bee stories

When your bees mess with you

On Friday I had one easy job to do. One of my triple-deep hives overwintered thanks to the cartloads of sugar I had trucked out of Costco since December.  Every time I checked, the cluster was on the top bars and the sugar was gone, so I just kept feeding.

Since it was finally warm enough to open things up, I decided to consolidate the brood into one deep and remove the other two. Once I got the bees squished into a single deep, I planned to put a comb honey super on top, just long enough to catch the maple flow. At least, that was the theory.

So being the organized type, I drew a quick diagram of the hive I would end up with plus a list of equipment I would need. The whole job would take thirty minutes at most.

Trouble from the start

The trouble began at the beginning. I suspected the hive wasn’t overly populous, but kind of average. But when I popped the lid and removed the quilt, the bees didn’t exactly flow over the top. Instead, they exploded like a cherry bomb; a shrapnel of bees shot in all directions. I was shocked.

The last feeding of sugar was gone, of course, so I thought the top box would be light. But I couldn’t begin to move it, even after I wedged it loose with a hive tool. Thanks to being organized, I had brought along an empty deep. I began to remove frames, one by one, starting at the end.

The first was heavy with honey. And the second. And the third. The next four were filled with brood in a pattern solid as granite. I couldn’t find a single empty cell. The last three frames were also filled with honey.

Honey bee trickery

So what gives? Thanks to these twerps, I was supporting the sugar industry all by myself while they hoarded their honey for some higher purpose that I wasn’t privy to.

Irritated, I moved on to the second box. It also contained brood—about two-and-a-half frames—and six frames of honey. And the bottom? You guessed it: six more frames of honey. Eighteen frames of honey while I’m driving back and forth to Costco—twelve miles and four stomach-lurching roundabouts in each direction. I was furious.

At this point I decided to regroup. There was clearly enough brood and honey for two hives, so I decided to make a split. I went back to the house and got more equipment because my plan and well-organized list were now meaningless. I decided to move the queen into the new split, hoping the old colony might think it swarmed.

A queen gone AWOL

After so many years, I’m completely confident in my ability to find the queen. No problem. Scan the brood combs and she will reveal herself. Only she didn’t. Not the first time through. Not the second time through. Stupidity overwhelmed me and I tried a third pass. Nothing.

So after two hours I ended up with two colonies in two single deeps, both with scads of honey, both with comb honey supers, one with a queen and one without, and me having no idea which is which.

In the end, I stood before my hives­­ feeling like an idiot. Bees had mucked with me. They made me drive to town and spend money, they hid their queen, they negated my list and destroyed my plans. They swallowed up my whole afternoon and probably laughed at my funny clothes.

As I stood there, the thick smell of brood, redolent of uncooked beef, held me in awe. While I inhaled the feral scent, a woodpecker rattled his brains in search of the next meal. Behind the hives a baby opossum poked through new greens and eyed me curiously. In that moment I once again decided that, indeed, beekeeping is worth the trouble. Yes, even when they mess with you.


I’m not the only one who likes the smell of fresh brood. © Rusty Burlew.



  • I always enjoy your snapshot tales of beekeeping. And it’s good to be reminded that the bees don’t know or care what all the books say about their behavior…the bees will do whatever they want to do.

  • I just love this. You make me feel so normal, Rusty. It is refreshing to hear from someone with such experience that you can still, even if only on occasion, have some of the “blunders” a fairly young beekeeper can have. It gives me a bit more confidence that I’m not such a gewb in my apiary. Well, okay, I AM such a gewb, but I’m kinda normal. 😉

  • I’m a complete newb with only research under my belt…no experience with bees yet. But at the bee club meetings, it’s funny how the experts talk like there are certain things you HAVE to do or you’ve just screwed up…particularly as it relates to things like doing splits.

    For example, they say when doing a split, you relocate the hive with the queen and leave the “new” queenless hive from the split in the old hive’s location so all the workers out in the field come back to the new hive. The theory being the queenless hive isn’t going to be making new bees until a mated queen exists. However the hive with the queen can tolerate it’s foragers not coming back since there’s a queen to keep the egg-laying process going. And of course, both hives have brood at varying stages of maturity.

    So in this case where you don’t know where the queen is, what do you do? It sounds like you just cross your fingers, do what you are going to do, and hope all works out for both hives. Is there anything else you looked for, considered, or did based on experience to increase the chances of a successful split?

    I know the mechanics of performing a split wasn’t your point in this post…but I couldn’t help thinking if I were in this scenario, what is the best strategy?

    • You know, Chris, I can’t wait until you get bees so we can stop talking hypotheticals. Promise to e-mail me that very day. Promise? But since you asked, I really don’t like to apply rules to splitting. On my site, as you know, I describe in painful detail eight or ten ways to make a split. But those are for people who like recipes. For me, I think about where I want to be. Then I assess where I am. And then I decide how to get there.

      Like I stated in the post, I had no intention of splitting, but when I opened the hive I saw an opportunity. So I just did it. The queen isn’t a big deal. When I couldn’t find her, I just divided the brood as equally as I could, especially the eggs. Since both have eggs, either one can raise a queen. Drones are flying, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

      In a few days, I will check both hives for eggs. Whoever has eggs has a queen. Then I will check to see if the other hive has built queen cells. If it has, we’re good to go. If it hasn’t, I will add more eggs from another hive. As soon as I see queen cells, I will let it alone to do its thing.

      When I left the hives on Friday, the old hive had lots of coming and going; the new hive looked like a ghost town. That is normal since all the foragers return to the old hive. By the next day, the new hive had activity. That is because as new bees hatch and become nurses, the former nurses become foragers. Today, three days later, they both look like normal hives from the outside. Tomorrow, or maybe Tuesday, I will open up and, as I said above, I will see who has a queen and then check on the other for queen cells.

      Beekeeping is like driving a car. When you first learn to drive you are given a little book with all kinds of rules and warnings and recommendations. But after you drive for a while, you don’t think about all that, you’ve internalized it. You know how to do it from experience. Same with beekeeping, after a while you don’t need a cookbook, you just look at the situation and see what you need to do.

      • I did my first split this spring (and based on the ridiculous # of bees still in the orginal hive, should’ve done a 50/50 split like you describe – one more thing learned!). A week after splitting, I saw several queen cells. Then as expected, I saw the cells opened on time, but didn’t identify the virgin queen(s) – not a surprise with my difficulty in finding queens. Just for good measure, I added another frame of eggs to the hive at that time. With the weather we’ve been having, today is the first day that new queen could go a-matin’, about 3-4 days after she was “scheduled” to go out and mate – and based on the forecast, today may be the only chance.

        So….my question is, when should I check to see if the queen was able to mate successfully and is laying? I have a dozen, “well then, what if…” questions, but will save most of them for after I check and see if the split was successful. My biggest fear is having the hive dissolve into laying workers, which I have had too much experience with. 🙁 If the split is not successful, I can combine it with a nuc I have, but don’t want to risk laying workers causing “trouble” for that nuc queen.

        Thanks for all your ideas/input/advice/posts. You are awesome! 🙂

        • Gretchen,

          This is a hard question to answer. After a virgin queen emerges, she may mature for 3 to 5 days before she is ready to fly. Assuming weather is good, she may fly for a day or two, and then she takes another few days before she starts to lay. So it is possible to have a queen laying in about 8 or 9 days after emergence, but about two weeks seems more common. But throw in the rainy weather and it could take much longer.

          I have a hive I split in April. I see the queen in there, walking around, owning the place, but not laying. I have no idea whether she’s mated or not. We’ve had a few nice days but certainly not many. I just wish she would get on with it.

          • I’m curious what happened with your queen. When/did she start laying? I wonder if a mating window is missed, how long she can wait to go out again and mate — will she hang tight for a week or more?

            Meanwhile, my split is doing great. I peeked in at a timing that I thought would be just the beginning of egg laying if the queen was mated on that one sunny day. Well surprise, eggs + larvae (up to 5 days old in appearance) — she must have snuck out during a break earlier in the week (typical young, virile teen-ager, eh?). I checked again 1-1/2 weeks later to make sure I wasn’t being fooled, and saw superlative laying. I feel like a proud auntie!

            • Gretchen,

              The first time I checked, which was about three weeks later, I found a beautiful little queen but no eggs or larvae in the split. The original hive still had their queen and the colony was growing.

              I believe the little queen was still a virgin when I saw her; she was running around the end combs and no one was paying her any attention. I waited another two weeks and checked again and found three frames of eggs and capped brood and the queen was now large and acting queen-like. So really, it was like magic. The process still amazes me.

  • Oh, this makes me feel so much better. I mean, I’m sorry you were frustrated and but it’s encouraging for those of us who are new to all this and still very overwhelmed and perplexed at times:-).

  • Wow Rusty, your story could have been written by me. Thanks for a reminding me that even “experts” like you can still have the same issues that a new be keeper like me can have.

  • What a great writer you are!!! You had me completely absorbed and amused, and a bit more educated.
    Thank you.

    P.S. – Did you ever find the missing queen bee?

  • I absolutely love your writing style as well. And your graciously shared information is helping me so much with my bees.

  • RB and Brynn,

    You could give me no greater compliment. Writing is the one thing I’ve spent a lifetime trying to learn, so when someone notices, I’m pleased no end.

    All this is going to my head and soon no one will be able to live with me. Oh well. It’s so worth it.

  • Ditto what RB and Brynn said about the gifted writing style. I am NOT a writer, but appreciate a “good read.” There is a typo that made me smile –when you responded to them you said “pleased no end.” 🙂 That’s what I would do…

    But more importantly thank you for taking the time to help this novice. I’m only three years learning with my bees. And I’ve really enjoyed your analytical and no-nonsense approach. I know it will help with my girls. Again, I know it’s a time consumer so thank you so much.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the compliment. I always fix typos when I can, but I don’t know what you mean here. “Pleased no end” is the expression that I intended to use. I don’t know the derivation of the phrase, but it is fairly common.

  • Found this post, and got a chuckle over your trips to Costco for sugar.

    When I did spring cleaning on the colonies here this year, a month later than last year, I was shocked to find the colony that had continually taken sugar over the winter had about 8 frames of honey left in the double deep. Then to add insult to the injury, when I got down to the screened bottom board, I couldn’t get the slider to pull out. A quick check showed why. The area between the screen and the slider was chock full of sugar, all crystallized into a big solid lump.

    We didn’t get to properly winterize the colonies this year because we had to move them very late in the season, over a considerable distance. The colony in question was light going into the winter, weighed in just under 80 lb, a bit light for a double deep, so we kept an eye on it, and gave them sugar when there was none left on the top of the inner cover.

    My guess, some OCD in the area of cleaning up on top of the inner cover, and what sugar they didn’t eat, they threw away. Then along comes silly beekeeper and makes a mess of the inner cover by pouring a bunch of sugar over the top of it.

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