That’s One Way to Catch a Swarm…

catching a swarm in a log

About a month or two ago, I got a call from a friend (we’ll call him Shawn) who said he was sitting on his deck and realized there were bees swarming overhead. He sent me a video and the activity definitely looked like honey bees, so we headed over to see if we could find where the swarm landed.

After a few minutes of scanning the trees, we found it:

swarm in tree

Unfortunately, this is the swarm in relation to the ground!

swarm from ground

We weren’t desperate enough to rent a lift (yes, we’ve done this before), so we put two hives (one on the garage roof and one on the house roof). We put some drawn comb and honey in the boxes and a little lemon grass oil to sweeten the deal. The next day Shawn told us that the swarm was gone from the tree and he had seen a bit of activity in the hive above the garage.  We were so excited and I’m sure I prematurely celebrated on Facebook. When we went to retrieve said swarm, we found the box empty. Oh there had been activity alright, they robbed out all the honey!

So fast-forward to last Wednesday evening when Shawn messages me again to say, “I think I found your bees.”  The tree in the photo had been cut down by the neighbors and, currently lying in Shawn’s yard, was a log that seemed to be full of honey bees. I was in a meeting all evening, so I texted my husband who said he literally stopped what he was doing (dinner prep), threw the kids in the car and headed out.

It seemed like most of the traffic was coming in and out of the hole on the side of the log…

swarm log

In fact, this was the view when my husband looked closely inside, so he knew for sure they were living here!

inside swarm log

Once my husband figured out which part of the hive contained the actual hive, he used a chainsaw the cut the log a bit smaller so that it could be moved. He also nailed some mesh screen around both openings to keep the bees inside while in transit:

log ready to move

Then the tough part was getting the thing into my husband’s truck. I wasn’t there, so the men were left to do this without my incredible strength (ha!). They use a dolly to get it to the truck, then old-fashioned elbow grease to hoist it inside. (Hernia while beekeeping, anyone?)

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They managed it, somehow. If you look at the picture above, you can see how thick the tree trunk is. I’m not sure there would be any way to move the comb out of the trunk without damaging all of it and we are currently out of unused drawn comb to help sustain them, so, since it’s so close to winter, we decided to leave the bees in the tree trunk and attempt to overwinter them that way. We’ll fill in all the holes except one for extra insulation.

For now, all entrances are still screened except for a small one in the side hole. We also used a piece of lumber underneath to level it as best we could.  Bees will build comb perpendicular to the horizon line, so a crooked hive yields crooked comb!

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Things brings our apiary up to 11 hives!

CSI: Backyard Beekeeping Edition, Part Two

CASE SOLVED

If you are just tuning in, last week I told you about how we installed four packages, only to come back 3 days later and discover that two of the four hives had gone missing. The queens were dead and we were sure they swarmed. It was evening, so we couldn’t do much, but we did discover that one of the hives was absolutely enormous. We were able to get out and work the hives yesterday. I feel pretty confident that we now have three packages all residing in one hive. Here’s the evidence…

The first hive looks like a hive would about 5 days after a package install: a lot of nectar and some evidence of brood, so that’s good. I even managed to get a good picture of the queen! (Click on the picture to see it even larger.)

Queen

The next hive, well that’s a whole other story! We are feeling fairly confident that the two “missing” packages drifted into hive #1. Our first indicator was all of this burr comb – in just 5 days!

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Additionally, there are just SO. MANY. BEES in this hive.

hive 1

We couldn’t leave all of that comb on the inner cover, so we began the fragile process of carefully cutting it off and attaching it to empty frames. There was also some burr comb further down in the hive. We left one frame out so there was room for the queen cage, and boy those bees filled that empty space right up!

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There were some eggs in this burr comb, and we weren’t able to find the queen, so we tried to do all of this work over the hive, incase she fell off.  Basically we used our capping knife to cut each individual piece off, then carefully removed it and attached it to an empty frame. We did this by kind of mushing the wax into the top of the frame, and then stretching rubber bands over to keep it from sagging or falling over. The comb was kind of hard to work with because it was hot, so the comb was REALLY soft.

I can say, both of these hives are incredibly gentle. Considering how large this hive is and how invasive our work was, the bees were really quite quiet and we barely used the smoker.

Once this hive has some time to get the new comb fixed up and some time to really get organized, we’re hoping to make a split or two. What I’ve learned about beekeeping is: take it one step at a time!

Also, I’ve decided to name the queens or hives so that it’s easier to discuss them.  I’m still working on names, but am open to suggestions!

CSI: Backyard Beekeeper Edition, Part One

CSI

Ladies and gentlemen, an investigation is currently underway in our bee yard.

Here are the facts:

We installed four packages on Sunday. Below is a beautiful artist’s rendering (via Microsoft Paint, ha!) of the layout of our bee yard. The four hives we installed are numbered (as you can see):

Bee Yard Final

At approximately 8:15 p.m., we wandered out to the bee yard, to check out the bee traffic coming into the hives. We noticed a normal amount at hive #1, no traffic at hive #2, no traffic at hive #3, and a normal amount at hive #4. This seemed strange, so we threw on our veils and opened hive #2. Let me tell you, there were NO BEES. Not a one bee. The queen was still in her queen cage and she was dead. The hive was completely empty – no comb had been built – nothing.

This was very upsetting, so we checked hive #3. Same thing! This time the queen, still in her cage, was alive, but there were NO STINKIN’ BEES!

Other evidence to consider: It was cool and cloudy/rainy on and off Monday – Wednesday, so we thought if they swarmed they had to have done it that very day because Thursday was the first day it was warm and sunny.

So from approximately 8:20-8:30, my husband and I walked around our 2.5 acres staring up into the trees like idiots. All the while saying, repeatedly, “why would they swarm without a queen?”, “What are the odds of BOTH packages swarming?”, “It’s not fair! Can’t we get a refund?”, and “WHY, do we have the WORST luck!?”

We found no evidence of swarming, so we sadly wandered back to the hives and decided to have a look at the other two while we were there. It was about 60 degrees and the sun was setting, so we didn’t really want to get too invasive, but at least open them up and make sure there were bees inside, for crying out loud.

So we opened hive #1 and, lo and behold, attached to the underside of the top board was the largest, most beautiful homemade comb I’ve ever seen. And, guess what, it was COVERED with bees. In fact, it looked about the size and shape of a swarm!

I didn’t have my camera with me, since we weren’t expecting such excitement, so I’ll have to get some pictures today, but our current suspicion is that three packages (#’s 1, 2, and 3) are in one hive.  We’re hoping to get back out there today or tomorrow when it’s warm and sunny and really have a good look and also to figure out what to do with that beautiful burr comb.

In the meantime, we put the remaining queen (still in her cage) in hive #4 with a queen excluder as an act of desperation. It seems that hive #1 might be the hive to split, but it was too late and cool to really do anything. The queen looked weak, so we’re hoping something exciting happens today.

In hindsight, I’m wondering if the hives are too close together, especially hive 1 and 2.  We’ve kept hives close before, but they were generally established when we moved them or were started from nucs.

We spent the rest of the evening engaged in our own bee-CSI conversation. Did the queen die right away and then the colony left hive #2, or did she die because they left?  Is the queen in hive #3 weak, which is why they left? Or is she weak because they left? Hive #1 was huge, but did it seem 3-packages-huge?

I’m going to tell myself all the bees are in hive one, so that I don’t sob uncontrollably. That will have to work… for now.

Next Generation Beekeeper

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Last Saturday we finally picked up our packages!  Just look at all the glorious bees!

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We only purchased four packages, so don’t get crazy!  It was cool to bring the boys because there were bees flying EVERYWHERE and I was so proud of how calm the boys stayed. Nolan (almost 2) didn’t have a clue what was going on, but Dylan (almost 6) was totally into it. He reminded us (before we got out of the car), “Remember, no swatting at them” and he carefully tip-toed around the driveway so as not to step on any.  It just melts my heart to know that all my  brainwashing teaching has been put to good use!

In the spring we bought Dylan is his first bee suit and he has been SO excited to use it.  I wasn’t sure how he’d do once he was actually in the midst of bees, but he handled it like a pro! He was so calm and didn’t seem concerned at all. Later he said, “I was a little scared, but I didn’t scream or run.” Ha!  So I would normally post some pictures of our package install, and I am still going to, but these all include the little one.  Give a mom a moment here!

dylan beekeeper collage

Inspecting the queen, “Is the candy bubblegum flavored?”

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He even wanted to help with the actually “dumping of the bees”:

A job well done…

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Closing it up…

Dylan the Beekeeper Collage 2

Inspecting his work…

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What’s the Big Deal About Dandelions?

Dandelion Cover

This time of year you might be seeing various memes such as these floating around Facebook (depending on where you live, of course):

Dandelion Memes

And you may be thinking, “What the heck is the big deal about dandelions?”

Well you probably know that bees collect nectar and pollen from plants for food. The nectar is what they use to make honey (see info graphic below) and the pollen is their only protein source. So at the end of winter, a surviving hive has generally eaten down most of its honey reserves. As soon as it’s warm enough to fly, the bees are out searching for early pollen to feed themselves and their young.

Many beekeepers feed in the spring because they worry about this gap in time when the honey runs out, but the dandelions aren’t up yet and we fear starvation. Dandelions are the earliest spring pollen source (in my area: the midwest) and, as a beekeeper, when I start seeing dandelions I can breathe a sigh of relief that the bees (assuming they survived this long) will make it in to spring.

So quite simply, dandelions matter because they are the first, natural food source available to our hungry spring bees. The hive is also busy with brood, and pollen provides a source of both nectar and pollen, so the hive can begin to grow into the summer months.

What you can do, is leave those dandelions alone.  I know many like the look of a green, perfectly manicured yard, but one of the easiest things you can do (if you are interested in helping the bees) is leave those darn dandelions alone… at least until they are finished blooming.

Additionally, dandelion leaves are edible. They are kind of bitter (think, arugula), but they add some complexity to plain salad greens if you mix a few in. You can also add them to stir-fries or quiches (much how you would use spinach) and you can often pluck a few of the leaves and leave the flower alone, so they provide food for both you AND the bees!

Other weeds that you can leave in your yard guilt-free:

Other Weeds

I also recently came across these infographics from Miss Apis Mellifera and they are a great, straight-forward explanation of what the bees do with nectar and pollen:

pollen-collection-infographic

nectar-collection-infographic

Freeloaders! The Time I Let Other Bees Steal My Honey

freeloader title

When we discovered the hive in our backyard was dead, we brought it inside and dissected it with our 5-year-old son and the neighbor girls (now THAT’S a way to get kids to your play date).

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We had used the Mountain Camp method of feeding, so there was sugar all over the frames (mostly from the jostling of bringing the boxes inside), so my husband hung any frames with honey on the hive stand and covered it with a board until we decided what to do next (ahem, clean out the deep freezer).

hive stand

Then on Easter weekend, we were out enjoying the sunshine and warm, spring weather when I realized there were TONS of bees around the empty hive. They were flying under the board to access the honey, of course, but they were also going in and out of the super that was sitting next to it.  Of course I excitedly said to my husband, “What if a swarm has taken up residence?!?”, but we both knew that they were most likely just robbing the honey.

You’ll see from the pictures below, this is no where near a swarm, but we were really surprised how many bees showed up that afternoon and how quickly word spread!

freeloaders

What we would have loved to do, if we had time and not a house full of Easter guests, is mark one or two of them then watch and see if/when they returned. Someone could have probably help us do the math to estimate how far they were coming from.

Anyway, we decided to just let them go and clean up the frames. At the time, there weren’t even any dandelions up and I was happy to at least be feeding someone’s bees! Also, it was great to have some bees to play with, since our packages don’t arrive until May 9th.

Thinking Ahead…

thinking ahead

When my husband and I were first interested in beekeeping, we went to a “Beekeeping for Beginners” workshop.  It was a couple hours long and so incredibly overwhelming. I remember being frustrasted whenever anyone asked a question, no one would EVER give a straight answer. You’d get answers like, “Well, there are a couple ways you could do it…” or “Just because I do it this way, doesn’t mean it’s right.” As a newbie, I just wanted one person to tell me ONE way to do things. I could figure out all these supposed “other” ways later.  However, now I understand. It’s not an exact science because every hive and season are different. What works for one hive one year might not work on a different hive even in the same year.  And now I’ve become that person who can’t give a short answer about anything bee-related!

So I was going to give you a little glimpse into this by just summarizing our plans for our hives this year. I thought I’d run through what our plans were to begin with and how they have already changed. I’m sure what we plan to do now, will not even be what we eventually do. So I offer this, not to confuse you, but you shed some light on why I can never answer any questions directly and why I can never give a short answer!

After attending Megan Milbrath’s workshop at the MI Beekeeper’s Conference earlier in the month, I was sold on this idea of splitting hives into many nucs and then overwintering a dozen or so small ones and only a few full hives. This seems to be gaining popularity in parts of Canada and New England. The benefit? If the average hive loss is 30% (higher for us) then you’re simply spreading your eggs among many baskets, so to speak. Let’s say I go into winter with 3 hives and I lose one (30% loss). I have two remaining. But if I split two of those three hives into 2 nucs each, I could go into winter with one hive and four nucs. Let’s say I lose two (a little higher than our 30% average), I’m still left with 3 hives ready to go in the spring. The downside? A nuc is not a full hive. A nuc is only about 5 frames, so you have to feed them all winter and also keep them warm-ish as they aren’t big enough to really form much of a cluster. So keeping them alive might be easier said than done.

Here are some nucs being overwintered by Crystal Bee Supply in Peabody, MA

Here are some nucs being overwintered by Crystal Bee Supply in Peabody, MA

This brings us to step #2: A bee house. My husband has been doing a lot of research about European bee houses. These are sheds, basically, where people store their hives in the winter. The hive entrance obviously faces outside, so the bees can leave for cleansing flights. We’d really just be stacking nucs together and keeping them out of the wind – no heaters or anything like that. Although, I did have the genius idea of combining it with the chicken coop so that the bees could benefit from the small amount of heat the birds give off.

Here's a huge beehouse from Honey Shop in the UK.

Here’s a huge bee house from Honey Shop in the UK.

But then….

We spoke with some seasoned beekeepers about this over-wintering-nuc plan and one thing that occurred to me is that it might keep bees alive through the winter, but it does nothing in the way of breeding hardier bees. We would be feeding and keeping them warm, this will not necessarily produce winter-hardy bees.

Another issue to consider is the temperature, moisture, and circulation within a bee house. We were envisioning something more along the lines of a lean-to, but we’d have to be careful that it doesn’t get too warm, things stay dry, and there is adequate airflow.

On top of everything, what if this summer is unseasonably hot? wet? dry? cool? Or what if next winter is unseasonably mild? cold? windy? You get the idea.

So it’s not a science.

Here are some things we know for sure.

  • We ordered 4 packages of bees from the south.
  • We’re hoping to be able to split each package at least once. If they all thrive, this would mean we’d go into the winter with 8 hives.
  • We’re hoping to requeen this summer. From a statistical standpoint, nucs with local queens who have survived one winter have the best chance to survive again. Packages that have been requeened with queens from survivor stock have the next best chance of survival and just straight-up packages have the least likelihood. So we’re going to spend the early part of the summer learning about queen rearing and obtain some local queens.
  • We are both still really interested in the idea of a bee house, so assuming we do end the summer with 8 hives, we’ll probably experiment with 2-3 of them. We are moving and rebuilding our chicken coop anyway, so adding a lean-to on the side would not be a huge problem.

We pick up the packages May 9th, so we’ll just have to see where the bees take us!

Beekeepers