'Working the bees' is terminology for attending to your beehive. What follows is just one example of working the bees. After being fitted up for an hour in my beekeeping gear, I feel like the one who is being 'worked'!

Cooler days means bees moving in slow motion. This is helpful. I need to closely observe my bees as I check their hive box for any hygienic or pest issues which need hive management. Continuing mild fall has given the bees an advantage in preparing to cluster for the winter months. During December, January, and February, or as long as the outdoor temperature remains under 40 degrees, bees will remain inside the hive keeping the hive at 94 degrees, warm enough to hatch new brood.

The life cycle of the honey bee is three weeks, so there is a continuous birthing of new bees every twenty-odd days, but just how many new bees hatch per day or per week is an unknown. This is why I look for the queen and for capped brood, a sure sign the queen is laying eggs. In winter, the egg laying process slows down.As food stores become an issue in late fall, drone bees are banished from the colony, and the number of worker bees is fewer, as well.

Interestingly, last week I noticed a lone queen cup on the lower edge of the right end, outermost bar of foundation in my top bar hive. A top bar hive resembles a cross between a xylophone and a small wooden coffin.The bar of foundation on which I noticed the queen cup was closest to the open space where the sugar feeder rests inside the top bar hive box. Bees covered one side of this bar of foundation. The open side of this foundation – where it would take much more work to keep the colony at its proper temperature – was empty, all the empty cells clean and tidy.

A queen cup is a specially designed and substantively larger cell built out of the comb. Fed a diet of royal jelly by nurse bees, the larva in a queen cell is destined to become a queen.

Why would the colony build a queen cup in the fall? This queen cup was empty and its top edge looked a bit ragged, possibly chewed open as a new queen made her way out of her birthing cell. Are there now two queens in this bee hive?

This is where the craft of beekeeping comes into play. As a new beekeeper, this is also where knowledge and intuition meets. The bees know what is best for the colony. It's too late in the season for the bees to swarm, which is the natural and desired division of a thriving hive and usually an early spring event, but what about absconding? Was the colony preparing to leave the hive because they no longer find it suitable? I had to take a quick but considered course of action.

In the first two weeks after installing the bees into the hive box, the girls very quickly built out two bars of foundation at the outsidemost, left side of the hive box. During an early inspection, due to my inexperience handling the top bars, the first bar of comb foundation built had collapsed, separating from its top bar. This is a constant risk in managing a top bar hive. Not wanting to disturb a new colony – Italian worker bees accepting a Russian queen – it seemed wise to leave the collapsed comb full of brood alone for the time being. But seeing the empty queen cup made me curious about the conditions at that end of the hive now that cold weather was coming on.

My informed and intuitive decision was to do a complete inspection, taking a look at every single bar of wax foundation. Upon working my way across the hive box from right to left, at the end of the hive where the bees first built their brood comb, I discovered two beautifully built out sections of comb – the collapsed comb observed in the spring. This comb was now empty, dry and beginning to mold. These two sections of derelict comb were also closest to the hive entrance. True, the empty sections of comb could serve as insulation during the winter, but the risk of being an opening for pests like wax moth, let alone becoming a small hive beetle hotel was potentially more damaging, and I could find other ways to insulate the hive box for winter's coldest weather.

After careful observation, thinking things through, and deciding on a reasonable course of action, my smoker ran out of fuel! Up to this point, on a 70 degree day, the girls were calm and they'd all just been dusted with powdered sugar as a non-chemical treatment for Varroa mites – even though I have not observed deformed wings on any of the bees which is a marker for Varroa mites being present. My hive buddy and I closed up the hive to prevent robbing or unwanted quests like hornets and yellow jackets being drawn to the sugar dusting, and we headed back to the tool shed.

After firing up the smoker again, it was back down to the hive ready to remove the molding comb. My reason being: one, the comb was a health hazard; and, two, the bees may have been more crowded than they would like. Following intuition, if the queen cup I had discovered the hive did not have enough space to build out for both brood and honey stores, I was prepared with three empty bars covered with wax bead lines to put into the hive

For the second time in an hour, I opened the hive at its left end and quickly inserted a follower board so the bees would have no longer have access to the molding comb. I placed the comb into a disposable aluminum cooking tray and then into a paper bag as a precaution against spreading disease. There were no signs of wax moths or foul brood. Even the small hive beetle problem had apparently been handled between the bees wrangling the few remaining beetles and a stroke of good luck in finding their larvae underneath the sugar feeder. I killed all the hive beetle larvae, cleaned that mess out of the hive, and have squashed the remaining stragglers with my hive tool while small hive beetle traps filled with vegetable oil have done the trick. The number of observed small hive beetles on this inspection was less than a dozen beetles. I put left the board at the left-most end of the hive, figuring in the spring this end of the hive would be thoroughly cleaned out by the bees – presuming they survive this winter.

I did not see the queen. She has a white dot on her back. I had seen her alive and laying a week ago, so I was not all that worried about spotting her on a day when there was other more important work to do. Concerned about overly agitating bees that might be ready to abscond, I made quick work of re-arranging empty, new comb being built out, adding new top bars for the girls to expand the hive if they wanted, and getting the sugar feeder loaded with a new hive beetle trap placed benefit it.

My last task was corking up the entrance that led into the now empty section of the hive box. There are now two entrances into the middle of the hive. Not as close to the sugar feeder, these entrances will be easier for the bees to defend the hive against robbing by other insects. These new entrances also offer space for removal of dead bees as well as air circulation to handle cool weather condensation inside the hive.

Whether or not my intuition is correct about the bees reasoning for raising a new queen remains is not yet clear. I decided to leave the girls alone for a week to become accustomed to their newly imposed entrances. Young workers bees were festooning on the bottom of old comb, so it seemed wise to give them a new area for practicing their wax-making skills. Once again, it was re-assuring to see field bees coming back to the hive with pollen stuffed in their pouches the first week of November!

Honey bees do not rise to the level of being “pets.” Far from it. However, I find I am taking a fair amount of pride in having enough basic knowledge to make hive management decisions without having to pester a more senior beekeeper. Although luck and good timing were the major factors in getting the small hive beetle issue under control without chemicals, I had no qualms about aggressively killing all the hive beetle larvae. My tool of choice? A grill cleaning tool! The scraper edge of this tool is sharp and wide enough to dispatch the small beetle larvae and scrape any mess up and out of the hive box.

Tip: Here's another tip for top bar hive users. Using a putty knife, and a small can of Crisco vegetable shortening, smear Crisco on the legs of your hive base. Then sprinkle boric acid into the Crisco. The Crisco does not melt in high summer temperatures so this is a great boric acid delivery system. You'll find very few ants in your hive and the bees are unharmed because they do not use the hive box legs as any sort of landing area.

Now, go 'bee' your best! http://www.beegreenphilly.com/

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