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.
Each spring here in Carolina is something to behold. I found myself doing some things better this year, and repeating some past mistakes, namely getting caught up in the rush of things and forgetting to take some time to literally smell the roses (or dogwoods, as the case may be). Life can be a wondrous thing to behold. But if you're too busy, you'll miss it. And with a new spring and lots of new bees, that's something that can happen all too easily. Fortunately I've got a major hand up with so many new colonies and queens this year, and that is Hive Tracks software. I thought I'd raised (so far) 4 queens and had a potential 5th one. Nope, I've got 6 new queens raised so far this year, and yes I did spot her this weekend! Thrilling, exciting and humbling all at the same time.
Do you see her? She's on this frame. This gives you an idea of what it's like as a beekeeper trying to spot a queen. But, with years of experience, your eyes actually do adjust (the trick is to not actively look with your eyeballs for that one bee, but to take in the entire frame and allow your eyes to spot the one bee that is larger than all others). Mentee Chris Odom snapped this and a few other photos for me. We were trying to button up after a couple of hours in the hives, but I realized I needed to check this hive which should have a new queen online now. And she's right there there, happy as can be, laying away. Have you spotted her yet? Hint: She's almost at the direct center part of the frame (look for her shiny black thorax).
Well how about now? Just to the right and off-center a bit you'll see her dark, long caramel amber body with just one stripe at the tip, unlike all the other bees here (she stuck her head in a cell when this was taken). Another new queen success! So wait, is that 4? 5? 6? Thanks to Hive Tracks and vigorously labeling, I confirmed that she is a 6th new queen for 2016. Hopefully there will be more. Sunday was to be a simple endeavor: a few inspections and give Chris his practical field exam, the last step in becoming a certified North Carolina beekeeper. Well, the bees had other plans! Simple quickly turned to complex.
My now-largest hive, which started out as an over-wintered nucleus colony or nuc, was putting up honey and drawing combs on its first new honey super of the season. I'd left this one alone, tending to all the other nucs, and had given it a honey super last week. In the past 3 weeks, this hive decided it was running out of space and was preparing to swarm. Fortunately, we caught it in the nick of time. Here you can see swarm cells. "What is the difference between a queen cup and a queen cell?" I asked Chris. A cell has a larvae in it. A cup is empty. This hive had lots of cups it was building on the combs. Most were empty, until we found these two cells.
So to prevent a swarm and save the bees and honey crop, Chris and I removed the queen and a deep frame of bees and capped brood in an artificial swarm into a new location. I'll leave them screened in for 3 days to prevent the bees from leaving the queen and returning to its old hive location. We then took this shallow frame with two capped queen cells on it and added it to a queenless group in the queen castle that I'd intended to combine with an adjacent single-frame nuc that was queen-right. Hopefully there wasn't too much fighting between those queenless bees and this group preparing these swarm cells, but regardless I wanted to make use of what the good Lord hath provided.
Meanwhile, the old hive received some blank frames to draw out, in addition to the honey super it was working on. And now without a queen and queen cells removed, it won't swarm just yet. Now, it will raise more queen cells from eggs on its many frames. So in another week I'll check back to see if I can make two or three more starts off this group. So this one hive will have become 4 or 5 if all works out well!
It's a juggling act, because if I take too many bees away they won't be strong enough to put up honey. Had I not acted I would've lost my queen and 65% of the hive and some of its honey stores in the near future. So that one large hive would have become just one small hive with no honey and only queen cells. Hopefully I'm playing my cards right. So far the results are saying "yes".
In just 7 days this group also had drawn 5 of 10 of Plasticell medium foundations into combs. Putting that additional wax coating on Plasticell seemed to really work. Chris and I rotated the center frames they were drawing to the outside edges and the untouched end frames to the center to help them fully draw out this chamber.
Here is a deep Plasticell frame on my newest queen's colony. This cluster of bees was busy drawing out this new frame. You can see excess wax on this frame, too. When finished, with the black plastic core it should be so easy to spot eggs!
I eventually realized that I was talking out loud to myself, even though Chris was there, just trying to keep everything straight. We chuckled about it. My neighbors must think I'm a complete loon, someone who messes with bees and constantly talks out loud to himself. But it does help to verbally repeat out loud what it is you are trying to do, what it is you need to do, and what it is you have done step by step to make it all happen. And FORTUNATELY there is now Hive Tracks, to keep you better organized and on track as it all evolves.
Previously in the week I came home to this pitiful sight: homeless bees. I moved this colony, my 2014 White Dot Queen, last week to a larger spot just a couple feet away. But foragers coming home found an empty chamber. They positioned in little clumps to withstand the weather and were very sluggish. I realized they hadn't been able to offload their nectar and pollen stores because all the bees and combs had been removed. So using a feather I gently brushed these bees into a pan and dumped them back into their colony in its new location. They seemed quite relieved! It had only been a couple days. And this now empty location became the spot for my latest artificial swarm!
It was truly a pitiful sight. So I resolved to not let this happen again when I moved a colony. The bees lined up in little V formations to withstand the elements, consigned to their fate. Fortunately they were saved.
Truly this spring is glorious. Seeing its beauty makes me realize how much I've missed over the years when I was just to busy. Now I take at least one bee-free weekday and weekend day off each week. We can all get too crazy-busy and lose sight of it all.
Each new day brings new adventures, and new chances to take in everything it has to offer. Make sure you do.
It was time to do a little maintenance and take a quick peek on my biggest hive that's put up the most honey, the 2014 swarm hive I've fallen in love with. Still haven't made nucs off this one, yet. Sure hope I get a chance to before she swarms out, dies or is superceded. Well, it was time to see how many more frames they'd drawn out in the additional super I put on (I checker-boarded frames, drawn versus undrawn), and put a queen excluder on so that over the next month she wouldn't be laying in the honey chambers, everything can hatch out and they can back-fill those combs with whatever honey is left to come in. Always good to have a plan.
On my initial "it won't take but just 15 or 20 minutes, honey" visit, I found an indicator that things wouldn't go as planned (read, this will take MUCH longer than 15 minutes).
Well, they hadn't touched any more of the undrawn frames in the supers. And, then there was a bit of a surprise when I lifted out my first brood frame on this visit.
But what's one surprise if you don't get at least another? So, what the ... SWARM CELLS??! But I just saw supercedure cells on the previous frame?! I was instantly confused. Nothing quite like feeling stupid in the bee yard. Was that a veil I was wearing or the proverbial dunce cap?
Annnnnnnd, yet another frame with a queen cell on it. So 3 frames with queen cells (so far). Goooooood, night in the mornin'!
Had I noticed a reduction in bee traffic at the front door? Yes! Was the queen in there? Didn't see her. But I did see a few eggs, some larvae, a nice tight brood pattern, so she HAD been in there. I was convinced they were superceding the old queen. But after sleeping on it a night, I realized I'd seen a beautiful frame of SWARM CELLS. (I checked the forums at beesource.com and the concensus was that the NUMBER of queen cells, not just their position on the frames, indicates the hive had swarmed out.)
So I went back and did what I could to make the most of out the situation the day after. Still, I hadn't gone into the deep chamber. Yep, it was time to take the hive apart and go all the way down and complete the inspection. On my way down I checked progress of the queen cells (none had hatched yet), and put the one frame and a couple of shallow brood frames aside. Then into the deep chamber I went. One honey comb was dry. More evidence of swarming, I think (honey removed from the brood chamber). So convinced it was swarm cells I'd seen, I found this.
Good grief, what do I know? Only so much as what the bees teach me. I do know this: often, in the bee yard things go SOMEWHAT different than they say in all the text books. Here, I thought you got either one kind of cell or another. Nope, I got both. But you have to take in EVERYTHING to get the whole story. I realize now that at least I wouldn't have to split the hive up after taking off the honey supers. I'd planned on breaking up this hive into attempted nuc's to a) break the brood cycle so that b) Varroa destructor mites would perish and c) I'd end up with more, younger laying queens in the process. But the bees always teach me that THEY are in charge of their schedule, not me. Fortunately I had time to adapt. AND, I did end up making an attempt at making increase off this once booming hive, which I hope turns out to be two wonderfully successful nucleus colonies, each with their own newly mated 2015 queen. SUCCESS!
Then it was time to check in my one nuc where I believed I had an accepted, newly mated laying queen in my make-shift mating nuc setup with feed bag inner covers.
So this was a beautiful sight. It does look spotty, but there was only a frame and a half worth of bees in this chamber just 4 weeks ago, with a queen cell I'd given it. Now we DO have evidence of success, two weeks into egg laying for what I'm naming Q15-A (Queen 2015 A). And all available cells were filled with eggs or brood.
And then a beautiful sight to behold:
So, my "I'll only be 15-20 minutes, honey" visit on a Sunday turned into yet more work, and more like a couple of hours over two days when all was said and done. Even though my biggest hive has most likely swarmed out, I still have honey to harvest from it (SUCCESS!), a break in the brood cycle to halt Varroa mite reproduction which means healthier bees going into winter (SUCCESS!), and now 2 more new queens under way (SUCCESS!). Catching the cells before the hatch gave me time to set the stage for another "top nuc". I put a couple of brood frames alongside the frame with the swarm cells on it to draw up enough nurse bees to form a nucleus colony on top. There were still a good number of bees in this hive. I love that I get a chance to make two hives out of the 2014 swarm queen's fabulous genetics. Sweet, gentle bees that put up lots of honey, survive harsh winters, don't ask for too much and always have something to teach this backyard beekeeper.
Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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