Friday, July 21, 2006

A Swarm in July Isn't Worth a Fly

Queen Abogail of ReeceThis past weekend, we went off to a first-ever family reunion. Before leaving, however, there was yet another family to keep united: Twain was on it's way to swarming — again! (This is a picture of Twain's Queen, Abigail, with a bad smear of white paint and her entourage taking care of her!)

Swarm swarm swarm, that's all I've been talking about lately. The frantic goings-on you have heard about here all fall under the category of "swarm control." GOOD beekeepers suffer less panic, and spend less energy on swarm prevention. The difference sounds fiddly to the uninitiated (which, I suppose, includes me, considering all the fun this year). "Swarm prevention" means keeping the girls from ever wanting to leave: give them lots of space, move the boxes around so that the box that just hatched is above the queen (she likes to work up, and likes to find empty honeycomb above her), maybe even make splits to create more colonies if the time of year is right.

But the time is year is no longer right. All beekeeping is local: one reason to learn about it from a local club is that the times when you can get away with various decisions vary based on the onset of winter, and the length of bloom. Here, the old rhyme is definitely on the money:

A swarm in May — is worth a load of hay.
A swarm in June — is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm in July — isn't worth a fly.

You might remember that the Twain colony is the one that swarmed (Bye-bye, Eleanor! Hope you are still out there!) even after it was split this Spring. That swarm basically gutted the hive, requiring me to get reinforcements. Well, reinforcements worked: when re-organizing the hive to make it easier for the girls AND for me (I'm almost 6 feet tall, but the hive rose above chest level!) I found all sorts of swarm cells! Uh oh!

Therefore, last Thursday I grabbed the Nuc box that MaryEllen and Doug gave me, and went up to the roof to seek out Queen Abigail. The idea was to shut off the swarm impulse by removing the old queen (Abby) and some brood and workers, move the latter to the monastery apiary for a brief vacation, and let the Twain bees raise up a new queen. Twain's workers won't swarm once they realize mom is gone, and we should end up with a new queen to give to another beekeeper who needs to re-queen this fall (like most people in our club do).

Did I mention that I was sorting through a 5-plus-foot rooftop hive containing 50,000 bees to look for an unmarked queen on a 95-degree-F day in mid July? And that I was supposed to be packing and paying bills and going to TWO appointments and all those things you find yourself doing to get ready to leave town for an anxiety-inducing first-ever family conclave? Did I mention that??

The first time through the boxes, I found even more queen cells, but no queen. Got stung (and deserved it) a coupla times. I began to panic. Twain was clearly going to take off while I was gone and I was running out of time and I could not find the queen. As I reassembled the brood boxes, I went much more slowly. The lowest box was only capped brood. She would not be there. The next box had some uncapped babies, but everything was several days old. I put a capped frame and a few day old frame in the nuc, and replaced those frames with some drawn comb. Put the uncapped box on the bottom and the capped on top (because they were starting to hatch and would soon offer empty comb).

And so on, until I got to the first honey super. It had just a little bit of drone comb stuck on the bottom bar (meaning that the queen HAD been laying up there, where she is NOT supposed to be), so I looked closer. Hmm. Three day old eggs but no queen. I popped that frame into the nuc. Room for two more frames, one better have a queen on it!

Every frame got a look, every one, but ... No queen in the box! No queen! I set the box aside, and quickly looked through the other honey supers. Nothing. Then something said, look one more time, on a frame near that one with babies. And there she was, covered by her daughters, on the wrong side of a honey frame with some brood comb I had not noticed. At the very last minute, in the nick of time. In she went — nuc filled and ready to go to the monastery!

I swear, my hand felt guided to that frame like it was on rails. If I had not gone back, if I had not looked PRECISELY there, it was all gonna be over. Maybe those girls are finally getting through to me.

But wait, there's MORE!

The first hour of the first morning that we got back (Tuesday), I went back to the monastery (with a metal detector, in part to look for an earring, but that's another story). All weekend, I worried that maybe I had not found the queen, that it was just a big-butted worker. Since the girls needed to be fed sugar water anyway, I decided to check.

So I go through the nuc, and DO NOT FIND THE QUEEN. There are only about 5 thousand bees in there, it should be easy! No queen. There's some annoying bee — not easy to see through a sweaty veil — checking out my foot, but they do that alot. I close up, refill the feeder, and consider what to do.

Meanwhile, that annoying foot bee is on the grass next to my foot. It is acting funny, sort of leaping up, flapping like hell, and not achieving flight. That's weird. Is she hurt? I lean down to investigate. No, she is not hurt. She is the queen!

Queens in the throes of fertility can't fly. Queens about to swarm can (their mean old daughters put them on a crash diet to ensure this). This means that Abby is back to normal, except for the fact that she is about to be squashed by a clueless beekeeper. The first few times I try to catch her, she gets away. She is terrified. Eventually, I run around to the other side of the hive (so so carefully, keeping my eye on her!) and she crawls up on my hand. I lift the hive cover, place her near the passage down, and watch to see if she is welcome. One of her daughters gives her some tongue, Abby lifts her butt and scents like crazy, and down she goes. Phew.

What seems to be happening here, over and over, is that I am building enormous bee populations faster than they are spinning honeycomb to live in. The bees are telling me something about the environment here, and I need to listen. There is lots of pollen out there, and they feel compelled to save it, using up precious comb on the bee equivalent of the junk that clogs your basement. There is enough nectar for the bees to eat, building big families, in part because I feed them. But for some reason, there never seem to be enough young bees (the ones who can best generate wax) and enough nectar (it takes 40 pounds of nectar to make one pound of beeswax) to generate comb quickly.

Also those Carniolan girls aren't the biggest construction workers, anyway. They like to build these narrow, chimney-shaped colonies inside the box, and they don't like to spread out to use the space I give them. They come from a cold place, so they probably like to keep their families in a compact area that is easier to warm.

Next year, when we restart this process with all this year's honeycomb available, maybe it will be easier to stay ahead of the girls. I hope so.


Pyewacket said...

Just want to say, as a non-beekeeper who hopes to be able to have a hive one day, I really enjoy your blog.

00goddess said...

I thought Eleanor died after her transfer to another colony?

Phang said...

Sorry, I keep revising history. After the fact, more experienced beekeepers told me that they think what happened is that Eleanor took off with a swarm (that I missed) and the Queen who failed (and whom I ended up dispatching) was a poorly-mated daughter. I originally named her "Abigail," but the hive was so unsettled and she had no brood, so I re-used the name on the guaranteed Queen I brought in after her.

This is probably NOT something I ever sumarized anywhere in the blog before this -- just one detail coming up at a time in different posts. Very sorry about that!

00goddess said...

Ah, ok, I was confused :) Thanks for clarifying. I hope Eleanor is indeed still out there somewhere!

I so enjoy your blog.

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