Drone brood
Lighting the smoker
Capped honey
Brood nest
Comb honey
Different types of honey


UVA Bee School is an informal seminar at the University of Virginia on the mathematics of honeybee behavior and the practice of beekeeping. It's part academic pursuit and part social activity, honoring the University's unique tradition of close student-faculty friendship. It's led by Associate Professor of Mathematics Christian Gromoll, and generously supported by the Mead Endowment.
Hive intelligence
Honeybees survive by acquisition, defense, and efficient allocation of various resources, to enable successful overwintering and reproduction. This requires sophisticated decision making, akin to that needed by manufacturing firms, and beyond the capability of a single bee's brain. But when each bee follows simple sets of rules, the aggregate effect creates an emergent intelligence for the colony as a whole, able to react to a dynamic environment and achieve complex optimizations.
We're interested in understanding some of the mathematical principles underlying the colony intelligence of honeybees. We meet roughly every other week from October through April to discuss articles from the scientific literature on honeybees. We also do some mathematical modeling of specific honeybee optimization behaviors. Along the way, we learn some aspects of honeybee biology and ecology, as well as the history and practice of beekeeping.
We're also interested in getting to know each other, and getting to know the bees. In the Fall and Spring, we meet regularly at Professor Gromoll's home for hands-on activities in the apiary. This includes an opening breakfast in the Fall, and a dinner in the Spring. We'll also start a new honeybee colony for the group, and take a field trip to a larger apiary in the area.

06 May 2012


Yesterday evening we had our final official bee school event, a closing dinner featuring as much honey as possible — or as much as reasonable, really. There was a leg of lamb with polenta and honey in the jus, field greens with honey vinaigrette, and for dessert a classic Bienenstich, or "bee sting" cake. We all enjoyed a lovely evening out on the back porch.

But somehow it's not the end. The bee schoolers all have plans to stop by and inspect the observation hive later this summer. Rowan has received a grant to run an experiment on the Small Hive Beetle, a recent honeybee pest, and I'll be helping her with that. She's already set up six hives for the experiment at UVA's Morven Farm. And there's also talk of running another bee school in the near future, or maybe one of the new Pavilion seminars along similar lines.

Lots of excitement to come. For now, I'm going to go check the observation hive...

01 May 2012

Observation hive

At the beginning of May we finally installed the observation hive. This hive is well ventilated and can hold eight deep frames, in four pairs (only three pairs are currently installed in the photo). So it's big enough to exist as a permanent hive. That is, the frames are permanently behind glass (and also wooden panels when not being observed), as opposed to being placed there temporarily as is done with smaller observation hives. This way we can pop off the panels any time we want, year round, for a glimpse into the status of this honey bee colony. Of course, you can't see in between the pairs of parallel frames. But the two outer sides give a view of half of the entire hive. That's more than enough to see all activities going on inside, and asses the state of things.

The colony that we installed had some trouble initially, but they've been rebounding well over the last few weeks. The colony should be nice and strong by the end of the summer, in time for visits by returning beeschoolers!

14 April 2012

Cut out in Kerchof Hall

Back in the Fall, Ryan Taylor of UVA Facilities Management contacted me to see if the bee school could help remove a bee hive that had taken up residence in a cornice high up on Kerchof Hall. I couldn't resist the serendipity. Here we were learning about the mechanism honey bee swarms use to select a new cavity to dwell in, and learn that a swarm had picked a spot right in our own math building, above Professor Kuhn's office! Now that's project-based learning.

Actually, this particular colony must have moved in several seasons ago, as it turned out to be huge. In the photo above, it extended more than five feet from the end of the cornice that abuts the brick wall to the left over Kuhn's office window.

Since this is UVA, we had access to some high-tech tools, including a thermographic camera. However, since most of the bees are in the broodnest, that's where the heat is generated. The honey combs that extend back from the broodnest are not much above ambient temperature, so the infra red images only hinted at the size of this hive. Notice the end of the dark blue component of the color streak showing the colony. That's actually where the last combs ended up being.

The first step was to get some advice as this was my first cut out and the location was tricky, being 80 feet up off the ground. Brian Gallagher, president of the Central Virginia Beekeepers Association, was very generous explaining all the details of such an operation. You need a lot: a bee vacuum for pulling bees off of combs, 20 or so five gallon buckets for holding all the honey comb, wooden frames pre-strung with twine to place brood combs into, and a variety of tools.

It's a two-man job. One person vacuums bees off of a comb, cuts it out with a knife, then turns to allow the second person to vacuum bees off of the other side. Then it gets dumped into a bucket (honey) or trimmed to fit a Langstroth frame and strung into place (brood). Essentially, the entire hive is transported away in three separate parts: bees, honey, and brood combs. Then you put it back together at home and have an instant full-strength hive.

UVA rented a hydraulic lift to get us up there. Chris Herndon, one of UVA's carpenters, went up with me first to open up the cornice. We first drilled a series of holes to see how far back the hive went We were amazed how far back we had to go before no more bees would exit the holes. We confirmed with a bore scope and then sawed open the cornice with a recip saw. Here's what we saw:

Next, Chris sent Rowan and me up in the basket to start the extraction. We started in the back and spent over two hours going through the honey, comb by comb.

Then Rowan was relieved by Jonathan, and we spent another two hours cutting out the brood nest and finishing up. We even spotted the queen and caught her in a queen clip. She spent the rest of the time in Jonathan's pocket.

In the end, we took about 4 lbs of bees, a large broodnest, and 145 lbs of honey comb out of the building. The colony is now working for me in my bee yard. They've already filled more than a medium super with honey comb (40 lbs of honey).

Here's the sampling of fresh honey comb we put out in the Mathematics lobby. Everyone seemed to appreciate the hard work of their former office mates!

This is Chris after he got stung in the head down on the ground by an exasperated bee, and decided to put his veil back on. A few more photos are here.

13 April 2012

Swarm 2

We got a call from neighbor Mark Reed to come retrieve a swarm that had settled in the tree at the end of his driveway. As luck would have it, his call came right before our regularly scheduled Friday afternoon bee school meeting, so the "squad" was already on its way over.

We made it over to the Reed's in Forest Lakes about 40 minutes later. The swarm had completely settled and was quietly going about its business sending out nesting site scouts.

This swarm was only about 10-15 feet up, easily reached with the ladder. But it was awkwardly located on two crossing branches, and was also surrounded by branches, one of which we had to prune. After wetting down the swarm, we shook the branches until most of the bees had fallen into our swarm box. It wasn't a particularly clean operation though, and we put a lot of bees in the air. Our onlookers commented at one point that it looked like we were taking a shower with bees.

We could only hope we got the queen in the box. We placed it at the base of the tree and watched for a bit. The general flow of bees was into the box. The remains of the cluster of bees up on the branch grew a little at first, but then began to dwindle. So we were pretty sure we had the queen in the swarm box. We decided to leave it there for the rest of the afternoon and let all the bees find their way in.

I returned after dark to retrieve the box. The kids, being excellent guardians, had put this sign up next to the swarm box. The rest of the photos are here.

07 April 2012


There's been so much action I haven't had time to keep up with the blog. I got home in the afternoon on the last day of March to find one of the colonies in my bee yard had just swarmed. They were still in the process of alighting on this branch of our large tulip tree when I saw them, or rather heard them. A swarm at home is very convenient to catch, and I had them in a box a short while later. Unfortunately, their mind was made up. Although they spent several days in the new hive I set up for them, and even began drawing out two pretty big combs, they decided to move out anyway. I found the hive empty the fourth morning after they swarmed.

We've been studying how swarms vote on the best cavity to serve as their new home. An interesting question is what happens when a beekeeper intervenes by hiving the swarm. Usually the bees take up residence in the hive they are given; so either their voting process is interrupted or the man made hive is voted the best. Why did this swarm leave? Did another cavity out-campaign the lovely Langstroth hive I provided, or did the swarm process somehow restart?

24 March 2012

Monticello bees

On Friday we took a little field trip to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, to see the new apiary there. Our host was Paul Legrand, the volunteer beekeeper at Monticello. Paul met us at the visitor center and then we got to drive up to the house in our car, under the watchful eye of Monticello security - they're pretty serious over there.

Paul currently keeps four hives near the house and is working on establishing a second apiary a mile or so away. The setting is quite picturesque, surrounded by blossoming redbuds and fruit trees. And of course, there's also the electric fence to keep out the bears.

After donning veils and lighting the smoker, we opened up the hives to take a look. All colonies are already very strong, with plenty of nectar coming in. The honey flow seems to be almost a month early this year. One colony had already swarmed, as evidenced by several empty queen cells on the combs (see photo below).

Paul uses styrofoam hive bodies for his bottom two brood boxes. He says the added insulation keeps the bees warmer in winter and cooler in summer. You might think Thomas Jefferson had no access to styrofoam, but a little known fact turns out to be that...just kidding. Actually, Jefferson predated even the modern Langstroth hive. In his time bees would have been kept in skeps - those inverted dome-like baskets. We asked Paul if Management gave him a hard time about that. He said there were some raised eyebrows initially, but he convinced them his way was healthier for the bees.

You can see the empty queen cell on the right side of the above photo. Just after the old queen left the hive with a swarm of bees to establish a new colony, a new queen emerged from this cell and fought to the death with other emerging queens. The winner is busy laying eggs and building the population of this colony.

Before we left, Paul handed us a jar of honey made by Monticello's very own honey bees. We'll open it up for our dinner event in May. Thanks for hosting us Paul! Some more photos of our visit are here.

12 March 2012

Spring check

Checked the bees. All hives still have lots of honey stores and are getting active again. I cleaned out the collapsed combs from the bottom of the TBH. The bees had used up the honey from them, so it was easy. Our observation hives have arrived; we need to paint them and get the glass. Nucs and queens have been ordered.

30 January 2012

Depths of winter...

It's the 30th of January and 50F outside. The flowering quince is...flowering, the bees are flying, and pollen is coming in. Crazy. Two years ago at this time I shot the winter photos at the top of the page.

29 January 2012

Bees in the math building!

A swarm has moved into Kerchof Hall, somewhere near the men's room. I guess they heard about Beeschool! Ryan Taylor, the Central Grounds Superintendant, called me a few weeks ago to ask if we could help them remove it. By then it was cold, so the bees were clustering and out of sight. The plan is to wait until spring and see if they survive the winter. If they start flying again, we'll see if we can help Facilities Management collect the errant colony and give them a new home. Stay tuned...