Thursday, June 08, 2006

Parade of Bees

On Wednesday, MaryEllen and I checked the colonies out at the historical park, and my hive (the one with the incredible brood pattern) had a bunch of swarm cells, including one that was nearly capped. Emergency!

This has been a very swarmy and supercedure-driven year. I lost a swarm from the Twain colony sometime in early May (or so I figure, I was not there when it happened, sigh) and the Wilde colony superceded sometime after.

Therefore, this was a serious business, and one we were utterly unprepared for on Wednesday. When you find a swarm queen cell, it means that the bees have been preparing to split their family in two for at least a week or two. This should be a success story — "A family so successful it can become two families!! — but a swarm gone wild almost certainly won't survive in these parts, and the weakened bees it leaves behind (with a new and unproved queen) faces real challenges, too.

The idea that the bees are preparing to swarm even before they build the swarm cells was new to me. It turns out that they are really mean to the queen, holding back on her food and reducing her egg laying, in order to slim her down and make it possible for her to fly off with them. A working queen is so portly that her wing beats are unequal to the task of lifting her butt. Apparently her daughters also push her and bite her to get her out the door! So you see, there is a large, organized, many-hundreds-of-bees-strong effort underway by the time a beekeeper sees swarm cells, and cutting out the cells is not guaranteed to stop it. In fact, it might result in a swarm taking off with NO new queen left behind. A recipe for colony death!

With no tools and no plan in hand for dealing with this on Wednesday, I did what I usually do: I called my bee guru, Larry. He tsk-tsked a little, and then offered the idea of "a shook swarm." Basically, you get the bees to skip swarming by convincing them that they already did. At the same time, you add space and checkerboard the frames, so the colony is a more spacious place. I also decided (being a glutton for punishment) to drill additional ventilation holes in the hive bodies as I moved frames around. This also seemed like it would materially change the inside landscape, would give me something to do while letting the bees cool their heels (if they have heels) outside, and would provide more entries to relieve congestion.

Larry told me to do this:

1) Find the queen, and put the frame with the queen aside in a safe place;
2) Take any frames with queen cells, and put in a box to raise elsewhere;
3) Place the telescoping hive cover in front of the hive, and provide a ramp back toward the entrance (I used a bottom board insert);
4) Shake (gently) at least half of the bees from the hive onto the hive cover;
5) Carefully carefully carefully shake the queen off her frame onto the cover, too;
6) Let bees mill around a bit;
7) Gently get queen headed up ramp, back to entrance;
8) Watch bee parade as thousands of workers follow her back; and
9) Close up hive, hope for best, check back in a few days.

Now, MaryEllen and I thought we could get this done in the morning, BEFORE a group of AmeriCorps volunteers was scheduled to stop by for a bee presentation. Instead, we were up to our knees in bees when they arrived, and were followed shortly by ladies from the garden guild. Yikes!

But the good thing was, we were so busy doing what we had to do, that there was not time to be nervous. Also, the goings-on were so interesting that there were LOTS of questions, and the volunteers (all young people around 20 years old, I think) got very excited about bees. Maybe we made some beekeepers!

Unfortunately, we were so busy that we got no pictures. Some of the AmeriCorps kids had cameras, and I asked them to send anything they got. I will add it here if any come.

It was a very stately parade up that ramp, you know, and I wish so much that you could see it.

Of course, now I have a (borrowed) nuc box with a frame of queen cells and a couple of other random frames in it. I planned on bringing the queen cell over to a fellow beekeeper in the club, a woman new this year, but when I got to her house, I discovered that her bees had superceded successfully, and she had a brand new laying queen. Therefore I have parked the cute purple nuc on my porch, and am awaiting some kind of plan. Will let you know.

Finally, the folks at the historic park have a newsletter for volunteers, and it was my turn to do the bee update, so what follows is my account of the events!

The Cockrill Colony Gets a Name and Entertains Americorps Volunteers

Both colonies of honeybees at the mill have names! MaryEllen Kirkpatrick's colony is named after the Millards, who once operated the mill. Her queen bee is named Emma, after Mrs. Millard. After a bit of research, Toni Burnham named the other colony "Cockrill," after the former proprietors of the general store. The second colony's queen bee is named "Maud," after Mrs. Cockrill.

Colonies are basically the communities of bees that live in the hive boxes you can see up on the hill. If the beekeeper is good, colonies live on year to year. The queen within the colony changes over time, though, so beekeepers have to keep track of who is who in which community, and give their queens separate names as a result. MaryEllen and Toni had discussed naming queen bees in honor of staff members or volunteers at Colvin Mill, but since queens tend to replace each other (or be replaced) every year, we thought that seemed a bit unfriendly.

In the midst of all this naming, there was a bee adventure on June 8! The beekeepers discovered that the Cockrill colony was preparing to swarm, and had to take action to fool the bees into believing they already had and should just settle down. Swarming is a confusing phenomenon to non-beekeepers: it should be a success story, because one colony grows large enough to spin off another. However, at this time of year and with the state of the pests in our environment, such new colonies won't survive long. So we try to keep them alive through tricks and hard work.

A group of Americorps volunteers stopped by to see MaryEllen and Toni shake out thousands of bees in front of the Cockrill hive in order to convince them that they were on a swarming trip. While the bees were getting their bearings outside, we shuffled up the hive's insides and added space, all just to fool the bees. We took special care to make sure that Queen Maud was sent out, safely, and the Americorps volunteers were treated to a "bee parade" when she began her stately march back up the ramp into the hive, followed by thousands of her daughters.

MaryEllen and Toni are always happy to have visitors when they are working the bees, and bring extra veils so you can come close and see. If you spot us up there, please stop by and say hi!

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