May 25, 2012

May 12, 2012


Sally's hive has been cranking along this spring and we knew that early swarming was a real possibility. We checked them out last weekend found the brood box riddled with queen cells. Were we already too late? As a last ditch swarm control measure, Kerstin and I scraped off about a 15 or 16 queen cells from the top brood box before we saw virgin queens out and running around on the comb and realized we hadn't seen Sally anywhere. Figuring she had already swarmed without our knowledge and rather demoralized, we abandoned our efforts in swarm management and left the remaining queen cells to carry out what we assumed would be a quick succession. However, yesterday morning we looked out the window and noticed a glittery movement around the hive. We all raced outside with camera in hand and witnessed tens of thousands of bees slowly circling the hive. I was determined to follow them and catch the swarm, but they punked us again. Instead of moving en masse to some nearby bush or branch, they swirled around a while, gathered in patches on a nearby bench, chair and the front porch of the hive and then slowly dissipated. I was completely devastated because this is not how bees are supposed to swarm, according to our books. Thinking they might have moved in a sneaky trickle to their swarm location to avoid detection, I walked the perimeter of our property looking for masses of bees, but couldn't find anything and eventually gave up. I was working in the garden a few hours later when I heard a loud buzzing behind me and lo, bees were once again spilling out of the hive and filled the air.  This time they gathered above the hive for a few minutes and then slowly made their way together towards the field (finally, doing something by the book!).

(The video quality is pretty poor after compression during the upload, but if you squint, you can make out the thousands of bees that fill the air here).

Our jubilation at watching the swarm move quickly subsided when the reality of their resting spot finally hit us.  They settled on a white pine branch at the edge of our field about 25 feet high. We left them alone for a few hours to plot our capture strategy. This being our first swarm capture attempt, we had to consult bee books for techniques and tips. Our go-to guide is The Backyard Beekeeper, mostly because there are lots of pictures and it's really easy to thumb through and find what you're looking for. At the top of the "Catching Swarms" chapter in the book was the following disclaimer: "Swarms that are very high in trees are seldom worth the risk of wobbly ladders and precarious positions. Safety is paramount here. A 6' stepladder is as high as you should go ... even then, you should only go halfway up." Pish, said we. Kerstin got out his 16' ladder and shored it up on bricks and cinderblocks. Then he placed a tarp under the swarm to catch any bees that may drop and we prepared an empty bee box with 3 frames placed at the edges and a screen bottom. I made some sugar syrup for misting the bees (this prevents them from flying and distracts them because they have to take some time away from being pissed off at you to clean themselves off.)

We made our move in the early evening as the sun was low in the sky and the bees were tightly clustered. Kerstin scaled the ladder and fashioned an old apple picker with a wire hook at the end to hook the branch and draw it down to low enough to grasp. He got through the branch with big loppers OK, but the weight of the branch caught Kerstin off guard and it snapped down, releasing about half the swarm in a shower down on the tarp we'd placed below. There were also plenty that didn't get hit with the mist of syrup that had taken flight instead. We feared all was lost, but there was still a good number of bees left in the cluster that remained on the branch, so Kerstin took it down and shook it smartly into the box. We put the lid on it and left the entrance open so that the bees could come and go. If the queen was in the box, so say the books, then the separated workers will sniff her out and join her in the box. If not, then the bees in the box would exit shortly and the swarm would regroup around the queen at another location. To our great relief, the bees did the former and were all tucked away in their new box by sundown. We moved them to their new location, gave them some food and they've taken to this hive beautifully. Best of all, lovely queen Sally didn't abandon us! We only had 1 hive a week ago, and now we have 4. I think we've really earned our beekeeping stripes with this experience.

May 5, 2012

New Bees

Kerstin and I expanded our backyard apiary to 3 hives this weekend. I purchased 2 nucleus colonies ("nucs") of overwintered Maine bees for Kerstin's birthday back in December and we picked them up from Overland Apiaries in Falmouth this weekend. The weather was perfect for bee installation. It was cool and overcast during the early morning transport, so they didn't run the risk of overheating in the car during the 45 minute ride home. Back at home, we set the nuc boxes on their stand, opened them up so they could orient and get acquainted with their new surroundings and then we finally got some coffee. The nucs had about 2 hours to roam the backyard before we transfered them to their new hives.
Kerstin with the nuc boxes after installation. 
Once we were ready to transfer, the sun came out and warmed them enough that they were more interested in foraging than being angry with us for messing with them. We moved each frame into the new hive body, gave them 5 empty but drawn comb frames and put them on the hive stand positioned under the respective nuc box. The transfers went smoothly and we were able to get a good look at the frames and queens in the process.
Kerstin installing the nucs in their new hives
Queen Mercury and her minions were installed in the grey box. Her hive has a very mellow temperament and are quiet on the comb. The workers in this hive are a little smaller than the Italians in Sally's box and Mercury has some abdominal striping, which suggests some Russian heritage. Erin, the bee keeper who reared these nucs, said that all her bees are naturally mated over several generations, so they don't really belong to any particular race anymore. But she suggested they are probably a mix of Russians, Carniolans and/or Italians.
Queen Mercury
Queen Ponyo was named by Alden who has a great fondness for the namesake movie. It's a very sweet Miyazaki anime loosely based on The Little Mermaid, but without a the usual platitudes and bad-guys-out-to-get-good-guys plot arcs that are the hallmarks of most kids cartoons. If you have a 4-year-old child who's not all that caught up in the details of reality, then this will be that kid's new favorite movie. It is light on plot and pretty trippy, but it's good clean fun and Alden adores it. Hence, Queen Ponyo. She and her workers were placed in the beige hive with the purple stripe. She's darker than the other queens we've had and her workers look pretty Carniolan to my eyes, so she's probably got a fair amount of Carniolan heritage. The hive disposition is a good deal crankier than Mercury's. These guys really don't like you rooting around in their crawl space.
Queen Ponyo (Alden named this one)
Once the frames were inspected and placed in their new hives, we fed the bees some syrup and left them alone for a week to get acclimated to their new digs. Welcome to our apiary, Ponyo and Mercury!
The nucs in their new hives at last