New queen update

Yay!!! Pink hive has a queen! I gave them eggs last weekend and checked for queen cells Saturday, no cells. But what did I see?? Eggs! Single eggs! I looked quickly and there she was…a beautiful queen. All those cells that had been polished and waiting for the last couple of weeks, were being used…fantastic. When checking the colony there was a palpable sense that the hive was in this anticipatory state and it is so gratifying to see their plans and expectations realized.

Checked the new queen (Carniolan), and the workers were completely covering the queen cage. When I put the cage in, I taped the candy plug to delay introduction. Because I’ve had issues with nuc robbing I was delaying her introduction to avoid having her killed. I wasn’t aware that the JZBZ cages are impregnated with queen pheromone to improve acceptance. The cages have other features I’d like to review in a future post. So, General wisdom states to not release the queen if the bees are biting the cage. Honestly, how I’m supposed to see that it beyond me. Another oft made recommendation is to try to move the bees off the screen gently with your finger, if they are difficult to move then they are likely gripping the screen with their mandibles, if they are easy to move, then they have supposedly accepted the queen. I moved one bee, she resisted, I moved a few more and they seemed to move easily…I think.
So I watched them, thought I saw some bees extending their probosces after which they were clearly grooming themselves, as this was how bees spread queen substance among themselves, I decided all was well and took the tape off the candy plug. There were queen cells started which were dispatched. I’ll check the cage in a few days to see if she’s released, then leave them alone for a couple of weeks.


Using a toothpick to suspend the cage between frames. You can see how the cage is covered. Friend or foe?



You can see their eagerness for the queen.

Status check

Checked hives on Sunday: Pink hive still no queen, not unhappy. Gave them a frame of eggs from the Aqua hive. Need to check the frame for queen cells on Friday or Saturday.

Aqua hive still has the blue queen, doing very nicely.

Two mating nucs robbed out, no queens though nicely exited queen cells…sigh. VERY difficult to have small nucs near the big hives when there’s a dearth.

Gave the nuc a few more frames and expanded their space into one of the failed mating nucs.

Orange hive: hopelessly queenless. Was hopeful when I saw larvae until I realized it was drone brood. Kept checking cells until I found what I was looking for: several eggs in one cell and eggs on sides of cell. SIGH…. Letting this one go. I knew I would have to steal brood from the other two hives to make a nuc for the new Carniolan queen coming on Monday and I didn’t want to weaken my hives any further by boosting a failing laying worker hive. Done with this one.

Purple hive–doing fine, needs more food.

Monday, made up a nuc and picked up the queen. Kept her in my closet. Added her Tuesday night, no queen cells on the brood frames. Will check Friday for queen cells and make sure it’s not robbed out. Will open the worker space to allow interaction with queen on a minimal basis. Crossing fingers!!

Strawberry Bonanza

In our garden, strawberries were planted in late May and I am waiting for them to become strong enough to allow the plants to flower and set fruit. I planted everbearing/day neutral varieties (San Andreas and Mara des Bois) and they will fruit during planting year, no need to wait a year as you would with June-bearing.

In the meantime, Larriland Farm, which is my go-to for pick your own anything, had strawberries available for picking. My son and I picked 10.5 pounds in very hot temperatures in about 45 minutes. I cannot imagine doing that as my job. We came home to make strawberry sorbet, frozen yogurt, strawberry cream cake (the frosting on this cake is FANTASTIC, highly recommend it) and strawberry liqueur.

DIY strawberry liqueur:


To get the berries ready for use, I washed them and then set them outside on a grid to dry. It was VERY windy and that helped dry them within minutes.


To have strawberries for future smoothies, I laid some out on wax paper on the cookie sheets, and set the sheets in the freezer. This results in individually frozen berries that can be poured into a freezer bag and stored in the freezer. I can then just pull out how ever many berries I want at a time without having to defrost a whole bag. If you dump all the berries in a bag and THEN freeze, you just get a large mass of frozen berries that is not easy or convenient to use.

Blueberries and raspberries are starting to ripen in our garden…stay tuned.

Queen piping

Last week, my husband helped with my colony inspections. As we were looking at my strongest colony (Pink), he looked at the queen excluder and said “That’s an interesting looking bee.” I quickly looked and discovered a virgin, trying to make her way through the excluder, she was likely newly mated as she could no longer fit through the slats.

There were a few supers above the excluder and an imrie shim which allowed super access for the foragers. She very likely made her exit via the imrie shim and then struggled to get back into the brood chamber. I had no idea how long she may have been there. I marked her on the off-chance she would be the reigning monarch.

I kept her caged as we went through the colony. We found lots of queen cells, they appeared to be for swarm prep as, in my brief experience, they don’t make 20-30 queen cells for superseders.

I left them as is, released the newly marked queen and closed them up. [Likely swarmed]

The next challenge came in the Orange hive. It was apparently queenless but had polished cells that appeared to be waiting for a queen. But they were markedly unhappy. I saw queen cells that were opened, thought I saw closed queen cells and polished brood cells but no eggs and they were clinging to us and head-butting incessantly. We closed them up as they were obviously unhappy with our intrusion. [Likely queenless or waiting for a queen to mate]

The Purple hive appeared to have eaten through everything they had so I gave them a quart jar of sugar syrup (had one conveniently in the freezer from spring feeding!) That was emptied in 2 days so I’ve been feeding them to get some stores for them. [Hungry]

The Orange hive was bothered again on Wednesday as I had decided to take one frame of queen cells out (that I thought I saw in there) and make another nuc. They were even worse tempered than previously! I decided to give them a frame of eggs to see if they were queenless or waiting for a queen to mate and lay. I pulled a frame of eggs from the Aqua colony next door (very calm–markedly different reaction to being opened).

I rechecked the Orange hive yesterday–still no queen laying that I could see, no queen cells on the frame I gave them and no evidence of a laying worker. Their temperament was better so I’m crossing fingers that there will be a laying queen next weekend. [More likely a queen needs to mate]

Now for the fun part. I wanted to see if the Pink hive kept that virgin I marked and whether she had destroyed the remaining queen cells. I checked all 20 deep frames and found 17 neatly opened (from the bottom end) queen cells. In addition, as I checked the first few frames in the brood chamber, I found 2 queen cells still capped. I heard this tiny squeaking and thought some little bug was flitting about my head or that I was hearing a new bird far away in the woods. As I picked up another frame, this one also with 2 capped queen cells, I heard the sound again. As I looked at the cells it hit me! The queens were piping! They were either challenging a queen I couldn’t see or each other while they were still in the cells. What to do? What to do? Can you hear the hand wringing?

I quickly decided to make queen mating nucs, these queens would be emerging very soon and I wanted them alive. I used my queen castle to put one frame in each. This queen castle was already housing the blue laying queen (she’s a laying beast) from the Pink hive, and will now hold her 2 daughters in neighboring chambers.

ETA: found an audio of queen piping:

Extra queens are always handy to have on hand. I much prefer using queens the bees have decided to raise rather than creating a tiny nuc with few resources and expecting them to raise a good queen.

I’ll check next weekend to see how they’re faring. I hope to be marking 4 queens. Mind you, I have another queen on order that should be coming soon.

To keep my brain straight, these are the queen genetics currently:

Queen castle, Pink and Aqua colony same lineage. Orange colony is distant VSH. Purple colony (still original from Peter’s? Bjorn Apiary over 15 years ago.)






Garden is done!

This was a labor of love and need: the need for easier weeding, the need for fencing to keep out critters and the love of a pretty (and neat!) garden space.

A month of rain made this a challenge to accomplish given the need for electrified tools. But during the final “push” my husband was fed up with waiting for the rain to stop so he set up a canopy under which he could use the saw to build the final piece of the puzzle, the gate.

We dug the post holes using a two man auger (it alone weighs 75 pounds) and (thankfully!) had the help of some family that were in for the weekend. The amount of effort involved in managing one of these machines cannot be understated–the weight of the auger coupled with the weight of the soil you are pulling up is just so, so, SO much. And you have to do this several times per hole, ugh. The holes that were not obstructed by rocks were drilled very quickly, but when we hit rocks (which was half the holes!) we had to dig them out by hand. The holes took 2-3 hrs to dig out and the vast majority of the time was dedicated to rock excavation.

******There are lots of pictures, click to make larger.

Once the posts were set, they were braced to keep them level and concrete was poured into the holes.

Then the rails went up, hardware cloth was mounted and the bases were attached:

The raised beds were made deeper than our previous ones–these are 10″ and made of 2″ pine, untreated. The beds are 2 foot wide to make weeding easier. The strawberry beds are in front of the garden. The grass has been dug out and weed fabric is next. The middle will have small beds and a hexagonal concrete form on which we would place a bird bath. The garden orients with the slope of the yard, everything slopes away from the house.

Good quality (I hope so given its price) weed fabric is laid down, mulch is loaded on top of the weed fabric and LeafGro is hauled into the beds. We ordered 4 yards each of mulch and LeafGro–about 5 tons each and we hauled it wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. It was purely exhausting work, I need a nap just thinking about it.

In the home stretch! The wood will eventually gray and appear less stark.

Final push: the gate was made, the birdbath went onto the hexagonal form, the strawberries were planted. To keep out birds, chipmunks and squirrels but allow bees, he built strawberry bed covers using the left over hardware cloth. Added copper caps to the posts, did some finishing and voila!

So dang worth it. I love it.

Hive scale

Rusty at honeybeesuite posted about this indiegogo campaign:–3#/

I’ve been on the hunt periodically for a farm grain scale to use as a hive scale. One thing about farm scales is that they are heavy, you have to find one in good condition and in 1/4lb increments to work best for a colony of bees. I’m just not a craigslist “troller” so I’m not likely to find one that way. Such scales are also not portable and weighing each hive is impossible. Just google it and you’ll see what I mean. Plus my apiary is on a slope so a level space would need to be made and the bulky scale hauled into my backyard.

Other hive scales (digital and lighter) are VERY expensive and out of the reach of most beekeepers. 

You can make manual scales using a variety of techniques (yes, even a bathroom scale). We have enough projects as it is and is not digital.

Enter the Broodminder-w. Exactly what I pictured when wanting one: it sends data, is easily moved from hive to hive, is very low profile and essentially invisible and way cheaper than other scales. If they can get the price down to their target, I’ll buy even more.

Beekeepers (or non-beekeepers) can buy one of the campaign perks (such as the hive scale) or support the campaign with a donation. Rusty gives him high marks on product development so I’ve decided to get one and see what it’s like. But they only make them if the campaign is fully funded! If they don’t raise the funds they need, the purchase is refunded. So if you’re interested at all, check it out.

Broody hen

Broody hens can be useful or a nuisance. “What’s a broody hen?” you may wonder. For those who are unaware, when a hen decides that she wants to hatch a clutch of eggs and proceeds to sit on the eggs day in and day out, THAT is a broody hen. Hens can become broody whether the eggs are fertilized or not. If you want to take advantage of this broodiness, you can obtain fertilized eggs or baby chicks and watch the wonder and fun that is a hen and her chicks. But if you don’t, then you need to “break” the hen’s broodiness.

When is it useful? Broodiness is useful when you want to brood another batch of chicks without the work–the mother hen does it all! No heat lamp needed, no cleaning of a brooder. Plus, watching a hen and chicks is just so…darn…sweet. I figured that if one of my hens went broody in a year or two, I would use it to save some work while getting replacement chicks. I didn’t count on it happening when they were 8 months old.

When is it a pain? It’s a pain anytime you don’t want it to happen. One of the issues with a broody hen is that she will stop laying eggs (not a big deal as I’m not a commercial operation with my 9 hens), but she will also stop eating as she devotes her time to sitting on a clutch of eggs, and will rip out the feathers on her abdomen to provide eggshell-to-skin contact for incubation. I had a hen who was broody for two months and became so darn skinny, she looked like a shell of herself.

So did I get fertilized eggs? Chicks? Or try to break her? While making contact with folks offering fertilized eggs on Craigslist and perusing pending baby chick deliveries at local feed stores (it is currently “chick season”) I decided to still try and “break” the broody hen, a Double-Laced Barnevelder who went broody a mere 2 months after she started to lay. “Breaking the broodiness” may sound mean, but it’s not. All you do is try and stop the hen from sitting on the eggs.

How did I know she was broody? I noticed that when I went to check for eggs, the hen, “Velma” would be in the nest box. I thought she was in the midst of laying an egg but 3 hours later she was still there (while other hens had laid their eggs). She wasn’t sitting there 24HRS a day until several days later and I KNEW she was broody when I went to collect the eggs and she did this:


Breaking the broody hen
There are several ways to break the broodiness, but I chose to combine two methods that worked for me in the past: tossing the hen off the nest whenever I found her there and setting her in a bucket of water (so that she floats). I decided if Velma remained broody two weeks after I started my campaign, I would get her some chicks. Well, the first day I combined the two techniques, I also kept her AWAY from the nest box by letting the girls out to roam. She stayed away for a while before trying to sneak back in. When I would find her sitting on the nest, I would put her in the bucket and hold her there–the goal is to maximize contact with the bare skin she uses to incubate the eggs. You are NOT trying to drown her!! The contact of cold water with her skin lowers her body temperature and lessens either the ability or desire to incubate. I ended up doing this several times over two days.

Only two days later, she was back to roosting with the girls. I thought I was in the clear until I saw her in the nest AGAIN, at which point I just tossed her off the eggs she was hoarding. In addition to the issues mentioned, another is that a broody hen gathers the eggs laid by ALL the hens: she moves the eggs from one nest box to another by hooking her beak over the eggs and pulling them over. The eggshells are quite tough and can withstand some serious force (especially these eggs–they’re like breaking rocks it seems), but Velma’s repeated efforts would occasionally crack an egg. If the egg cracks enough that the contents are accessible and a hen starts to eat the egg, it can become a serious problem to have an “egg-eater.”

Chicks or Eggs?
If the broodiness would not stop, I had settled on getting chicks simply because the chicks would be sexed. With fertilized eggs, there is a 50/50 chance of getting roosters–I did NOT need 6 roosters. And certainly not 6 roosters when other folks would be trying to get rid of their own roosters.
Thankfully, thankfully, she stopped being broody–Velma has been out and about with her coop mates.

Garden plans

We moved into this house after leaving a townhouse in Crofton. In that home, we tried to grow vegetables but the back yard was shaded and was suitable for the native shade-loving plants I planted. The front was the sunny part and it was a very small terraced garden. We grew our three tomato plants out there and some peonies (I LOVE peonies).

When we came here, we loved the vast possibilities presented by our 3/4 acre plot. We seemed to add garden bed after garden bed every year. I was joking that my husband planned to cover Eldersburg in raised beds. We went from two to 4 to 7 and added a berry patch with a fence to house my raspberries and blueberries. And since the goal was to grow as much as we could, the attractiveness factor of the garden took a back seat. We did try to make it pretty by lining the paths between the raised beds with pea gravel.  It WAS very nice for a short period of time. But without continuous weeding, the pea gravel turned ugly very quickly.

This year, we plan to reconfigure the garden with new garden beds that will be surrounded by an attractive minimalist fence covered with hardware cloth, something similar in design to this:

It would be larger than this but the idea is the same: maximize garden beds by running them along the fence and make the beds more narrow to allow for easier weeding. Normally, raised beds are recommended to be 4′ wide. I don’t know who can weed such a bed, because I certainly can’t. Granted, I’m pretty short, but still, 4′ seems to be just too wide. The beds that would go along the edge of the fence would be 2′ wide.


This is what it looks like currently:

Not very charming. Granted, we had pulled up two of the garden beds in the fall, knowing we were going to redesign. Yesterday we pulled up the fencing which involved removing the chicken wire apron that we extended into the grass, that was fun. That pile of leaves next to the new garden bed overwintered there nicely. With the fence down, the chickens had access to it and spent MANY happy hours destroying the pile and spreading it EVERYWHERE.

This is my berry patch: image

This angle is looking up toward the house, the coop and the above garden beds that are being worked on. The tiered square boxes on the left are where I had my strawberries. This berry patch also holds my blueberry bushes and the raspberry plants. I tore out the raspberries last fall as the variety, Heritage, was not as prolific or tasty as the new ones I planted.

The problem with having strawberries so far away from the house is that I would completely forget to harvest them. By the time I remembered, either birds or slugs had ruined them.

Through trial and many errors, I have learned my preferred growing/harvesting style: rather than having a huge bumper crop of one food in a short span of time, I prefer to have the ripening and harvest spread out. It suits our life better. If you get 15 pounds of anything in a week, you better have a plan for it! So June bearing strawberries are off the list. A few years ago I purchased Mara des Bois strawberry plants, the variety is an everbearing type which fruits from spring to the first frost. With the everbearing types, I have been able to harvest approximately a quart of strawberries every week. This is much more manageable.

In the space which previously held the strawberries and the raspberries, there will now be 4 currants and 4 blackberry plants. I mapped out the area to allow 3-4 feet between plants and from the fence.


Now to get the holes ready.



Early season

This is a very unusual spring. About 2 or 3 weeks ago I heard of beekeepers checking hives and finding drones. DRONES! I checked a friend’s hive and found the same thing on March 12th. Finally had a chance to look at mine on the 18th and found drones, unbelievable. Last year I saw walking drones around April 6th. So the drones this year are appearing a month earlier. Everything is early except for the numbers of bees.

Flowers starting blooming a month earlier than prior years. This year, the maples started by the first week in March and were done by the 16th. Redbuds started blooming on Monroe Ave. on the 9th and dandelions were spotted on March 16th in sporadic areas. March 18th saw forsythia blooming in spots around our area. Bradford pears started blooming in Baltimore yesterday (22nd).

For contrast, in 2013 I posted April 8th as the Redbud bloom, the maples were almost done in my yard at that point and Bradford Pears in Baltimore on April 8th.

I suspect El Nino is the cause of this early bloom as the winter has been markedly mild.

I have a prediction: either the honey harvest will be non-existent (due to the disparity between blooms and foragers available), OR it will be very small and very early.

In addition to the drones, there were reports of queen cells in hives. That completely blew my mind. Well, check out my overwintered VSH nuc, a virgin queen who just emerged from a queen cell (found the laying queen as well):


The virgin is in the above picture almost exactly in the middle. And below is one of TWO queen cells with nice, neat openings. This hive worried me when I opened it because it had fewer bees than 2 weeks ago, now I know why. There is a laying queen and 2 virgins in here. Interesting, interesting. image


Skunks AGAIN!

Last weekend I noticed quite a few dead bees in front of the hives. I didn’t think much of it as I had cleared out their bottom boards previously. The colonies finally started taking syrup in the hives and I had one colony left that needed a feeder. Wednesday, I went to exchange the screened inner cover for a solid inner cover on that colony and just as I lifted the lid, I was stung at least 5 times. Needless to say, I was surprised and thankfully wearing my veil. But I was wearing my work pants which offered no protection from stingers. I got stung 3 times on my lower abdomen (below the elastic of the bee jacket) and 2 more on my legs. I set everything down, went back to the house and put on my bee pants (after making sure I didn’t have any stray guards hounding me). After I finished doing what needed to be done–they were NOT happy with me, I had more stingers on my pants–I surveyed the fronts of the hives to see what might be going on. Their unusual aggressiveness coupled with a larger than remembered quantity of dead bees on the ground triggered a closer inspection of the carcass piles.

Among the even carpet of carcasses I found this:

Some of you may remember these “balls of bees.” Several years ago, I noticed a similar sudden aggressiveness only to discover these same balls of shrunken bees. Apparently, a skunk has been visiting and feasting. As a recap, to deter these beasts I had tried the carpet tacks on the landing board and motion activated water sprayer. The solution turned out to be placing a chicken wire fence around the hives. I still had it until this past fall. Needless to say, it went back up Thursday after work. I had to don my full bee get-up to do it and it was a nice, warm day… I was sweating by the time I was done.


I laid tarp in front of the hives to help me identify any new balls of bees. I am happy to report that as of yesterday (Friday), there were no new balls of dead bees and I could actually walk out there without being warned by kamikazes.