First hive inspection of 2014

Honeybees Foundationless Comb Buildout

On March 8, 2014, I was able to complete my first meaningful hive inspections since October 2013. That’s nearly 5 months since I’d done anything more than observe out-of-hive activity or quick peaks inside.

All three hives appear to be strong in numbers at this point. I’m using all medium boxes and hives 1 and 2 had lots of bees on all 10 frames in the second brood box. Looking up from below through the screened bottom boards I could see that the bottom brood box also had lots of bees on all the frames.

Despite admonitions from experienced beekeepers, I’d left an empty third box of frames on my two original hives. Hive 1 (the Italian queen hive) had bees on those frames in October and a bit of stored honey there, so I just left it when I closed up the hives for the winter. Hive 2, the hive with a hybrid queen that had swarmed in September, also had a frame or two in the third box with capped honey, so I left it for them.

This is my Italian queen hive. They’d so tightly propolized the third box to the second that I could not get them separated. So I just removed the frames to have a look at the second brood box.

Honeybees Brood Box

At this point, Hive 2 has been busy building out more comb on the frames in the third box. The Italians had done very little to build out more comb in the third box.

Honeybees Foundationless Comb Buildout

My third hive inspection was limited to removing the inner cover and scraping off some extra comb they’d built out between the frames and the top of the inner cover.



I had place an Imrie shim upper-entrance over the second medium box to allow space for a grease and sugar patty for some supplemental winter feeding. That extra space had allowed them to build out a lot of comb since I placed the grease patties on top of the frames in late January.


Rather than waste the honey and pollen they’d stored in this comb, I placed it in a container on top of the inner cover and left them to it. Hoping they won’t start building comb in the feeder box, but I’ll be back in a week to check on that and remove what I hope will be clean wax.

That said, the upper brood box of the swarm hive was full of bees. I didn’t look up from below the screened bottom board to check on numbers in the lower brood box.

I have lots more pics, but on a deadline for a project so I’ll update this inspection post later in the week.

How I Became A Beekeeper

Honeybee Guard Bees October 14 2013 copyright Sheree Martin

Nature fascinates me, inspires me, leaves me awestruck.

I think beekeeping has always been in the plans for my life.

I grew up eating honey. I was a toddler before the warning labels appeared on honey jars and I’ve eaten it for as long as I remember.

Probably as a result of my love for honey, I also had a particular fondness for The Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh.

From time to time during my childhood someone in my family, usually my great uncle Oscar, would rob a wild beehive and share the honey with us. One time I remember being at my grandmother’s when Oscar brought a dishpan of wild honey to her. It was super rich, dark as amber. A few dead honeybees were still trapped in the honey. I studied those bees and wondered about robbing a hive someday.

I spent a lot of time reading during those years: The Foxfire Books, My Side of the Mountain, and the early 20th century classic Camping and Woodcraft were some of my favorites. I  dreamed of living off the land.

Fast forward to the summer of 1984. I worked as the lifestyle reporter for the Franklin County Times, a small-town newspaper published twice each week. My main job was to find at least one big feature story for each issue. The last feature I wrote that summer was a profile of a local beekeeper. I visited his bee yard as part of my reporting, but I had to stay at a bit of a distance because I didn’t have a veil.

I’ve always enjoyed buying local honey when I travel or wherever I’ve lived. During the years I lived in Florida (in my mid-20s) I loved to buy the orange blossom honey from local beekeepers.

As a result of all those experiences and my love for honey, I just knew that some day I’d have a few hives of honeybees.

I’d first heard about honeybee decline around 2004 or so. That concerned me. Also in 2004, I’d purchased three books about bees, honey and society. Each of these took a slightly different approach to telling the history of the relationship between honeybees and humans.

Honeybee challenges combined with my concern over the food system accelerated my desire to become a beekeeper but in 2007 I was moving back to Alabama and not quite settled enough to take on the responsibility of beekeeping.

Eventually, though I bought a house in Birmingham I started thinking seriously about getting bees, but not just to provide honey.

I love learning and beekeeping seemed like a great way for me to combine my curiosity about nature with my need to always be learning something new.

In 2012 I decided that 2013 would be the year I became a beekeeper, so I set out to learn as much as I could ahead of time. Beekeeping has its own vocabulary, and then there’s the range of equipment options, philosophies and bee biology. The more I delved into beekeeping the more I learned how much I needed to learn.

I attended two conferences for Alabama beekeepers and, in October 2012 at one of those conferences, I met a beekeeper who spoke of bees more like the fascinating creatures they are and less like industrial machines that needed prophylactic chemical treatments. I asked Keith if I could get his email and if he might be willing to sell me two nucleus hives the following spring.

I’ll leave out the tedious details of the months between November and April. Suffice it to say the closer I got to the point of getting my bees, the more I realized how little I knew. I almost backed out.

But something deep within me said I had to take the plunge. That still, quiet voice inside told me that honeybees are part of my destiny.

I picked up my two hives late Sunday afternoon, May 26, 2013 and took them to the farm.

Thus began what has been perhaps the most rewarding experience of my life so far: Doing my feeble bit to provide the framework and shelter the honeybees need to fulfill their own purpose for being here for such a short time.

I study them when I open the hive, I ponder their work as I stand to the side and watch them come and go, loaded with pollen and nectar. The foragers never pause to rest. Occasionally the guard bees will look at me, curiously. Worker bees in the hive will also peek up at me if I have to remove a frame for an inspection. Some of the foragers would hover around me when I’d  be in the field picking a vegetable. They seemed to know that I was the keeper who visited their hive. When I put up my tent to camp in mid-October I had leave the flaps zipped because the lady bees seemed to think it was a giant flower.

The experience has been, so far, more amazing than I ever anticipated. I just hope that I can do the right things, no more, no less.

“Those seemst — a little deity.”

Anacreon, Ode 34

Ode to the bee (Fifth century, BC)





Update for October 26, 2013

The beeyard at sunset Sheree Martin copyright 2013

All is seemingly well. We’ve had a 3-night cold snap with temps around 30 each night. But today warmed up nicely.

The Italians and East Hive were quiet. The guard bees peeked out at me when I arrived. Bees in the swarm hive, though, seemed to be out foraging and there were more than a few bees flying around the hive.

Activity in all three hives picked up when I opened the feeder boxes. The Italians had gone through about 90 ounces of syrup. Everything was empty. The East hive had a good bit of syrup left, but also had several empty containers. The swarm hive was taking syrup but much less than the others.

I was saddened to find about 20 dead bees in the East hive between the screened inner cover and the telescoping outer cover. I guess they were trying to get to the sugar syrup just below the screen.

I know I should probably stop feeding now, or soon, but I went ahead and left each hive with about 90 ounces of syrup. I’ll make my call about feeding when I check in next weekend.

Fall Has Arrived: October 19, 2013

Sentry honeybee October 19 2013 copyright Sheree Martin

Cooler temps are now in place. And the next few nights will be the coldest nights of Fall 2013, with temps predicted to be in the upper 30s.

I arrived at the farm shortly after 3 p.m., Saturday, October 19, 2013. Time to refill the feeders and check on the ladies before a long work week. It was cool, but not cold. Temp was around 64° F. Maybe slightly cooler when the sun went behind a cloud.

No bees outside the Italian hive or the East hive when I walked out to check on the status. As I walked in front of the hive to peer into the entrance, a couple of guard bees sauntered out to greet me. Both hives seemed to have settled in for the season, at least for the time being. Forecast has colder weather on tap for a few days, at least at night.

Much more activity around the swarm colony. More than a few bees buzzing around the front of the hive and it looked like bees were still out foraging.

When I checked the feeders, the Italians had emptied theirs. The East hive still had at least 8 ounces left. The swarm hive had several containers still quite full. I left each hive with nearly a gallon of sugar syrup. Will check on them again this weekend. I sure hope I’m doing this right. Don’t want them to deplete their stores at this time.

Fall Is Coming: October 14, 2013

Honeybee Guard Bees October 14 2013 copyright Sheree Martin

This is the scene at 7 a.m., October 14, 2013, on the front porch of the Italian hive. Two lone guard bees, standing as sentries.

No bees were outside the East hive or the swarm hive.

It was a misty morning, lots of humidity in the air. Temps maybe 60-62. I’d spent the night in a tent which I’d pitched nearby. Left the outer cover off so I could gaze up at the stars during the night. The condensation started to drip on me at some point and by dawn my sleeping bag was quite damp and I had

Had a couple of days off so I drove up to the farm Sunday afternoon to check on my bees, visit with my brother, and sleep under the stars.

After a big breakfast of my brother’s multigrain pancakes, maple syrup and milk I got busy gathering black beans, peppers, eggplant and salad greens.

Sometime in the afternoon I shot more photos. As you can see, my ladies are still foraging. Bringing in pollen from various sources around the farm.

Honeybees with Pollen Mid-October Foraging copyright Sheree Martin

Filled up the feeders in the beehives and headed home.

October 9, 2013: Update

Beehive entrance in October 2013

Stopped by the farm on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 9, 2013 to check on the honeybees. I was in the Shoals to lead a roundtable session on social media marketing for farmers and specialty food producers.

The ladies seemed to be happy and very active. Lots of activity outside the hives, included what I interpret as orientation flights by new bees in the early-to-mid afternoon. And lots of traffic from the foragers, coming in loaded with pollen. These photos were taken around 3 p.m.

I failed to take a photo of a large African blue basil plant that was literally covered in honeybees and bumble bees. No idea why I didn’t snap the photo! Next year, I’ll be planting a lot of this variety of blue basil, as well as Thai basil. The honeybees and bumble bees both love the blooms on these two herbs.

On a side note: I’m amazed to discover that I’m still getting a regular supply of tromboncino squash. I guess I shouldn’t be amazed. I’ll say thank you to the pollinators that are keeping my vegetables in production this late into the fall.Sheree Martin, tromboncino squash, amaranth

So far, the temps are still very warm. Mostly in the 80s during the day and 60s at night. We had a 2-night “colder” snap at the farm earlier this week. But the temps hovered around 50-51, apparently, and didn’t dip into the 40s as predicted. Of course, cold is relative. My friends in the north probably don’t think of 40s as particularly cold.

Swarm Colony Gets A Winter Home

2-story medium nuc honeybees

Based on my instincts and the advice of an older beekeeper I consulted at the Alabama Beekeepers Convention, I opted to move my swarm colony from the 2-story, 5-frame medium nuc to an actual hive. Got that taken care of Sunday afternoon, September 29.

The guy I’d most likely describe as my beekeeping mentor, Keith Fletcher, had advised me to let the swarm hive overwinter in the 2-story nuc. But the set-up just didn’t seem stable enough  and I was concerned about the size of the colony in light of the space available, even in a 2-story nuc.

When I asked Wil Montgomery about whether to move the colony into a real hive or leave it in the nuc for the winter, he immediately said “move it.”

Advice I’d received on the forum was to let the swarm colony stay in the nuc for a month, to get settled in. I was told that swarms will sometimes move on if they’re disturbed too much.

My goal was to move the swarm hive with as little disruption as possible, although taking everything out of the nucs and putting them into a regular hive was pretty disruptive.

Once I started setting up in advance of the hive move, I realized I had two 5-frame nuc boxes stacked on top of each other. Everything I’d read before said to put the frames in the same position in the new hive as they appeared in the nuc. That meant I needed two medium boxes, because I had a 2-story nuc.

On the one hand, two medium boxes seemed like extra space to protect. But it’s still warm here and my hope is that they could continue to store food for the winter, for at least the month of October.

My first step was to get all the hive equipment stationed around the nuc location.

Then I figured out my exact plan of action, which I followed precisely and methodically:

  1. Move the nuc boxes just behind and to the side of the original location of the nuc.
  2. Position the bottom board in the exact location of the nuc and make sure it was level.
  3. Position the first medium box on the bottom board. Check that level.
  4. Transfer the five frames from the bottom nuc box into the bottom medium box in the same position as in the nuc box.
  5. Add five empty frames on each side of those frames transferred from the nuc.
  6. Add a second medium box on top of the lower box.
  7. Transfer the five frames from the second nuc box into the second medium, again in the same position as in the nuc box.
  8. Add five empty frames on each side.
  9. Place the inner cover on top of the second box.
  10. Place a third box on top of the inner cover, to serve as their feeding station.
  11. Position the syrup containers in the feeding box.
  12. Place another vented inner cover on top of the feeding box.
  13. Place the outer cover on top of that inner cover.
  14. Hope for the best.

Needless to say, once I started the process the bees were very stirred up. The smoker didn’t seem to help much. But I was calm and fulling decked out in my Ultrabreeze suit. I worked very methodically.

Leveling the hive was a bit tricky because I hadn’t positioned the nuc in the best possible location in my bee yard but I didn’t want to (couldn’t, shouldn’t) move it.

I didn’t spend any time looking for the queen or checking for eggs. Spotted some capped brood and much more capped honey than I’d anticipated finding.

Of the 10 frames in the 2 nuc boxes, they had fully built-out comb on at least 6 of the frames and were working on 2 others. That made me feel better about putting them in two medium boxes with 20 frames. The swarm colony still has lots of bees and the empty frames will give the extra worker bees an opportunity to do what bees do: Build comb and store nectar and pollen.

After I finished setting up the first two boxes, I realized the opening on the nuc hive was higher than on the 10-frame box, so I added an Imrie shim I had on hand to provide an upper opening. And I placed the entrance reducer to smallest opening in front of the front door on the bottom board.

I didn’t realize how few foundationless frames I had left. I have a box of unassembled frames but didn’t have those ready, so I ended up using mostly RiteCell Foundation frames and maybe 2-3 foundationless frames when I added the remaining frames.

The nuc had started on an alternating mix of foundationless frames and frames with plastic foundation. They had fully built out all of the foundationless frames, so I was really disappointed in myself for not having prepared better to provide them with the foundationless frames. The was only one spot with any foundation that needed to be cut away from the frame.

The bees were really flying around during the transfer, but as soon as I got the frames in the first new box they settled down quite a bit (but not entirely). I assume that’s because the queen was in the lower box.

Once I’d taken care of everything with the new hive, I positioned the bottom nuc box in front of the hive, as the forger bees were coming in and seemed a bit confused about where they lived. Quite a few bees still in the bottom nuc box, even though I’d shaken them out once or twice into the permanent hive.

Honeybee swarm in new hive Legacy Apiaries

The entire move took less than an hour (not counting my set up time). Once I had everything closed up and some new sugar syrup in the feeder box, I left them alone. I finished up around 4:30 p.m.

I went back out just at dark to make sure they were OK and everything seemed to be settled down nicely. A few bees were guarding the two small entrances and fewer than 5 bees were still in the original nuc box. I moved the original nuc box from the front of the hive to the side and left it there.

So the transfer seemed to go well, but it will take some time to know for certain.

I love these bees and I feel so honored to have the opportunity to work with them!

Update for September 26, 2013

Drove up to Shine Springs Farm Thursday afternoon for a quick to check on the bees and refill their sugar feeders.

Last visit was Thursday, September 19, so this was day 8. I knew the feeders would be empty, or close to empty.

When I arrived, I found steady of stream of foragers coming in loaded with orange pollen. Other foragers were coming in as well, so presumably they had nectar from something. We have lots of fall weeds and flowers blooming.

I love these ladies (and drones). All three hives looked fine from the outside.

I did notice the East hive didn’t have the clustering on the outside, as it had last Thursday, even though the temps were about the same. That could be due to the likely 30-day setback caused by the swarm and bees dying before a new queen could get to work. I’ll know more on that when I do the first post-swarm inspection in a few days. It’s day 24 since the swarm.

The syrup containers in the East hive were all empty. The Italian hive had about 8 ounces left in one container. The swarm nuc still had a bit left, as well.

Lots of bees on the frames just below the opening on the inner cover. I didn’t take the inner cover off. Just gave them new containers of syrup, which I position upside down on top of the inner cover. I have a screened top separating the feeder box and the outer cover. On the nuc hive, the outer cover sits directly on top of the feeder nuc box.

My plan is to move the swarm hive into what I hope will be its permanent home this Sunday afternoon. One beekeeper has recommended that I let the swarm overwinter in the 2-story medium nuc. But it’s just not stable enough. It could easily topple over if a deer came bounding through, a neighbor’s cow came through the fence nearby or we had a winter windstorm. And it’s not at all uncommon to have heavy winds and even tornadoes from October – December.

I didn’t see a single small hive beetle in the upper boxes. Didn’t take time to check the traps underneath the screened bottom boards.

The beneficial nematodes I applied in the beeyard 2 weeks ago may be working. I need to research how long it can take for the nematodes to have an effect.