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.

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?