Brynn's Honeybees

Off with Her Head: the Death of a Queen

BambiI got both of my colonies right around Memorial Day weekend, and since then, I’ve mostly been feeding them sugar water and watching them grow. Since I’m opposed to chemically treating for the parasitic varroa mite that will inevitable plague every hive in the United States, I instead choose to break the breeding cycle of the mites. I do this by a method called On-the-Spot Queen Rearing, which is essentially removing the queen from the hive. Within a short time, the bees will detect the absence of her pheromone and begin to prepare already laid larva (they must be no older than 5 1/2 days) to develop into a new queen.

Queen bees develop into much larger bees than the workers or drones, so they require a bigger cell. Because of this, these emergency queen cells (aaahhhh! the queen is gone!) are often created near the bottom of the frames where they can easily overhang. This can limit the number of queen cells that they bees can make, so I find 36-hour larva (they are eggs for three days before developing into larva) in cells that have a lot of milky-white royal jelly. I then break the bottom third of those cells and create space beneath them by pressing down on and smashing the honeycomb beneath them.

This is called notching. The worker bees now have appropriate-aged larva in a convenient location that they can build a queen cell around and develop into a new queen if they choose. The great thing about this process is that the bees will never choose a falty larva to develop into a queen. If the bees encapsulate a larva, you know she’ll develop into a lovely queen!

As for the old queen… I’d been preparing for this moment for an entire year. Last year when I removed my queen, I put her in a smaller hive (called a nuc) with a few frames of bees. I just couldn’t bear to kill her! Within six weeks, the hive was failing. I imagine that the varroa mites had overrun the colony and were causing the worker bees to be emerge from the cells with physical deformities (the mites attach themselves to the larva and feed on their blood while the bee develops).

IMG_09002.jpgSo I decided that killing the queen was the most humane option. Before notching, I pulled out every frame of the hive. Queen bees don’t like sunlight, so they typically run from you by moving from frame to frame. After removing the last frame, I saw her on the side of the hive box. I gently picked her up by her wings. She didn’t really try to run from me. I put her on the concrete and stomped on her with my boot.

…and then I snot-sobbed for a while. She was a beautiful queen that laid an amazing brood pattern, often spanning the entire length of the frame, and killing her was just so gut-wrenchingly sad for me. I can only hope that her daughter is as wonderful as she was.


Nuc Fest 2016


Matt Evans hosted an event for the North Central Beekeepers Club to show the attendees how to start a nucleus hive (a.k.a. a nuc); however, as so often happens, the bees had other plans…

El Nino and/or global warming made it possible for bees to get an early start this year, so many of the honeybee colonies in Indiana have been collecting pollen, laying eggs, and making wax and honey since late February or early March. While getting an early start may seem beneficiary, it has brought one major repercussion: uncontrollable swarming!

Swarming happens when a bee colony outgrows its hive. It is the method that honeybees use to create more hives and further spread their genetics. When a colony decides to swarm, it begins preparing the hive to survive without the current queen. The builders (female worker bees that are about 12 days old) build vertical swarm cells on the outer surface of the honeycomb. These cells are built differently because the queen will develop into a larger bee than the worker bees, so the cell that she will develop in must be larger. Once two – 20 of these cells are built, the queen’s control group will have her lay an egg inside each one. The eggs will be fed royal jelly, which will cause the ovaries to develop, essentially crowning her queen. On the eighth day, the developing larvae will be sealed inside their cells, and shortly after, about 60 percent of the worker bees will fly from the hive with the original queen. They may only fly a few yards before resting upon a branch, fence post, or car. Scout bees will be sent out to find a new, suitable location, and within a few hours or days, the bees are typically situated and busily building a new hive.

When the workshop began, the beekeepers were abuzz (yep! I just did that…) about two swarms in the bee yard. There was a small one in the front yard and a bigger one in the backyard. They were both about 25 feet from the ground. We opened a few nucs in the front yard, focusing mostly on the visible signs and effects of swarming, and then broke for lunch.

As we sat talking and eating homemade meatballs, burgers, and about four different types of broccoli salad, another swarm departed its hive, showering the sky with a slightly chaotic mass of bees. They gently floated upward and landed in the same backyard tree that already held one swarm (pictured above).

As soon as we finished lunch, we immediately opened the hive that the swarm had come from. Inside, we found a small number of bees and many capped (or closed) swarm cells. As Matt was telling us his plan for this hive and showing us a healthy queen cell that would possibly secure the hive’s future, the capping of the cell began to break apart and a tiny, majestic head began to emerge. Matt used his hive tool to knock the capping off the cell so that the new queen could emerge more easily.

Just as the head popped all the way out of the cell, another virgin queen came tearing around the corner of the frame, frantically trying to find this newest emerging queen. Moving with intense speed and purpose, she did several sweeping, ambitious circles around the uncapped queen cell. At that point, Matt put the frame back in the hive and closed it up so that the virgin queens could duke it out naturally and without the threat of them flying away (to temporary safety and certain death). May the strongest queen live!

There is no better way to learn about beekeeping than to watch another beekeeper work his or her hives. The bees will likely dictate what you learn, but it’s always interesting and worthwhile!


A Different Kind of Swarm


In October, I sent pictures of my two surviving colonies to my mentor, and he replied by telling me that although he is an optimist at heart, my hives would not survive the winter. To overwinter successfully, a colony needs to have at least 4-5 frames (about four pounds) of bees. My hives each had just a couple frames of bees.

bees Nov 2015

In December, I opened my hives to find nobody home. I had known this moment would arrive, but the somber emptiness made my heart sink. My bees were gone. What was left: beeswax and honey.

After doing some research, I found that both honey and beeswax are incredibly beneficial when added to soap. Honey is hygroscopic and therefore has the ability to attract and retain water molecules from its surroundings. For this reason, it acts as a moisturizer or conditioner. Beeswax is hydrophobic and creates a protective barrier that water cannot pass through, effectively sealing moisture in.  Both honey and beeswax have antibacterial properties as well.

So… I bought 100% lye from the hardware store, collected several different types of oil, and headed to my friend Rick’s (he’s a chemist, probably saved my skin, and most definitely saved my kitchenware). In glass beakers and ceramic bowls, we combined the water and lye, melted and stirred the oils, honey, and beeswax, and ended up with an orange-ish (from unrefined palm oil), oily,unscented pudding that produced no suds.

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After it hardened and cured for about 24 hours, I carefully cut the first bee. The soap was still soft and malleable but retained its shape. When I washed the sticky residue off my hands, there were suds! It’ll take at least thirty days for the soap to fully cure. The longer you let it dry, the gentler and longer-lasting the soap will be. So the countdown begins!

Since this is my first batch, I’d love to have friends tell me what they think of the recipe I used. Does it suds enough? Is it gentle enough? Is it too oily? Does it fall apart in the shower? Let me know if you’d like to use one and provide feedback. I’m willing to ship if you’re willing to pay the shipping!

Eggs, Larva, and Emergence: Three Royal Families!

After waiting nearly four long weeks, my mentor gave me the go ahead! I opened my delicate hives (each now half of the old hive) in search of new life. Because the development stages of a honeybee each last an exact number of days, it was easy to determine an approximate day that my new queens should have returned to the hive (after taking their mating flight) and started laying eggs. To be sure that I did not disturb the process or prevent a fertile queen from returning safely to the hive, I waited a few extra days. Long days.

I was in awe of what I found.

Larva in the honeycomb that appear to be in day three, four, and five of development.
Larva that appear to be in days five, six, or seven of development.

Each hive not only had eggs in the comb but also fat, juicy larva that were at least four or five days old. This means that the queen had been successfully laying fertile eggs for six or seven days. Their hard work paid off!

Day-old eggs that are just beginning to bend back toward the foundation.
Day-old eggs that are just beginning to bend back toward the foundation.

When a queen lays an egg at the bottom of a honeycomb cell, it sticks out horizontally and stays firmly suspended for the first day. The second day, the egg begins to bend back toward the wax-covered foundation where one end is embedded, and on the third day, the egg lays itself entirely against the foundation in preparation to hatch. During this three to 3 1/2-day period, the worker bees are feeding the egg royal jelly, a protein-rich, milky fluid that the worker bees create in their head glands.

Growing larva

Once the egg hatches, it becomes a larva and lies coiled at the base of the cell for five days while the worker bees feed it a mixture of honey and pollen. After the fifth day, the

Three larva ready to be capped among already-capped larva.
Three larva ready to be capped among already-capped larva.

cell is capped with a porous cover of wax and pollen and the developing larva is no longer fed. In just two more days, it spins a cocoon around itself and becomes a pupa, at which point, it begins to develop the separate and essential body structures of a bee. The wings develop last. On day twenty-one, the adult bee chews its way through the wax seal of the cell and emerges into the world to fill her duties.

If my calculations are correct, the first eggs that the new queens laid in August should be emerging as adults within the next few days! Here’s to a new generation!!

On a side note, I couldn’t bare to off the old queen, so she’s in a box with a small colony of worker bees on my front porch. I’ll treat the small hive with a miticide (any suggestions?) and feed them through the winter to see if they can survive. This will be an interesting opportunity to observe the strength and survival of a hive treated with miticide versus one (actually two!) that broke the mite cycle altogether by means of the OTS Queen Rearing Method. I’ll share my findings in the spring!

And Then There Were Two…

Ten days after I removed the queen from my hive, I opened it back up knowing that the colony had created thirteen healthy queen cells, only two of which I could allow to survive (I’m hoping to split the hive in two). This is because I removed the queen suddenly from the hive, and many of the larva that the honeybees hurriedly built queen cells around were the exact same age. This means that they would likely emerge from their cells at the same time, which would cause them to chase each other out of the hive during combat, likely leaving it queenless. If one queen emerges first (which is more natural), she would visit each of the remaining queen cells, sting the developing larva to death, and assume her position as the reining beauty.

Not able to risk losing my queens, I had to remove all but two of the developing larva. I asked my mentor how to choose the most promising cells. His response: All the cells are perfect or the control bees would have broken them down. So, I opened the hive, and began to dig out the comb around the majority of the queen cells until they popped off the frame. Many of them squished in the process (as well as the worker bee larva around the cells), but four of them stayed intact.

Four intact and unharmed queen cells that I removed from the comb.
Four intact and unharmed queen cells that I removed from the comb.

I then separated my two hive boxes, creating two hives. I left the original hive box in the same location and left it with several frames of honey, a few frames of capped brood, and one queen cell. Since most of the bees will use their map-like spatial memory skills to return to the original hive, I put the majority of the capped brood and a smaller amount of honey in the second hive with the other queen cell. When the bees emerge from the cells, they won’t know they’ve been moved and will always return to this second hive.

So now I wait…

Queen bees develop fully in just sixteen days. Once they emerge, they must take their mating flight and find their way back to the hive (which happens successfully about 90 percent of the time). Fresh laid eggs will be evidence that my beloved honeybees requeened their hive successfully.

In the midst of answering a list of my anxious questions about the waiting process, my mentor tells me that “July [hive] starts are either successes or failures, and we can talk about that later.”

Wait… what?

And then he ends his email by instructing me to stay out of the hive and “Just be cool.”

Not my forte. Never has been.

A Royal Competition

Last Saturday evening, I removed the queen from my hive in hopes that the ladies would use one or more appropriate-aged larva to create a new queen. I notched three places in the fully drawn comb that had approximately 3-day larva, and then I waited… until today. I opened my hive, and to my delight, the bees had created queen cells around larva in each of the places I had notched – one place even had two queen cells side by side! As I pulled each frame out one by one, I discovered 7 more capped queen cells that the bees had self-selected (based upon the age and location of the larva), and two uncapped queen cells with live larva that were still being tended and fed royal jelly.

Whoa, that’s a lot of queens! I’m planning to create just two hives from the queen cells, so may the strongest survive!

The larva in the fully capped queen cells should emerge as fully developed queens within six to nine days. More (hopefully good) news to come then!

Another Royal Crown: Requeening

image1Saturday evening I opened my hive. For the first time since I added the second hive box or deep, I removed and examined every single frame. I had several frames of capped brood and honey, a few patches of closed drone cells, a few frames of eggs, and two frames without any comb.

My mission was to find the queen. I had only seen her once before, and I was worried that my untrained eye wouldn’t find her. Mel Disselkoen had shared some queen-finding tips the weekend before, and I used them all:

  • Keep your back to the sun and the frames in your shadow, so that the queen is less likely to run
  • Begin at one side of the deep, and remove the first frame. As you do, keep your eye on the frame you will remove next. Continue to do this as you remove each frame. You can sometimes spot her before you pull the frame she’s on.
  • Once you’ve removed two or three frames, use your hive tool to separate the remaining frames. Putting a little space between the frames will prevent the queen from running from you.
  • Always look for the circle of control bees around the queen. It will be a formation unlike any other in the hive.

My queen was on the last frame I removed in the top box. I was amazed at how easily I spotted her once she was in front of me. I then put the frame in a temporary nuc box along with a few frames of brood and honey.

My queen and her attendants
My queen and her attendants

Then, following Mel’s On-the-Spot Queen Rearing method, I did my best to identify 3-day old larva in the comb, and I used my hive tool to notch the bottom one-third of the cells.

This hopefully gave the bees room to create queen cells around these larva, at which point they’ll feed the larva royal jelly to produce a new queen (the only difference between a worker bee and a queen bee is that the queen larva is fed royal jelly that causes her reproductive system to fully develop). If the hive does successfully requeen itself, the process will take long enough that any mites living in the hive will die off without anywhere to lay eggs, therefore creating a mite-free hive (read a fuller explanation here).

The nuc box with the queen and her nurse bees
The nuc box with the queen and her nurse bees

So, now I wait. I’ll open my hive next weekend to see if they have indeed produced queen cells. I’ve been warned that opening the hive before then would only cause confusion and may prevent the girls from rearing a new queen. If they don’t produce a new queen, I’ll reintroduce the original queen back into the hive and use a chemical treatment for mites. For now, I’ve moved the nuc box to my porch and am finding out just how much time it is possible to waste watching bees come and go.What can I say? I’m in love.

On-the-Spot Queen Rearing

Mel Disselkoen
Mel Disselkoen

The varroa mite was introduced in the U.S. in the late 1980s, and is likely responsible for the failure of many honeybee hives. They are an evil that every beekeeper must contend with one way or another. If left untreated for mites, seven out of every ten hives will likely not survive the winter (as the bees larva production decreases in preparation for winter, the mites reproduction continues to increase, resulting in the eventual collapse of the hive). Rather than asking why 70% of the hives were dying as most scientists did, Mel Disselkoen (diesel-cone) asked why the other 30% were surviving. From this question, as well as years of experimentation and research, Mel has created On-the-Spot (OTS) Queen Rearing, which is a method of splitting or re-queening a hive and getting rid of the mites at the same time! This past Saturday, Mel drove down to Moores Hill, Indiana to present at a workshop hosted by the Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association.

Notched cells containing 3-day larva
Notched cells containing 3-day larva

In a nutshell: When a hive has 6 frames full of brood (eggs & larva) and live drones (lazy male bees) buzzing around, you may dispatch (Mel’s pleasant word for choice kill) the queen or move her, along with a few frames of brood and some nurse bees, to a different hive box. You then use your hive tool to break open the bottom 1/3 of a row of cells that contain three-day-old or younger larva (the nurse bees will not use older larva to create a queen). Within 3-4 days, the bees will have repaired the cells and built them into queen cells. Within 30-35 days (from removing the queen and notching the cells), your new queen should have already taken her mating flight (drones finally get to do the only job they were created for!) and begin laying eggs again. Success! Hopefully.

Because this whole process takes a minimum of 30 days, the mites cease to exist in the hive. The breeding cycle of the mite is 13 days, and they always lay their eggs in the cells of eight-day-old larva. Because there is no queen laying eggs for at least 30 days, the mites have nowhere to lay their eggs. They die off naturally, and the bees going into winter are much stronger because they’re not deformed or weakened by having been sucked on by mites or their larva. It’s really quite brilliant for those of us that aren’t keen on using chemicals on our hives!

Mel then took us out to a hive, where he demonstrated the process of finding the queen and notching the cells. It was a wonderful afternoon full of truly caring individuals, good food, and a lot of information sharing. Thank you to Mel Disselkoen for his willingness to share his wonderful work, to Garry Reeves for hosting the event in his workshop and yard, and to Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association for hosting such an important and useful workshop!

image2   image1 (2)

This gentleman was completely unaware that he was covered in bees. It took a lot of smoking to free him of his back beard!

North Central Beekeepers Club Meeting – July 15, 2015

Last night I attended the North Central Beekeepers Club meeting. I met a lot of wonderfully interesting and experienced beekeepers and also learned a bit about honey extraction. Jeff Singletary brought frames and honey extraction equipment (although not the actual extractor) to demonstrate how he completes the extraction process.

image1 (2)

The extraction process seems simple… and messy! Before the honey can be extracted from the comb, you have to open the cells so that the honey is actually released. Jeff suggested using and electric bread knife to uncap the comb, but other beekeeping tools were also suggested, such as an uncapping fork. This tool has many sharp pointy tines that are spaced so that each tine will puncture one cell. It doesn’t really look like a fork. Another tool they demonstrated was an uncapping roller. This looks like a sold, spiky paint roller. As I’ve quickly learned, each beekeeper has his or her preference !

Once the cells are open (there are many uses for the wax and honey that falls from the frames during the uncapping process), you place the entire frame into the extractor, which basically spins the frame until the comb is empty of honey. This is a slow process because spinning the frames too fast can cause the comb to blow out of the center, ruining it and creating more work for the colony next year (and possibly a slightly reduced honey crop), like so:

image2 (2)

The honey must be strained and stored. Jeff advises against using large buckets that do not have a honey gate (yellow spout/nozzle at the bottom of the tub pictured above). Honey is heavy! Furthermore, having to dip from the top of a bucket causes dripping, waste, and mess! It’s better to invest in a bucket with a gate. It’ll make life easier when jarring or bottling honey.

A few extra interesting facts I learned:

  • Do not use jars that have had pickled food in them. Your honey will taste like pickles.
  • Honey is sold by weight
  • In order to sell honey, beekeepers are required to have vendor labels on their bottles. Certain information is required by the state.
  • Honey never goes bad! When it crystallizes, it just needs to be warmed a little (not more than 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit because it will lose its health benefits)
  • Store-bought honey is never raw and does not provide the health benefits of raw, untreated honey

I’ll end with my favorite quote of the night:

“A strong hive is a cure for a whole lot of evils.”  ~ Jeff Singletary


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