The Birds and the Bees

May 8, 2008

Ah, spring. The world wakes up, and as they said in Bambi “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime.”

We have Cardinals, House Finches, and sparrows regularly visiting the feeder in our back yard, along with the occasional Goldfinch or Tufted Titmouse.  We see some Mockingbirds, but they don’t seem to be using the feeder (maybe the wrong type of food).  We also have a pair of Carolina Chickadees have taken up residence in a bird house we put up (they had to chase away a bluebird who wanted to move in after they had already claimed it).

I can understand where the “birds” part of the “birds and the bees” saying. The birds in our back yard do seem to make quite a conspicuous display of their courtship (singing, strutting, chasing each other about, etc.) How the bees got into our famous idiomatic expression, I have no idea. They definitely aren’t conspicuous about their “courtship”, but somehow we seem to have associated them with such things. In addition to the “birds and the bees”, we also go on honeymoons. Wikipedia says that a “honey moon” or honey “month” is found in at least Welsh, Spanish, Itallian, Arabic, and Persian (and may have come from a tradition of giving a months supply of mead to a newly married couple). I lived in the Philippines for a couple of years, and learned that in Tagalog, the equivalent of honeymoon is “pulot-gata” which literally means “honey-coconut milk”. I think that the Tagalog idiom comes from a completely concept, but I’m not going to explain the euphemism. 🙂

Anyway, back on topic. Bees also like to reproduce in the spring. When you think about honey bee reproduction however, you really have to think of the hive as a single organism. The birth of a single bee really doesn’t propagate the species. A single bee, even the queen, is in a funny way more like a bit of tissue, or maybe a organ, than an “organism”. Only a hive can “reproduce”. Workers can’t without the queen. The queen can’t do anything without the workers. In order for bees to spread and increase as a species, you need new hives. The way you get new hives is a swarm.

When a hive becomes strong enough, with enough workers and stores, they can swarm. Somehow, as a group, they make this assessment. The queen doesn’t make the decision, it seems to be some type of group consensus amount the workers. When they decide its time, they begin raising new queens (usually more than one – they will fight it out to see who will be the next queen). When its time, the hive splits in two (lets say roughly in half for ease of discussion). Half the hive gorges themselves with honey and leaves with the old queen. The other half stays with the new queen (who may or may not have hatched yet). The half that left with the old queen is the swarm. They leave and will congregate in one big mass while they come to a consensus on where their new home should be. Scouts spread out and look for a suitable new home site. The sight of a large mass of bees can be startling, but swarms are generally quite calm and not agressive. Thats not to say that you couldn’t get stung if you messed with them, but without a hive to protect (and gorged on honey), they are likely to ignore you if you don’t bother them. Here are a few pictures of what a swarm looks like.

Note, none of these are my pictures.  They are pictures placed on Flickr by people who are nice enough to place them under Creative Commons Licenses (  In case your wondering, I put all my photos and such under a similar license (see the note on the sidebar).

If you happen to be lucky enough to see a swarm, there are some things you might want to do.  Most times, swarms are not a problem and are just looking for a new home.  If you leave them alone, they will probably leave you alone.  You could just watch them, and they will likely move on at some point (when their scouts find a good mew home).  Problems can sometime arise from where they choose as a new home.  Naturally, they look for hollow in trees and such.  In our modern world however, its often more likely that they find a hollow in the roof or wall of someones building than to find a sufficiently large tree with a hollow in it.  Bees are interesting, and I like them, but having them in the wall of your house may not be the best idea.  Probably the best thing you can do to avoid this is to call someone who would like to keep the bees.  There are a number of places to find people to contact.  In no particular order, here are some places to look:

These are all national lists.  Local beekeepers associations are also a very good place to contact.  Where I am, people can contact the Orange County BeeKeepers Assoc for example.  On their listserv so far this year, I think there have been more than a dozen posts reporting swarms in the area.  You can usually find websites for beekeepers associations in your area on the web (search for the sate organization first, they usually have links to local groups).  If you do contact someone about a swarm here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Make sure they are honey bees (like the pictures aboves) – beekeepers have no interest in taking your yellowjackets or hornets.
  • Try to find someone close to you.  The bees could stay where they are overnight, or be gone in 5 min.  People won’t want to drive a hour, only to find the bees gone.  For this reason, if you can find someone who lists their phone number, that might get the quickest response.
  • Let the beekeeper know where the bees are.  Are they 3 ft of the ground (meaning reachable), or are the 80 ft up in a huge tree with no good way to get to them.
  • A swarm is one thing, removing bees that have moves into a building is another.  There are still people that will remove bees that have already set up house, but that can be a full days work.  Make sure you are clear as to which is the case.

Lastly, count yourself lucky to have seen this amazing and natural process.


The bees survived and are doing well

March 22, 2008

Since this has been my first winter keeping bees, I was a little anxious about the bees surviving.  They went into winter with pretty meager stores.  The winters here in NC are pretty mild and short though.  Being mild, I hoped the bees would be able to break their cluster at times and get some sugar syrup I left them.  It seems to have worked, and both hives are doing quite well.

I haven’t posted much because I have been busy with other things, but I have made the time to check on them a few time.  They were out collecting pollen as early as Jan (on warm days).  I’m am not sure what they were finding in bloom, but there must have been something.  I have some pictures from Feb of the bees coming in with pollen.

Even though we had some warm days, I didn’t want to open the hives that early.  I waited until last week before opening the hives.  A week ago I opened up hive # 1 and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only had they survived, they already have some capped honey that wasn’t there last year.  Good busy bees. 🙂  They also have pollen stores that I am pretty sure are new.  Clearly they are finding something even this early.  I was also very happy to see a good amount of capped brood.  Here is a picture of one of the combs.

This is only a guess, but I think the open area (the circle at the upper left) may have been where some earlier brood was raised that has batched already, and the capped brood in a wide ring below that was laid a bit later.  Throughout the inspection, the bees were very calm.  It got cloudy and was looking like it was about to start sprinkling though, so I closed everything up and decided not to check hive #2.  I had brought some sugar syrup to help them build up (not knowing they had found as much as they had this early).  I went ahead and left both hives some syrup.

Today I went back to check on hive #2.  I first check on the sugar syrup, and neither hive has taken much at all in the last week.  I assume that means they have been able to keep busy collecting the real stuff.  🙂   Judging just from the entrance traffic, hive #2 seemed a little weaker than hive #1 the last few times I had check on the bees.  When I opened the hive up, they too have capped honey and pollon stores, but not as much as hive #1 (I’m still happy with it though).  They also have capped brood.

Overall, hive #2 seems fine too, but maybe a little behind hive #1 in building up.  I did see a couple of small hive beetles in both hive, but no visible damage.  Hopefully, a healthy hive should be able to keep them in check.  I’ll have to keep an eye out for varroa problems this year too (last year I didn’t find any problems, but I may not be as lucky this year).

The follower boards are still in place with a few open bars for the bees to expand.  I haven’t seen any sign yet of new comb production.  I haven’t decided yet whether I would want to disrupt the hive structure by introduce empty top-bars between bars with comb to try and stimulate comb production.  I wouldn’t want them to build up and run out of comb to use and have them swarm.  I’ll have to keep an eye on the situation and hopefully move the follower board back before too long.

What’s a bee to do on unusually warm fall days?

November 15, 2007

I’ll start this post back a few days.  On Sat. the 10th, I want out in the morning to check on the bees and give them some sugar syrup.  I had started getting cooler here in NC, and so they weren’t out and about too much.  As I am feeding the bees using entrance feeders that are placed in the back of the hive (behind the follower board), I was able to add the syrup without really disturbing the bees.  The feeders are still only accessible to the bees by going through the hives, but with the follower board in place I don’t have to disturb the bees at all to add syrup.  This is good, because I wouldn’t want to open the hive and disturb bees that were clustering for warmth.  I went out in the morning, and I think the temperatures were in the upper 40’s (the low was 35 and the high 58).  Hive 1 had a few bees moving at the entrance, but hive 2 had almost none.   It was actually a little disconcerting to see so few bees.  Because of that, I decided to come back during the week when it was supposed to be warmer.  Before I left however, I made two changes.  First, I slid in the removable bottom (the whole hive has just been screened on the bottom till now).  Second, I reduced the entrances by swinging the reducers down into position.   Here is a picture from a few weeks ago to show how the entrances were.

Tho the left of the entrance slits you can see the “reducers”.  I just rotated those so that they cover the left side of the entrances.  You can see the result in some pictures coming up.

Yesterday, it was definitely warmer.  The high was 78 degrees and I went out at about 2pm, so it was probably mid 70’s at least.  The bees were definitely active (so they were still there).   They had emptied the syrup I had given them on Sat. so I gave them some more.   I also took some pictures of the hives with the somewhat reduced entrances and the bees being active.

I was glad to see the bees, but started to notice that they weren’t all being friendly.  Its not as evident in pictures, but some of those bees are fighting.  I watched them for a while, to try to get a feel for the extent of it.  There were bees coming and going, and only some were attacked.  It appears that there is some robbing or attempted robbing going on (both hive, but more on hive 2).  Its not the massive event with lots of carnage that I have heard some people have describe, but not a good thing in any case.  It has been cooler up until the last couple of days (highs in the 50’s, lows in the 30’s), and I can’t imaging there is much forage available.  Since it got warm all the sudden and the bees could become active, maybe they couldn’t find any peaceful work to do and resorted to trying to raid an pillage their neighbors.  In all the time watching, I did see one lone lady returning with a full load of pollen (orange in color).  I assume some of the others might have had nectar, but I can’t tell that by sight.  I’ll have to ask whether other beekeepers notice some robbing on warm days after the available forage is mostly gone.

I decided that I would reduce the entrances a bit more to try and help the defenders.  I don’t think that there will be much of a traffic problem this time of year even with the smallest entrance.  Here are some pictures after I adjusted the reducers.  You can still see some fighting.

Occasionally I would see a pair of wrestling bees fall to the ground in front of the hive.  They would usually continue to wrestle there, and there were some dead bees too.  There were only a couple in front of hive 1, but more at hive 2.  There weren’t too many, maybe 5-8 visible.  When I moved around the leave though, I found more (some looked like they might have been there a few days at least however). Even after diggin around a little, I think there were still only 20 or so.

I don’t think its a major problem right now, but I would rather not have it happening.  Besides making robber screens however , I am not sure what else I can do other than let them defend themselves.  In any case, the weather may take care of it anyway.  This morning was rainy and cold and the high temperature was significantly lower.  We are supposed to be back to highs in the low to mid 50’s with lows back to the 30’s.  Hopefully the weather will convince the raiding parties to just stay home.

The cooler weather is also bring out all the beautiful fall colors.  Here is a nice pretty area coming up to where I keep my hives.  It makes me wish I lived in the country instead of right inside Chapel Hill (to be honest however, I feel that way pretty much all times of the year).

Planting flowers for the bees

November 7, 2007

Theres not a whole lot to mention about the bees lately.  I have given them some more sugar syrup, but have generally left them alone.

Someone the BeeSource forums pointed out a nice link that I thought I would pass along.  Burt’s Bees will send you a free packet of seeds that should give you “a pretty patch of flowers where bees can live and thrive”.  Hey, why not.  Its free.  I think most people could find a nice place to scatter some wildflowers.  The free seeds are found under the “Community/Community Initiatives” section.  I think this should be a direct link to the page.

Inspection of Hive #1 and evidence of a fight

October 20, 2007

I’ve been a bit behind in my posting. The pictures and info I am posting now are actually from last Sat. The week before that I had done a inspection of hive #2, and now it was time for hive #1.

It was a bit cooler when I did this inspection. We had finally gotten some cooler weather instead of unseasonably warm 95 degree weather. I think it was probably mid 70’s when I checked on the bees, but it had been dropping down to the 50’s for a couple of nights. I still had the screened bottoms open ( and still do). I haven’t decided when I will close them up. Some people keep them open year round, but I am not sure I will do that. The first thing I noticed was though there were a good number of bees coming and going, there wasn’t the normal pile of bees hanging out at the front door. Its about time, they have been doing that all summer. 🙂

I gave both hives some sugar syrup, and proceeded with the inspection. The first surprise I ran into looked like evidence of a little bit of a fight. Luckily, it looked like my girls won.

I picked this dead carpenter bee off the inside of the screened bottom. I looked around a bit, and came to the conclusion that the only way she could have gotten in was through the entrance. I can only assume there was a fight and my girls defended their home. I wouldn’t have guessed a carpenter bee would try to get in, but it appears thats what must have happened. I didn’t find any evidence of the carpenter bees trying to nest at all (I wouldn’t want them drilling holes in my hive). As I went on with the inspection (I start at the back top-bars and move forward, I found another inside, and even one outside.

The one on the inside was dead, but the one on the outside was still alive (but moving too much). Interestingly, the bees were completely ignoring it. After taking the picture of the one hanging on the bottom, I gave it a good poke with my hive tool (I figured I was safe wearing a jacket and veil. It dropped to the ground buzzing, and I got another surprise.

Its a drone. As I noted earlier this year when I found an area with a bunch of nesting carpenter bees (and lots of drones), you can tell the drones from the females because of the yellow patch on their foreheads. Here’s a picture of a female for contrast (taken earlier this year).

Although I really don’t know much about their mating schedule, I am surprised that the drones would be around this late since they were out in force in April. I think that maybe this guy smelled the dead females and was there to check them out. Just to see, I checked hive #2 quickly and found on dead carpenter bee. So, between the two hive there were three dead females inside, and one live drone outside.

As for the bees, they seem fine. Hive #1 is about in the same state as hive #2. There is a little capped honey and more uncapped. The population of bees seems good for the time of year and weather. There are still capped brood, and I was able to see larva in various stages. I even ran across the queen who seems fine. All in all, the bees seem to be doing well. I still plan on feeding them a bit to make sure they have the stores needed for winter.

Today, I added some more syrup and checked to see if there were any more carpenter bees (there were none). Other than watching them coming and going, I left them alone however.

Inspection of Hive #2

September 22, 2007

I realized while I was uploading the pictures for this post, its been 3 weeks since I posted last. I also hadn’t checked on the bees in that length of time too. When I went out to check on them though, they seem just fine.

The first thing to notice was that there were a whole lot fewer bees on the front of the hive. There were still plenty at the entrance, and a good number coming and going. This isn’t to much of a surprise though since it has finally cooled down a bit. I believe that today is supposed to be in the low 90’s, but this last week had been in the upper 70’s and low 80’s. The nights have also been down into the 60’s which feels much better (it had been very hot). Even better, we got a bit of rain. Not nearly enough to refill the reservoirs, but every little bit helps.

Its been 3 weeks since I had checked on the bees, so I hadn’t given them any sugar syrup in at least that long either. I can’t remember exactly, but I don’t think I did the last time I went either, meaning its been over a month. In any case, I haven’t ever given them as much as they would take. When I make sugar syrup, I use 6 cups of sugar and 6 cups of water (it make a little over 2 quarts). Split between two hives, that amount never lasts even a week. I had been hoping that there would be at least a small fall flow for them to build up stores. I figured they needed some feed though because back in mid July they had essentially no stored honey. As I check hive #2 however, I was pleasantly surprised to find some capped honey. They also had a good bit of uncapped nectar also. Since I haven’t fed them in a while, it appears that they have found something to collect. 🙂 The few small recent rains may have helped.

Since I was not sure how they were doing I had made up some sugar syrup before going out so they got fed too. Though there were fewer bees on the front of the hive, the population in the hives seemed fine (I think it was just the cooler weather). I pulled a number of combs to check, and saw some stores along with a small mount of capped brood and larva. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of brood as they wouldn’t want to be building up now, but its nice to see some at least. I also ran into the queen, and she seemed fine. I saw a couple of small hive beetles, but not many (no sign of damage). I still haven’t seen signs of varroa problems yet either. Over all, the hive seems healthy though still a little short on stores. I keep an eye on that going forward.

On the “not a bee but still a bug”, here is a gratuitous spider picture. My wife actually saw this guy on some crape myrtle near our house while we were on a evening walk with our daughters. I checked the next morning if it was still there and was able to get a few pictures. It’s a nice green color that blended well with the seed pods/fruit and leaves.

A Powdered Sugar Roll

September 1, 2007

I was reminded that it was about time I checked my bees for Varroa mites. I haven’t yet seen signs of problems, but before winter, I will need to decide whether the bees need to be treated in some way for mites. There are a few ways to check for mites. One is to count the number of mites being dropped from the hive by placing a greased bottom board in and then counting the mites on it after a day or two. Since its still hot here, I don’t really want to close off the screened bottoms of the hives. I decided to do a powdered sugar roll. The idea is simple. You catch some bees in a jar, add powdered sugar, and roll the bees around in it. The powdered sugar dislodges the mites and you pour out the sugar (and mites) through a screen in the lid. You count the mites and return the sugar coated bees to the hive.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I think I may have needed to catch more bees. I just scooped up some and that turned out to be ~20 for each hive. The instructions suggest 100-300 bees. Call this a run through…

I used a mason jar and cut out a circle of #8 hardware cloth to fit (leftover from the hive bottoms).

Of my ~20 bees per hive, I couldn’t find any varroa.  I think thats a good sign, but I can’t guarantee I did it right.  I think I will try again a bit later in the fall and try to use more bees.  I might also see if I can see someone experience do it before then.  That way I know I am doing it well enough.

It was interesting watching the bees when I returned them.  They didn’t seem to have any trouble being  accepted by their sisters.  The bees immediately started grooming them (you could see their little tongues).  The other thing I though was funny was that a number of the returned bees immediately started fanning (butts up in the air, wings beating hard).  They normally do this to call other bees home (like saying “follow my scent, home is this way”).  I guess if a bee get lost/disoriented it assumes there were others with the same problem and wants to help them out?

Now for two off topic, gratuitous pictures.

I found this guy on an empty hive (owned by the landowner where I keep my hives).  He/she was just hanging out and stood still for the photo.

I mentioned that we are in a drought here.  To get to my hives, I drive past University Lake (just outside Chapel Hill, NC).  Here is a shot I took while driving by on my way home.   The west end of the lake looks more like a pasture.  I hope we get rain soon.

Other bugs around the hives

August 26, 2007

I mentioned previously finding a rather large spider under the roof of one of my hives. Its not uncommon to find spirders, just that that one was pretty big and unusual. Normally, I see a couple spiders, but they are almost always the same type. I decided to try and take a picture of them (sorry, the focus is not always great – I need a camera with a macro setting).

The spiders range in size. Most interesting is they way they crouch in corners. They crouch with their legs together in sets of two (the first picture). I’m not sure my picture does it justice, but they always remind me of a cricket more than a spider when they are crouched like that. They will just stay like that unless I get them to move with a twig. I always let them go on the ground a little way from the hives, but there are always more when I come back the next time.

I also had a run in with a butterfly while checking a hive. It landed on the hive, then happily climbed on my finger and hung out for a little while. There are lots of butterflies around because the owner of the land where I keep the hives has a wonderful variety of flowering plants (including butterfly bush).

I most commonly see two types of butterflies. One is the type pictured above. I decided to try to take some pictures of the other main type I see too.

If anyone know anything about any of these (spiders or butterflies), I’d be interested in it.