Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Missing: thousands of bees and an adventuresome new queen

I was told several times when starting this adventure that we are "bee-HAVERS" not "bee-KEEPERS."

Queen Elizabeth's hive swarmed yesterday and it was a magnificent (though exasperating) sight. I checked the hives for swarm cells as I described in my last 2 posts and was sure I didn't see any last Saturday, but Queen Bess and her ladies in waiting hid one from me.

I came home for lunch yesterday, checked the fish in the water barrel we keep for the bees (bees like rainwater and the fish eat the mosquito wigglers). Said hello to my brother in law, Charlie, who was working on our back deck, and went in for a sandwich. It was a gorgeous spring day, we've had heaps of rain and unusually cool weather lately, but yesterday was one of those crystalline May days when everything looks possible.

So must have thought the new queen, daughter of Queen Elizabeth, whom we will call "Mary Queen of Scots" for the historical Queen Eliz I's rival. I was inside eating my sandwich when Charlie yelled, "you'd better come out here- your bees are acting crazy."

I ran out and the air was literally full of bees, thousands of them careening around the yard in a chaotic vortex. They were marching out of the hive in a river flow and taking wing. If you looked up at the sky you could see them high up at tree top level, swirling. And the BUZZING - it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I stood in the middle of it and the feeling was electric.

In about 5 minutes they all balled together about 50 feet up in a tulip poplar tree - not a very easy spot from which to reclaim them as many beekeepers succeed in doing. The queen alights and waits, the other bees cluster around her and scouts go out to find another hive spot. They come back and dance their information to the group and somehow, mysteriously, they decide which place sounds best and they go.

When I got home from work yesterday evening they were gone. The hive still has a small crew of bees (how many I don't know. Why do some stay? How do they know who leaves?), plus Queen Elizabeth should still be there. I haven't checked yet.

I felt like I'd witnessed a birth. I was elated and exhausted all afternoon.

And while I am sad my work force took flight I am also thrilled that I got to witness it - and since the larger point of this for me is to increase the bee population, then things are good.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Smart bees

Checked the hives yesterday - no more swarm cells!  I was so proud. I had read in one of my favorite bee keeping books (by Sue Hubbell) that what she does to avert swarming is to reverse the box order. That is, take the bottom box and put it on top.  

I did that last week after noticing the babies had pretty much hatched out of the bottom box and that it was the top box that had swarm cells, presumably because Queen Elizabeth was feeling crowded. Putting the now mostly empty bottom box up top gave her wiggle room.  And since the queen seems to prefer to move upwards to lay eggs, she had a whole new box!

Strangely, I also put an entirely new box of frames with empty foundation on the very top of it all but the bees have drawn no comb at all in that - why not??

Friday, May 8, 2009

Swarm cells!

Opened my hives and found swarm cells! This means the hive is crowded and the bees are raising more queens in order to split the workforce and send out a new queen with a group of bees to start a new hive.

Needless to say, I am not, like most beekeepers, in support of this plan. I want my bees to stay home and make honey.

I had left my hives alone for about 2 weeks - one, it's been teeming with rain and also I wanted to let them get a good grip on their bee business.

{Note the pendulous, peanut shell-shaped queen swarm cells in the picture above. If they are at the bottom of the frame they are swarm cells; if they are in the middle of the frame they are "supersedure queens cells - those mean the bees don't like their old queen and are raising her replacement.}

One of my 2 queens (Elizabeth) originally started out with the majority of the packaged bees. It turns out she is very productive and over the past month has filled up two boxes full of brood and honey. When I opened her hive up I found 3 swarm cells! Yikes!

I removed them (and gave them to my son to take to science class) and gave her another box of frames for her workers to build comb in. Meanwhile my smaller hive (Kathryn's) had finally filled the first box so I gave her a second.

Here is the cool part: Since Elizabeth had too much brood and Kathryn not as much, I took two frames of brood from E. and put them in the new box for K. I smoked and brushed to get as many adult worker bees off as possible first (although I saw one death match afterward in the top feeder: bees will kill adults from another hive, but they will accept larvae and brood).

My bee mentor said this was all good - equalizing the population between hives is a good plan. But I needed to not overwhelm the weak hive with too many new babies to feed - moving capped brood, not open larvae (which needs feeding) was the thing to do (I think I did that).

Also now I have to assiduously check every week to make sure Elizabeth's workers are not continuing to raise more queens: once they start down that road it's hard to change their minds.

Then again, the bees are smarter than me. Who am I to try to change their minds??