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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Supers (sort of) and Swarms

This week we had a dollop of drama with one of our first year co-op hives when it decided to swarm.  

First year swarms are relatively uncommon, mainly because bees generally have plenty of space and supercedure swarms are rare for new (lively) queens.  (Come to think of it, all the queens I've known are lively.  Ahhh, but that doesn't belong in this blog.)

As we continue to explore the margins of relevance here, I'll also observe that the hive that swarmed was one that had been very generously fed this spring.  Feeding enables more rapid population growth.  Because the swarm was clearly a split (many bees remained in the old hive), I'm thinking they just plain ran out of space.

The swarm originally came out about a week ago, prompting the ever intrepid Sherry and Lise to ring me up on my cell phone as I was away for a few days, lollygagging in Portland on tedious business.  We (mostly they) managed a remote-control swarm capture and new hive installation.  There were ladders, ropes, saws, and exhibits of mad tree climbing involved in making the nab,  but in the end the bees had other dreams and promptly left the new box we'd prepared almost as soon as they were dumped in.

If the swarm was indeed a split as I suspect, that means this buzzing ball of bees was chock full of six-legged, airborne randiness:  virgin queens, hopeful drones, and all that hot stuff.  (Easy there, gentle readers!)  Putting this all together, I suppose its no wonder that they opted to stay out on the town a while longer than we had in mind.  

So, the bees disappeared for a few days...or so we think.  Yesterday a suspiciously similar sized swarm reappeared in a nearby tree whereupon we (the usual suspects, this time not on cell phones) made another nab and successfully planted them in a third hive alongside two existing co-op hive.  

Round two decision?  The winged throng elected to stay this time around (Sherry swears she caught a glimpse of the queen looking relaxed and having a cigarette...solid evidence in my book of a lucky drone and queen ready to settle down into the mind-numbing routine of laying upwards of 500 eggs a day) and now our co-op has increased by one hive.  That may sound like not much, but it represents a 10% boost in our overall hive small matter when you consider that Wall Street on average barely scores half that in a given year.

In spring, bees run out of space sometimes and as we've seen venture out to find better digs.  It's mostly a matter of population dynamics.  Prompted by this latest adventure, I visited three other hives (one of my own and two others), watched a bit, and then slipped a third super in betwixt the two already on the hive.  Hopefully no more swarms this season among our first-year hives.

Some of the signs (other than the blunt signal provided by our swarm!) that made me think another box was due  included lots of obviously food-bearing traffic in and out of the hive and, sometimes, in the evening/morning a 'beard' of bees on the front porch.  When weather is hot or humid, bees frequently park in alarming numbers on the front of their hives at night as a means of enabling better air circulation inside the hive for honey-drying purposes.  

This makes sense if you consider what goes on in a hive over the course of a day.  During daytime, a good portion of the bees are out in the field gathering nectar and pollen.  Inside the hive there's plenty of room as a result.  But bees come back inside at night (presumably to watch TV, just like us!) and that makes for crowded conditions. (Only room for so many sisters on the couch!)  On top of that, all of the fresh and very wet nectar brought in during the day needs drying at night.  So, space is both at a premium and acutely required in order to allow the miraculous bee breeze HVAC system to do its thing.  Hence, some bees adjourn to the porch to make room.  Fewer bee bodies in the comb.  More bee breeze.

I am reminded here of stories in my own family about my grandfather who as eldest of 19 children growing up hard on a Kansas farm was obliged to sleep out in a corn crib with one his brothers for a couple of winters.  I sleep out of doors several months each year here in our mild Oregon climate, but not in winter and this isn't Kansas either.

I meant to say something about the term 'supers' as it applies to our top-bar style of beekeeping here.  Strictly speaking, we don't 'super' (expand by adding to the top of our bee stacks) in the way we add to our hives.  Conventional (Langstroth) hives add to the top.  We insert in the middle or at the bottom of the stack instead.  

So, though I think we are super, we do not super.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bees In Wetsuits

This spring has been more than a little challenging for bees, especially new colonies.  Cool wet weather complicates matters greatly for new colonies, primarily because they have no honey stores of their own from the previous season upon which to rely for food when foraging isn't possible.  Without stores, bees have to get out and fly in order to eat and rain makes that hard.

Watching my bees this spring, I've learned a thing or two from them about opportunity.  Rain chases me indoors and dampens my spirits more than I'd like to admit.  When the drops stop falling, I look suspiciously at the sky and have to shake off my own sense of imprisonment before I venture out of doors.  Bees, meanwhile, practically leap out of the hive when then get half a chance.  They're off (on beelines) seeking whatever goodness they can find in whatever small sliver time has been granted. 

Seemingly, staying indoors is no easy solution for me or perhaps for bees either.  Cool weather challenges new colonies to heat their hive space sufficiently to raise brood and to make comb.  Bees need hive temperatures to stay in the 90's and are able to do so mainly using body friction/kinetic energy.  Small colonies have a tough time heating lots of open space.  Making comb is difficult in cold weather simply because wax is harder to manipulate.

Fortunately, all of our new co-op colonies seem to be doing very well despite our soggy weather.  Some of us have been feeding new colonies with sugar water.  Some not.  Both fed and not-fed hives seem to be thriving.  Most of the colonies have now grown into a second super and may even require a third this year once weather warms and the blackberry flower season fully opens.

The damp weather will decrease honey production this year, making it almost a certainty that our first year hives should be left with all of the honey they produce in order to safeguard the bees survival over the winter.

Swarms also seem to have been somewhat suppressed by the recent weather.  Personally, I've only seen two swarms this season, less than I'd expect.  We may see a run of late season swarms as weather warms up, but in most years the bulk of the swarms would have occurred already.

Yesterday I took my cues from my colonies, ceding outdoor territory only grudgingly during morning showers and running right back out when they stopped.  As I moved gravel and soil and raced to pack a week of chores into a day, I caught glimpses over my shoulder of my bees besting me at every turn.  Workers clustered at the hive door seemed impatient with drones hanging about on no particular mission.  They pushed their  lumbering and indolent brothers aside and bustled past back into the hive, time and again, with huge bags of pollen on their legs, right up until dark.