Thursday, July 31, 2008

Swarm, redux

Last Tuesday (7/29) we went out to the bee yard to check on the ladies. At the same instant we both spotted this in one of the cherry trees:

Seems like we have a honey bee swarm every Tuesday now. What the heck?! I sort of expected Thelma's swarm the previous week, but no way did I think Louise's hive was going to swarm. Well, we eventually found out that Louise and her crew were where they belong -- this was someone else's swarm, or perhaps even a feral colony swarm that happened to land in our cherry tree. It was eerie that they were almost silent; a writhing mass of bugs, but silent. Trippy. They usually make quite a fair racket.

Well, I hate to turn away free bees, and we had some additional equipment (the hive body is still in primer, but useable enough in a pinch). This time we knew the drill and we were even dressed for the occasion!

Shake into hive, add top feeder, cover, and let simmer.

After we got these new arrivals housed we checked the other hives. We found eggs in Louise's colony, and eventually found Louise herself. The eggs were the key though. Bees exist as eggs for 3 days. The queen stops laying eggs at least a week before the swarm leaves, so we knew this colony had not swarmed even before we found Louise.

Over in Thelma's old colony things are going along pretty well. We found at least 4 of these beauties:

The peanut shaped thing is a capped queen cup. (The rest of the frame is mostly of capped worker bee brood.) One or more of these will hatch soon and we'll have a new queen in Thelma's old colony. We're discussing names even now. The fun part will be marking her. We practiced doing that with drones when we took the bee keeping class through the MCBA , so that training will come in very handy. It's a good idea to mark the queen so that you can find her a little more easily. Also the color indicates the year of hatch (2008 is red). Queens will live for 4-5 years, but their best egg production only lasts 1.5 - 2 years. It's really handy to know when she should be replaced -- a weakly laying queen means a weak colony.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

To Catch a Swarm

Tuesday (7/22), at approximately 1 pm I chanced by the bee yard. Thousands of bees were whipping around the air. Thelma's hive had swarmed! We had had some inkling that this might be in the works, but thought we had headed it off. Not so.

While honey bee swarms look downright biblical, they are really very manageable events if you 1) know what to do, and 2) don't panic. Swarms are the way honey bee colonies reproduce. The queen and most of the bees capable of flight (that's 15-25 thousand) make a mass exodus and search for a new home. They are very gentle while swarming because they have no home to defend. That said, when I gathered myself, I ran inside and told Yvonne what was happening. She alertly brought the camera so you get to see what happened next.

This is me and the swarm in one of our cherry trees. Eventually the swarm lands and waits for the scouts to find a new home. They may stay in the first spot for 20 minutes or 3 days, depending on what the scouts say and the weather conditions. By the way that's steely resolve on my face, not panic.

Here's a close up of the swarm wriggling in the cherry tree. That's the brim of my hat on the right.

Fortunately we had some extra bee equipment on hand for just such an occasion. I didn't figure to use it until next year, but that plan has clearly been overcome by events. I put the hive body underneath the swarm and we cut off the branch of the tree. Then we shook the bees off and into their new quarters, thus:

Once the cover is on, it suddenly looks like a normal bee yard again. Nothing to see here; move along, move along.

Today we took a look at the new hive and added some frames from the established hives. We put in a frame full of honey, and one of larva and capped brood. Folks say the presence of brood is the best way to ensure the swarm adopts the new hive as home. Predictably the bees had gotten a bit confused and were building comb from the top down. That's why they are all piled up on the inner cover. After this shot was taken I shook them down into the hive body, and Yvonne scraped the last of the burr comb off the inner cover. With luck the two drawn frames will convince them to build new comb in the right place (on the foundation, not the roof).

Hopefully the bees that remained in Thelma's old hive will have a new queen hatch out by early next week. (We added a frame of eggs from Louise's hive for insurance, so if there is no queen on the way the bees can make one now.) We'll keep an eye out for an unmarked queen next time we open up that hive. According to schedule the new queen should be making mating flights next week, and should start to lay eggs the week after that. If we're lucky we'll be able to find and mark her. Too much fun!