the queen excluder and be with the bees down below. The other possibility is that the queen died in her cell, and the workers sensed that, and are now tearing down the cell after removing her remains. It’s too cold today to open up the hive to see if I can find her – plus it would probably be a good idea to let her settle down anyway after just emerging from her cell.  If she is trapped up above the queen excluder, I will need to move her down below it so she can take her mating flight and hopefully return to the colony to begin her reign.

A young virgin queen is usually very difficult to find as they are not much bigger than the typical worker bee and they are usually very “runny” – meaning that they move very fast, and often can be found on the side walls of the hive – unlike a laying queen. It is only after their mating flight has occurred and the queen begins to lay eggs, that her abdomen swells up and she becomes slower moving spending most of her time on the comb laying eggs.

Stay tuned as I will report on my progress in looking for the new queen.

Splits and Installation of Queen Cells

On March 23rd I grafted larvae into artificial queen cups and installed them into a starter-finisher colony to transform these larvae that were destined to be workers into queens. Normally the queen cells are harvested 10 days after making the grafts and then transferred into nucleus colonies where the queens emerge from their cells, take their mating flight and then begin to lay. Due to forecasted rain I had to advance that schedule a couple of days, so on March 30th Tom, a fellow beekeeper that lives nearby, and I made up several splits in preparation for installing the queen cells.  We installed five frames of honey, pollen and capped brood into the five frame nucs and”queen castles”. The queen castle is a 10 frame hive body with partitions that slide in and out enabling you to have either 4-two frame nucs or 2-five frame nucs. With entrances on opposite sides, it minimizes the drifting of one colony to another. Below is Tom installing frames into a queen castle.

We also had a couple of naturally occurring queen cells that we utilized. They were from some of my more productive, populous colonies, so I had no reservations about using them.

I used five frames of honey, pollen, brood and bees because I had several strong hives to work with. Normally when making up five frame nucs I would use only three frames with all the above and two empty drawn frames. I have successfully made up the nucs with just two frames, but more is usually better. The frames with the honey are placed on the outside edges of the nuc. Frames of pollen, honey and older brood are placed in the middle. Ideally, you would not have any young larva that could become queen candidates as the colony may decide that they would prefer to raise a queen of their own rather than the one you have given them.

The next day I returned to install the queen cells into the nucs. Each cell is removed from the grafting bar and inserted into a plastic cell protector that has “ears” on it to enable it to be pushed into the wax foundation of the frame.

So now I have 13 nucs that hopefully will be successful and join my other hives to be productive this year.

Making New Colonies & Queens – Part 3

In this posting I am going to briefly cover the technique called grafting to create new queens. There are complete books covering this in detail if the reader is interested in learning more. This method is more involved than simply making a split and letting the queenless bees raise a new queen. This method lends itself  to raising more queens at one time from the selected queen compared to giving a queenless colony a frame containing very young larvae. When choosing the queen from which to raise new queens such factors such as mite and disease resistance, productivity of honey and brood, longevity and gentleness should be the criteria used to evaluate the candidate.

The tools are simple and inexpensive; however, the technique definitely takes skill. This method is known as the “Doolittle” method – named for the person who first developed it. The process involves taking very young larvae from the selected queen and transferring them into an artificial queen cup that is held in a special frame that is then inserted into a “cell starter” colony, which is a colony that either thinks it is queenless – or actually is.  The frame of grafted larvae are then transferred into a ”queenright” or cell finisher colony, which is a colony that has a queen as it has been found that they actually do a better job of raising a queen larva than a queenless colony.


This is a Chinese grafting tool that I use. The tip is a flexible horn material that is slid under the larva and royal jelly that it is floating in..

Here is the artificial queen cell cup and the frame holder

Unfortunately the camera was a little out of focus, but I think you can make out the “C” shaped larva and royal jelly on the tip of the grafting tool. The button on the opposite end from the tip is depressed, like a ballpoint pen, to gently insert the larva and royal jelly into the queen cup.

When the grafting is completed, the frame is inserted into the cell starter colony

Rather than taking out the frame after it has been “started” in one colony and transferring it to a “finisher” colony, I use the “Cloake” board method which allows one to use a single colony for both purposes. The Cloake board has a metal tray that slides into place, effectively blocking the queen pheromones from entering the upper chamber. It also has a queen exclude that prevents the queen from being able to access the upper chamber.

After 24 hours have passed since inserting the grafts into the colony the metal tray is removed creating a queenright colony to finish off the cells. Below is what the cells look like 24 hours after grafting. A more experienced person would have close to 100% acceptance of the grafts. My success rate is much lower as you can see.

When the cells are mature and before the queens start to emerge,  which is 10 days after the grafting, the cells are removed and inserted into a queenless colony or split where the queen emerges from her cell and then in a few days takes her mating flights. She hopefully will be successful and safely return without becoming a meal for a bird or dragon fly and begin to lay eggs in about a week.

Making New Colonies & Queens – Part 2

I discussed some of the natural reproductive instincts of the honey bees and the environmental conditions that lead to natural replacement of a queen and colony expansion in part 1 of this series. In this article I will discuss the simplest method that a beekeeper can use to create a few queens or colonies. This method is called making a split.

I am not going to get into a lot of detail here but just cover the basics. If a colony becomes queenless for whatever reason, they sense the loss of her presence due to the lack of a pheromone that she produces and they will attempt to raise a replacement. They usually select several larvae that are less than 24 hours old  and feed them a diet of royal jelly during their six day larval period. A worker bee is fed royal jelly, a substance secreted from the young workers, for only the first day and then pollen and honey after that.

A beekeeper can create a queenless colony by combining frames of honey, pollen, capped older brood and very young brood into a five frame nuc (nucleus colony) or standard hive body.  The bees will sense their queenless condition in a matter of hours and begin their task of making a replacement queen.

Below you will see queen cells about to be capped off.

In about 16 days from the time the egg is laid the new queen  will emerge from her special queen cell that looks very much like a peanut in its shell. If there are several queen cells present, the first queen to emerge will kill her rivals by stinging them before they emerge. If two queens emerge at the same time they will fight to the death until one is left to take over the colony.

The virgin queen will then have to take her mating flight where she will mate with up to 20 drones and then return to her colony. She will store the drone’s sperm for her entire life which can last for up to five years.