Freedom of the Press

I was at the Social Computing Symposium all day, so I couldn’t watch their activity, but it looks like the bees have been making short work of the newspaper I put in to give the combined hives a chance to get to know eachother before they mingled. Lots of chewed up newspaper outside of Hive 2. Just a little bit outside of Hive 1, but the newspaper is also up much higher, so it may take them longer to work it down.

Swarm II: The Return of Swarm

They swarmed again! I have to say I’m very appreciative of the girls’ predilection for swarming on Saturdays while I’m in my backyard to do something about it, but I could do with a little less swarming and little more hanging out in the hive and make honeying.

Julie and Donia were over Saturday morning, planning a trip to visit Jean at Beez Neez Apiary in Snohomish to gather supplies and the fresh box of bees we ordered a month or two back, we’re sitting on the deck, enjoying the sunshine and a cup o’ coffee, when I hear a roaring buzz. Crap! I spin around and rising out of a tree in the yard is a black cloud o’ bees. Check ’em out.

Again, what happened was that the hive got too crowded, so they made a new queen by feeding one of the larva royal jelly. Enough royal jelly, and a lowly worker becomes a queen. Better than finishing school.

When the new queen is ready to hatch, the old queen takes off with half the hive to found a new hive. It’s all pretty puzzling to me, though, because they just swarmed two weeks ago. I don’t understand where this new queen came from, because I thought I killed all the queen cells when I went through the hive then, but, as we already established, I’m a bad beekeeper, so who knows.

Anyway, Julie and Donia and I watch this black cloud ‘o bees slowly make their way across the backyard, across the neighbor’s yard and up into the intersection of 42nd and Latona. They hung out there for a while, and we had fun walking into their midst, watching passing drivers lunge for their windows and sunroofs and warning bicyclists as their shrieked and veered. We tried to reassure all passersby that the bees are at their most docile when they’re swarming (because they’ve gorged themselves on honey for the trip), but, not surprisingly, they still didn’t quite feel comfortable with the Hitchcockian mass of stinging insects roaring in their ears.

After about a half hour, though, they started to settle. This was good news, as it meant that we could catch them. When they’re flying in the air, there’s nothing you can do but watch, but when the queen lands, the rest of the swarm will land around her in a huge, sedate clump that you can put into a bucket or a box and put back into a hive. Julie made a quick call to Dawn of the Puget Sound Beekeeper’s Association, got some info on how to proceed, and we were back in business. I threw on some overalls and my bee shirt, grabbed a bucket and a spatula, and I’s ready for action.

First, though, I stopped off at the school across the street where kids and parents were doing landscaping and upkeep on the grounds and let them know that we had a science fair moment, if they were interested. A couple of the moms gathered up a dozen or so 5 – 10 yr olds and they all trooped over to see the bees. I had a ball with it. I gave the kids a quick talk on how a beehive works and what a swarm was and fielded some questions. They were all very brave, standing just about ten feet from the swarm, and smart to boot, asking all sorts of questions that I wouldn’t have thought kids that age would think to ask (“what are bees strongest sense, smell or sight?”, “how far can they go?”, “How do they know to make a new queen?”)

Lecture over, I zipped up my bee shirt, pulled on some gloves and just started scooping them into the bucket. It’s amazing how docile and manageable they are when they’re swarming. It was just like scooping ice cream…except ice cream doesn’t sting you. Yeah, I got stung, but only once, and that’s cuz I kneeled on one with thin pants. Heck, I’d sting me to if I kneeled on me.

Once I had as many of the bees in the bucket as I could easily get (there’s a law of diminishing returns when you’re scooping bees, ya know), I threw a pillowcase over it. Now, the trick is that if you have the queen in the bucket, the rest of the bees will smell her and follow. If you don’t, as soon as you open the bucket, the bucket o’ bees will take off after their queen. I wasn’t quite sure at this point whether I had the queen. Luckily, though, Julie had a scrap of mesh fabric that would let air (and scent) through, so we swapped that out for pillowcase and immediately, the bees from the wall started moving to the mesh on the bucket. Victory!

There’s a queen in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, queen in the bucket…

That was it for the day, more or less. I took the bucket back across the street and the remaining bees slowly followed it over. There were still a few left on the wall late in the day and the next morning, but the bulk of them followed the bucket. The bees eventually pulled the mesh into the bucket, so I recovered it with a pillowcase, but we were good to go.

Meanwhile, Julie and Donia headed up to Beez Neez to pick up our box o’ bees, a hive tool and some other various and sundry. More important than various and sundry, though, they were able to consult with Jean, Bee Mistress to the Stars, and our indispensable font of information.

See, this was a bit tricky. At this point, we could easily have 4 queens. One in each of the standing hives, one in the swarm, and one in the box o’ bees that we ordered a month back before any of this swarming had started. I don’t need 4 queens, I need 2 queens. You can’t have more than one queen to a hive. And if you just throw bees from different hives together willy-nilly, they’ll leave at best or kill each other at worst. Hurm….

So Sunday morning, I wake up bright and early (a little too early, considering that I was out until 4 a.m. at Shelly’s Flamboyant party the night before), Julie came over and we sat down to stragetize. Here’s the way Jean laid out (as best Julie could remember):

We were to open Hive 1 (from which the swarm originated, and thus which could not be recombined with the swarm, as the swarming bees won’t return to their old hive) and go through it and look for a queen cell. If we could find an unhatched queen cell, we would kill it. At that point, we would have a fully functional, queenless hive, so we could take our new box of bees and add them to Hive 1, reinforcing their numbers and giving them a new, fertilized queen.

Queens get fertilized by flying high into the air and getting dirty with drones from other hives in the area. They store up the spunk and head back to their own hives and lay fertilized eggs over the following year from that single mating flight. Until they’ve had that flight, though, they can’t lay eggs. Purchased queens, though, have already been on their mating flight, so they’re ready to lay.

The other thing is, you can combine the hives if you’re careful about it, separating the two sets with newspaper so they can slowly get used to each other’s scent as they chew through it.

However, if we found an empty queen cell, that meant that the new queen had already hatched, and we would have to hunt her down and kill her. That, let me tell you, is really, really hard. I mean, there are tens of thousands of bees all moving and buzzing and trying their damnedest to sting you, and a queen doesn’t look THAT different.

OK, hope for the best.

As for Hive 2, which was created out of the swarm I had two weeks ago, we were to add the new swarm directly to it. I didn’t quite get this part. That meant that Hive 2 would have two queens, but Julie said Jean didn’t seem to think it would be a big deal, they’d duke it out or something, so OK, off we go.

While I suited up, Benni and Jole came up from downstrairs, grabbed some coffee and donuts and did some hula hooping. This proved to be key moral support.

I puffed a little bit of smoke into Hive 1, then went through the frames, starting with the West (cool) side frames of the upper body, where the queen cell was most likely to be. Nothing there, but when I got to the Easternmost frame of the upper body, I found what I believe was a queen cell, unhatched! It’s tough to tell, especially because in the process of examing it, I ripped whoever was in there to shreds, but I’m pretty sure it was a queen cell. The picture to the right is what I got. You tell me.

What I did notice about Hive 1 was that there was very little brood, and what brood there was was mostly drone cells. That’s a bad sign. That means that the queen is sickly or not there at all. In the absence of a queen, regular worker bees can lay drones (males), but they can’t lay other worker bees (females), so it’s death for the colony. You can see some of the drone cells in the picture to the left here. Notice how they stick out? Worker bee cells are flush. Just as well we were replacing the queen.

Great, so this all meant I could add the box of bees with the new queen to Hive 1. Pretty straightforward affair. I laid newspaper over the top of the existing hive bodies and put a fresh hive body on top of that. Then I opened up the box o’ bees, pulled out the queen in her little cage, and loosened the cork so she could get out (but not right away, need to let everyone settle in first before she gets flying on her mind). Then, I lowered the queen box in between a couple of the frames in the new hive body and dumped the bees out of the box. Popped on an inner cover, laid a few jars of sugar syrup for them to feed on while they got themselves established and covered it up.

Whew, Hive 1, done!

Hive 2 was simpler. After a quick break to do some hula hooping myself, I opened up Hive 2 just enough to see that they were healthy, and were they ever! Ever frame was chock full of brood, good strong laying pattern. So I laid a newspaper on top of the top body of Hive 2, added another empty brood chamber and dumped the bucket o’ bees into that. Same deal as Hive 1, I topped it with an inner cover, turned some jars of sugar syrup upside down for them to feed on (you just punch holes in a mason jar lid to make a feeder jar, they lick the syrup out of the holes), topped it off and called it a day.

So, I’m still kind of confused about what’s going to happen in Hive 2, given that there are two queens (the original one, that was actually the original queen from Hive 1 that swarmed two weeks ago, plus the new one from the swarm I caught yesterday), and there can only be one. I dunno, I guess I just hope for the best.

Swarm! Swarm! Swarm!

Oh, boy, hectic day at the Hive Mind apiary. So, I’m out in my yard Saturday noon, enjoying a cup of coffee and a bit of much needed sunshine, standing by the hives as I am wont to do, when things start to look a little busy. A real lot little busy. Gosh, I says to myself, those busy bees of Hive 1 sure seem to be active today. A real lot active. Good girls! As more and more bees pour out, and the whole yard starts to resemble a humming cloud of bees (see the left-most picture below), I realize that this is more than the results of a balmy Seattle spring, this is a swarm! Egads!

A swarm, for those of you not versed in bee lore is what happens when you have a bad beekeeper. That’s me, bad beekeeper. Bad, beekeeper, bad, bad, bad beekeeper!

OK, it’s not like that, really, bees swarm all the time, even for good beekeepers, but it’s preventable. When a hive gets too crowded, the bees hatch themselves a new queen (just by feeding royal jelly to one of the workers while she’s in her larval stage). Then, at some day and hour timed optimally to screw with my weekend, the old queen exits the hive along with half of the workers, and flies off to establish a new colony, leaving the rest of the hive and the new queen behind to continue making honey and soaking in my hot tub.

That’s nature, that’s how beehives reproduce. Not the hot tub part, the swarming part. Reproduction in hot tubs is exclusively human domain.

Anywa, it’s beautiful that they create new hives, but it’s kind of a bitch for the beekeeper, because it means I lose half of my hive in a single stroke. What a good beekeepers does is make sure the hive has enough room to grow by adding boxes of frames for them to expand into (and fill with honey) and by going through the brood frames on a regular basis to check for (and destroy) queen cells, which are noticeably different than their worker kin in that they are long and bullet shaped to accommodate the extra long body of the queen (see the left and right pictures below for an example).

OK, I am not a good beekeeper, we already established that. I did not add an extra box in time and I did not check for queen cells. So stop with the recriminating looks, already. I feel guilty enough.

Anyway, there they are, a bee river pouring out of the front of the hive. It’s like D-Day, Normandy beach, move it soldier, out out out! I shot a little bit of video of the exodus with my digital Elph, you can get a sense of what it was like.

OK, so snap to action! Go, go, go! Gotta do something!

What the hell do I do? I’m a bad beekeeper, we already established that. Umm…Call Julie! Right, Julie doesn’t know either, but Julie has sense enough to call Jean at Beez Nees Apiary Supply, our ever helpful, ever ornery source of bee wisdom. Yes, Jean said, exasperated, it is not too early for the bees to be swarming. They’ve been swarming since early March, which any responsible beekeeper would have known.

Perhaps Jean could see Julie hanging her head in shame over the phone, because she offered us up some advice. Go through the old hive, make sure you kill all the existing queens cells, and, if you can get the swarm into a box with frames, they’ll set up house and you’ve got yourself a new beehive going.

Again, for those you not versed in bee lore, what happens when the bees swarm is that half the workers follow the queen out in search of a new home. The queen will settle somewhere nearby and the workers will gather around her like a huge fruit. Meanwhile, some of them will then head off to hunt for a location for their new home. As these scouts return, they do a little waggle dance that communicates to the other bees where the potential new home is and what they think of it. So picture a bee wiggling its butt for the other bees saying “I’ve found this place and here’s how you get there and I think it’s pretty neat.” Then other bees will go check out the place described by the waggle dance, and if they like it too, they come back and do the same dance.

So at any given time, there are dozens of these different dances going on between the bees, but the better places get more dancers, because they stick with it rather than switching to a different dance. After a while, they’re all doing the same dance: “I found this place and here’s how you get there and I think it’s pretty neat!” and then the whole swarm rises up en masse in a big black cloud and heads off to set up shop at the neat place.

The key, though, is that where the queen goes, the swarm goes. So, if you can get the queen into a beehive (which is pretty neat), the rest of the swarm will skip the whole dance thing and just assume everybody else already decided this is the place, and they’ll settle in.

I’m off and running! I throw on a long sleeve shirt and pants, a veil and some gloves and rip open the old hive. It’s pretty safe work managing the bees at this point, because when they’re swarming, they’re at their most docile, for some reason. Something about having gorged themselves on honey for the trip.

Still, it’s hard, back-breaking work. The boxes are laden full with honey, weighing in around 40 or 50 pounds apiece, and I have to heft them all about, then pull out each frame individually and check for queen cells. If I find one, I gouge my gloved hand into it, killing the larva inside. Visions of the Russian Revolution race through my head, young Anastasia wakened to the sound of rioting and the glow of torches outside her window. “Quickly Princess, you must run, for the peasants are killing all who would be queen!” That, or the end of the Godfather, where Michael Corleone calmly attends his son’s baptism while his goons execute all his would-be rivals in a single, bloody massacre.

The queens are cleared out, the hive looks healthy otherwise, and I grab a frame of brood out to seed into the new hive to give them a jump start on their new enterprise. If you brush off all the bees that are on it and put it in, the bees will raise them as their own (which, in this case, they actually are) and it will provide some shock troops while the queen gets settled and starts laying new brood in the the new hive.

Now, it’s time to catch the swarm. They’ve apparently settled on a neighbor’s fence, which is a bit of a pain because they’re mostly on the backside of it, meaning I’m going to have to crawl in through the bushes to get at them. Julie arrives now, just in the nick of time, to help. She suits up quick, and, after a brief panic attack brought on by the buzzing swarm and the overly enthusiastic co-apiarist (read: me), she calms down and we get to work.

When I opened up Hive 2, which I thought was dead, I actually found there were a few stragglers there, along 5 or 6 cells of drone (male) brood, which is all workers can lay in the absence of a queen. Sorry, Charlies, time to move. Here I felt a bit like European settlers arriving on debilitated and decimated Easter Island, the last remnants of a dying people wiped aside to make way for a new civilization.

OK, I’m stretching it here. The Russian Revolution analogy was pretty good, though, don’t you think? “Why, why do they want to kill me?” she cried. “Because you could be queen!”

Anyway, we cleared what was left out of hive 2 and decided to use it as the new home for the swarm. There was quite a bit of mold on the frames, as there hadn’t been enough of a hive to take proper care of it, but I didn’t have much choice. That or nothing.

So I shimmy in between the bushes and the fence while Julie holds the box against the fence under the swarm (arm’s length, just the tips of her fingers touching, as if the box itself might sting her if she isn’t careful). I gently massage the bees through and they fall like an overripe fruit, plunk, into the box. Quickly, we pop the top back on, carry it back to where the hives sit, set it down and we’re done!

I thought.

I figured we had ’em for sure. We went back and checked where they had been and there were just a few stragglers left. No worry, the girls, once they’ve established the new hive, will stick their stinky little butts in the air and beat their wings, sending pheromone signals to the wind calling the strays home. We stuck in a few bottles of sugar syrup with Nosema that I had left over from last month and called it a day.

I did notice, after I had cleaned up and was getting ready to go to an art planning meeting for my Burning Man group, the Space Virgins, that there was a fairly large clump of bees hanging out under the pallette that the hives sit on. You can actually see them in the right-most picture above, just by leg.

Hmm…a fairly large clump. Wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, actually. Ah well, they must be either part of the new hive or the old hive, and either way, they’ll eventually make their way back in, because both hives are right there. Off I went.

So I wake up this morning (Sunday), and go out to see what’s going on.

Big clump, still there.

Really big clump. Like, hive-sized clump. There must be 10,000 or so bees there.


That could be another swarm, or maybe it’s the original swarm and I didn’t get them and they’re still wondering where to settle. Goddamn.

So I grab a glove and a old plastic sorbet container and head out to try to gather them in. I’m emboldened by their docility yesterday, so I’m working in shorts and t-shirt, slippers, no veil. I pop the top off of Hive 2 (the new hive), reach under the pallette and, with my gloved hand, and push a load of them into the sorbet container.

They’re pissed. Ow! Goddamnit, I got stung! Ow ow ow!

OK, I kinda had that coming. I mean, I should have worn gloves, not just a glove. Anway, I dump a sorbet container of bees into the new hive, dance about the yard holding my aching wrist, grab a second glove and head back to get another container full.

This time, I reach under, shove a load in, jet around to dump them into the hive and what do I see, clinging to my glove? A queen! The old queen! There she is, big and golden and shiny and sportin’ a green dot on her back (purchased queens come with a dab of paint on them to help bad, bad beekeepers such as me distinguish them from their peasant sisters).

Victory! I shake her into the hive, dump the rest of the sorbet container of bees with her, and seal it up.

So that leaves a few questions. What did I catch yesterday? Was it a double swarm? Do bees do that? If so, what happens now? Did I just catch some random bees who were doing some scouting? Was the queen with them, but then she left the hive because it was too moldy (in which, she’s likely to leave again)?

I dunno. We’ll see, I guess.