Hive report: swarm season

440px-bee_swarmThis is the season for swarming.  There are some things you should know about swarms and what to do if you happen upon one.

Swarming is a natural thing that honey bees do. It’s reproduction on a colony level.  Only a healthy, strong colony can swarm. While we as beekeepers do everything we can to prevent swarming because it decreases the size of the colony and, thus, honey production, it does happen. One of my colonies just swarmed. I was fortunate enough to retrieve the swarm and they are now inhabiting the third hive in my apiary. So, my apiary has grown because the bees swarmed.  This is also good.

A swarm happens when the bees think that they need more room for the queen to lay eggs and to store honey. There is preparation within the colony for the swarm–after all, this is splitting the colony into two.

Each colony must have a queen–i.e. in bee-speak, be queenright. The queen who was with the colony is going to fly away with the swarm.  That would leave the colony remaining in the hive without a queen–and that would spell the death of the colony but before the swarm leaves, the worker bees have started rearing a new queen for themselves: they will build special “queen cups” into which the queen will lay eggs before she starts getting ready to lead the swarm out of the hive.  The workers remaining in the hive will feed those larvae in the queen cells appropriately so that they grow up to be queens.

Honeybee Democracy Cover ImageOnce these preparations are in progress, the queen will lead the swarm out of the hive, Once out of the hive, the bees will make a temporary stop somewhere not too far away while the process of selecting a new home goes on.  That’s when you see the bunches of bees in some truly strange places. There’s a complicated process going on with the swarm: scout bees are going out and looking for potential new homes. Scouts return and report, other scouts check out the possibilities, and finally, there is agreement on a suitable site.  At that point, the swarm leaves their temporary resting place and moves to the new home–with their queen, to establish a new colony and begin drawing comb for the queen to lay eggs in, and in which to store honey.  It’s a fascinating and complicated process, wonderfully described by Thomas Seeley in Honeybee Democracy. It’s a collective, democratic process by this swarm bees.

Things that you should know about swarms: first and most importantly, they are not dangerous. The honey bees making up the swarm are very docile. They have gorged on honey before leaving the hive so that they can survive the search for a new home. They don’t have a home to protect–they out looking for a new home. They are not going to attack. Extermination is not necessary (except in very rare circumstances). What you want to do is to contact your local beekeepers’ association–or a local beekeeper. Someone will come with appropriate gear and take the swarm away to a new home; they are highly prized as a way to get started in beekeeping or to increase the size of an apiary.

Should the swarm not be collected by a beekeeper who will provide a hive, or find a suitable cavity you will occasionally see comb built in the open air–not the best in terms of long-term survival.

Meanwhile, back in the hive of origin, the workers are busily raising new queens. Yes, the plural is intentional. Having a queen is necessary for the survival of the hive so the workers will raise several queens to be sure of success. However, a colony will have only a single queen–it’s not a shared job. The first of the queens to emerge from the queen cell is going to wipe out the other rivals–it can be brutal in the hive at times.  This hive will now have a virgin queen, who will leave the hive to mate (with multiple drones) in a drone congregation area, return to the hive, and begin her egg-laying duties.

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My second hive (the GA girls) and now in the process of requeening the colony. I can only hope that the workers rear a good queen to replace the one that left with the swarm, and hope that she will be well-mated.  There are a lot of things that can interfere with this process–cold, rainy weather, a predator needing a meal while this virgin queen is on her mating flight, or getting splatted by a huge raindrop on her way home.

With fingers crossed, I’m hoping for a good, new queen for replacement. If the normal sequence of events doesn’t work, then it is possible to purchase a new queen from professional breeders but since this was a successfully overwintered, productive colony, I  would like to keep these genetics going by allowing them to produce their own new queen.

Now it’s more anxious, not likely patient, waiting for the new queen.

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Hive report: Swarm!

Yesterday (28 March) it was finally warm enough for me to do a hive inspection at the same time that I could take off work. So I inspected Hive A (affectionately knows as Dave’s Bees). The population was very heavy, there was brood in the deep, and in two medium supers.  I didn’t see much nectar in the hive, but there was pollen.  Unfortunately, the girls got really PO’d part way through and I had to let them calm down. I think that was partly nectar dearth and the fact that it was cloudy and fairly windy. So that inspection was not one where I pulled every single frame. But I didn’t see swarm or supersedure cells, but I did add another medium super to give them some more room.

Then I went to Hive B (the GA girls) but they had been affected by the alarm pheromone from Hive A, and were PO’d from the first contact. So, being a wuss, I thought that since the weather forecast was for another warm day to follow (29 March) that I’d simply let the yard calm down a bit and do that inspection on the 29th.

The 29th turned out to be a lovely day except it was just bit windier than I like for an inspection but it was warm and sunny. So I toted another medium super out to the hive, along with my toolbox, and then went back to get the smoker. As I walked to within about 10 feet of the hive the Georgia girls (Hive B), I heard them–bees came pouring out of the hive. Swarm in progress, right before my eyes.

The last time one of my hives swarmed I was lucky–the queen landed on my shoulder so I got that swarm easily.  Luck was with me again today–the queen didn’t land on me, but in a short, squatty, multi-trunked bush that was infiltrated by a very thorny climbing rosebush, very close to the hive, and practically on the ground.

Bee brush and a dishpan in hand, I started the process of capturing my errant bees. With 20180316_114851.jpgthe aid of pruning shears, I got down to the cluster but they had picked a spot where the trunk had multiple branches and was sturdy enough not to shake very well, and of course, that’s where the bees settled down.

(Nope, no photos–I was way too busy working out my plan to get these creatures into their new home.)

It was obviously time for the bee-brushing technique: hold the pan under bees, and brush downward.  That got me a pretty good batch of bees so I carted them back to their new home that I had prepared for an occasion like this. Dump them in, look for queen; no queen seen. Back to the bush: a lot of the bees settled back in another cluster although a fair number were on the ground. So the routine became to shake and brush the bush, dump into the hive, shake, brush, dump, several more times. Finally, I was down to only a very small cluster of bees right on the main trunk of the bush and it seemed that the girls I had carted back to the new hive were staying there although some were still flying around the bush.

I decided to let them settle and try one more shake-and-brush, but first, I needed water. I gave it long enough for me to slake my thirst (it’s damn hot in a bee suit) and went back to the bush. There were no bees there–that little cluster had dispersed, but there were some still in the air between the bush and what was now Hive C and I saw some bees going into the hive! Maybe, just maybe, that means that I’ve got the queen in that hive.

I still haven’t looked into Hive B–got distracted by the swarm—but maybe tomorrow.

Now I have to decide if I purchase a queen or let them raise one of their own. Decisions, decisions, decisions….and the bees will do what they damn well please!  Just like cats, we only think we are in charge.

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Hive report: OMG! Bees everywhere!

The weather finally warmed up just enough so that I could open the hives for a quick peek. Both hives have snarfed down most of the candy board though there is a little left around the edges. I’ve removed quilt boxes from both hives.

Both colonies have drawn comb where the candy board was.  There looks to be a lot of brood in both hives, although I didn’t pull individual frames because it was cool enough that I didn’t want the hive open long enough for that–didn’t want to risk chilling brood but I did rotate the supers enough for me to see into the second and into the brood box. Lots of bees all through the hive.

Now I’m feeling really pressured to be able to do a full inspection. Meanwhile, I’m setting up another hive to be ready to do a split if swarming seems imminent.

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Hive report: waiting–not patiently!

Somehow work seems to get in the way of hobbies and sometimes even cooking–to a frustrating extent (you’ve noticed no recent posts, huh?). But one must work in order to cook, eat, and in order to support the creatures of the hive.

Although I did see bees on the quick January check when we had few rather unseasonably warm days in February and I saw bees flying in and out of the hive I was really, really happy. Both hives!

Now we have gone back to more seasonable weather for March but I’ve noticed despite rather cool (temperature currently 50°F), breezy (sometimes very windy) weather that the girls are in and out bearing a little pale greenish-white pollen–though their corbiculi are certainly not overflowing–in fact, they are downright skimpy. But there is traffic in and out despite the cool weather.

I’m a bit twitchy about what is really going on inside the hives since a friend has already had a swarm from one of his hives on the 6th of March–despite the cool weather.  I’ve had that very early swarm experience before and I don’t want to have it again so I need to prepare some woodenware to set up a new hive in case I need to do an urgent split, instead of having my bees wander off into the wild blue yonder!

Another thing that adds to my frustration of not knowing exactly what the girls are up to is that I’m in the midst of doing some equipment switches to change how I manage brood in my hives. As a “new-bee” I started with all medium eight-frame equipment. Last spring I switched to single deeps for my brood boxes since I just didn’t like how the medium frames split up the brood pattern.

All winter I’ve been debating whether I want to manage my colonies with one or two deep boxes for brood. After reading and talking to other beekeepers I have decided (almost) that I want two deeps for brood in my colonies. Now I’m trying to plan how that switch is going to take place. I somehow think that the girls are not going to make this a simple case of just putting another deep in place on the hive. I think planning a strategy would be a lot easier were I privy to what the girls are actually doing inside the hive.

But I’m a coward so I won’t open a hive in 50°F weather other than for just a quick peek to see if there still candy board for them to nosh on during our still-chilly and rainy weather.  I don’t want to take the chance of chilling brood. I only hope that they are not busily preparing to swarm since I saw a lot of bees in January.  So, I remain in ignorance, looking at a weather forecast that’s not going to let me find out much more for at least another week–highs in the 40s and rain at times.

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