Swarm II: The Return of Swarm

April 25, 2005

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.

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