Last Saturday our gardening was once again interrupted when we spotted a swarm, our second of the season, clustered on a branch at the edge of a thicket on the eastern border of our apiary. As we had done a little over a week before, we hastily dropped everything to suit up and grab our equipment to catch the swarm and hive it before it decided to fly off and take up residence away from us.
Take 1 Feeling like old hands at this swarm capture lark, we moved with confidence. Up the step ladder to shake the cluster into a cardboard box and back down the step ladder to pour the bees into the nucleus hive on the ground. Repeat as needed.

Unfortunately the bees we caught decided they would rather depart the nuc and recluster in their original location.

Take 2 Could we have missed getting the queen? It seemed unlikely since we had caught the main mass of the cluster. The bees were surely just taunting the beekeepers as bees will do. Undeterred we climbed the ladder, cut off the bee-laden branch, and carried it to the nuc. Shaking the cluster into the nuc, we disposed of the branch to deny them a familiar distraction from the home we were offering.

The bees summarily left the nuc and reclustered on another branch deeper in the thicket and higher up.

Take 3 Trading the nuc box for another that was a litte more propolyzed, we added a wee drop of lemony scented lure, just for good measure. Then hacking our way to their location, leaving a mess of twigs, branches, and entire saplings in the yard, we again set up the ladder to cut the branch on which they were clustered.

Actually we set up two ladders. They had clustered at the fork of a thick, long-dead branch. While one of us held the branch immobile the other trimmed off excess length and finally cut away the fork. Carefully carrying it to the nuc we once again shook the bees into the nuc on the ground.

This time we were rewarded with a few fanners at the entrance, bums in the air, wings spreading the homing scent of Nasonov. A small tide of bees walked into the nuc and we felt quite pleased until we noticed the growing tide leaving.

The bees left the nuc and reclustered on a sapling trunk yet deeper in the thicket and yet higher up, quite out of range of the step ladders we had.
Take 4 We paused in our relentless yet feckless chop-and-shake pursuit to have a little think albeit without the cuppa tea and came up with a cunning plan.

Instead of felling the tree, we partially cut through the trunk at a little more than ladder height and then carefully bent it down to be roughly parallel to the ground. We now moved the ladder under the cluster and placed the nuc on the ladder shelf so that the bees were directly above the open nuc. Now you will not be expecting the next bit but we shook the bees into the nuc one more time.

At last the bees seemed to become cooperative. The face of the nuc was covered with fanning bees and fliers were landing all over it to walk into the entrance. We were elated by our hard-won success but there would be one more brief shock.

As we complacently watched the bees entering the nuc, we remarked on the way our each attempt at capture had sent them ever deeper and ever higher into the thicket, whereupon we spied a cluster of bees impenetrably deeper in the thicket and impossibly higher. Our spirits fell for a few seconds until we noticed that the surface of the cluster seemed oddly boiling. Over the next several minutes it diminished as its bees joined the rest of the swarm in the nuc, abandoning this last bivouac. Elated once more, we went to the house for dinner and a rest, returning to collect the nuc at dusk when all the bees would be within.

And so the nuc, wee Angharad reborn, has joined the full hives in our apiary.

Wednesday was our first warm and sunny day since the inspection and the bees took advantage. Luckily so did the Mrs. who interrupted her late afternoon gardening to look at the hives, whereupon she spotted the swarm hanging from a sumac. We hastily sprang into action, suiting up and grabbing some equipment: a ladder, loppers, pruning shears, and a nuc. Then we remembered that we had an empty hive waiting.

Abandoning the nuc we seized a large cardboard box and dropped the cluster (most of it) in. Clapping on the lid we carried it over to Dorcas, opened the hive, and poured in the bees. Covering the opening in the hive roof with a denim cloth, we returned to the sumac where the bees that had taken flight and escaped the box were regrouping. Into the box with most of this lot and over to the hive. Repeat with diminishing returns for several iterations. The bees were enjoying this game much less than we but no one got stung.

Ideally we should have followed the procedure from catching our first swarm and moved Dorcas under the sumac for that first load of bees, and then simply allowed the fanning bees to guide the rest in. But these hives are heavy and while we, sturdy for our age, could have managed, it was far easier to ferry a box at a time to Dorcas in her customary location.

It was a large swarm (we assume from Beatrix) so it is well that Dorcas had eight bars of space ready. Her face became covered with bees, some fanning, which we took to be a good sign. When we tired of ferrying an ever-decreasing number of bees we put all the top bars back in Dorcas but did not reroof her yet, merely placed the denim cloth over it all and weighed it down with some handy scrap lumber.

We popped a few entrance corks, returned to the house to quickly make up two quarts of syrup, and rushed back out to put the jars within the hive’s closet. Then we finally restored the eke and roof and stood back to watch for a bit before tidying up. An hour or so later there were no bees covering the hive but a fanning bee at each entrance hole. A look through the observation window showed a large number within getting down to work.

We are back to three hives.

It seems that we have left an August story unfinished. Perhaps, because the ending is sad it was particularly easy to avoid writing and let ourselves be carried along by the flow of quotidian demands until unusual events quickened the current and turned it to white water at year’s end, leaving August far behind. By the time we successfully navigated the metaphor to arrive in calmer waters again, we had quite forgotten that we had left our readers with a bit of a cliffhanger. In brief, the Angharad Experiment failed and Dorcas died. With no particular timeline (can not be bothered to check notes) the ordered events, including a recap, are:

  • Dorcas had a queen in June. We even saw her!
  • We could not find her in August but did find three queen cells on two frames.
  • We made a nuc, wee Angharad, including the frame with two cells and left the other in Dorcas. Splitting just like real beekeepers!
  • The queen cell in Dorcas opened at bottom indicating that a queen emerged but we never found any new brood in Dorcas.
  • The queen cells in Angharad remained unchanged. We emptied Angharad by putting all comb back into Dorcas.
  • One queen cell ripped open from the side indicated a queen killing competition. The other queen cell was unchanged and the only capped brood seen were drones.
  • Time goes by and with only drone comb seen, we feared laying workers so we dumped, brushed, and blew bees off each comb in Dorcas and installed it in Clarissa. Then we moved the Dorcas hive far away.

And so we entered the winter with only two hives, Beatrix and Clarissa, both of which have survived into mid-May. We have removed their winter insulation in spite of the occasional snow flurry.

Beatrix is booming as always and with a few queen cells under construction. She will surely swarm if we do not split her but we were ill prepared to do so during the inspection and now weather has turned cold again.

Clarissa is confusing. The follower board position reminds us that she had expanded nearly as much as Beatrix. But only the first half of the hive seems to hold a busy colony. The latter half is empty moldy comb, which we are assured the bees will clean up.

Dorcas is yet empty but in position and open for occupancy. She does hold one frame of comb among the empty bars and we put a drop or two of lemony-smelling supplement into her entrance. We have since seen bees take a serious, continued interest in her. If we can not find occasion to actively split Beatrix her cast may migrate to Dorcas on their own.

Frankie is likewise empty and waiting. She has been spontaneously occupied before. It would be much to expect that lightning again even as we hope it will strike Dorcas.

We have also inherited the hive stand we made for our now-moved-away niece. It needed a little attention and is now next to Frankie, ready to receive any nucs we may be able to make this season. It is unlike us to be so optimistic but better to be ready in case of good luck than scrambling to repair and deploy equipment.

The new pandemic has us emulating our bees in this time of year, huddling at home except to occasionally forage in a lacuna-ridden foodscape and largely living on what we had stored. We generally try to keep pantry and freezer rather full and, thanks to the perspicacity of the Mrs, had gently augmented our stores over a few weeks before the panic-buying locusts struck. Thus far we are healthy and fed and hope to continue in that state. We wish the same for our readership. Meanwhile, let us write about the old, familiar pandemic which plagues our bees, varroa.

We have found the autumnal oxalic treatment against varroa to be critical in our hives surviving the winter. Unfortunately an oxalic drip/drench is annoying because bars need to be separated and we must juggle syringe and container of treatment solution.

Vaporizers may be faster and can be used when one does not wish to risk wetting bees but the commercial ones do not fit our entrance holes. We considered trying to homebrew something but out typical overdesign process quickly ran aground.

A more determined local beekeeper in charge of a few Kenyan-style top bar hives modified their end entrances to accept a commercial vaporizer wand. Alas, the treatment proved ineffective because the vapor did not drift the length of the hive. In a vertical hive it would rise up at least enough to cover the brood nest.

That leaves a third, recent alternative of foggers, which have thin nozzles. Rather than trying to sublimate solid oxalic acid they use a fine vapor of oxalic acid solution. In a horizontal hive one would expect the same problem of insufficient vapor drift from an entrance, but if spraying into each of many entrances along the side, there is hope. While some beekeepers repurpose the insect foggers available from yard and garden centers, last October we opted to try one made specifically for beekeeping, the Varomorus fogger.

Unsurprisingly a propane tank is not included. And while a breathing mask is part of the kit, we opted to get more substantial masks.

We have seen videos of people using the apparatus without protective gear but that strikes us as foolhardy.

It does look somewhat awkward but is easy to use. The pistol trigger is just the igniter for the propane while the control to feed liquid is another lever under the solution tank. We found it simple to use one hand to hold it by the propane tank and the other to pump the lever.

The company has already re-engineered the solution tank attachment for easier assembly than earlier models allowed so there is hope that the form factor of later models may improve. Their customer service is very responsive.

We were concerned about spreading hot vapor into the hive but, as the thermal image of us firing the fogger outside shows, the fine vapor quickly cools to ambient temperature. Even the hand, seen at left of image, holding the apparatus is warmer.

The instructions that come with the device specify using ethanol as the solvent for the oxalic. We were timorously intending to use water instead but, after seeing so many others around the web specify ethanol, compromised on hundred-proof vodka. Presumably the ethanol is faster than water in evaporating and cooling the spray but we could not convince ourselves that spraying a flammable, vaporized liquid into a wooden structure would end well.

We had already corked all but one entrance of each hive as the weather turned colder. Now after one of us sprayed a few bursts at various angles into the remaining entrance hole, the other corked the entrance. Then uncork the next hole and repeat down the length of the occupied part of the hive. After all holes were corked, we waited a minute or so and then uncorked the single winter entrance. Then we subjected the next hive to the procedure.

This all took very little time at all. An electric vaporizer would require a cooldown and warmup period between applications. And the propane tank fuels many more applications than the usual car battery, unless one can bring the entire car to the hives. The varomorus is much more portable.

Then we stood there watching the hives. As with previous oxalic treatments the bees did not seem at all inclined to attack but there was a slow stream of bees leaving the hives and dropping to the ground, where they would crawl about. While we wondered aghast whether it was heat, acid, or alcohol that had injured them, the stream slowed and stopped after a score or so of bees. We scooped up half a dozen into a small jar with screened top and took them indoors. The next morning one of the six seemed perfectly fine. One weakly moving. The rest seemed dead. Perhaps we had been overenthusiastic in our spraying. Peeking through the observation windows showed bees at work as usual. Not the carnage we had feared.

Now in late March we have seen clouds of bees flying from both hives on the warm days. So far, so good but proper springtime, not that equinox pretender, is yet to come.

Adding to our failures last season, we did not finish writing our reports from the 2018 Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Conference before the 2019 MBA Spring Conference occurred. Oh, shame. Due to a number of factors we then missed that conference entirely. And now even the 2019 MBA Fall Conference has come and gone. We did attend that one but only gave our talk and went home to collapse in post-performance, introvert’s coma without seeing any of the other talks. That should give us a respite from conference reporting once we get this last bit finally published.

So in this new year, before the 2020 Spring conference is upon us, let us now very much belatedly make our last report by writing of the honey tasting workshop with Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey.

Nearly everyone is somewhat familiar with the descriptive vocabulary of the wine taster. The basics of professional tasting of honey are the same as for wine. Also cheese, coffee, garlic, olive oil, maple syrup, and anything else consumed. The fundamental task is to notice the various sensory components and give name to them without value judgment. So, one can observe that a foodstuff smells of, oh, cat urine as long as one is being literally accurate and not metaphorically pejorative. After all, someone may like that smell. Probably someone with toxoplasmosis. On the other hand one must identify as defects tastes resulting from unintended errors in production or storage, such as skunked beer, which has been exposed to too much light.

As a warmup exercise, we were given small, vented, plastic containers holding substances with scents fair and foul. Spices, fruits, mildew, medicine, and, yes, even cat urine1. Putting adjective to smell proved harder than expected. Nearly each one was familiar yet, encountered out of context, more often unidentifiable than one would expect. One can strengthen this skill during meals by focusing on the smell and taste of some foodstuff and, after swallowing, repeating its name out loud. Ignore dining companions shifting seats to be further away.

Then at last we got to the part anticipated, the actual tasting of a variety of honeys. Each sample was a small amount in the bottom of a wine glass. Honey being too thick to swirl, we spread the sample in a thin layer around the sides of the glass with a wee plastic spoon. The increased surface area released more of the aroma and the shape of the glass contained it. Then nose was inserted and aroma inhaled. We hastily wrote our sensory impressions with our practiced vocabulary on our worksheets. Next we scooped out a bit with our spoons to taste, ensuring every part of the tongue was covered. An enjoyable and surprisingly exhausting exercise. And nothing smelled of cat urine although a few honeys were found to be unpleasant to most and our beloved buckwheat proved divisive. But none of these were defects in the honey. The aroma and flavors were what the plant and bees produced and not at all what the beekeeper fouled up.

After all the fun we were exposed to some actual defective honeys. One gave evidence for a common error, using too much smoke to harvest the combs. Another tasted quite metallic and was the result of being left to settle in a metal container for too long before bottling. Yet another smelled sufficiently foul that we declined to taste it. Educational and good to have experienced but not as much fun as the tasting of good honeys.

1The Mrs. was the only one in the room to successfully identify this one. But then she had the advantage that when a wee child the family once took in a pregnant stray cat and soon they were sharing their small New York apartment with thirty or so cats.