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Trying to Learn from an Unsuccessful First Year

Post new topic   Reply to topic    beekeeping forum -> Horizontal top bar hives
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Nurse Bee

Joined: 10 Mar 2016
Posts: 28
Location: San Francisco, CA

PostPosted: Wed Jan 11, 2017 5:06 pm    Post subject: Trying to Learn from an Unsuccessful First Year Reply with quote

Hi everyone,

I started my first hive last Spring (horizontal top bar), and I ended up with an empty hive by the end of the summer. Iíd like to try again this Spring, and so Iím looking for some advice or thoughts that could help me be successful this year. Iím going to give some information about my set-up and events of last year, and then some thoughts I have, and invite people to provide whatever information they think could be helpful. Let me know if you have any questions for me. Thanks!

I live about a mile in from the Pacific coast in San Francisco, and I installed my hive on my roof mid April, 2016. Over the next couple of months I managed my hive very closely. The queen was laying, and I was moving empty bars into the brood nest to keep everyone happy. Things were going great. Once the brood nest was taking up around ⅔ of the hive, I stopped moving new bars into the brood nest. At the beginning of June I started noticing queen cells (I counted 10 over the next week or so). Around the same time the population exploded, which would make sense. At this point there was already a good amount of pollen and honey in the hive.

Then on June 18 the hive swarmed. I wasnít too concerned since I had seen the queen cells. I figured the bees that stayed in the hive would raise a new queen, and the hive would continue on. I checked in on them 1-2 times a week to see if I could see any changes. A few days after the swarm all of the queen cells were gone, which I considered a good sign. I was told that it could take 6-8 weeks for the new queen to start laying, so I kept checking, hoping to see a new queen, but for the most part I left them alone at the beginning. Then I wanted to see if eggs were being layed (and I still hadnít seen a queen), so after around 4 weeks I started going through the hive. I wasnít seeing a queen or any eggs. I let it ride for another 4 weeks, didnít see anything, and realized that the queen had not taken to the hive.

I contacted my local beekeeping association, and they set me up with someone who catches swarms in the area. A few days later I was putting a swarm into the hive. At first it seemed like things were going okay, but a couple of weeks later it was clear that there wasnít really anything going on in the hive. Either there was no queen in the swarm, or she didnít take to the hive. And from there the hive dwindled.

Some thoughts/questions:

1. It gets windy on my roof. Could this be a factor? I really donít have another place to set up the hive. I was thinking for this year I would build an enclosure on the roof out of PVC pipe and plastic sheeting. I was originally thinking of a tunnel shape, but now Iím thinking 3 walls, no roof. Any thoughts?

2. Should I have 2 hives set up; one functional, and one to be used to split the hive if I notice theyíre getting ready to swarm?

3. I mentioned that when the hive got around ⅔ full, I stopped putting new bars into the brood nest. Was this a mistake? My thought process was that if I keep adding new bars to the brood nest the entire hive would end up filled with brood. But I think I was wrong in thinking that, because I realized later in the process that after the new bees are born they start filling some of the old brood cells with honey/pollen. So is that something they just do at the beginning to get their numbers up, and then they contract the brood nest?

4. I donít think there was any problem with the hive itself. I never saw excess moisture in the hive (and I have a screen/solid combo floor in case I did), never saw any pests or mites. It gets sun all day.

5. When I first got the hive I set up a water dish (shallow pan with rocks in it) for the hive. After a month I had yet to see any bee drinking from the dish, and because it was in the sun I would have to refill it every day or two, so I assumed they had found a different source for water, and I stopped filling it. Was this a mistake?

I canít think of any other info that may be helpful. If youíre still with me, thank you. This turned out to be much longer of a write-up then I thought it would be. Any thoughts would be very much appreciated. Thank you!
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Foraging Bee

Joined: 27 Nov 2015
Posts: 136
Location: Ireland, west

PostPosted: Wed Jan 11, 2017 7:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Brian

This isn't going to be much good as I'm only a new bee myself. However a couple thoughts...

1 Was the hive facing the prevailing wind , if so change the direction, if you can't then perhaps some wind break could be erected to stop the wind blowing into the hive.

2 When you get started with a new hive , have at least 2 instead. If you loose one out of one equals 100% but having 2 and loose one you only loose 50%. Also the second hive could be used to restart the first one.

I started with one hive and then got the chance to get a second, now I have 5 so now feel in a more comfortable position should I get any loses.

I'm sure others with plenty of experience will be along to help but you are in a different climate from us here in Ireland /England.

Your area is truly beautiful having visited there a couple times staying in Marin county.

All the best

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Golden Bee

Joined: 31 May 2010
Posts: 1551
Location: Cambridge, UK

PostPosted: Wed Jan 11, 2017 8:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

With regards to the bees not taking the water this isn't a problem, Two possible explanations.
1. They are getting some from somewhere else.
2. They don't need it. If they are getting sufficient nectar, they are having to drive water off this to make honey.

As mentioned in the other reply, always worth having a second hive on the go. That way you can compare them and learn twice as much. I would agree that your problems likely lay in not having a queen or a mated one at any rate. Sometimes I have seen this, particularly if there is bad weather following swarming.
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Site Admin

Joined: 14 Jun 2007
Posts: 1063
Location: UK, England, S. Devon

PostPosted: Wed Jan 11, 2017 10:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

From my memories of spending time in SF, I think there is more chance of queens getting lost in the fog that being troubled by the wind!

Seriously, there are many possible reasons for what you describe and anything I could say would really be guesswork. As far as I can tell, you did all the right things, and sometimes that is not enough. Maybe your new queen failed to mate, or failed to return, or failed to lay - all those things happen. You suggested a solution yourself: keep more than one colony, even if only for spare parts. If you have a spare laying queen, you always have eggs that can be transferred to a queenless colony to rescue the situation.

Better luck this year!
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Scout Bee

Joined: 04 Jul 2014
Posts: 304
Location: Uk/Horsham/RH13

PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 8:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sad tale, sorry for you.

Always difficult to sort out after the event and freedom to swarm always has that risk.

It's what bees do if the Beek takes no steps to reduce the tendancy.

Don't forget they will likely swarm several times as successive queen cells hatch over a number of days and the swarms get successively weaker as does the remaining colony.

Fecund Queen loss seems the most likely answer but you should also very carefully check the combs and hive for signs of wax moth, disease or predators.
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Silver Bee

Joined: 29 Apr 2009
Posts: 882
Location: Stoke On Trent

PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 1:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I checked in on them 1-2 times a week to see if I could see any changes. A few days after the swarm all of the queen cells were gone, which I considered a good sign. I was told that it could take 6-8 weeks for the new queen to start laying, so I kept checking,"

I suspect you either killed the queen or the bees got fed up .

You should NOT inspect more than once a week without good reason.

If you inspect during queen mating, the queen may not find teh hive when she returns.
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Nurse Bee

Joined: 10 Mar 2016
Posts: 28
Location: San Francisco, CA

PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 3:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks everyone for your suggestions/comments.

I'll set up a second hive for this year for all the reasons you point out. Plus, more honey! Would you all suggest having an empty hive to split hive #1 if it wants to swarm? or just two fully functioning swarms?

Check less often after a swarm.

I believe the entrance was not facing the prevailing wind, but I'll make sure of that this year.

Bees not taking water, not necessarily a problem. Good.

Thanks again!
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Site Admin

Joined: 27 Jul 2011
Posts: 1857
Location: England/Co.Durham/Ebchester

PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 4:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Brian and welcome.

Sorry to hear you had a failure but clearly they were doing well before things went wrong, so there is plenty to feel positive about and you now have a hive with lots of comb in it, which will be a huge bonus to the next colony that inhabits it.

Out of curiosity, did you start with a package and how much did you feed them. I think there is a tendency to feed packages (and sometimes nucs) too much when you first set them up and it can lead to them building up very quickly and swarming. I read of people feeding gallons and gallons of syrup because they want the bees to build lots of comb, but in reality they will happily survive their first winter on 7-8 combs and in my experience, often a lot less. Of course you will not have any honey to harvest that first year but I would recommend that people don't harvest from a young colony anyway. To me it is better to let them build up at their own pace after the first week or so of syrup feeding.
I may be totally wrong of course and perhaps you started with a swarm and didn't feed them at all.

It is very unusual for the queen cells to all be "gone" (do you mean hatched or completely vanished) a few days after the prime swarm, so I am wondering if the swarm you saw on the 18th June was actually a secondary (cast) swarm which usually emerges approx. 10 days after the prime swarm.

By checking in on them 1-2 times a week after that, do you mean actually doing inspections that regularly or just looking through an observation window? If the former, then I agree with madasafish, that you may have lost the queen as a result.
One very import thing when doing an inspection is to keep the combs over the hive at all times. If the queen falls off the comb and lands on the ground, she is unable to get back into the hive. That applies to mature queens as well as virgin queens.
Inspecting during that post swarm period needs to be kept to an absolute minimum and done very carefully. The problem is that by the time all those queen cells have hatched, there are no worker eggs/larvae left that the colony can make an emergency queen from if need be, so if you lose the queen they are doomed. It is probably the only time of the year when they are so vulnerable.
Once a hive has swarmed I usually keep a close eye on the entrance for pollen starting to be taken in in should notice it slow down prior to swarming and then pick up once you have a new queen laying. Mine take up to 6 weeks for the new queen to be mated and come into lay and I might do an inspection at the 4 week mark if I'm getting concerned but I'm learning to be more trusting. Of course it is easy to be more relaxed about these things when you have more experience and several colonies and didn't spend a fortune buying bees in the first place, so I understand your concern and imperative to keep checking, but try to curb it next time.

I'm not sure what happened when you added the swarm. How did you unite them? It could be that the queen in the swarm got killed if you just dumped them in rather than unite them with paper or dust them with icing sugar and even then it is risky. It could also be as you said that the swarm was queenless, although that would be pretty unlucky.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and continuing to add empty bars into the brood nest might have kept them expanding, rather than making swarm preparations, particularly if you were still artificially feeding them, but if there is a strong nectar flow on and conditions are good, it is a natural urge for them to want to swarm and most beekeepers find that trying to thwart them is one of the most frustrating aspects of beekeeping.

I would not worry to much about providing them with a water source unless you suffer droughts or neighbours start complaining that they are visiting their pool in huge numbers, which can happen I understand. I'm guessing people have pools in SF....not something we have to worry about here in the UK....always plenty of water here and private outdoor swimming pools are an extreme rarity!

I would be inclined to build a second hive (rub the inside with beeswax and lightly scorch with a blow torch) and split the top bars with brood comb on them between the two hives. Put your name down on the swarm catcher's list and hope to attract a swarm to either or both of your hives in the mean time. If swarms turn up and move in of their own accord then you can always remove your name from the list. I don't believe in buying bees and clearly, there are going to be swarms in your area, so there is a good chance that they will come and check out your hives and with brood comb in them, they will be extremely attractive to them. It is an incredibly rewarding experience when a swarm comes and takes up residence of their own accord in a hive that you have built.

Can't think of anything else that I wanted to address. Good luck with repopulating this coming season and hopefully having better success second time around.

Best wishes

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