When I came home last night after an overnight business trip Ted greeted me as I drove up with the news that one of our hives had lost most of its bees. We ran out in the dark together with our flashlights peering into the little window. No big ball of bees! Where are the bees? He said worriedly, “Do you think we have colony collapse disorder?”
I went to sleep on that unhappy thought. I woke up so sad, struggling to deal my first loss. When I went out to check on the hive this morning Ted said, “Found the bees!” They had swarmed. They had thoughtfully alighted on a hawthorne tree not many feet from their old hive, about seven feet above the ground – it couldn’t have been a better location for us.
We switched gears from grieving newbie beeks to excited beeks with a new learning opportunity. Ted called our mentor (who said, “Ah, your first surprise!”). Our mentor said swarming happens frequently at the point our bees had reached. They had recently hatched a lot of brood, and they felt population pressure, so they just split the hive. On Tuesday afternoon about 4 I saw a great number of bees leaving that hive. I thought it was new brood exploring the world, but now we think I saw the beginning of the swarm.
Ted made a swarm-catching box and coated new top bars with honey. On my lunch I slipped on my bee suit and Ted put on his veil. I gave the branch one vigorous whack and got almost all the swarm into it.
Put the swarm in the box
We sat the box down and watched it for a while. After a bit the fanning behavior became obvious – the workers stick their backsides in the air and fan vigorously to distribute the queen’s pheromones and let all the bees know where she is. Fanning let us know that the queen is alive, and she is in the box.
What we have now is:
Knossos – hived this spring from a California package of Italians. Seems to be happy in its hive.
Phaistos – old worker bees with new queen.
Swarm in a box – new worker bees with old queen.
The swarm should be fine, they have a laying queen. It’s Phaistos that is in danger now. There’s a 30 day arc where the hive re-establishes around the new queen. Five days after she hatches she does a mating flight. If it’s not raining to keep her inside, if she doesn’t get eaten by a bird or otherwise dispatched, and if she mates successfully with enough drones, she’ll start laying. Three weeks after that the new brood hatches and begins to repopulate the hive. For those 30 days the old bees have to keep the hive going, and they’re getting to the end of their useful lives – there was another bring-out-your-dead moment when the remaining bees shoved bee corpses onto the landing pad.
Our mentor gave us very helpful advice about our options. Many beekeepers choose to recombine the hives at this point, figuring that the odds for the old hive just aren’t good. Ted and I talked it over. We are natural beekeepers – the best way I’ve heard this put is, the beekeeper takes care of everything external to the hive, and the bees take care of the inside of the hive. Our goal in keeping bees is to keep bees. We decided that we would just let the bees do what they are going to do, give Phaistos a chance to live or not but on its own terms, and make a new hive for the new swarm.
While waiting for the swarm to settle down into its box we took all the bars out of Phaistos to take a look at them. We found queen cells, including one we think hatched the new queen. First one hatched kills all the others (“there can be only one“). We didn’t find the queen, because we are new and inexperienced, but we are betting that she is in one of our photos, we’re going to study them. Tomorrow we’re going to look at Knossos to see if we find any queen cells there that would indicate they are getting ready to swarm.
It’s so sunny, and there are so many flowers around, we decided to wean Knossos and stop feeding sugar syrup. With Phaistos in a precarious place we’re going to keep on feeding there. The feeders are constructed with an entrance inside the hive, so hopefully Knossos won’t be tempted to rob Phaistos in its weakened condition.
On a final note, there is one capped tube of mason bees, and we saw a female flying into another tube today. They’re not laying all that fast, but at least they’re laying! Go bees!