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Bees please

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Honeybee swarm; about the size of a football.

One Wednesday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, as I was crunching through a gnarly document at work and trying to get things buttoned up for a planned couple days off work, a coworker who knows I keep bees sent me an IM asking if I knew anyone who could come get a bee swarm at her brother’s house. Um, yeah! I quickly responded: ME! She sent me a photo and details: her brother lived a couple towns over, about 15 miles from my home, and the swarm was only 6 feet off the ground, according to her SIL. I had been planning to stay late and work on the document from hell, but even if I stayed four more hours, it wouldn’t make much difference with this doc.  So I left at 5:30 and rushed home to get my bee gear.

I put my 6-foot ladder in the car, a cardboard box, some duct tape, some bungie cords, baling twine, a hive box and lid (in case I could just dump them directly in), some lemongrass oil, my bee veil, and my Rottweiler (Daisy wasn’t about to be left behind!). I got there just as it was getting dark, and went back to look. It was a nice size cluster – not too large – and only about 6 feet up on a branch I could easily snip with my pruners. No need for most of the stuff I’d brought, but that’s okay. I didn’t even suit up; I just positioned the cardboard box under the swarm, and snipped. Done. I should have suited up. I got dinged in the nose, and a few very angry bees flew around me as I got the lid on the box and started taping. It seemed they were finding a hole out, so I kept going with the duct tape until finally they were secure. I’m sure my coworker’s brother thought I was a little nuts as I taped and taped and taped and taped. They were bees, not wolverines. The nose sting wasn’t too horrible, but as I drove home I could feel that one must have gotten me on the ear, too. Ah well.

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Installing the swarm into the hive box.

It was after dark when I got home, so I left them in the box for the night, on top of the hay bales in the garage. In the morning (thankfully I’d already planned to take the day off!) I got everything set up and dumped them in. (This time I did put my bee veil/jacket on.)  It wasn’t as easy as a bee package install, but went pretty well nonetheless. The branch I’d snipped went into the hive box with them (they were still clustered on it) and I put everything back together as soon as I got the bulk of them secured into the hive. Then it was time to sit back and wait, with fingers crossed that they liked the hive and would stay.

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Now for everyone to settle down and figure out where to go (and hopefully Queenie’s inside the hive!).

Later that afternoon the sun was out and they looked happy, flying in and out and getting acquainted with their surroundings. And three days later, it looked like they planned to stay and were setting up house! I was thrilled! After five years of beekeeping, I feel like a real beekeeper now, having caught my first swarm. It had to be the easiest swarm catch on record but you just never know.

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Package bees on their way home with me.

This past Wednesday I picked up my package bees. I’d ordered them before I’d heard about the swarm, and briefly thought about cancelling the order to save money, and to avoid contributing to the practice of buying package bees (I saw a YouTube video once of how they are packaged, and it’s brutal), but I really want two hives going, and with any luck this year is the year I’ll learn how to split a hive, and not be so dependent on buying bees from others who raise them.

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Just about ready to open it up and get them installed.  There are a LOT of bees in there – probably the largest package of bees I’ve ever gotten.

I got the package after work, so it was 7 p.m. before I got things ready for them. I half thought of waiting until the next day to install, but decided to go ahead with it. The sooner they’re in a hive the better for them. I put on my bee jacket (with netted hat or veil to protect my head (face and eyes!) from bee stings), even though package bees are notoriously docile (so are swarms – ha!) and dumped them in the hive. I got these bees from a local hardware store only a mile and a half from my house (so no half hour drive with 15,000 bees in the car with me) and when I talked to the owner, himself a beekeeper, he said they would be 4 pound packages.  I figured he meant 3 pound, which is the norm, and indeed, my receipt when I paid for them said “3# package bees,” but I have to say, there were a LOT of bees in that box.  Maybe it was because they were obviously so much healthier than last year’s package, which, frankly, was half dead when I got it (and had an unusual amount of fully dead bees in there).  This year it seemed like the cage was magic, I kept pouring them out and it seemed like they just never stopped. It was wonderful!  Finally, as civil twilight moved into nautical twilight, I had all of them out of there that I could get out, and the queen in her cage attached to a frame inside the hive. There were a few small clusters still hanging onto the inside of the box, so I just put the box on top of the hive for the night.  They were still there in the morning, but by the time I got home from work that night, the cage was empty (and not a single dead bee to be seen!).

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They settled immediately and seemed to know they were home.

The first couple of days after installation were chilly and wet, but they were still out flying more than I expected.  I let the queen out of her cage the second night and she is beautiful. I’d waited, due to last year’s fiasco. I was never sure what happened, but on my first inspection of that hive, a week or so after installation, I saw queen cells. Meaning, the bees were already replacing the queen that came with them. Not good. I’d done the old “candy plug” in the queen cage when I installed that one, replacing the cork with a piece of marshmallow. The theory is that by the time the bees eat through the candy, they’re bonded with the queen. The plug had fallen out before I finished installing them, so she was loose immediately. Which, frankly, shouldn’t be a problem. The bees love their queen. My guess is she was one of the half dead bees in that package (probably due to overheating – hundreds of packages are hauled up from California in a trailer, and it was hot that week…).  She obviously lived long enough to lay some eggs, and the hive replaced her as soon as they could. But that put us back another month, with regard to the new queen maturing to a laying queen, and then we headed into a drought summer, which made for some hard work to find flowers and nectar. A lot of area beekeepers had bad losses this year. When I realized my hive was dead in early spring (and I’m pretty sure they were probably dead by December) there was a shockingly small amount of honey left in the hive. It hadn’t been robbed, either.

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“Are you my mama?”  I’d released the queen inside the hive, but these guys wouldn’t give up the cage, where her scent still lingered.

I plan to take better care of these hives, monitoring better and getting the hives better protected.  I’ve taken steps towards the second – I’ve moved the bee yard to the garden area (fallow again this year) and closer to the house.  I also have them up off the ground.  They’re temporarily set up on top of dog crates (truly the Swiss Army knife of dog equipment) and I’m trying to figure out how I’ll set them up permanently – benches, picnic table, bee barn…I’ll be doing some Google searches on this topic to see what will work (and that I am capable of building by myself) and get something together in the next month or so.

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My little bee  yard amongst the nettles and on makeshift hive stands.  It will be a lot cuter in another month or two.

I tend to be somewhat lackadaisical about regular inspections. It’s so disruptive to the bees, and I hate opening up their house just so I can see if they have brood and honey stores. But maybe if I’d done so with last year’s hive, I’d have realized they didn’t have much in the way of honey stores. I don’t know that feeding them would have helped, as it was a challenged hive from the beginning, but I only did about three abbreviated inspections in total, which isn’t enough.

20160430_113959This past weekend the weather was picture perfect, warm and sunny and true bee weather.  And both hives are loving it.  The swarm hive is doing well; they are making a lot of honey already and while it seems like they aren’t drawing out much comb, I have to remember how small they were to start. This was obvious when I got the package bees, which had probably four times the number of bees to start (and the package bees are guzzling the sugar syrup I’m giving them – a quart a day compared to the swarm hive’s half pint or so).  The swarm hive is healthy, and even if I haven’t seen the queen (I rarely do) I see larvae, and they are doing what they should be doing.  Happy bees = happy beekeeper.

 

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8 thoughts on “Bees please

  1. Can’t wait to hear more about this year’s bee adventures.

    • mcfwriter on said:

      I hope to have many great updates, Bliss. One should be dedicated my honeybeeluv. Who knew you could love a box of insects? 🙂

  2. Laurie on said:

    You freaking GO, girlfriend. Your dear old Honda must have so many stories to tell–hauling sheep and boxes o’ bees. 🙂

    • mcfwriter on said:

      Thanks, Laurie! It feels so right to have two hives out there again. And I moved them so I can easily check on them from the house. Yes, the ol’ Honda is truly a farm car now; I think she likes it as much as I do.

  3. I have no aspirations to be a beekeeper, but it sure sounds like you are off to a rockin’ start!

    • mcfwriter on said:

      Thanks, Michelle – I got into it on a whim (read a random blog post, no kidding!) and have never regretted it. They are fascinating creatures and my instant affection for them caught me by surprise. (That’s my version of “try it, you’ll like it” 😉

  4. Very interesting. I, too, have no interest in trying this (probably too busy with sheep and wool) but I admire your passion!

    • mcfwriter on said:

      Somehow, for me, the bees and the sheep go together well. I know several other shepherds who are also beekeepers – maybe it’s the double e’s?

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