A Race to Live
E14 had hatched just minutes before she was shaken from her frame and thrown into the midst of thousands of other bees. She was there from the very first moments of the colony. She may be present at its death as well. This newly formed colony is already in a race where the victor survives a generation longer and the loser is swept away. With every tick E14 gets older. With every tick the colony comes closer to that fatal finish line. To survive her colony must raise a new generation to live on. The odds are not in their favor.
E14 never knew any queen but the package queen so she accepted the queen immediately. In the darkness of the hive she quickly found her way to the heart of the cluster and waited there. For a day nothing seemed to happen. Other bees left the entrance but not E14. She is a brand new bee, too young to participate in the decision making process that drives the colony. The decisions in this case are unanimous. With only their full stomachs the bees will attempt to build a new home and raise a new generation. E14 will die, this is certain. As a single member of the composite organism that is the colony she strives for its survival.
There are no brood in the newly founded colony but for a time this is not upsetting. There is no place to put them. E14 is too young to draw wax but not too young to vibrate her wings and raise the temperature in the hive. One bee alone warms little. A thousand together, three thousand more, five thousand on top of those, and the temperature inside the hive rockets. Now it is _hot_ in the hive in spite of the cold spring. It is warm enough to draw wax and work it. E14 will not do this yet. She maintains her post at the outside of the cluster, beating her wings. When she is hungry others feed her from their stomachs. With no stores to draw on the colony could starve, so some workers must split off to answer this need.
Oldest bees are foraging already. They have no place to store the pollen they gather so it is left on their legs in orange and yellow bundles. The nectar they bring back is passed from bee to bee as needed. In scant hours a tiny pattern emerges on the top of the wood bars that line the hive. This long line has arches and veins sprouting from it. It sets the pattern for the comb to come. With their comb line drawn the bees now work fervently to build the first row and midrib of cells. Soon a tiny heart shaped comb hangs from the bar. With greater surface area more bees can build and a building rate that was quick before becomes incredibly fast.
The comb is forming but it is shallow. This doesn’t stop the workers from using it. The cells near the top are the deepest and the moment the side wall was formed the foragers began to pack pollen into these. There must be ready food for the generation to come. At night the wax work continues but slower. All the combined forces of the colony cannot change the laws of physics and the night air saps the colony of the heat needed to build their home. They cannot be deterred. To fail is to die. At night they continue, stopping only in the coldest hours before dawn. By morning they have drawn a comb the size of a fist. It is not full depth. It is not hardened. It is fragile but in these first few cells the bees have laid their plan for survival.
The queen has little to do at first. She wants to lay eggs, always and foremost. As soon as the cells are formed she begins inspecting them. The first few lines she rejects. as too irregular and the wrong size. She cannot use them. The foragers have already packed nectar into some and pollen into others, this area is unfit. A few rows down though the cells become more even. In a half drawn area she stops and measures. These are better. These are right. She lays an egg in each. The egg is tiny but it stands as high as the wall of the cell she lays it in. No worry. Workers have ten days to complete the cell before it must be capped. She rounds the growing comb day and night, laying in each cell as soon as possible. It will be twenty one days before these eggs emerge as new workers. Three weeks that will determine if the colony lives or dies.
E14 rapidly finds a new role in life. She is a nurse bee, tending to eggs. There are dozens now. The colony needs thousands to sustain itself but to get there it must take these first few steps. Three days later the first of the eggs hatches. Tiny larva that arrives is given the best attention possible. Nurse bees fight over who will care for a given larva, pushing each other out of the way to get a chance to feed and check on the hope of the colony. The pollen cells are packed full but not for long. With care E14 mixes pollen and nectar to form the bee bread which she feeds her hungry larva.
As the days go by E14’s larva grows from a tiny dot to a fat C shaped worm, curled in the bottom of the cell. E14 is now the right age to draw wax so she leaves her larva to the care of other sisters and takes her place in a chain of bees. The chain clings together, forcing tiny scales from their wax glands. Other bees crawl up and down the chain collecting them and working them into comb. The primary comb is now seven inches large, and two smaller combs hang on either side. These are not packed so heavily with pollen and nectar now though. The oldest bees are missing. They left the hive one at a time. Fewer returned each night.
After seven more days the colony has three combs packed with eggs and larva. This day the first larva sent up a chemical flag to her aunts. She is ready to be capped. Throughout the colony this scent is spreading. Wax is quickly stolen from the comb builders to cover these sisters. Ten days and the colony will have reinforcements but there is a problem.
The oldest of the bees have already died off, weakening the colony in a way that ripples through the work force. It begins with the foragers. The experienced foragers are gone. Other sisters take their place but that leaves fewer to warm the hive. The brood must be kept at ninety degrees so others do that. That leaves fewer bees to draw new comb. Now the comb grows only in the late afternoon sun. The youngest bees will easily live through two generations. They are few in number. The oldest bees are already dead, and much of the population will die before this next generation can emerge. The fate of the colony lies in the hands of each bee.
The oldest workers cannot hope to live to see their replacements. Instead they build up stores of pollen and nectar, competing with the queen for open cells to fill. E14 is old enough now to pack pollen and work the wax. She does both, but work in the hive is slowing. The foragers are dying as the adult bees of the colony die off. New foragers cannot leave the hive. They are needed to keep the brood nest warm, so two weeks later the colony is living on the stores it has built. Normally the oldest bees would replace the foragers but that cannot happen for now.
Eighteen days into the life of a colony the weather turns cold as the last blast of winter sweeps through. The colony is one third of the size it once was. Most of these sisters have never foraged. The pollen cells are nearly empty, the nectar cells the same. Capped cells cover the surface of the comb, which is now nearly a foot long and nine inches high. The queen continues to lay where available. At times the workers are forced to devour her eggs because they cannot care for them. That night the nurse bees gather to keep the colony warm but with each gust of wind the temperature drops. The cluster contracts grudgingly and many nurse bees choose to stay and freeze alone rather than abandon their brood. E14 is old enough to know other instincts now and she resigns herself to the loss of some brood. The morning of the nineteenth day shows a colony nearly in ruins. Some workers devote themselves to dragging out the dead. These mortuary bees would normally be nurse bees. Many of the uncapped larva are dead, so many that there are plenty of nurse bees for those that remain. In that daylight E14 begin to forage, bringing in wet pollen and cold nectar.
The capped larva are much more resistant to the cold. They have weathered the storm mostly intact. Workers move over the surface of the comb checking each one. They can detect dead brood by the scent. The few that died are pulled out. Their wax caps are taken to shield new sisters ready to undergo their change. Now a new threat emerges. So stripped of workers is the colony that few bees are left to guard the entrance. Across the entrance of the hive a foreign shadow falls. It moves back and forth waiting for the guard bees that should come out. The lone guard ventures out. She does not return.
An hour later the shadow returns. After a few minutes of walking back and forth it slides in the entrance of the hive. It is a yellow jacket queen, the foundress of a new nest. She is hunting honeybees. Until now she was content to devour the dead bees thrown from the hive. With nothing to stop her the honeybee brood are appealing meals. She will chew them alive to feed her own daughters.
Even though the Yellow Jacket Queen is easily twice as large as E14, E14 is not afraid. She flies at the intruder, grabbing her by the wing. The massive wasp queen is pleased. Normally she would have to pursue her prey run them down. This meal has delivered itself to her. The wasp flexes its stinger back to strike a killing blow. Suddenly she is attacked from all angles. Bees scrape at her eyes and their stings bash her armor over and over. Her wings are bitten and pulled at. The insolent bees drag her from the hive even though she is far larger. On the landing board the wasp and bees form a rolling ball of wings and stings. At the edge of the board the wasp breaks free and flees. When her daughters are ready they will return for vengeance. E14 retires to the hive. Her hair is pulled out in places and her left wing is bent where the wasp crushed it.
On the morning of the twenty first day the colony is nearly run dry. The sisters have spent their stores and lives on a bet that will either pay off or kill them. Today the rows of capped wax cells are ready. Unable to forage, E14 is relegated to heating the brood nest. At the edge of one cell the capping disintegrates. Bit by bit the worker inside chews her way out. When the cell opening is clear she crawls out onto the comb. She is nearly white, almost transparent. Her wings are wet and soft, her hairs are clumped together. Next to E14 this new arrival barely resembles a bee. Within minutes the new bee is at work, taking the place of an older bee near her. Throughout the day new arrivals emerge and take their places. Older bees move on to capping cells and cleaning, even drawing comb. The queen takes the newly freed cells and lays a new generation in them within hours. For the months to come the brood cycle will repeat, and through the summer and fall they will never again be without new workers to care, new workers to clean, build and harvest. These new bees will face the same contest over and over, because the race they are in is in fact a relay. Each generation must take up the baton of raising the next, and the next. They will do so, whatever the cost.
The view of the Hive from the House
At the moment a colony is installed in its new home a race begins. Whether it is a package of bees created by man or a swarm leaving its parent colony the challenge is the same. A clock is ticking the minutes and hours to the death of the colony. Every bee in the colony will work toward a single goal: to hold back the clock, to _live_.
A summer bee lives about six weeks from the time it hatches. Less in the summer, more in the winter. A new colony contains no brood or baby bees. A new colony has no comb in which to lay the eggs that will hatch to become brood. It has only thousands of full stomachs and an intense desire to live.
To begin with the bees begin to create a home. For days before they left the hive the bees gorged themselves and prepared to leave. This heavy caused a change in their wax glands. Normally only young bees draw wax. With heavy feeding even the older bees are ready to produce tiny white flakes of wax. The oldest bees to leave will work the wax.
Bees wax is a natural wax unlike the paraffin or oil based waxes. Each of the vast combs is built one tiny crystal white flake at a time. Drawing wax is a challenge for many reasons. Foremost among these is that bees wax grows soft at about one hundred and fourteen degrees. At ninety degrees it is chewable, moldable for a time. The bees must produce this heat if the weather is not warm. To do so the colony divides itself. Some bees vibrate their wings to generate heat. A new colony is _hot_ in the cool of spring.
The first combs get drawn amazingly fast. The first cells are immediately filled with pollen and nectar. The queen has other plans though. She will immediately lay in the cells she finds fit, even if they aren’t finished. The bees will take care of this, finishing the cell before the larva requires it. From this point on twenty one days will pass before the bee in the egg is a bee on the comb, ready to work. During this time the population of the colony continues to drop. There is no threat that the nurse bees will not live long enough to see the new generation. There is a serious threat that there won’t be enough of them to propagate the colony.
The foragers have little hope of seeing the future of the colony arrive. Instead they contribute through the stores which must see the colony through the dangerous period ahead. They work as fast as possible, bringing in pollen, concentrating nectar into honey. The colony’s growth rate slows though as bees die. It becomes difficult for them to maintain the level of heat needed to draw wax, hard for them to keep the brood warm. The brood are always the first priority, so the amount of comb drawn slows each day as more bees are needed to take care of brood. Once the larva is capped it is much more resistant to cold.
On the coldest nights of spring the colony will lose some brood and some bees to the cold. The brood die because there are too many of them, too few nurse bees, and too cold temperatures. The nurse bees die because some refuse to leave their larva. They would rather die than abandon their post. Now the colony is actually shrinking.
With fewer bees to guard the entrance predators like wasps quickly move in. Always pleased with a one to one battle, the wasps will eventually venture into the hive in search of brood. They’ll pull the capped larva from their cells and devour them if not driven away.
At the point where the first bees hatch the original package is a shadow of itself. With these first new bees comes the hope of survival. Now the colony has brood at every stage. From now on it will continue to have a new wave of bees every day. In the dead of winter it may be only a handful of new bees. In the height of summer it might be more than a thousand each day. This is the brood cycle, and it will only rarely stop from now on. Each time it does so the colony is in great danger.
The Hive at Home.
Once the colony is installed in the box, there is little for the beekeeper to do. After a week though, you can come back and see how things are shaping up. Before you can open that box though, you had better plan out what you are going to do. Later on the colony will have tens of thousands of bees. If you are going to disturb them it would be wise to know why you are doing it and what you plan to do with them. So, let us start with your equipment.
Tools of the Trade
The basic implements any beekeeper needs are a veil (something to keep the bees off your face), a smoker (to generate cool white smoke for calming the bees), and a hive tool (a knife for splitting the boxes, loosening frames, etc. There are dozens of other things you might want but those are the basics. The reason for a veil is simple. Bees instinctively go for the face and eyes. Getting stung on the arm hurts, but is no serious matter. Get stung on the face and you’ll feel entirely different. The smoker is a tin can with a fire in it. The bellows blows a soft puff of air into the smoker, causing the fire to rise, and then smoke as it chokes. This triggers a calming reaction in bees by masking any alarm pheromones that the guard bees release and causing them to try and find an open honey cell. Their reasoning is that the hive is about to catch fire and the bees must flee. They will have only their full stomachs to build a new home. The hive tool or knife is for prying apart parts of the hive. Bees produce and collect a glue called propolis. It's like natural tar made from resins and any crack will get sealed with it, loose things (any things) get glued over with propolis. It's not easy to get apart and every week the bees will have glued down some things.
Before you go down to inspect, take a look at the weather and your watch. If it’s cloudy. If it is raining. If it is windy. If you wouldn’t like someone removing the roof to your house on a day like this, consider not doing it to them. They’ll appreciate it and you can build up your immunity to bee stings some other day. Don’t inspect at night unless you are really in need of bee sting therapy. They’ll deliver it to you in quantities won’t appreciate. The bee books will tell you (and I’ll testify it’s true) that a sunny day in mid morning to late afternoon is the best time to inspect. Later you may be forced to inspect in the cold, or the wet, or the wind. By then you’ll be expecting what comes with that and be much better prepared.
If you are ready to get hands on with your hive, great. First things first – when you get to the hive, you are going to want a way to calm the bees. That’s the aforementioned smoker but you probably would like to light it now, before you get within several feet of a box of bees. That means lighting up the smoker now. It’ll be easier to do out of your veil or suit anyway. Your goal with the smoker is to build a bed of embers upon which you can put a slow burning, cool smoke producing fuel. I start with newspaper and then add cardboard, then move up to twigs. When I’ve got some half inch sticks burning in the bottom of the smoker I’m ready to add my material. Which material should you use? You might as well ask what flavor of ice cream to like. I’m partial to vanilla and cedar shavings (small animal bedding) myself. Other good fuels are burlap (coffee or seed) bags cut into strips, pine needles, cotton, cow dung, rolled cardboard. You can even buy “smoker fuel”, which is likely one of the above. Add a handful, but be careful not to extinguish the fire. Now, a word about operating it – the best smoke is a slow puff on the bellows. Your smoker should be belching smoke like a 85 year old bingo player at this point and a slow puff will produce a cloud that could obscure a tank. You don’t need that much smoke, but better safe than sorry. I highly recommend practicing lighting the smoker and getting good solid blasts of smoke before you begin your inspection.
Before you can open the hive you have to approach it and how you approach it makes a difference. Those bees just inside the entrance, those are guard bees. They are there to guard the entrance of the hive. A guard bee who sees a threat (or beekeeper) approaching will be certain to alert her sisters. So approach the hive from the side or back. To begin with send a puff of smoke at the entrance. Goal: Disorient the guard bees and send the “slurp some honey and relax” signal. Non-goal: Roast some bees. One puff of smoke. These bees are not chain smokers. If you use too much smoke you will _raise_ their agitation level instead of lowering it. Nobody wants that. Not me. Not you.
Having puffed at the entrance you are now ready to smoke the top. I like to get a puff in the air before removing the lid. That means the first air in the top of the hive when I pull the lid off will have some smoke. Now, about the lid: I use migratory tops, meaning it’s just a board on top of the top bars. The bees regularly glue this down and I have to use the hive tool to open it. You might be using a telescoping cover with an inner cover. I don’t mind. If you are, do the puff of smoke in the air and then remove the telescoping top. Most inner covers have a fiendishly bee shaped hole in them. _That_ is your new smoke target. A gentle puff through that sends the word to the bees at the top. Myself, I pull the lid off and smoke the bees on the top bar.
Now, if you are like me you might imagine that opening a hive will result in a stinging wave of brown death flying at you. The good news is that that is unlikely to be true (and if it _is_ true, you might want to consider replacing your queen). You’ve smoked the entrance and puffed the air and taken off the telescoping cover. You puffed the hole in the inner cover if you had one and now with hive tool in hand, pry the inner cover (or migratory cover) off. I prefer to pry open the opposite edge and lift the lid so that it opens _away_ from me. That way if a group of bees chooses to fly out (and some might) they’ll start out flying away from you. Ok? Set the cover to the side, and be careful – there are likely bees on the underside of it. Don’t squash them. They won’t be amused.
Covers off, take a look at the top bars. If you see bees lined up on the top bars and small eyes staring at you in rows it is time for more smoke. They’ll buzz and waggle and run down between the frames, which is where you want them. If they are lining up on the top bars they are organizing. Planning. Do you really want them to continue that? Your hive likely has ten frames in it. Ten frames is a lot of frames, and you need to pull one out. If this is your first inspection there probably aren’t many bees on one side – pull that frame first and set it to the side. Be careful with those frames – later they’ll have bees and comb and honey and eggs, so start your good manners now. I keep a spare hive body by my hives. As I pull frames from the hive to inspect them I transfer them into the spare until I have enough room to comfortably pull frames.
So you can take a frame out now. Great. What is it you are looking for? Bees. Comb, Eggs, Larva, Capped brood, Queens, Honey and Pollen. Wow, that’s a lot to look for. You could spend all day hunting for the queen in a full sized hive. What if for now we start with just one of those?
Bees: You can gauge your colony’s strength by the number of frames it covers. If you have fewer than three frames worth of bees, your colony may be in trouble. You don’t need to calculate bee density, just use common sense. The five bees on the outside frame are not covering it. The ones so thick you can’t count them on the fifth frame in are.
Comb: In the early inspections you’ll be watching the bees draw comb (and likely amazed at how fast they do it). When your bees have eight of the ten frames mostly drawn and cover the eight frames, it’s time to stack another hive body on. If you’ve already got your hive bodies, think super. If you hung your queen cage smashed between too frames, the first kind of comb you’ll get acquainted with is burr comb.
A burr comb is any comb that is not where you want it. Beekeepers tend to want their comb in frames. Bees tend to want their comb in the hive. Your bees have probably drawn burr comb from the queen cage. If the queen is still in the cage, open the entrance and let her crawl out onto another comb. If she’s not, be very careful. If you have a bur comb hanging from the queen cage you are going to remove it, gently brushing bees off of it. If the queen is one of those bees, hold the comb so that she can walk off of it onto the bars or another comb. Love your queen. Do not squish the queen.
Now look at the burr comb. If it’s really large, you need to make a decision. Either melt it for wax, or if it contains eggs, consider large rubber bands. A large rubber band stretched from the top bar to the bottom bar will fit nicely. Two of them can hold almost any comb in the frame. If the comb is large or there are many eggs in it, consider holding it in with large rubber bands. Otherwise, just take it out. Now you can (gently) push the frames together when you are done and maintain bee space. Watch for workers hanging in chains to produce wax, behavior called “festooning.”
Next up look for eggs. Eggs are hard to spot on white plastic foundation, since they are tiny gray dots like a grain of rice on end. If you have black plastic foundation they are easy to spot. If you are using foundationless frames or starter strips of foundation, be careful: Those combs are very weak when fresh. Give them a few months and they’ll be better. If you can’t spot any eggs don’t panic. Come back in three days and look for larva (which are much easier to spot). Three days after that the larva are c shaped worms at the bottom of the cell and hard to miss. Speaking of larva – you might see some. At this stage they are probably C shaped. Eventually they touch in the center, then lay long ways in the cell. Finally they are capped. You can tell what is in a cell by the capping. Honey cells are absolutely flat capped and you can often see the honey underneath the cap. Worker cappings are slightly convex and dimpled in a circle around the edge. Drone cell caps look like .22 bullets on the comb. If you see capped larva, the queen has been out and laying for at least ten days. Get used to looking at the brood pattern. A pattern in this case refers to how many empty or unused cells a queen leaves as she lays. A cell containing pollen or nectar doesn’t count, we’re talking about empty cells in the middle of eggs or larva. A good queen puts eggs in most available cells. An older or failing queen spaces them out.
Pollen: Pollen is not the yellow powdery stuff you buy at the health store. It varies in color from red to yellow, orange, blue and brown (and everything in between). You should see pollen cells scattered through the brood and at the edges of the frame (called the arches, or honey arch). If you don’t, don’t panic. Bees don’t raise brood without pollen to feed them. They have it somewhere.
Honey: Bees like to store honey in the top and sides of the frame (forming a honey arch). You might not have capped cells yet, but look for shiny wet cell bottoms to know where they are storing it. If you are feeding the bees sugar water that’s likely what is in there.
Queens: Note the s. You probably have one queen in your colony, but what you want to notice is any queen bee not just the one you are looking for. The bees behave differently around the queen. They face her. While the workers skitter across the comb, the queen will move gracefully, slowly. Her abdomen is as long as some workers. Whether the queen has a dot on her back or not you can find her by watching the bees. The queen is the heart of the colony. Most people know this but it's true on more levels than might be apparent. The queen is the heart of the colony; without it the colony has no "pulse". The bees will cluster, listlessly or refuse to even keep themselves warm with no queen. The queen, however, is not the brain of the hive. The workers, her daughters, control more of the behavior of the hive. To find a queen, you need to look for bees in a circle that moves with the bee in the center.
That is a lot to look for. I recommend starting with a rough bee count (how many frames) and then looking for eggs. If your colony is just starting out that’s all you need to know things are going ok. If your queen was still trapped in the cage, don’t harm your sanity looking for eggs. Once you spot what you came to see, feel free to either continue looking (and learning) or close things up. In between frames keep an eye on the bees on the top bar. When they form a marching line on the top, another gentle puff of smoke is in order.
To close things up, insert the frames back the way you had them. Slowly, gently push the frames together. This gives bees that are between the frames a chance to vacate. Once the frames are back together take the inner cover (or migratory cover) and once again bully the bees out of the way by sliding it across the top. They’ll move. Now put the inner cover on and gather your tools. Got everything? Blow the bugle and retreat. Check for hitch hikers as you remove your gear, and smother that smoker. Left to its own devices you could easily start a fire. That’s it for a week. Next time come back and look for something more than this time. Bit by bit, piece by piece you’ll put the puzzle together and learn to interpret the tales the bees tell yourself.