A Swarm in May

Most folks think of Andrew as the livestock half of our farm, but I would like for it to be known that I am the steward of numerically far more creatures than he.  True, all of my charges standing together weigh less than a single one of his chickens, but I prefer to focus on quantity.  I have way more honeybees than all of his other animals combined.

The bees came to our farm last spring, and to be fair I was only an accessory to their arrival.  Our CSA member Meghan had always wanted to try beekeeping, but her backyard in Silver Spring was less than bee-friendly.  Meghan did most of the work last season, with me curiously looking on and occasionally (and gingerly!) venturing to heft a frame.  I preferred to be in charge of the smoker, rather than to stick hands deep into a box of bees.

Unfortuantely, halfway through the fall, Meghan developed a bee allergy, and she was forced to transition from active beekeeper to beekeeping adviser (and occasional bee-smoker).  She gave me the chance to take over our two hives, and I readily agreed.

The only problem was that I really didn’t know anything about beekeeping (despite Meghan’s valiant efforts to educate me on weekends and by email).  Over the winter I offered the bees fondant and occasionally looked inside on warm days–you remember how many of those there were, right?  I knew that our weaker hive had succumbed to the cold fairly quickly, but the stronger hive seemed to be toughing it out.  With the arrival of spring I vowed to become a better beekeeper this season, and when our apprentice, Graham, volunteered to tutor me in beekeeping, I was thrilled.

Soon after his arrival, Graham and I traipsed out to the hives to assess the state of our surviving colony and to perform a post-mortem on the hive that had died.  The first thorough examination since fall revealed that our remaining colony was in trouble–the bottom entrance had become blocked by dead bees, and the few survivors had clustered in a few frames near the top of the hive.  That cluster had given me the false impression that we still had loads of bees–in fact, my shallow inspections had been seeing all of our survivors.  We could see a queen cell, which meant that our queen had recently died, and the bees seemed confused and a bit listless.  While dire, the situation was not utterly without hope, Graham informed me, as the bees might be able to raise a new queen from the queen cell we had seen.  We shut the hive up and gave the bees time to raise what we hoped would be their new queen.  One week later we checked again. The bees seemed happier, and we could see that workers were coming and going with pollen, a sure sign that they were feeding baby bees, called brood.  That might mean that we had a new queen, but it could also mean that a worker, sensing the absence of the queen, had suddenly grown ovaries and started laying eggs.  While that sounds like a great idea in theory, it spells doom for a hive, as workers can only ever lay unfertilized (drone) cells.  Without a real queen, we would have no new worker bees, and the hive would soon fail.  We had to wait again, to see who was laying and what sort of cells.

Finally, last Friday, we definitively diagnosed our hive as having a laying worker.  Graham described to me our only option–find or buy a new queen and then remove the laying worker.  But here’s the rub–we could never spot the laying worker on our own.  In order to remove her from the hive we would need to carry the frames of bees about 100 yards from the hive, shake off all the bees, then return the empty frames of comb to the hive, with the new queen.  The laying worker cannot fly, he explained, so only the workers would be able to return home (or sting us!).  When I explained to Andrew our plan, he nearly collapsed on the floor laughing.

“You are going to shake out a hive of bees?” he exclaimed.  “That sounds like the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

“But first I have to drive to DC to get a new queen,” I reminded him.

This sent him into fresh hysterics.  Apparently the thought of a 3 hour round trip all for the sake of one bee was amusing.

Fortunately, Graham was on my side.  “The hive doesn’t stand a chance unless we act immediately,” he affirmed.

And so, the next morning, Graham set off to DC, to pick up our queen.  The beekeeper who had sold Meghan our bees had an extra queen he was willing to part with, and he promised to leave her on his porch (in a box, I should say) for Graham to pick up.  Only, when Graham arrived, there was no queen cage in sight, and the housekeeper professed no knowledge of any such arrangement.  When Graham called with the news, my heart sank.  No queen, 3 hours wasted, and soon to be no bees.  I texted the beekeeper and asked Graham to wait just a bit (and maybe look around a bit?)

Ten minutes later, Sean, the beekeeper, called.  He was on his way, he promised.  As it turned out, he had been out catching a swarm, what is in effect a colony of bees that has outgrown their hive and set out to look for a new home.  In an act of incredible generosity, Sean offered us the swarm, rather than the queen he had promised.

Now a “swarm” sounds like a terrifying thing.  In fact, swarms are quite docile, as they have no honey to protect.  A swarm contains a queen and a whole hive’s worth of workers, so with this gift we were increasing the probability of our hive’s survival by quite a bit. Graham loaded up a cardboard box full of bees and set off back to the farm.  Unfortunately, the box proved less than hermetically sealed,  so bees leaked out into the car as he drove.  He rolled down the windows and decided that there were worse things than leaving a trail of bees all the way home to Myersville.

Because the swarm was so strong, Sean and Graham agreed that we could nix the whole “shaking out the laying worker” procedure.  Instead, we would simply shake the swarm into the hive, close it up, and let the bees sort it out themselves.  I really had no idea that beekeeping involved so much bee agitation .

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If you look closely, you will note that Graham is not wearing gloves. He is far braver than I…

Alas, just as Andrew was filming Graham pouring bees into our hive, our camera informed us that we had used up all of our memory on videos of Sylvan banging cups on the table.  I’m not going to lie–I would trade baby footage for video of our bee installation.  Alas, still images will have to do.

We are now the proud owners of a happy, healthy, strong hive.  And I am now deeply engrossed in Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture.  Each chapter begins with a old bee-related adage, and last night’s read, “A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay.  A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon. A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.”  I think we’re doing pretty well!

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The swarm gets acclimated to its new home. I wish I could upload audio of the sound!

4 responses to “A Swarm in May

  1. It must be abuzz!

  2. You might be interested in this study just reported on potential cause of bee colony collapse disorder
    http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2014/05/12/banned-pesticides-highly-likely-to-cause-bee-colony-collapse-says-harvard-study/
    though I suspect you’re avoiding use of pesticides. Cheers

  3. You ARE A BRAVE SOUL! Linda and Lennox

  4. I love hearing how the farm is growing! I am very envious and look forward to getting you, Andrew, and Graham to organizing my own little farm one day!

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