The Art of BEEing: Of smells and summer

In mid April I left for a business trip to China (punctuated by the bees swarming the day before I left) and when I got home 3 weeks later the last vestiges of spring had turned to summer in the desert.  My hive notes from the transition…

11 May 2017 2 weeks turned into a bit over 3, and when I came back there were no bees in the second hive and a full contingent in the first.  There was a bit of an almost fermenting odor when I opened the hive today, but didn’t see anything obvious causing it.  My first thought was foulbrood but no sign of scales or larve problems, though brood is a bit scarce as is stored food. Saw lots of empty cells in the deep brood box with some bees diving headfirst into them, as well as a few pollen cells.  The medium brood box above it had good stores in the upper corners of the central frames, as well as some eggs, larve, and capped brood areas, but not nearly as much of any of them as I would have preferred to have seen.  There were also multiple capped queen cells.  I did see an unmarked queen wandering around, so unsure if this was the old queen with the paint worn off, there was a supercedure, the old queen died, the old  queen ended up departing in a subsequent smaller swarm, if I have 2 queens, or if this queen is an early hatchling from the group of cups.  The honey super had significant bee activity and a couple of frames with sections fully drawn out and capped, but as far as I could tell it was just sugar water inside.  Maybe they have found a hummingbird feeder to rob? Are they simply moving it up from the brood box?   If it is indeed sugar water than I have no reason not to go ahead and slap the feeder on top and focus on getting comb drawn this year, and I didn’t try and taste any to see.   The bees were acting normally.  Desert buckwheat is in bloom still, the creosote bloom is starting to wrap up, but the cactus bloom is starting and I did see some honeybees diving into the pollen this year.  The first mimosa blossom is also open, as is the (relatively useless) lantana.  I do at least have some lavender blooms in front and back,  cilantro and thyme are in good bloom, and a few other garden plants are staring to bloom.
13 May 2017 I went back in and conducted a full inspection of the brood, all larvae looked normal, cappings were not sunken, I sacrificed a couple of capped brood for a rope test that came out negative.  Since there wasn’t really anything in the bottom brood box and the bees were getting annoyed I left it alone, but I did take a bit more time to try and identify the smell.  The best way I can describe it is an overripe sourdough starter mixed with brewing sludge.  Yeasty, slightly acidic, a bit of a not quite malty undertone, and a bit of alcohol.  I’m confident enough that it wasn’t foulbrood that I went ahead and made a vented box for the Chinese feeder and installed it as well as a gallon of 1:1 sugar water.
16 May 2017 Peeked into the hive to check the feeder today, no visible decrease in volume of sugar water but there were a handful of bees wandering around on the “dining cone” and one drinking, so it has been found and is being used, if only lightly….
18 May 2017 I’ve noted the bees increasing the range at which they become defensively inquisitive. Since I came back, I’ve had bees issue defensive warnings / gaining my attention several times – while sitting on the back porch, cutting grass, pulling weeds, ..   Usually I have been active within the field of vision of the front of the hive, but the back porch was a shielded case and it was after sitting there for several minutes. What generally happens is one or two bees approach rapidly, circle around my head, go away a few feet, come back with a close head flyby,  then generally hang around a few inches away.  I had one get tangled in my hair when I wasn’t wearing a hat, but I was able to bat it away before it could sting.  Otherwise I’ve been able to just walk away into the house and they disappear a few feet from the door.  Unsure of the cause.
19 May 2017 I noticed that the seeping water valve they had preferred as a water source last year was no longer seeping, so perhaps the attention I was getting was based on a lack of water.  To try and remedy that I set up a small bucket with some access means (a few rocks and twigs) and put it under one of the unused sprinkler drip heads and reactivated that head.  Now the bucket gets filled every time the sprinkler runs.  I’ll need to monitor it and see if they start using it and if I need to adjust the flow, but hopefully it helps.  I’ve noticed the honeybees don’t seem to be able to feed on the orange lantana, but the blue has flowers that are just a touch less deep and they are occasionally on them.  Also, the mimosa tree is starting to bloom.
21 May 2017 Added a standard dose of sugarwater (4 cups water / 4 cups sugar) to the feeder.  The bees do seem to be using the new feeder, and while the access is a bit limited relative to the other design the simplicity and lid more than make up for it.  There was a reasonable amount of condensation on the feeder lid when I opened it, and as the summer progresses I think having the lid will greatly reduce the likelihood of building up a “taffy layer” like happened last year.  “The smell” was still present, but maybe a touch less sour smelling than previously.  I’m giving them at least another undisturbed week before I go back in for another check. After feeding, I watched the bees for a bit and although one guard bee kept circling me with the occasional headbutt the others went about their business.  Most were bringing back deep orange pollen, I’d say 3 of 4 arrivals were pollen bearing.

This evening I tried to give them some extra shade.  I made a big pillowcase from some white canvas and slipped it over the clear plastic windblock I installed prior to the winter, it’s long enough to fold over onto the top of the hive where I secured it with the bricks.  I added some grommets at the bottom and tied a loop of rope around it to give some resistance to air getting under it and blowing it off.  I also put a trimmed palm frond in front of the entrance to shade the front from the late afternoon / evening exposure.  As anticipated, the bees were rather aggressive from the heat and I had a good contingent trying to get me to leave while I was working, glad I opted for the full suit. My main concern is the fabric getting loose and causing issues or somehow pulling or knocking the top off.

28 May 2017 Went out to top up the feeder and noticed the consumption has slowed down as well as what looked to be a couple of spots of mold on the sugar water surface.  Decided to hold off on topping up and let the bees finish what’s there, then I’ll pull the feeder and clean it.    Otherwise bees seemed normal, the dirty sock smell wasn’t really present in the general beehive smell when I had it open, and traffic at the entrance was good.  They seem to like the shade devices I gave them and have been much more pleasant to be around after I installed them.  I did notice only a few bees had pollen on their return, and most of those were not carrying much.
3 June 2017 Removed nearly empty feeder, cleaned, and replaced.  Added a standard dose of sugarwater.  Probably 15-20 drowned bees present when I took off the access cover, a few more than the other feeder but seems acceptable given all the other advantages.  The mold had increased, seemed to be a mix of green  brown, and pink tones on the surface of the sugarwater and on the edges where the level had dropped  It didn’t seem to bother the bees.  I wiped it all down with idophor after a hot soapy wash and multiple rinses, we’ll see if it returns (probably will, may well come from the bees themselves…).  The bees were generally docile and seemed normal, a few minutes observation showed very little pollen coming back.  The mimosa is in full bloom.
6 June 2017 Went to top off the feeder and found it had been all consumed.  Refilled with a standard dose.
8 June 2017 Topped off the feeder with a standard dose – looks like about half of the prior feeding had been comsumed.
11 June 2017 Today was the first mild day in a while (already have had several days over 100 deg F) so took the opportunity for a hive inspection.  The feeder was almost empty, no signs of mold observed.  The honey super has several frames filled and capped with sugarwater, with no preference being shown for either the wooden frames with black Pierco foundation or the white all plastic Pierco frames, and more comb is being drawn.  That’s the primary reason I’ve got the super on at the moment, so happy with that progress.

Every frame in the top brood box now has at least some comb draw on it (the outer frame on either side is just starting to get comb on it’s inner side), I took a good look at the frames on the west side and was happy with what I saw.  Good stores of pollen, honey (which looks like honey, not just sugarwater – probably mimosa), and signs of an active queen (eggs, larvae, and capped brood, all in good patterns).  I saw no signs of any pests, and no ants (surprising to me as they are out in full force)

I was planning on doing a full inspection but the bees were starting to get fairly agitated (a good thunk while getting the queen excluder off seemed to have been a defensive alarm) and the wind was starting to pick up, so I glanced down the opening I had created in the top brood box via the removed frames and saw what appeared to be a good amount of activity in the bottom brood box and called it done at that point.   All in all I’m happy with what I saw, though I did have to remove a fair amount of burr comb (particularly on the queen excluder) and the bees had propolized closed several of the vent holes for the feeder.  I topped off the feeder with a standard dose and probably will not go deeply in again for several more weeks.

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