Tuesday, May 24, 2011

And the second…and third…and fourth…

The swarm Bob collected on Sunday

This last week was rather exciting. We learned that Beth and Kent’s house acts as a swarm attractor and that the three clusters we collected were likely not from the same swarm, but rather were virgin queen swarms. As I mentioned in the previous blog, we captured a swarm on Beth and Kent’s backyard awning last Thursday (their backyard backs up to a drainage way, providing a natural path for anything wild to cruise up and down). On Friday, Beth called me to say that her husband, Kent, noticed two more clusters on a pine tree near the awning. I coordinated with John to stop by Saturday morning to pick them up.

The capture in progress - a swift knock or five got most of
the bees in the box
Our initial thought was that these additional bees were just more from the same swarm we picked up on the previous night. We figured more bees to add to the hive meant a better chance for success and it just seemed too coincidental that the same yard would attract three separate swarms. John decided to post the question to www.beesource.com, a forum for anything bees. The response he got surprised both of us as, despite the large number of articles, books, and otherwise we had read about bees, none had mentioned the phenomenon of virgin queen swarms.

Swarms are a natural response by bees to a sense of overcrowding in the hive (a variety of things cause this sense: the population is too big, there are too many new worker bees compared to brood for them to care for, or the hive senses that the old queen is laying less eggs and raises up new queen cells). When the swarm impulse begins, the old queen trims down to prepare for flight by slowing down and then stopping laying eggs. Scouts begin checking out new places to go and, when the time comes, lead about half the hive with the old queen to new pastures, so to speak.

The parent hive raises those multiple queens to maturity. When the first queen hatches, she rushes off to see if she can kill the other queens before they hatch. Sometimes one will hatch out and the two will have a fight to the death to see who gets to rule (though this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the hive and its population: the queen is just as much a slave to her role as the workers and drones, but all work toward the benefit of the hive or the species: survival and propagation is the true king and queen of the bees). However, there are rare instances of the new queens not killing each other off. To cope with this situation, since only one queen can abide in any given hive, the virgin queen and a one or two thousand workers will swarm off (I give this number based on what we saw with the four total swarms we caught in the last week – prime swarms generally are much larger).

Surprisingly calm, but very curious

Not knowing this initially, John and I combined the first swarm with the two swarms we captured on Saturday as they seemed to get along nicely. The response he got to this on the forum was that virgin queens haven’t produced enough pheromones to lay claim to anyone, so the workers that swarm with any given one are just as happy to hook up with any queen. Our guess is that the queens did have a battle royal and that only one is left at this point.

One last thing, I mentioned a couple things that, if you were paying attention, would look like plot holes the size of Mack trucks. Between Thursday and Saturday we captured three swarms (all with no protective gear, must say; swarm collection is awesome bee PR!), but you may have noticed I said that we collected four clusters. While I was working on the top bar hive that we would install the initial three clusters in, Kent called and told me that a fourth had landed in the aforementioned tree. I texted John and we had the same thought that we could put this swarm in a nuc and would have nothing to lose and a hive to gain.

The Sunday swarm is in the nucleus hive on the left

This cluster was larger and yielded a pleasant surprise. While I was showing Kent and Beth the difference between a drone and worker bee, I saw the queen! Before this I had seen a whole of two queens: the replacement Carniloan queen we purchased and a queen from a TBH class that the instructor had pointed out. But here was my third, and a fortunate find at that! She was about 25% larger than a worker and most of that was in her abdomen.

The combined swarms in their new top bar hive

Finding this swarm’s queen made a really good day into a simply fabulous day!

The other thing is why Beth and Kent’s yard was such an attractant to the swarms. About two weeks ago, they had noticed a large swarm in their tree but then it disappeared. The swarm left pheromones behind that made the area attractive to other swarms, plus the yard is likely very close to whatever hive they swarmed from. Second, the swarm never disappeared. Instead, it found a home under a bay window. I’m also guessing it holds an unmated queen as a dozen or more drones were attempting to gain access to the hive and being repelled by workers. Quite an odd sight!

Posted by Bob Nelson

Our first swarm collection

Last Thursday John and I rescued a small swarm of bees a friend of his had spotted in a neighbor’s yard. I say rescued because their ranks appeared decimated by the cold and rain. We found them on the side of an awning over a back porch in two small clusters. The smallest had already succumbed completely to the cold (or so we thought…), but the other (about the size of two softballs) showed some movement and life.

With the help of a timely coincidence – namely John’s wife running into the president of a local beekeeping club who just happened to have a bee vacuum in her car – we collected the swarm with speed and ease. A bee vac is a low powered vacuum designed to suck up bees. This one had been rigged to attach to the top of a small bucket to deposit the bees in and ran off of a car battery jump starter kit. The bees were so chilly that they put up only minimal resistance and only two or three took flight.

And all of this added up to one simple truth: we could not have asked for better circumstances in which two neophyte beekeepers collected their first swarm. We didn’t wear any protective equipment except what we already had on to combat the chilly weather. The neighbors that spotted the hive, friends of John’s from his church and Bible study group, were really excited to see the show and Beth, the renter of the house that harbored the six-legged squatters, was really happy to see them rescued.

The bees have a long trip ahead of them. Assuming the queen is still alive, she’ll need to rebuild a very damaged population – and she’ll have to wait until Saturday to start. While I have most of the top bar hive that we were planning on using to rear captured swarms put together, I still have a bit more to go and won’t have it ready till this weekend. The good news is this: John transferred the swarm from the bee vac bucket to one of the nuc boxes that we had leftover from our bees last year last night and, to paraphrase for gentler ears, they were ticked. However, remember my “or so we thought…” comment? We had sucked up most of the cluster that appeared dead, yet John found no dead bees – not a single one – in the bucket when he made the transfer. Our suspicion is that these bees were so cold they were near death, but not quite there. Once they warmed up they found life again. My hope is that this means the bees still have the vigor to stage a comeback. My fear is that we’ll have another batch of Sicilians on our hands.

Only time will tell!

Posted by Bob Nelson

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's been wet this week

Colorado usually sports well over 300 days of sunshine every year, making us one of the sunniest states in the nation, if not the sunniest (if you're reading this from another state and are thinking about moving here - do realize that it snows even when it's sunny...really! I wouldn't lie to you to keep you out of my birth state. And when they say Denver is a cow town, it's true: traffic can be held up for hours during a cattle drive, really!) However, this week seems to be putting a damper on those numbers. It rained for nearly 48 straight hours earlier in the week, nearly 1" of precipitation, and has rained or drizzled off and on most of the weekend - snow was even predicted for last night but didn't fall here in Aurora.

Weather like this is good and bad for the bees. Good in that they'll get an opportunity to feast on bunches and bunches of flowers that will spring up when the sun gets back to its work. However, imagine getting stuck in the house with your 20,000 to 30,000 sisters for two days - TWICE in one week. Not only would it likely make you a bit surly, but now you have to eat all the honey that you've been working to store away for the season. If weather like this continued for some reason, a decent chance of starvation rears its head - 15 years ago or so we had 40 straight days of drizzle and rain in April and May, which makes me think of how the bees did then.

Weather like this is also messing with this beekeeper's plans. The bees should be ready for getting split from two into four hives. I did a brief inspection last week and both hives were boasting strong populations and lots of new eggs and brood. And the Sicilians were, how shall I say, spunky as always: even after I had bottled them back up a couple of guard bees followed me back to the car some 50' away and harassed a buddy that wanted to see what the bees were like but was more than 20' off on the other side of the Italians. The Italians were mild-mannered as always, so I have to rule out the possible lack of forage making the Sicilians more defensive over their stores. That all said, I do welcome the timing of the rain. The new blooms will help to keep the split hives well-fed so they can get their population ramped back up.

Our concern with splitting the hives is this: two of the four hives will initially have no queens and will have to create their own.  The new blooms we're hoping for should assist in keeping their spirits up, so to speak, and help push them into creating new queens. Worst case scenario, if one or both don't requeen themselves, we'll just recombine them with their "mother" hive and try again next year. If it works like we expect it to, we'll have lots more honey at the end of the season and be ready to grow evenmore next season!

Posted by Bob Nelson