Starting Late But Looking Great!

In the last few years, I’ve started my primary beekeeping management activities around mid-March. This year, the weather was so horrendous that I did not get a good start until March 31. Since then, it’s been a 5 star Spring. I have created about 80% of the Nuc’s that I plan to do this year, gotten supers on all hives and done various other management activities that are important at this time of year! I’m feeling good, but wary…

There are so many things to relate that I’ll never get it all in one post. But, I will start on ‘swarms’. I have had 4 swarms so far. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of two of them. During the first weekend in April, I decided to tackle the three full hives that I keep in my backyard. The first one that I opened had capped queen cells on frame TWO!!! Needless to say, I was not pleased. I went ahead and created a couple of Nuc’s with a few of them and made sure to leave several in the donor hive. While I was putting the hive back together, I glanced over at my ‘swarm tree’. It’s an evergreen where tons of my swarms seem to like to land. Lo and behold, there she was! A big fat swarm, sitting there on the tree! After finishing with the hive, I dropped that baby into a box and let her roll. One down.

The next hive looked great – I created a couple of Nucs off of this one too and set it back up with some drawn foundation for an eventual move to the country later in April. The third one was the wildest, however. It also had a bit of a learning experience for me.

The second I opened the last full hive in my backyard, bees started to pour out of it. Primarily out of the entrance, but some out of the top. In my experience, this typically means that I’m about to get lit up by a cranky hive. I braced myself….but nothing. I kept waiting, as I watched them pouring out of the hive like it was on fire. Hoping nothing was wrong, I went back to the inspection. It finally occurred to me that these bees were swarming right now! The air was alive with bees and a low hum. I kept an eye on them as I went through the hive to find swarm cells.

Now, this is the interesting part – I found a few queen cups with royal jelly in them, but none were extended much less capped. I had been told that the bees swarm when the cells are capped – this is clearly not the case. I’ve definitely seen the queen STILL in the hive with capped cells (so, they were going to swarm well after capping) and now I found them swarming well before the cells are capped. As with everything to do with bees, the rules are simply not ‘black and white.’

That swarm landed nearby and was easily captured too. The other two hives that swarmed (I’m pretty sure one was actually a supercedure, based on the low amount of bees in the hive, one open queen cell and the few capped brood about) did so outside of my view. Regardless, I’m pretty happy about how things are progressing. I’ve been in tons of strong hives that were used to create Nuc’s and now have 1 or 2 honey supers on them.

There have been tons of other adventures (and a few weak hives that I’m watching), but that’s it for now.

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High Dead Out’s

Winter Starvation

After getting a good start, they ran out of honey…

I have not made it through all of my hives yet, but my first late Winter inspection definitely was a painful one. I checked 28 hives and had 6 dead hives. Two of them had simply no bees and four of them starved. In all of them, there were tons of stores.

The starvation with tons of stores has never happened to me before now. I have read (and repeated in beekeeping classes) that bees can die with a couple of inches of honey. I estimate that all 4 of my ‘starving’ issues had honey within 4 inches (one had it within 2 inches, I guess.) The picture in this post might be viewed as a thriving hive at this time of year (given that it’s a still picture.) But, I assure you that all of those bees are dead. I even found the marked queen (dead) in a couple.

The poor gals didn't have enough food...

The poor gals didn’t have enough food…

On the plus side, none of the honey or wax was damaged. It’s been too cold for the moths to get into them, so I have hopefully saved a lot of resources to help me with increases in March. I am thinking about just dropping these supers on strong hives and letting them build a huge brood nest (or seeing what happens). The frames are a bit at risk, given that we may have some warmer days in a few weeks (and I really do not have a good place to store them – 14 boxes is a lot to deal with!) I can say that I am glad that I went out to check – they would have been robbed out otherwise (and maybe even the target of a wax moth or two…)

I leave in about an hour to hit another 30 hives or so – I can only hope that I have encountered the vast majority of my losses already but I doubt it. I think that the Winter was a tough one primarily due to the moisture. It’s rained or snowed nearly ever week (sometimes multiple times a week) for the last few months (my backyard is like a marsh in the low spots…)

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Get Ready!

It’s hard for most folks to believe it, but we are probably less than a month away from the most exciting time for a beekeeper. Hives begin to come out of Winter and the real nectar flow starts. The only problem I have during these times is hives doing TOO WELL when I’m not on top of them (and they swarm too soon!) I’m sure there are exceptions that my brain has pushed away (so I no longer remember them), but I do not recall any other obstacles during this time. It is all about managing the growth! It’s my favorite time to be a beekeeper.

That said, there is one sad thing that also happens during this time of year – it’s the discovery of ‘dead outs’ (hives that only contain dead bees – basically goners) for many beekeepers. During the Winter months, it’s really hard to get in and check the bees (and many beekeepers are very reluctant to do it, even on appropriate days), so March is the first time many folks see the insides of their hives since last October or November. For some, they get a really tough surprise. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to have avoided these surprises (for the most part). I think the key is that I have always realized that November, January and February are critical months for the beekeeper to get INTO their hives.

When I mention November, it is probably the one that is at the forefront of my mind the most. During Jan/Feb, folks always ask me how I think the bees are faring out there in the hinterlands. Some even go on to say that one of their hives is dead (no activity on a warm day) and blame it on the cold weather. Unfortunately, that is rarely the cause of the hive’s death (there are several studies that put colonies of bees in deep freezers (-10 or less) for several months and the bees did just fine – but they had plenty of honey.)

Recently, a fellow said that both of his hives had perished. ‘It must have been the mites…those daggone mites!’ I very much doubt it. I asked him exactly how many frames of capped honey he had in his hives when he checked in November – asked him to check his journal and get back to me. He immediately replied that he had no idea. The bees were really active in November and looked great. He was sure there must have been a lot of honey in them…

This is a common theme – judging a hive’s health from the outside. I can tell you from several nasty personal experiences in my own, early beekeeping days, that you can judge very little from the outside of a hive (you can get warning signs, but it’s not good for much else.) You really need to know what your hives look like, inside, in November. Granted, I do not break all of my hives down in November. I test their weight and break the inner cover off to do a cursory check of capped frames from above. But, I have over 70 hives. When I only had 10 hives, I was pulling frames and sometimes even going into my lower brood body to see what was there. The bottom line is that you need to look inside in November to be comfortable that they’ll be good until Jan/Feb.

Now, what about January and February? Those are very cold months. How in the world can you go into your hives then? In truth, I do believe that you can do a weight test (pull up on the back of the hive and get a ‘feel’ for how heavy they are), but only if you have 3 hives (maybe with 2 hives, but definitely with 3) in that yard. One of those hives is bound to be heavier than the others. Ideally, if you have a problem, it will become immediately apparent that one is drastically lighter than the rest. This hive, you need to break open. Ideally on a day that hits the upper 50’s, but you can do it on a day in the mid-40’s if need be. You have to go in – do they have capped honey? Do they even have a cluster that can be saved? I do not totally break my hives down in January, but a few of the lighter ones do get a few frames pulled. If the cluster is already all over the top brood body (i.e. they’ve worked up and into the honey up there), I probably am marking them as a ‘feed this one’ hive (see below for how I do this.)

February is much like January, only now I am pulling frames. Not only am I looking for potentially light hives (light = low resources/honey), but I’m also looking for strong hives to see if the bees have started raising drones or not. You can usually get a day in the 60’s in February and that’s my target day.

Remember, the bees start building up at the end of December (when the days get longer), prepping for the coming Spring. By the middle of January, they probably have a brood nest about the size of 2 golf balls. By February, that thing is ramping up to softball size and by March they should be working the better part of a couple of frames. All of this build-up is happening with little (if any) resources coming in. A ‘flow’ (and I really be a dribble) doesn’t start to any measurable degree (in my area) until early March (sometimes earlier, depending on the whacky weather.) Your bees can effectively build themselves to death, raising more brood than they can feed or keep warm, if they don’t have the resources they need.

I’m not a big feeder, for a variety of reasons. But, I do feed on occasion. Right now, I have about 16 hives that I consider to be superior – they are my best breeding stock. If I found one of them to be weak, I would definitely feed them, just to help the genetics make it to Spring when I could force them to requeen and get going again. Regardless, when I do feed, it is mostly with the Mountain Camp method.

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How Do We Stop the Run-away Train (Packages)?

After a bit of a hiatus from the local beekeeping groups (and this blog) last year, I decided to start the new year off with a bit more dedication to the local beekeeping groups (I expect to attend the Jan meetings of the 3 primary local groups that I belong to and hope to continue to attend one or two of them each month.) Local beekeeping groups are a gold mine for beekeepers – you learn all the different ways that folks are ‘skinning’ the proverbial cat and you get some great contacts for those emergency questions that occasionally pop up!

Per usual, I sometimes feel that I have become the codger beekeeper, as I frequently become frustrated with some of the messages that are given out to beekeepers in these meetings (in Jan, many of the folks are brand new and don’t even have bees yet). Most recently, we had a meeting where a fellow was talking about ordering packages. Now, I do believe in packages – there is currently not enough supply of local Nuc’s in our area to meet all of the demand for bees that we have. A package of bees is better than no bee at all, in my opinion. But, managing a package of bees should be done with a different strategy and tasks than a Nuc (and this is NEVER discussed, at least when I’m listening.) In this meeting, the fellow was talking about the fact that he ordered 200 packages and that, per last year, they’d be all spoken for soon. This, on its own, is not terribly alarming. But, the fact that there were only about 30 folks in the room did alarm me. The implication was that these folks were losing tons of bees every year and replacing them with the same mess that they just lost. This was confirmed to me (I was probably a bit too passionate about my disdain for this scenario and several folks spoke up in defense of it) when one fellow said they were losing 50% of their hives in this club! Good lord! That is insane.

I’m here to tell anyone who’s out there that folks are NOT losing 50% of their hives (regardless of what the state apiarist will tell you). Most of these numbers are skewed by really large operations that do it ‘the old way’. When you just sample the general hobbyist beekeeper that starts with local bees, I know of very few that lost 50% or more. The vast majority lost 25% or less and there were quite a few that did not lose a single one (so far…knock on wood.) But, many of the ‘old time’ beekeepers continue to push the package bees (some don’t and they’re not having the problems that the ‘package’ folks are.) I do believe that these beekeepers ‘believe’ in packages, because that’s what they know. They are not adapting to the new world.

As I sat there (after I probably irritated several of the folks in the room – in retrospect, I should have just kept my mouth shut!), it occurred to me that ‘the message’ is not getting out. One of the folks asserted, in defense of the packages, that they needed them for increase. This was the most ludicrous comment of all! If you have bees, it is very simple to do your ‘increase’ from your existing hives. But, no doubt, this beekeeper wasn’t aware of this. With a couple of hives coming out of the Winter, you can probably use a late April date to create a couple of Nucs and pretty much guarantee success. Voila – several new hives from proven queens (well, they at least made it through the last Winter) and all lead by new, locally bred queens! This is the message that I am going to focus on this year, wherever I go. You can create your own Nucs and you should be doing that anyway (I’ve always said every beekeeper should have a Nuc, at least as a back-up/insurance policy.)

Well, not much meat to this post – but, it’s the start of a new year. It is my goal to be more active on the blog and in the community this year – I’ve never stopped being active with my bees, but I did take some time off from the blog and the area last year. We’ll see how it goes in 2014!

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Small Hive Beetle – The New War?

This year has been an odd one, to be sure. The weather has been unlike just about anything that I can remember, with regard to the low temperatures in April/May (being doubly difficult with the fairly warm months of Jan and Feb) and wet July. Build up was delayed for most hives in the Spring and now some seem to still be building up (although at a very slow rate – still, July build up is unheard of in my experienced (without feed)). So, one has to wonder if any ‘trends’ noticed this year have educational value at all!

But, the Small Hive Beetle has been mostly absent in my hives this year…until the last month or so! I am once again finding them in most hives, although not in alarming numbers. Due to other life responsibilities, I have not been in my hives nearly as much as I usually am and I wonder if that has something to do with it. Every time you break the hive down, you let a bunch of the nasty little beetles out (from their propolis prisons) to sew their mischief. Still, the value in regular inspections cannot be denied and I am confident it far outweighs the overall risk of the SHB. Regardless, I do wonder if my ‘less active’ approach this year has helped my bees to stay well ahead of them.

Frequently, folks ask me what I do to combat these creatures. The general life cycle of these critters starts off as an egg that is near some sweet source (this might be tree sap, fruits or (my problem) honey). The egg hatches into a larva which eats through the sweet source (and leaves a nasty by-product as it goes through the source, due to its defecation – something the bees can’t stand, or so I’ve been told.) Once its had its full, it crawls out of the hive and burrows into the ground, where it pupates into an adult Small Hive Beetle. This bugger then goes off to mate and find a larva food source (my honey comb!!!) where it can lay its eggs…and the cycle repeats itself.

The honey bee battles it primarily by cleaning the eggs off of the comb throughout every day. That’s why you have to be careful when extracting honey – you may pull a frame out with eggs that the bees haven’t been able to clean off yet. Left on their own (or in your basement or whatnot), the eggs hatch and you end up with SHB larvae running through your honey comb! If life’s busy schedule creates a scenario like this for me (I have to wait a few days to extract), I freeze the frames which kills the eggs.

The honey bee also combats this pest by imprisoning him in propolis. That’s why you’ll see them scurrying around when you pull up the inner cover or move a frame. You, the beekeeper, have just let them escape from their prisons! But, as mentioned previously, that’s a fact of life for the beekeeper. In almost all cases, it’s better to be in your hives and keeping an eye on them than not.

Since beekeepers actually see these little nasties during their inspections, it is the pest that they seem to be most focused on when trying to help the bees in their battle against pests/diseases. I have heard some beekeepers mention treating the ground around the hives to prevent the larvae from pupating. For example, I know of one fellow that purchases 50 lbs bags of salt to lay around their hives. This makes the ground inhospitable to the larvae and supposedly prevents them from pupating. In my opinion, this is a waste of time. It has been demonstrated that the majority of the beetles that end up in your hive are actually coming from another source – some have postulated it is from tree sap. Stopping a few of them from pupating outside of your hives does nothing. In fact, I would argue that if you actually have enough of these larvae exiting your hives (remember, you really shouldn’t have hardly any, as a strong hive will be cleaning eggs out before they hatch) that it would impact your hive, that hive is already in danger – it is not strong enough to keep the SHB at bay. You should be taking other action (when I worry about the strength of a hive and its ability to defend itself, I go back to one of the core principles of beekeeping – space – and reduce the space of the hive (maybe reduce them to one hive body or even down to a Nuc.) I certainly don’t spend time spreading salt or other items around the ground to help!

Other beekeepers talk about the various traps that they use to capture/kill the little critter. I’ve actually tried this – you do catch a few of the beasts, but I never thought it made an appreciable difference. I have concluded that space and hive strength will continue to be where I put my efforts, not managing a troublesome trap with oil in it.

Most (if not all) beekeepers speak of squashing the things with their hive tool. I truly doubt this has any appreciable impact, but I still do it. It’s a ‘feel good’ action. There’s nothing like squashing a bunch of female SHB (they are the smaller ones.) But, I don’t go out of my way to do it.

In conclusion, I believe that the SHB is just another one of the pests that our bees will have to endure. To do so effectively, they need the proper amount of space and the ability to become strong. Reducing stress is the best way to attain this. If a colony cannot get strong, it has bigger problems than SHB and should be removed (or requeened and reduced in space, until it rectifies the issue.) All of the rest is just busy work. That’s my opinion anyway.

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More Thoughts on Queen Excluders

When I first started beekeeping, I asked about queen excluders. An experienced beekeeper in the area advised that he never used the things. He called them ‘honey excluders’ and went so far as to tell me that he believed that nectar laden bees would sometimes be so swollen that they couldn’t get through the excluder to store honey. So, he never used them.

What about wax moths? Everyone says that if the queen lays in your  honey supers, you’ll end up getting wax moths during the off months. He replied that he would put his wet (extracted) supers back on the hives after getting the honey from them. The bees could then guard/maintain them until the first frost, when he would yank them off and store them stacked in a pole shed nearby. The wax moth wouldn’t bother his supers, even if the queen had laid in them.

So, I decided that I would take this strategy too. I think the primary underlying reason, for me, is that it was just one more thing (both to manage, re the bees, and to purchase, re my wallet) – I was not interested in one more thing. Therefore, I never used them the first few years. In truth, I remember giving a few away that I ended up with when I purchased some fellow’s equipment. I was done with them (before I had ever used them!).

As a side note, there are other good uses for queen excluders than simply keeping the queen out of the honey supers. But, I didn’t know that then…

Things went along just great for a couple of years. My queens would obey the rule that you do not cross the honey barrier, primarily laying and living in my brood chambers – leaving my honey supers alone. Then, it happened – first with one colony and then to several – the crazy Lady crossed the honey barrier! In every case, the colony had put away (capped) two supers of honey. But, when I came to extract, the queen had moved right up the middle (in one case, it was the actual outer two frames) of the hive, laying as she went.

At this time, I had several hives with a mixture of shallows and mediums. This prevented me from simply consolidating the capped frames into one super. In the end, I remember taking just the capped frames (but, being new, I had nothing to replace them with as far as drawn comb is concerned), running home to extract them and returning a day or two later to put them back into the hive. It was a real logistical nightmare (of course, I’d forget one and come back – sometimes months later, to find a mess of wax in that empty slot!)

On the plus side, I was able to successfully store these supers (those with and without brood in them) through the Winter by just stacking them in my shed and didn’t have a wax moth problem. But, storing them over the Winter was not the real challenge that I would face.

After a lot of problems with the queen going up, I did start to use a queen excluder sparingly. I have definitely found that certain lines of queens are more likely to move up (when one moves up in a year, you can be pretty sure that her daughter will move up when you (or they) replace her.) It’s some kind of genetic thing (I moved one hive several times – not because of her proclivity to lay in the honey supers, but for other reasons – and she (or her daughters and grand-daughters) almost always moved up in June or July…so, location seemed to be ruled out.)

The real problem came in the Summer of 2011 when I had two hives really out perform, honey-wise. They put it away like no one’s business. I’d have to check my notes to be sure how many honey supers were on the one at Westover Plantation, but I do know that it was too high for me to look down into the hive without some kind of ladder. The kick in the gut came when I went to get the honey supers and found the hive mostly robbed out. They had swarmed and reduced in population a lot (probably swarmed many times) and simply could not protect all of the honey. The bees were still holding on in their brood area, but most of the honey supers were torn up and I even had some wax moth issues. This was a real wake up call.

So, I realized that I couldn’t always simply leave supers on the hive (nor could I put them all back on the hive once I extracted them.) I needed a way to store them in the Summer. I quickly found that my ‘pole shed stacks’ worked just fine in the Summer, but only with the clean supers that had never had brood in them. Now, I started to understand the wisdom of the queen excluder. You need to keep that queen out unless you can keep the supers to two or three boxes at most. If your colony of honey bees can produce more, you must extract the extra before they need 4 or more supers and put the wet super back on the hives.

But, that is not an option for me. With real life constantly throwing me curve balls and sucking up my time, I need a method that requires the least visits to the hives. Queen excluders were the answer. I not make a concerted effort to keep one on ever hive (I just ordered another group of them for the new  hives that I added this year.)

But, what about the honey excluder idea? Well, for one, I never use an excluder on a super of foundation (undrawn frames.) I’ll put it on there once they have it drawn out and are filling it, but not before. Secondly, when I find a hive that is definitely acting reluctant to use a super above an excluder, I’ll remove it for 2 weeks and let them start to use it. I have had queens use that opportunity to jump up there, but mostly they don’t immediately go up there until there’s a lot of resources stored up there to feed the babies.

So, all in all, I now am an advocate of queen excluders. It’s a big flip-flop, but what the heck!? It’s part of beekeeping. What about those times when the queen moves up into the super? I do my best to consolidate the frames with brood evidence and keep them on the hives (to protect them from wax moth) through the Summer and Fall. I’ll remove them for Winter and used them to checkerboard come Spring.

At any rate, that’s where I am on this one now. I’ll probably flip-flop again, based on  my history, but I feel very comfortable with my current strategy (of course, I probably said that when I was ‘disrespecting’ the queen excluders too!)

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Honey Robber

Well, my ‘flow’ definitely hit pretty hard the last part of May and it’s still coming in a bit today. I was wondering if it was going to hit at all this year!

Having learned my lesson last year, I was ready to go out last weekend and pull all of the capped supers. I ended up making two hauls and think this will be a pretty good  honey year, but we’ll see. One of the best things to occur this year was an experiment with my first fume board(s) and a substance called Honey Robber. Basically, a fume board is simply a shallow box of the exact dimensions of my 10 frame hives. One end is open and the other end is closed with a kind of clear plastic (on the outside) and felt (on the inside.)

To use this tool, you take a foul smelling substance (I used something called Honey Robber) and sprinkle it onto the felt (I dribbled it in an X-pattern, twice quickly). Then, you place it directly onto the hive (after you remove the cover and inner cover), above your capped honey supers. The sun beats down on the clear plastic, heating up the felt and causing the liquid to vaporize into the hive.

The stuff stinks to high heaven, so it’s no wonder that the bees skedaddle away from it. After a few minutes (I waited 7), you can pull the honey super from the hive and not a bee will be on it! I was amazed – it worked like a charm with a couple of exceptions (see below.) Compare that to last year when I was taking one frame at a time from the super, shaking/brushing the bees off and then transferring it to a holding box in my truck. It definitely saved me hours of time and was quite seamless.

There were a couple of asterisks to this adventure, all of which I had read about online but had to learn myself (I’m stubborn that way…)

1. Don’t put that stuff in your car/truck. My cab still stinks, although it seems to be a bit less today. It smells exactly like puke, which I remember well from my college days…

2. It won’t chase bees off of brood. I could not figure out why some of the bees wouldn’t leave one of my supers and ignored it (like a fool) and ended up with capped brood back at home in my honey stack. Hopefully, I didn’t take the queen too….

3. It needs to be in the 80’s and it is really seamless when the sun is shining on the hive. In the shade, the sun doesn’t do its magic by heating the clear plastic top (and thus vaporizing the stinky stuff even more.) I got it to work in the shade, but there was always a rogue bee that didn’t seem to mind the smell. In the sun, none of them stuck around.

Unfortunately, I did not mark which supers came from which hives. I actually discovered a viable, capped queen cell on one (found the developing larva while uncapping.) I have no idea which hive was in swarm mode. None whatsoever.

Of final note, it is clear to me that some queen and blood lines need queen excluders more than others. The exact same hives that I had problems with the queen moving into the supers last year also had the problem this year (even though some were now lead by the daughter of last year’s miscreant.) On the other hand, those hives that didn’t go above the honey barrier last year repeated their performance this year. I am definitely going out to find queens and install excluders this weekend (unless it rains the whole time!) I’d like to remedy the problem that I had last year once and for all.

All in all, a pretty good first pass at extraction. The kitchen is still a mess, but I am hopeful of resolving that shortly!

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Will June Be A Banner Month?

So far this year, nothing has happened according to plan. I know full well that many things (with honey bees) do not go ‘to plan’, but I have never seen so many things go awry. I was unable to get out to the hives this past weekend, so I am looking forward to seeing them this weekend. So far, I have not seen a ‘general major flow’. Some hives have put on a few supers, but the majority (as of May 19) were working 1 or 1.5 supers. I simply have not seen a ‘general flow’ where everyone puts on the pounds. Maybe everyone is full up right now, but I sort of doubt it, given the wet week we had last week. Will June turn out to be the real banner month for honey? We’ll see…

And what about Nuc’s?! Good lord. I’ve never had it this tough. I honestly think I have killed more queens then I’ve sold (in Nuc’s.) Couple this with the fact that a ton of my Nuc’s did not successfully raise a queen, and I am really far behind on the Nuc schedule. I have taken to combining strong Nuc’s with Laying Worker Nuc’s. The queen right Nuc takes over the other one and goes to town laying in them and filling them up. This allows me to split them about 3 weeks later and make a solid Nuc out of them. I have never done this before (but, I’ve never had so many Nuc’s with laying workers.) Between the weather and my personal life, it’s been one heck of a rough Spring. I hope my last starts thrive in June and I can finally finish providing what I promised!

Finally, how about swarms? I do not go on all swarm calls, but I use them as a measure for what’s going on out there. I’ve received the fewest swarm calls in 3 years (and I really only started to take them 3 years ago.) Of those calls, none have been banner swarms (maybe one). They say a ‘swarm in June is worth a silver spoon’ – I assume it was in a year like this one. I haven’t seen many silver spoons so far. Maybe in June…

Finally, what about the hive problems!? I have already had 3 hives turn up with failed queens after a swarm. Two ended up with laying workers (again, family issues kept me away from the hives longer than I had expected.) Fortunately, I had a few Nuc’s to combine them with, but that just set the Nuc program back further.

The bottom line is that this has been a tough year for me. I blame it on this weather. We actually had a frost warning in May. I’ve been gardening for decades and have never heard of something like that.

At any rate, thought I’d whine a bit. It provides some relief….

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Queens, Swarms and Queen Excluders

On Mother’s Day, I received a call from a fellow on the north side of Richmond about a swarm. It was a 25 minute drive and from a location that I have not collected a swarm before. Plus, he kept going on about how big the thing was, so I couldn’t resist!

But, Sunday was becoming very tough. I wanted to go spend some time with my Mom, plant another round of beans, squash, cukes and melons, and (of course) had 5000 bee tasks to do. When I decided to get that swarm, I decided it would be a ‘grab and run’ job. I rarely do these (truly – I’ve done maybe 2 of them and both of them were in the distant past when I would actually drive an hour to pick up a swarm.) This kind of swarm pick up focuses on dropping the swarm in the hive body, waiting a few (maybe 5) minutes to see that the bees are not reforming on the tree and some are coming into the box, taping them up and leaving. I effectively leave a lot of foragers at the site (scouts, out and about) and risk not having the queen. Normally, I’d leave the hive body there and come back after dark. But, with my current schedule, there was no way that was going to happen today.

At the site, the swarm was 5′ off the ground and an easy catch. As I talked to the land owner, he asked if I thought there were multiple queens in the swarm. With good confidence, I replied that it was unlikely. The size of this swarm said to me that this was a primary swarm and the new queens had probably not hatched yet. The next swarm would have a better chance of having a couple of queens. Heh. I should have known that this was major foreshadowing…

So, with a haul back down the 64/95 Exchange, I made it there and back in about an hour and setup the swarm box before I headed out to the bee yards to check honey supers. This is my favorite time of the year, as a full hive can draw out and nearly full a full Medium super in a week. I don’t like any of my hives to be lacking space!

Within 30 seconds of opening up the hive the bees were everywhere. Having seen my first swarm just weeks ago, I realized they were ‘re-swarming’ (or basically absconding!) I couldn’t blame them as they probably were thinking that this new home sucked with all of the jostling and so forth they went through only moments after I shook them into the hive body. Seeing them begin to collect on a nearby bush in my backyard, I grabbed a queen excluder and placed it under the primary hive body that still had most of the swarm. I didn’t have time to deal with these troublesome bees, I was getting irritated that I had wasted time getting them (on a very busy day) since they were acting like they were going to leave again and I figured this was my only chance to have a chance at keeping them.

I had never done this before, but had frequently read online about beekeepers in the South putting a queen excluder beneath a hived swarm to keep them from absconding. I figured that if, by chance, the queen had not yet left the box, I could manage to keep the swarm (and the small half-quart of bees hanging on the bush would return to the main hive when the queen didn’t follow them.) I worried about killing the queen, as the bees were spazzing out when I put the excluder beneath them, but I simply didn’t have time and was actually getting mad at the bees (heh – a character flaw for sure, but times were tough on Sunday!)

When I returned that evening, there that little troublesome ‘child swarm’ was, still clinging to the bush at night. I could still see a bunch of bees in the original swarm hive, about 15 feet away, so I figured this little extension were simply rebels without a cause (queen) and blank ‘em. Of course, the next day at work it was constantly on my mind. And, as is always the case, I was so busy at work, I had something like a 40 minute window at work to deal with them. So, I hustled home and hived those troublesome bees in a small Nuc and left it at that.

Now, here’s the first mistake. It did  dawn on me the next day that maybe there were two queens. I also began to wonder that, even if there was just one queen, what if she was actually a virgin and I had her tied up in that primary hive with the queen excluder, unable to go out an mate? I actually had this thought multiple times, but never go around to acting on it until after work on Friday (5 days after catching the swarm.)

Going through the big hive/swarm, I found the little queen. Indeed, she was a virgin and no eggs were in sight. The big dilemma is ‘has she gotten too old to mate’? I have no idea how something like that would work. I removed the excluder and will give them a frame of eggs from one of my big hives in an outyard on Saturday, just to be safe. They had already drawn out 6 frames in the Deep and I wasn’t even feeding them. I then checked the Nuc and VOILA, there was the old queen (or at least a full sized queen that had started laying eggs pretty much the day I hived them, so I assume she’s a yellow queen – that’s what I’ll mark her with before moving them to a full Deep anyway.)

So, maybe the swarm wasn’t trying to leave after all. Maybe the old queen simply broke off from the main bunch after I set them down. Who knows how many queens may have been in that original swarm. Regardless, the lesson learned for me is that I absolutely cannot delay in getting that queen excluder off of a swarm (assuming I ever use that trick again.)

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Crazy Swarms

With everything going on from monitoring Nuc’s, creating new Nuc’s, keeping honey supers on the hives and making sure that any hive that swarmed has a viable, new queen, I often farm out swarm calls to folks that I know. The primary exceptions to this rule are my own swarms (I want those genetics) and swarms from locations that I’ve never collected a swarm from (again, a chance for new genetics.) Over the past two weeks, I’ve had some really wild swarm calls! I’ve outlined a few of them below.

 

Swarm on Sappling

Could They Be Any Lower!?

I received a call from a fellow way out in the West End, talking about a colony of bees trying to set up home in a tree by his driveway. Of course, this was just a swarm waiting to find a new home and I decided to go get it (I’d never collected a swarm that far out on River Road before.)

When he said ‘tree’, he really meant ‘sapling’! These bees were no more than 6 inches above the ground (the bottom of the swarm was anyway.) Not only that, but they were pretty much all on the trunk of the small thing! There was no way to shake these bees, that was for sure. Fortunately, my pop’s old rule of ‘always have a piece of rope and a 5 gallon bucket for any task’ saved the day. Using the 5 gallon bucket, I literally scooped the majority of the ball into the bucket (it just plopped into the bottom) and subsequently poured the bees into the waiting hive. I then repositioned the hive to point to the tree and the rest soon followed! Bonzai!

Swarm on Pine Tree

My hive swarms to a nearby pine tree!

The next swarm was in my own backyard! I knew these gals were going to swarm and had already taken a fair number of bees to create a few nuc’s, but figured they would go anyway. The best thing about this swarm was that it marks the first time that I have actually SEEN a colony swarm! I’ve heard a million folks describe it, but I had never seen it (odd, given the amount of time I am around hives.) It was awesome as they roared through the air and finally came to rest on one of my trees. In the end, it was nature’s way of splitting my hive for me.

Finally, one of the wildest swarms happened in one of my yards out in Charles City. I had been watching the hive since it had a White queen and wanted to preserve the genetics. But, apparently I wasn’t watching closely enough. When I stopped by to check honey supers, I noticed that one of the hives was bearding. It was sort of cool, so I thought this was odd. I took a closer look and noticed that they weren’t really spilling out of the entrance, but hanging on the BOTTOM of the bottom board!

Swarm on Bottom Board

This queen must not want to fly!

In truth, I didn’t recognize it as a swarm on that day and just wrote it off to weird behavior. I was in a hurry to consolidate a few Nuc’s for sale and check on some queens that I was rearing. But, those bees kept nagging at me. The next day at work, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Finally, I left work and headed back out to Charles City to get them. I figured it MUST be a swarm. It didn’t make sense otherwise. I had to take the hive apart, so that I could lift up the bottom board and shake them into a nearby hive. Several of the honey bees fell to the ground around the hive stand, but I went to look at the bees in the hive. I didn’t see the queen, so I returned to the hive stand with my brush and a piece of paper to sweep up the remnants. There, right before my eyes, was that daggone white queen crawling around with a few of her fallen brethren!!! Heh. I picked her up and placed her in the hive. One more for the books!

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