Category Archives: Questions from beekeepers and Phil’s replies

Beekeeping questions from beekeepers and Phil’s replies

My New Q&A Column, Ask “Dr.” Phil in Bee Culture Magazine

If you are a reader of Bee Culture magazine, you have likely seen my new question & answer column, titled Ask “Dr.” Phil, in the January issue.

This new monthly column is the result of a series of conversations with Bee Culture editor, Kim Flottum. He asked me about writing some articles for the magazine and, during discussions about possible formats, I told him I would be most interested in writing a Q&A column because answering questions is something that I both enjoy and spend a lot of my time doing. That was certainly the case when I was the Kentucky State Apiarist; a large part of my job was responding to questions, mostly from beekeepers, but sometimes from the general public as well. They came to me through the telephone, at meetings, and in emails. Continue reading

A beekeeper asks – Removing bees from a rotted hive

A beekeeper asks:
I have been given a colony of bees, it seems to be a very strong one, and it fills 3 deeps & a medium. My problem is it has been left undisturbed for about 8 years, the boxes & frames are rotting to the point of there being almost a 1 inch gap between some of the boxes, and as soon as you try to inspect a frame, the top falls apart. I truly think that beeswax & propolis are just about all that is holding the hive together.

How do I get the bees to move in to a new set of boxes without destroying the old hive in the process?

Phil’s reply:
While visiting beekeepers in Kentucky, I’ve observed this problem a number of times. Sometimes in hives, like yours, that had received no maintenance for years, most often abandoned hives that were falling apart from rot. I’ve also often run across hives containing frames that were not manipulated for so long that while the wood was still structurally sound, the frames were so glued together with propolis that the propolis bonds were stronger than the frames, with the same result – frames broke when an attempt was made to remove them. Both of these situations present the same problem, how to replace the frames or all the woodenware without tearing the hive apart and killing lots of bees? Continue reading

Why aren’t the bees drawing out the foundation in my honey supers?

Why aren’t the bees drawing out the foundation in my honey supers? This is a frequent question that I receive this time of year. My answer is that there are just a couple of factors involved in bees making wax and drawing out foundation into comb. These factors are strong bee populations and the presence of a nectar flow. The colony with a large population has more bees available to draw comb, plus a larger number of bees foraging and returning with nectar and bee bees available for processing the nectar into honey. We can think of a hive as a factory whose product is stored honey, the comb (which the workers must manufacture) is the storage units in the factory, the nectar is the raw material that must be brought into the factory to be processed and the bees are the workers. A honey factory short of workers cannot build the required storage (the comb), plus will have a reduced number of workers available to bring the nectar in. Without a nectar flow the workers have no need of additional storage and will not build the comb.

I thus tell beekeepers that report honey super foundation not being drawn out, does your hive(s) have this strong population? Is the hive(s) full of bees? Are bees covering every frame and is all of the comb in the brood chambers drawn and being utilized in the hive for either brood rearing or honey storage? Continue reading

A Beekeeper Asks: What is “non-raw” honey called?

A beekeeper asks: When you extract honey and pass it through a strainer, you can sell it as raw honey. What is not-raw honey called?

Phil’s reply:
First, let’s consider what is meant by raw honey. There is no definitive or legal definition as far as I know. I consider virtually all honey sold by local beekeepers to be raw honey. Some people may think of the term as applying only to honey which is unfiltered (no filtering or straining at all) and unheated during extraction and bottling. To others, honey is raw if it has undergone only minimal processing, but that is another subjective term. Continue reading

A Beekeeper Asks: Multiple swarms from one hive?

A beekeepers asks:
I had a hive swarm three times in a week. They would go about 30-40 feet up in the trees, after they would swarm it seemed they would disappear, and a couple days the same hive would swarm again. Is this normal? The last time they swarmed they must of left. Got a call from a neighbor a mile away with a swarm in the back yard eye level , finally got to give them a new home looked like mine, but they are now.

Phil’s reply:
There are two possibilities of what was going on.

One is that the swarms you saw went back into the hive they emerged from, which will happen if the queen does not leave with the swarm – a not uncommon phenomenon. During swarming the queen does not lead the swarm, but goes along with it. If she misses the boat, so to speak, the swarm will return to the hive after they discover she is not with them. However, they will swarm again later. The swarming behavior is delayed, but the urge is still there. To be certain that the bees went back into the hive, you must actually see them return. A couple of weeks ago, I had a swarm in a tree. While preparing to try to capture it, I lost sight of it for less than ten minutes. At the end of that time they were GONE! Did they go back in the original hive or did they just leave for another home? I’ll never know, since I did not actually see them go.

The other possibility is that you had a primary swarm followed by after swarms (also known as secondary swarms.) A hive may swarm multiple times, with some period of time in between. The original queen will leave with the first swarm. Secondary swarms depart with virgin queens as they emerge from the queen cells. If you did not actually see the swarms return to the hive, they may have been secondary swarms.

There is no way of knowing whether the swarm you captured is a swarm from your hive. I actually think it is more likely to have been from a bee tree near where you captured it. I have, on a number of occasions, captured swarms well away from any beekeeper’s hives, and asked myself where they came from – then walked around and found a bee tree. Question answered. Bee trees are not uncommon these days, at least here in Kentucky, and I hear the same thing from beekeepers in other states as well.


A Beekeepers Asks: Questions about missing queens and laying workers

A beekeeper asks:
About three weeks ago I caught a very large swarm and immediately placed it in two deep hive bodies with 10 frames in each. I looked in the hive today and found the top box was almost completely full of capped honey, lots of bees, but no brood. The bottom box, had some capped honey at the top corners of the frames, little pollen and two frames in the middle with some capped brood. I did not see the queen and my question is how to tell if a queen is present in the hive?

Phil’s reply:
I never worry about seeing the queen, unless I’m making nucs (I do not want to move her), re-queening, or doing a task where I really need her in hand. I depend on seeing eggs or larvae to determine her presence.

With this heavy nectar flow and a new swarm, you are not likely to see brood in both boxes, even with a big swarm. The bees are putting lots of nectar in now. If you are seeing eggs or larvae (uncapped brood) in the bottom box, you have a queen. Don’t worry about actually seeing her. If you look in the area (on these frames) where you are seeing the brood, that is the most likely place for her to be hanging out.

You may wish to put a honey super (or two) on that hive. I have 2 hives containing large swarms I have caught, which are putting honey in supers.

A beekeeper asks:
About three weeks ago I had a large swarm emerge from a hive (I saw and captured it). The top box in that hive is full of capped honey, but the bottom one is almost empty with only a few cells of capped brood. I did not see the queen. I’m concerned about the hive. Advice?

Phil’s reply:
You say there is some capped brood in the bottom hive body. That indicates that there was egg laying occurring less than three weeks ago, perhaps a few days longer if that is capped drone brood. It can take a hive between 2-3 weeks to produce a laying queen after it swarms and leaves capped queen cells. As I said in a recent post, queens emerge 7 to 8 days after the queen cells are capped. (And swarms will depart as soon as that happens.) Another week will pass before the virgin queen is ready to make her mating flights. During that time, she reaches sexual maturity and makes orientation flights. After successfully mating, she will start laying eggs in 2 to 3 days. Added up, it takes 2 to 3 weeks for the new queen to start laying eggs after a hive swarms. I would give it a few more days before considering installing a new queen. You may have a virgin, or a newly mated queen that has not yet started laying eggs.

I sometimes call this period, from just after the hive swarms until most of the brood in the hive emerges, a time of “apparent queenlessness”. It looks as though the colony is without a queen, but it may, in fact, be in the process of producing a new one. Many a beekeeper has contacted me at this time of year to tell me they thought a hive was queenless. They placed a queen in the hive or started to install one, and discovered eggs or young larvae. I advise patience before installing a replacement queen in a hive that seems to be queenless at this time of year.

A beekeeper asks:
I have a hive that has dwindled. There is a laying queen and I continually see eggs, but there is never brood. At one time I moved a frame of nurse bees into the hive, thinking that might be an issue, but it did not help. There are some capped drone cells which makes me wonder if the queen is not laying and workers are. The eggs seem normally positioned in the cells. Just curious what you thought.

Phil’s reply:
You may have a queen who has run out of sperm, so she is laying only drone eggs. (I have in the past called these infertile queens, but that doesn’t really sound right. They are fertile because they can lay eggs -just not fertilized eggs that develop into workers). Beekeepers often call them “drone layers”. With both laying workers and a queen that has run “dry”, you get only drone eggs. But if you’re seeing the queen, you probably do not have laying workers.

Laying workers is a condition that can develop in a hive after it becomes hopelessly queenless, when some of the workers respond to the lack of queen and brood pheromones by starting to lay eggs. Workers cannot mate, so when the do lay, the result is the same as when a queen dries – nothing but drone brood. Though workers are always capable of laying eggs, their urge to do so is suppressed by the pheromones present in a normal hive. Since brood pheromone plays a role in the suppression as well as pheromones from the queen, it takes several weeks for laying workers to develop even after the queen is gone. We can postpone this behavior by moving a frame or two of capped brood into a hive that has been queenless for a long period.

To help determine whether you have laying workers or a queen that has run out of sperm when you don’t see the queen and are finding only drone eggs, here is what to look for:

  • Laying workers: Only drone brood in the hive, and seen in worker sized cells; multiple eggs in a cell (always more than one laying worker in hive, so more than one of them may lay in a cell); the drone brood is scattered (they miss cells). The workers do not have the instinct to lay in every cell and to position the eggs properly.
  • Dry queen: Drone brood only, and seen in worker size cells; not scattered and no multiple eggs in cells. The queen is laying, just laying unfertilized eggs.

A beekeeper asks: New hive, when to install a second box and honey super? Do I keep feeding? Medications?

I installed my package last week. I have just one deep hive with a top feeder. When do I put on more hive sections and supers? Do I keep feeding? Do I need to medicate?

Let them draw out about 7-8 frames in the first deep brood box, then add the 2nd brood box. After they draw out 7-8 frames in the second brood box you can add a honey super.

See my earlier posts on medicating & feeding. I do recommend the feeding of ½ gallon to 1 gallon of sugar syrup containing the antibiotic fumagillin. I recommend no other medications at this time. I’ll discuss other disease and pest issues in future posts.

Keep feeding as long as they will take syrup while drawing out the brood frames. However, I’m finding they are not taking syrup as readily as in past years due to the VERY strong nectar flow we are having.

But once you add a honey super you must stop feeding sugar syrup. You only want pure nectar in the honey super frames; sugar syrup does not become honey.

A beekeeper asks: Why aren’t there bees on my locust trees?

My hives are practically surrounded by black locust trees in full bloom, yet I’ve never seen a bee or any other bug around those blossoms. I noticed the same thing the last couple of years. The bees are in a major nectar flow right now, but is it not the locust?

Two things can be going on.

One is time of day. Many plants only produce nectar for a short time of day. So you might not be looking at the blossoms at the right time of day.

Black locust tree

The other issue is quantity of nectar or plants available. You see this with clover a lot – nice clover bloom, but no bees on it. The bees would rather work a large patch of a single flower species rather than a small one, because we’re talking tens or hundreds of thousands of bees. So you have what you think is a nice patch of 15 locust trees, but a quarter of a mile away is a patch of 40 trees. Of course bees tell each other (through the dance language) where those patches are, and they communicate only the very good sources of nectar.


Black locust blossom

Another, related factor is that this year we seem to have everything blooming at one time. I’m seeing a lot of locust bloom as well, and I hope my bees are working it because it makes a wonderful honey. However, just now, there is also a tremendous bloom of bush honeysuckle, which is a very invasive, non-native plant. (Unfortunately many good nectar sources fall into this category.) It is flowering profusely, and I am definitely seeing bees on it.

Sometimes they are just working a plant (same species or different species) that they can get more nectar from more quickly or efficiently.