Archives for posts with tag: swarm

When we left off, I had just harvested some honey and was searching for my queen. As you may have guessed, she was not to be found. What we did find were emerged swarm cells indicating multiple swarms had already departed. Eek! That was not part of my plan! I hope they found safe homes where they aren’t disturbing people and causing trouble.

There were a few capped queen cells, but when I checked again a week later, there was no queen and the cells were empty. Another week later and there is still no queen. By my estimate, the swarming happened sometime between the beginning and middle of May. The queen was definitely there when I added the new deep body because I saw drawn comb with young brood in one of the new frames two weeks later. As of today, they have been without a queen for at least a month, possibly as long as six weeks. The break in brood rearing helps with mites since the mites depend on young larvae for their life cycle, but a colony cannot survive without a queen. The remaining bees can raise a new one from eggs laid by the queen before she left. But those eggs are long gone; the egg stage is only three days. So what’s a colony to do?

Andrea caught several of her swarms and has more colonies than she wanted. We planned to remove one of her extra queens for my colony so she can combine two of hers.  Capturing a fast-moving queen on a frame full of bees is not as simple as it seems, or at least it wasn’t for me. I had her in our improvised cage but thought we also needed some attendants for her. In trying to get just one more bee into the cage, the queen escaped and flew away. We checked again for her a few days later and the colony had started making queen cells, an indication that the queen did not safely return. Ugh! Now we’re both queenless. We did learn an important lesson in the process, however, which is that specialized equipment exists for a reason. There are special clips that will scoop the queen plus the few surrounding bees in one swoop, we just did not have those to hand when we needed them. We’ll have them for next time.

This season started so well where it seemed I was able to keep on top of the need for increased space to avoid swarming and I harvested a half super of honey. Four months later, nearly all my bees are gone and they probably produced multiple swarms to annoy my neighbors. Yet all is not lost. A new queen arrives on Tuesday. I have hive bodies full of drawn comb. There is a super nearly filled with honey for their use this winter. The brood break should have reduced the mite population. Approximately a year into this adventure, I have learned a lot…and there is still a lot to learn.

When last I posted I was on a bit of a high in terms of how well the bees were faring. I knew we had cut things close with space, and hoped I had added another hive body before the swarming hormones fully engaging. However, I failed to find the queen the next inspection two weeks later on May 14 despite bulging honey supers mostly filled with capped and uncapped honey, part of which I happily harvested because there were plenty of stores at that time in the brood nest. I was ecstatic harvesting frames for the first time and then learning how to uncap and extract the delicious sweetness from them.

During that inspection, I also learned a valuable, albeit sad, lesson about the queen excluder. As experienced beekeepers are likely already well aware, drones, like the queen, cannot pass through it. That would not ordinarily pose a problem, but when I added the additional deep hive body for more space, I moved the medium with a mix of brood (larvae and pupae, aka baby bees) and honey above the queen excluder thinking that the brood would hatch from their cells and the cells could then be used for honey. That worked fine for any workers hatching above the excluder, but the larger drones were unable to pass through to the hive exit. When I removed that hive body, out fell several dead drones who had spent their short lives trapped in the hive unable to fulfill their destiny of inseminating a queen.

The various manipulations likely stressed the bees by adding too much space and spreading the brood out too much. I won’t do it that way again. I kept multiple brood frames together and had honey and pollen stores near them, but it still required the nurse bees to cover more area to keep all the brood warm and there may not have been enough of them. Further support for using a single-size hive body, which would have made things more interchangeable, rather than a mix of deeps and mediums.

I also did a sugar roll to assess the number of mites in the colony as part of Mite-A-Thon, a citizen science project to measure mite loads across all of North America. I had nine mites in my sample of approximately 300 bees, which equals three mites per hundred bees. I thought my measure was a little short, but when I discovered upon rechecking the protocol that it generally takes only a half-cup, not a full cup, to approximate 300 bees. The mite estimate was lower than I expected since I had been seeing a large number of mites on the bottom board. The sugar roll method tends to underestimate, so it is possible that the actual number is somewhat higher. Treatment is recommended above three mites per hundred bees, but chemical treatments including Apiguard cannot be done with honey supers on the colony leaving me with only non-chemical methods like a break in the brood cycle or powdered sugar treatment.

Sooooo, back to that missing queen…

(and just like a rollercoaster ride, this one’s a cliffhanger)

Very lengthy hive inspection video. Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to speed up the video and add a voiceover afterward.

It’s been two weeks since I added the honey super. Unfortunately, the day that Andrea was here to help, Marc was busy and not available to film us, so there is no video. Plus, we were so completely absorbed in our task of doing a thorough inspection of the colony that I didn’t even think to take pictures along the way. The inspection went well: we found the queen, still with her blue dot; we found drones; and we even found a queen cell, a sign that the colony was feeling the lack of space. We removed the queen cell in an attempt to keep them from getting any ideas about swarming.

Once a colony is out of space, they begin making preparations to swarm and the first step in that process is to make a new queen, which requires a particular type of cell since the queens are a larger bee. I tend to think that an important part of beekeeping is to manage swarming, if at all possible, particularly because I live in a residential neighborhood where random swarms flying around may not be welcome. So I want to stay on top of their swarming shenanigans. A swarm also results in the colony splitting: the majority of the foragers leave with the old queen to find a location where they start anew. This potentially weakens both colonies since those who swarm have to start from scratch with building comb and storing resources, and those who stay behind keep the resources on hand but need to rear a new queen before egg-laying and more workers are produced. While the colony is strong now, particularly from where we started less than a year ago, I would prefer to not split them yet. The question is whether or not the bees agree with me.

I decided to check them again a week after adding the honey super to see if more queen cells had been produced and to see if they had moved into the honey super. This time, I did video myself (inspection). As you will see in the video, the hive is filled with bees on every frame. There were even festooning bees, which is where they make something like a chain holding onto one another. Towards the end of the video, there are two frames where I did not close the space correctly and the bees connected the combs between them, which makes it difficult to remove those two frames. I tried to, but noticed that I was damaging the comb and so I stopped so as to not make more work for them or potentially harm the queen should she have been on one of those two frames. Unless the queen cells are on those last two frames, the colony seems to have accepted my additional space and are no longer looking to swarm. I plan to keep a close eye on them over the next few weeks to be sure all is going to plan. I am prepared with a second hive setup just in case they do continue towards swarming, but I would prefer to add a second honey super and keep this colony strong rather than splitting it, at least for this year.

Festooning bees highlighted in blue

The morning after placing my hive, I spoke with my friend the beekeeper. There was activity in and out of the hive and she recommended that I carefully remove one side of the entrance reducer we had fashioned out of cardboard the night before. I cautiously slid it out only to find that bees were hiding in the flaps. I tried to encourage them gently out of the way, but apparently I wasn’t as gentle as I’d thought. As I’m on the phone with my friend, I suddenly experienced an extreme burning sensation in my lower arm and called out, “It’s stinging me; it’s stinging me” like a lunatic only to look down to see a bee attempting to escape while some of its innards remain in my arm. I was only wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, not appropriately garbed for working my bees, and was surprised to be stung because didn’t they know I was trying to help them. Well, of course they didn’t know that; the bee that stung only knew that I was disturbing them and they were likely already plenty upset over being moved the night before.

I could see the tiny venom sac lodged in my arm and removed it, although not correctly and made the mistake of squeezing it in the process. The proper way is to lightly scrape it from the base of the skin so as not to further squeeze the venom into the wound. I’ve been stung three other times, but I think this was the only time where I received the full sting experience. My first sting was when sometime before adolescence, when rolling down a grassy hill was one of the most fun things one could do. It was also a great way to get stung by a bee in clover. My second and third stings were in preparation for the Vineman half Ironman and they were just glancing stings, over very quickly and not terribly painful. But I did stop wearing that purple bike helmet shortly thereafter.

The burning sensation died down after a few minutes, but it itched over the following few days and ultimately even bruised a little. I tend to have an over-reactive immune system that swells and reacts significantly over any small bite. My husband found the entire event amusing when I recounted it to him. His sage wisdom, “Leave the bees alone and they won’t sting you.”

First morning after collection from the valve box

Earlier this month while on a survey for California gnatcatchers with my co-worker beekeeper friend, we received a text from another colleague regarding some bees that had taken up residence on a part of her fence. I had put off trying to start a colony again because we have been re-configuring the backyard and the landscaping won’t be done until this Fall, when it’s easier to keep new transplants alive than through the heat of summer. But I leapt at the opportunity to collect a swarm and try again to get a colony started.

We went to our colleague’s home that night where most of the bees had moved into a valve box, but a cluster remained on the ground surrounding a dead bee. We hypothesized that this was the queen because: 1) she was larger in size than the other bees and 2) when we scooped up the dead bee and moved it for a closer examination, the other surrounding bees flew around but when we put her back on the ground they all clustered around her again. We tested this a couple times to be sure that the clustering was related to the dead bee. So we placed the presumed dead queen into my hive and scooped as many of the bees as possible in there with her. Once we had most of them, we drove the hive to my house and set it in the backyard, ready to see what happened next.

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