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dead bees on snow

When dead bees are a welcome sight!

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Dead bees a welcome sight?

Yeah, you heard me right.  Now let me explain…

dead bees on frameUsually seeing dead bees is a terrible thing to behold for a beekeeper.  A good deal of sadness whelms up when opening up a box and finding the colony dead or having absconded.  It’s like losing a friend…or 30,000 of them.  But yesterday it brought me a glimmer of hope and resulted in a very positive confirmation. Why in the world would that be?

It’s winter up here in Flagstaff. And that means snow. And more snow. And then it snows again.  Welcome to life in the mountains, my friends. This potentially creates a problem for both bees and beekeepers alike.  When winter sets in there’s a very real chance that some hives may not make it through the long cold.  Bees have been given a great deal of intelligence and can often survive in most cold environments for a period of time.  But extreme cold or extreme length of winter can spell doom for our little friends.

Bees do have a coping mechanism, however.  Much like antarctic penguins, the bees will ball up in cold times, and will rotate from outside to inside in a slow spiral dance, while vibrating their bodies to produce heat and keep the bee-ball warm.  Of course, right in the middle of this dance is the main lady of the royal ball…the queen.  They rotate around her, ensuring she is kept warm, while other bees take turns pulling food stores from the comb to bring back to feed her and other bees.  They can keep this up as long as they have the energy received from food supplies in the hive, or as long as it doesn’t get too cold to keep things warm.  That was my fear recently.

You see, we recently had some VERY cold temperatures.  When I was out in Parks last week I recorded -24F degrees.  That was the coldest I’ve ever seen in my life!  And that is a potential danger for losing a hive.  Even for local native bees here in Flagstaff.  But what a difference a week can make!  Just one week later we went from near-record cold to near-record high temps for this time of year.  Nearly 60 degrees and sunny yesterday all around the region!

dead bees on snowAfter spending the day at the Grand Canyon I decided to check in on our Parks pollination colony on the way back to see how things were.  Since it was so warm I knew a quick curious peek wouldn’t harm them and chill the hive.  As I tromped through the snow and approached the hive I noticed it…DEAD BEES ON THE SNOW!  Now, most would be saddened by this, but I was glad.  Why?  Because dead bees can’t fly themselves out of a hive and onto the ground.  What the dead bees outside the hive meant was that the colony was probably pretty strong and had been “cleaning house”.  Yes, throughout the winter bees will die in the hive, and they will drop to the bottom of the box awaiting the undertaker.  When the weather warms up other worker bees go about cleaning up the place.  They will carry dead bees out of the hive and drop them on the ground.  They will also use the time to fly out of the hive and use the bathroom outside.  They’re pretty clean that way.

As I walked up to the hive I saw a lone bee flying back and forth to the entrance and back out again and I knew there was hope.  So I popped open the top lid, and what did I see?  Bees packing the entire box and all the way up to the top frames of a double deep stack of boxes.  Not a few bees.  Not sick, lethargic bees.  But LOTS of bees, moving all around the frames just how I left them in the Fall!  I must say I was surprised, to say the least.  Having not checked in on them since October and having multiple nights of subzero temperatures I was sure they had frozen to death or had eaten all their honey stores in futility while trying to generate heat to stay warm.  But there they were, a golden moving carpet on every frame, as healthy as a bee can be.

Nate setting up the Community Garden hive in Parks

Setting up the Community Garden hive in Parks

So, to you who are new beekeepers. Don’t fear should you see a few dead bees outside the hive during winter, especially after the reprieve of a warm sunny day.  Should you see a pile of dead bees, rest assured that the undertaker is well at work, the workers peppering the ground have now crossed the river Styx, and your bees are probably alive and buzzing about on the inside just awaiting the new spring blooms and sweet nectar once again!

Musical Bees!

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Did you know that bees make music?  Perfect pitch, rhythm, and everything.  It’s true, and simply fascinating!

One way they do specifically is called “piping”.  Piping describes a noise made by virgin and mated queen bees during certain times of the virgin queens’ development. Fully developed virgin queens communicate through vibratory signals: “quacking” from virgin queens in their queen cells and “tooting” from queens free in the colony, collectively known as piping. A virgin queen may frequently pipe before she emerges from her cell and for a brief time afterward. Mated queens may briefly pipe after being released in a hive.

Piping is most common when there is more than one queen in a hive. It is postulated that the piping is a form of battle cry announcing to competing queens and the workers their willingness to fight. It may also be a signal to the worker bees which queen is the most worthwhile to support.

The piping sound is a G (aka A). The adult queen pipes for a two-second pulse followed by a series of quarter-second toots. The queens of Africanized bees produce more vigorous and frequent bouts of piping.  Pretty amazing isn’t it?

In another segment, I’ll write about how and why bumblebees often produce a perfect “Middle C” note and what it’s used for.

Click here for a video of what this sounds like when a queen bee is piping!

Flower Power!

If you haven’t gotten out and about into the local Flagstaff countryside, what are you waiting for? The wildflowers here in Northern Arizona are in full bloom everywhere you go. And you know what that means? LOTS of bee activity! We have been getting lots of requests for bee swarm removal, which means our bee buddies are growing and splitting and creating new colonies. Good for the local flowering plants, fruits, and vegetables!

I recently went out to a local community garden in Parks where we have one of our hives nearby. They requested one for pollinating their garden. Without adequate bee pollination, they have been hand-pollinating with q-tips! We freely placed a rescued hive out there and the ladies are doing great! So great in fact that I had to add a third deep hive box on top of the two brood boxes, dedicated to filling with honey and beeswax. That means we will soon have local honey collected from the Parks area to sell there at the community garden on Saturday! If you’re out in that area stop by and see all they grow there, and pick up some locally-made wildflower honey! Many people swear by it for helping their seasonal allergies.

If you have a bee swarm here in Flagstaff, Parks, or anywhere within the area let us know and we’ll come rescue them and put them to good use!

The Moment of Truth…

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I recently got a call from someone needing a bee swarm removed in the Prescott Valley of Arizona.  Although it’s about a 1 1/2 hour drive down there, I felt like this would be a great opportunity to get the word out about our bee removal and re-homing services.  Currently, we have a waiting list in the Flagstaff area of people and groups wanting bees or hives.  So when I got the call from someone saying they had a swarm in their tree I thought I should really jump on the opportunity.

Swarms are much easier to collect and a lot less work than established hives.  When bees swarm and ball up they tend to be much less aggressive and simply focused on staying together and finding a new home, rather than defending their hive and attacking people…but then again this is killer bee territory.  Ok, so maybe they have gotten a bad wrap, and don’t really deserve the term “killer”.  But there are also good reasons for that name, as a number of people, pets, and livestock have been the victim of this particular strain of Africanized hybrid bees that have been slowly spreading from Brazil in the 1950s and entering into the US by 1990, becoming the most successful invasive takeover of any other species of plant or animal.  Most of southern Arizona is 90% Africanized territory, whereas here in Flagstaff we’re probably hovering around 30%.  So that means that down near the middle we’ve got around a 50/50 chance of encountering an Africanized (killer) bee swarm.  Something not favorable for most re-homing situations.

Thinking about this I began to wonder. Was my journey down south going to be successful?  Would it be worth my time?  Would I be able to find a home for these ladies, or would they be too difficult to pass on to someone else?  Apart from simply being able to help out someone in need of removal, I also found out that the lady requesting our help was highly allergic to bees and even carried an epi-pen.  So I figured “Hey, helping someone out in need, plus a little road trip, experience, and the potential for new bees for those on our waiting list? Why not?”  Driving down south to the Prescott Valley area I went a little off the main roads in the area to a charming country home that was idyllic for living the farm-to-fork lifestyle.  Meeting Melanie as I got there, she showed me around a bit. Herb gardens, fruit trees, fancy free-range chickens, geese, cats, dogs, and…bees.

Prescott Valley Bee Swarm BallThere they were, the reason why I had come all this way.  As I approached one of the small cherry trees they had planted, there was a black void about the size of a football in the midst of green leaves.  The bee swarm.  After talking with Melanie for a few minutes about the nature of bees and swarms and my plans to remove and re-home them, I had her retreat back to the safety of her house since she was allergic and because after all, this was potential “killer bee country”.  The last thing I would want to happen would for her to get stung by my shaking up the swarm.  So there I was, just me, the bees, and a pen of chickens nearby clucking and cooing nervously.

When approaching a bee removal, most of what you do for the first half of removal is survey the situation, plan a course of action, change that plan, get a drink of water, think of your alternative removal options, check for holes and openings in your outfit, and pray to the Maker that a bee doesn’t find its way up the inside of your pant leg.  The easiest way to remove the bees in a swarm like this would be to cut the branch they’re on, lower it into the box, brush them off, and go home.  That wasn’t going to be an option here.  Being a young fruit tree I didn’t want to remove any branches, and besides, they were balled at an intersection of about 3 different branches.  Time for plan B.

Time for the moment of truth…

Was this an Africanized colony?  Would they go crazy and prevent any sort of easy capture?  Would they find their way up my pant leg and totally ruin my day and potential for future child-rearing?  Time to find out.  So just how do you get a swarm of bees out of a tree?  You shake them off. Grab hold of the branch and shake them off so that they come crashing down through the branches and leaves, plummeting towards the earth…hopefully in a precisely quasi-calculated direction near the boxes you have beneath.  When you shake them the inescapable force of gravity hurdles them downward into a box, branch, ground, or foot…resulting in a cloud of black and yellow. You then calmly step back through the mellifera maelstrom of 5,000 little dive-bombers to survey the carnage and regroup.

So there I was with my hand on the branch, thinking through this all…and over thinking some issues (mostly pant leg related ones).  Well, there’s no time like the present.  Sorry ladies.  Here we go.  Showtime.

Remember that frightening sound when you’ve fallen asleep on the couch watching a movie and the VCR powers off?  For some reason, the pocket-protecting-powerminds that created and built the technology of the tv decided to play the world’s greatest practical joke.  The invention of the loudest 15 seconds of your life…white noise.  That insanely loud “chshhhhhhhhhh” that makes you jump up in a panic, frantically pushing every button on the tv (except the right one) trying in vain to end the chaotic interpretive dancing of black and white squiggles across your screen, while blasting all at once every sound known to man through those speakers.  For you progeny of the 90s and beyond, you have no idea what I mean and have just wasted 30 seconds of your life.  My practical joke on you.

Recall that sound and startled feeling, and you might understand what it’s like when you’ve shaken a swarm of bees out of a tree. Roaring white noise, and chaotic squiggles dancing in every direction.  Step…back…slowly.  Did the queen come down with most of the bees, or is she still remaining on the branch with 1/3 of the bees?  Who knows.  Can’t tell.  Gotta re-shake the branch.  More bees, more chaos, more pant leg checking.  Repeat this process a few times.  Grab a handful of bees off the branch and shake them into the sea of other bees in the little hive box.  Hey, look at this!  They’re all starting to collect themselves into the same box now.  Bees from the branch, the grass, other boxes, your face…all starting to make their way back together.  Now to collect the stragglers with a little help from the girls.

Prescott Valley Bee Swarm FunnelTake the bee box about 20 feet away from the tree which still smells like where the bees balled up at, put a lid with a hole in it on top, and let the little ladies call everyone else home. A literal booty call.  Backsides high in the air and standing on their tippytoes a small gathering of bees begin to fan their wings around the hive box entrance while wafting pheromones into the air, signaling to any bees in the air that this is where they’ve all gone and to join them.  Take a little plastic funnel called a “bee escape”, reverse it, place it over the hole, and you have a swarm straggler collection device!  One by one the bees make their way down the funnel and into the box, while having a hard time going back out the funnel in the opposite direction. Pretty soon the tree and air is nearly devoid of bees, and they’re all in the box.  This is when you open your mind to the possibility that you’ve done it.  You’ve actually pulled this off.  And then you realize that these bees aren’t all that aggressive and haven’t been trying to destroy you.  Even after going through all that, they still seem pretty mild-mannered and easygoing.  Wow.  I could have a potentially workable hive here!

After clean-up and talking to Melanie a bit more about her animal and gardening operation there, she went out of her way with a donation for gas and my time, and a handful of herbs she’s been growing in her front garden.  A fair trade I’d say.  Isn’t that what life, neighbors, and even complete strangers should be about?  Helping out one another and giving whatever tutelage, talent, or thyme you may have extra of?  Sure would make the world a better place if we all did that.  That’s the kind of people I’ve come to find here in Flagstaff and Northern Arizona.  Sure, like the bees, we may have some people that are aggressive, defensive, and downright mean.  But we also have many I’ve come across in random places that are as golden and warm as a glowing beeswax candle, and that helps add just a little more sweetness to life each and every day.  Those are the people I want in my hive.


Royal Kenyon BeeWorks


10 fascinating facts about bees…

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  1. Bees can actually get to “know” their owner, and recognize him/her. Especially if kept in proximity to people and not kept in isolation miles away from civilization.

  2. The Queen of a colony will mate only once in her lifetime of maybe several years and lay around 2000 eggs a day every season until she dies. The drone which fertilized the Queen, himself fatherless, the product of an unimpregnated egg, becomes the father of thousands upon thousands of worker bees, and many fully developed Queens. After his one mating, he dies.

  3. The Queen can choose to impregnate an egg or not at will. An impregnated egg can be hatched by the workers, also at will, as either an undeveloped female like themselves or a fully developed Queen to carry on the species.

  4. Bees can in effect “speak” to each other, by means of their antennae, or feelers. The antennae, by their motions, form a language, in which wants, needs, and desires can be communicated.

  5. Although it is commonly believed that a bee will die once it has stung, due to the barbs on it. In fact, if left undisturbed, the bee can work its sting out without causing itself injury. Of course, the pain caused by the sting usually results in the bee being attacked by its victim, not giving it enough time to withdraw undamaged.


  6. A prolific Queen will, during her lifetime, lay one and a half million eggs. If these were to be laid end to end, the resulting line would stretch for nearly two miles. A good Queen is able to lay on average two eggs a minute for weeks on end. The lowest estimate would mean she lays twice her own weight daily.

  7. Propolis is a sticky, resinous substance gathered by bees from pine, horse-chestnut, and other trees, as they carry pollen on their hind legs. Propolis is used by the bees for filling up cracks, keeping out drafts, and making the hive watertight.

  8. While bees are not normally aggressive, if they consider themselves and the colony to be in danger they can, and will, attack with fury. They have even been used as weapons, and there are cases on record of whole regiments being put to flight by having hives hurled at them. Riots have also been subdued by the use of bees in this manner.

  9. The egg from which a Queen is to be reared, like the egg which is to produce a worker, hatches in three days. For six days more it continues in its larval state. It then spins its cocoon, is transformed into a nymph, and on the sixteenth day from the laying of the egg, it emerges as a perfect virgin queen. The vacant cell is never used again, and is usually cut down within a few hours.

  10. Sometimes a colony will find its Queen to be defective. Maybe she is infertile from not mating soon enough, or for a number of reasons only the bees themselves know. If that is the case the colony will “ball” the Queen. That is, they will entirely surround her, interlacing their bodiesArticle Submission, forming nothing less than a living prison. The queen is immobilized and unable to move. She will be kept imprisoned like this for up to twenty-four hours if necessary. Until she dies of suffocation or hunger.

Pollination and Bees

It has often been said that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. Most crops grown for their fruits (including vegetables such as squash, cucumber, tomato and eggplant), nuts, seeds, fiber (such as cotton), and hay (alfalfa grown to feed livestock), require pollination by insects.
Pollinating insects also play a critical role in maintaining natural plant communities and ensuring the production of seeds in most flowering plants. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower of the same species, which results in the fertilization of plant ovaries and the production of seeds. The main insect pollinators, by far, are bees, and while European honey bees are the best known and widely managed pollinators, there are also hundreds of other species of bees, mostly solitary ground-nesting species, that contribute some level of pollination services to crops and are very important in natural plant communities.

Why are bees good pollinators?

Bees make excellent pollinators because most of their life is spent collecting pollen, a source of protein that they feed to their developing offspring. When a bee lands on a flower, the hairs all over the bees’ body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs enable them to groom the pollen into specialized brushes or pockets on their legs or body, and then carry it back to their nest. Individual bees tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time, which means it is more likely that pollen from one flower will be transferred to another flower of the same species by a particular bee. Many plants require this kind of pollen distribution, known as cross-pollination, in order to produce viable seeds. The business of collecting pollen requires a lot of energy, and so many flowers attract and also reward bees with nectar, a mixture of water and sugars produced by plants.

Where and how do bees live?

Most bee species dig nests in soil, while others utilize plants, either by boring holes in pithy plant stems or wood, or by nesting in galleries made by wood-boring beetles in trees or other preexisting cavities. Bumblebees are known to nest in abandoned rodent burrows and feral honey bees are known to nest in tree hollows. Bees use a variety of materials to build their nests. Most bees line their nest cells with a waxy material they produce themselves, but others use pieces of leaves, small pebbles mixed with resin from tree sap, or mud to form the cells in which they lay their egg.

Why do bees need flowers throughout the growing season?

Many bee species are solitary (each female produces offspring in her own nest) with only one generation of bees produced per year. However, other species nest communally (several females share a nest) or have elaborate social structures with the division of labor within the colony (usually with a single queen and many workers). These kinds of bees produce multiple generations per year. This means that bees that produce multiple generations each year need food resources (pollen and nectar) across most of the growing season to produce strong colonies. Providing plants in a landscape with overlapping bloom periods will help these bees survive and prosper.