Red maples started blooming in mid-January, and by Valentine's I had thrown on my first honey super. So no surprise that in the first week of March I happened across my first swarm, thanks to an excited neighbor who said as I got home, "Hey, Tom, you got a WHOLE HIVE over there on the fence!" Nothing puts Spring into a beekeeper's step like collecting a swarm. This was my second hived swarm, first in my apiary. Looked and felt like a 6-pounder!
The big column of bees landed on a forsythia plant, aka "Yellow Bells" which had started to bloom. I asked my neighbor to not pull that plant up, since the bees like it. The swarm was divided by the fence down the middle.
I ran inside, made up some sugar water and put it in a spray bottle, threw on a white shirt and veil, and then sprayed the swarm to make it easier to collect. Then I got my good ol' bee brush, an empty nuc box I had on hand (stapled the bottom to the body quickly), one deep frame of Plasticell foundation, and two drawn shallow combs from last year. I pulled out a couple of deep combs I had in the freezer as well. Suddenly I realized how unprepared I was equipment-wise for the season. No matter, time to get to it!
I brushed off what I could into the nuc box from one side, then quickly went to the other side.
I went to the other side, sprayed them a bit more, then bent the plant over and gave the branch a sudden shake. The column of bees fell and began to peel down. I grabbed my brush and brushed what I could into the box.
Some were on the ground, but I noticed immediately there was a fanner on the top left lip of the box.
More fanners lined up along the lid as I put the lid mostly on. A great sign which meant the queen was inside. Where she goes, so goes the swarm. Most of the bees were still on the fence. But from here on out I just waited, watched and marveled.
In about 20 minutes, the swarm began to fly and head into the box. I definitely got the queen on the first try. Nothing makes a beekeeper quite so happy!
Bees marched down the fence and along the ground, while scout bees returned from trying to find a new home for the swarm and quickly smelled the lemongrass-like scent that the bees were fanning into the air that said, "Over here, this is our new location!"
This spring sure has lots of sweet surprises so far, and we've only just started. One thing I know for sure: you can't do this in a dank, grey cubicle.
In less than 45 minutes, all of the bees had made their way into their new home. Hopefully, they'll decide to stay there. I walked the box back to the apiary, added one of the deep combs from the freezer, said a prayer of thanks and left them be. Spring is all about new beginnings, for us and for the honey bees. Enjoy the sweetness.
Everyone is ready for spring adventures, including my trusty bee yard companion, Olive who wonders, "Will daddy let me come out to play while he does bee stuff?" Yes, yes he did. Good daddy, good!
The weekend mornings started nice and brisk. After snapping this photo, I put my weather sensor on a hive body and in 15 minutes it was 83 degrees! My wife Yvonne was convinced that the bees inside the hive boxes influenced the reading. So I moved the sensor.
I put it on a non-reflective empty nuc box just in front of the hives to get an accurate non hive-influenced reading. I couldn't seem to move my finger out of the way, either.
And Y was right, sort of ... the bee boxes do give off heat. But since bees heat only the cluster and not the interior of the hive I suspect the heat is reflected from the light yellow paint on the hives onto the sensor plate. No matter, this shows what you can do even when it's in the 30's in the shade here in the Piedmont of North Carolina. With hives in a sunny spot, it's a different ballgame altogether. Time to get to work.
The finishing touches were put on my queen castle by adding a lip underneath all four sides of each compartment's lid. This allows for bee space on the top bars, so bees can patrol them if they want or need to and munch on a pollen patty if they want. It also made for a sturdier compartment lid all around.
Once we got in the hives Sunday, we discovered all were beginning to BOOM! Tight brood patterns and lots of drones are being made. Above you can see a fabulous frame from my first over-wintered nucleus colony, or "nuc", from last year. It was wings to legs bees, bees, BEES top to bottom. This lovely tight brood pattern greeted me and my mentees on our first inspection on Sunday. On the right of this frame there is a lot of drone brood as well. So this nuc will need to be convinced to not swarm out on me in the very near future. This same nuc was suffering from a high mite-load last fall, until I gave it and the hives three rounds of oxalic acid vapor (OAV). It has rebounded wonderfully. I am now a believer in OAV, right action and strategic feeding inside the hive during winter.
We saw this beauty, my two-year-old white dot queen, laying away and growing her nuc. She was put in a box and ignored all summer long, her and a little frame of bees. Now they're almost ready to move into larger quarters, or to make up more splits! I want more of her genetics. Of the 4 queen-right colonies currently in the yard, she's given me three. I hope to make up another 4 from her this year.
Here is a beautiful queen cell, just capped. Last week my mentees and I took my largest hive, which descended from a swarm I collected in 2014, and removed its queen and a contingent to a nuc box. This week we found 8 queen cells on the queenless hive, most had just been capped. One queen cell (QC) was destroyed when we separated the boxes and another slightly damaged. We left at least two beautiful QC's behind on the parent hive. There could've been more, but we verified two were left on adjacent frames. Mentee Chris Odom and I then moved a frame of food (pollen and nectar) and a queen cell frame into a compartment of the queen castle, and repeated the procedure into the adjoining compartment. I then shook extra bees from 4 or 5 frames into the compartments from the parent hive. In the course of all this, the mentor (me) dropped a frame to my utter shame. But, I took a deep breath, laughed about it, and slowly finished the job. No stings were gathered in this operation, though I certainly deserved at least two or three! These bees are so calm and gentle, even a week after being made queenless and a clumsy beekeeper, yet another reason to promote these wonderful genetics!
I made sure to outfit each entrance for each of the queen castle's 4 compartments with a bit of screen to prevent robbing. Each entrance also got a unique dot and/or dash configuration. These unique marks will help the queens orient and find their way back home once they start flying and mating.
Last week I gave the 2015 Q-D nuc a piece of broken comb. I rubber banded and jute-strung it into place. The nuc is doing wonderful, and the beautiful queen was spotted and laying. The girls have almost chewed through one of the jute strings, and maneuvered the comb down on the right and fastened it to the bottom, and re-attached the top left to the top. In a couple of days I should probably remove at least that jute to give them a break. But for now we put it back. They don't seem to mind it one bit. Bees are industrious and really amazing. They take a little something and turn it into a lot of something great. I try to do the same, make the most out of everything.
Here Chris inspects a beautiful frame of tight capped brood and honey from my white dot queen. We went through all 6 colonies and made 2 more, Lord willin'. Not bad for a beautiful late February Sunday afternoon.
Mentee Mary Fabian got into the bees, too, and was happy to dispense more 1:1 syrup and pollen patties. The apiary is beginning to boom. Fingers and toes are crossed the new splits we made up will yield strong new colonies, more new healthy, happy honey bees in 2016. Time will tell. Soon it will be time to make up more splits for this spring. Happy flying, girls!
Pollen is flooding in! Yesterday was in the low '70s and was very blustery, but that didn't stop the pollen celebration my bees were having. I quickly discovered that on the 4 of 5 hives where I didn't use shims my bees couldn't get to the pollen patties I gave them. The new recipe I tried (a soy flour, apple cider vinegar, water, sugar, lemongrass oil combo) still made for moist patties a week later! So I added shims to the 4 colonies that needed it, including this double-nuc, and in so doing I took away what had obviously become a second entrance for them, the large gaps at the top. So the bees loaded with mostly bright yellow, a vivid green and a few dark orange pollen deliveries were a bit confused. I hope they found the true, proper entrance down below. Here you can see them buzzing in, looking for a place to land and off-load.
Our Oregon Grape Holly was first to bloom, with its bright green berry balls that open into little horns of flowers. Our bees LOVE the Oregon Grape Holly. I know what it is thanks to a gardener extraordinaire in our local bee club. She tells me its an invasive species here, but the bees LOOOVE this plant. They were buzzing around the buds before they bloomed a couple of weeks when it was warm enough. And you can't kill this thing. Yvonne cut this thing back to hardly anything a few years back and it's hung in there. Awfully pokey and hurts like the Dickens, that's for sure, but I'll keep it around for my bees. It's always the first thing to bloom in late winter and a sure sign spring is right around the corner. This was shot a week ago.
Dandelion and Dead Nettle are now blooming, more signs of spring. I found this bunch in our mint patch. It's wonderful to see new life exploding. The red maples are threatening to open any day now but the one in my front yard hasn't just yet. Henbit also is exploding. I should know, as I tend to keep a lot of those "weeds" in my berry patch (and all over).
Yellow bells are showing off their blooms in full force. I love these plants. They seem to bloom flowers first, and then leaves. This is from my neighbor's house just down the street, and he tells me this is the CUT-BACK version of this bush. He seemed quite willing to let me take as much of it as I want. Apparently, yellow bells will have their way with your yard.
Another sign of spring, mentees coming over to another open bee yard. This past week we had a smoker contest between Mary Jo and son Chris. They initiated their smoker and got aquainted with lighting it, keeping it lit, learning how easy it is to use up fuel, how to pack it, and few other smoker tips their mentor showed them. I gave Chris a jakey old smoker I had, which he improved upon with a piece of tape. It took longer to start and is a smaller variety than their honking big new one, but as it turns out Chris's stayed lit the longest. MJ's was the first to go out (well, it would've had her mentor not intervened with some gum balls and cedar shavings), so Chris won the bragging rights this week.
Here MJ gets some hands-on learning, discovering differences between workers and a drone. We saw a few of the male bees, another sign of spring. We also saw a glorious amber queen, in hive 2015 Q-D. She was the last of the queens to be mated last fall, and outlasted two black Carniolan queens I mistakenly put in her colony while she was being raised and mated. That hive is now BOOMING, as the early jumpstart with 1:1 sugar syrup and pollen patties a few weeks ago is paying off. So we made our first artificial swarm of the season as well, moving her and a few frames of bees to an empty chamber on a double-nuc set-up. We gave her a honey frame, a pollen frame which I think contained eggs, another frame with food and room to lay, and a half-drawn deep frame of worker comb that broke on me in storage over winter due to inept handling. So I rubber-banded and jute-strung that comb back into position so she could start laying in there right away while the workers repair and keep drawing it out. When we go back next week to the colony from which she came I hope to find many queen cells to make up several new queens with. Fingers crossed. Another sign of spring, drones beginning to fly, drone brood starting to be laid in all the hives, and a hive strong enough to make an artificial swarm with.
I switched my record-keeping this year to Hive Tracks, an online inspection/notes/inventory system. I definitely love it. So I had to name my hives to match up to their records. My system uses year first, then the queens and their color if they have it (so 2014WDQ is the 2014 White Dot Queen), followed by a letter. I labeled some correx and keep this underneath the brick on each hive, instead of affixing a mark to any particular box. I tend to change boxes and hive configurations and locations throughout the season so this seemed most adaptable. So here's an overhead shot of the growing apiary. I removed the 2015 Q-D queen from what has now become the 2016 Q-A colony. I won't have to worry about 2016 Q-A swarming out on me, as they are now put in an emergency queen-rearing operation. I also took this overhead view so I can refer back to it later and not get mixed up on which colony is where.
And here is my humble apiary, real-life view, with the new 2016 Q-A group at far right. An artificial swarm, new queen cells, pollen flooding in and plants beginning to bloom are signs of spring that make me smile and wonder.
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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