While we have been tending to our bees more or less faithfully we have quite badly neglected our blog and now have too much history to suddenly report in our usual fashion of logging each visit to the apiary. It would be like trying to binge-watch one of those entertainments with a large, ensemble cast that bounces attention among multiple story arcs like a game of Three-card Monte. Only confusion could result along with a complete loss of interest in any of the characters. Instead we shall try catching up by relating each colony’s months-long tale separately with dates inserted in the text.

Angharad The less fortunate half of our Baldrick split had been steadily declining. We found no brood even in the cross-combed mess of the lowest box. [2021-Jul-03] We decided to simply dismantle her, stealing the honeycomb and unceremoniously dumping the bees to let them find their way into whatever hive would have them.

Blodwyn The more fortunate half of our Baldrick split, had been steadily drawing out comb and raising brood. [2021-Jul-03] Rather than make the tower of nucs any taller, we moved all the frames into Clarissa, opening only a single entrance hole in front of which we fixed a dangling branch to encourage reorientation by any departing bee. At Blodwyn’s former location we left one box of empty frames for returning foragers.

Moving the frames involved separating those cross-combed in the bottom box. To our surprise this was much easier than expected and showed some lovely combs of brood. It seemed as if the bees themselves had corrected much of the problem themselves.

Before sunrise the next morning we put a wee table at entrance height in front of Clarissa. Then we carefully carried the diminished Blodwyn thither and put her on the table facing Clarissa’s entrance. We thought this would encourage the occupants of the nuc to move to the hive with its familiar welcoming scent. Unsure of how long to leave it, we simply lost patience and later in the afternoon dumped any reluctant bees onto Clarissa’s roof and took away the nuc.

Cerys Our captured swarm struggled. While she drew out comb steadily for a time, she only ever achieved a few cells of drone brood. Did we fail to catch the queen or somehow injure her? Was she too depleted to lay the egg that would supersede her? [2021-Jul-03] Our manipulations temporarily swelled her population with refugees from her dismantled neighbors, Angharad and Blodwyn, but she never grew. We dithered over trying to find her a queen or attempting a paper combine with a hive but [2021-Aug-07] finally we dismantled her as well, letting her dwindling population find new homes.

And then there were none…except for the three full-sized hives.

Dorcas We had been watching her population drop and observing the emptiness of her comb so [2021-May-16] we transferred a comb of open brood from Beatrix and [2021-Jun-27] that seemed to have done the trick. She prospers and [2021-Aug-01] a sugar roll showed only one mite per sample.

Inspired by a recent post from Sassafras Bee Farm, [2021-Aug-10] we popped a jar of syrup into her closet today for the dearth.

Clarissa The bees formerly in Blodwyn have taken to their new home. [2021-Aug-01] Alas, a sugar roll showed 8 mites per sample, so we have applied formic acid treatment and should soon check its efficacy. [2021-Aug-10] She also received a jar of dearth syrup.

Beatrix After the swarm she remained our most populous hive and simply carried on, raising bees and making honey. [2021-Jun-27] A sugar roll showed her having only one mite per hundred bees, below treatment levels. All seemed well until we noticed her population dropping. [2021-Aug-01] Inspection showed several empty queen cups and no brood at all. Time did not improve the situation and she sounded different than our other hives. Perhaps this was the queenless roar?

[2021-Aug-07] Fortuitously we learned that a local beekeeper, not overly far from us, had a pair of extra queens for sale and drove out to get one. She was from the beek’s favorite line so he was quite invested in our success and kindly gave us excellent instructions for the ride home and the coronation. Back at the hive, much of the former brood chamber was being backfilled with nectar so we dug through until we found empty comb. There we pressed the queen cage into the comb and watched. Rejection would have had agitated bees trying to ball, bite, sting, or otherwise do her a harm through the mesh. Instead bees gently collected, extending probosces through the mesh to feed her! In addition, the overall sound of the hive seemed to swiftly become calmer.

[2021-Aug-10] And three days later, after supplying a jar of syrup, we looked and found the cage empty. Now we hope for brood.

All week the front of Beatrix had been covered with bees, even when temperatures were not high enough to expect such bearding. A sign that swarming was in her future. Finally on Saturday, just as we were about to have a lunch delayed by morning chores, we spotted bees swirling around Beatrix and her face clear. As the air about her emptied and a lighter covering of bees reappeared on her face we looked with anticipation towards our scion and found it devoid of bees.

Abandoning our lunch we went out to try finding the bivouacked bees and discovered a large cluster deep in thicket and high in tree. As when we caught our last swarm we lopped and sawed a path to the base of the tree. Reluctant to try reaching them by ladder we hastily improvised a kind of Steinkraus-Morse swarm catcher. Drilling a hole in the bottom center of a five-gallon bucket we screwed in the threaded end of a telescoping pole we had obtained to change inaccessible light bulbs. We screwed one of the bulb changing attachments inside the bucket. Not the most rigid connection but it served.

After setting up a two-story nuc1 minus the outer cover under the tree and extending the pole we began the cycle of:

  • Raise the bucket towards the cluster of bees.

  • Cover the cluster with the bucket.

  • Sharply lift the bucket to strike the branch, causing the cluster to fall in.

  • Pull back the pole.2

  • Pour bees from the bucket onto the inner cover.

  • Watch them scurry in through the hole.

Some bees took flight rather than settle into the bucket but the recoalescing cluster was smaller each iteration until eventually it had insufficient mass to fall in the bucket. Dislodging it just shook all the bees into flight. Leaving them to find their own way to the nuc, where bees were fanning, we then took the triumphant photo shown and retired for a very much further delayed lunch.

There remained the task of moving the nuc stack to the apiary. The usual procedure for moving a caught swarm would be to wait until dusk when all the bees were within, seal the entrance, strap the nuc/hive parts together, and just carry the box off to its new location. Unfortunately we were quite exhausted from our exertions on a hot day with empty stomachs and with dusk coming late. Tired, sleepy beekeepers moving a well-populated stack of nuc bodies along uneven ground in the dark seemed unwise. Instead we decided to leave them overnight and get up early to move them upon our waking, not delaying for breakfast or ought else. We added another nuc body atop the inner cover and placed a jar of syrup within it to keep them occupied.

Unfortunately the bees had gotten up earlier and more than a few were already flying about. We could have proceeded and left the fliers to fend for themselves but instead we delayed until the rains came that evening to drive all the bees within. We were less tired but the stack was taller than before due to the feeder and rain was falling. It still seemed unwise to move them just then but we did tape some screen over the entrance to contain the bees without suffocating them until we could move them at our leisure.

The next morning, not too early and after breakfast, we found the confined bees checking out the screen, eager to start their work. We did the requisite strapping together of nuc parts and were able to carefully slide the stack onto our garden cart, which we then pulled to the hive stand in the apiary, trying not to tilt the cart too much. Lifting the stack onto the stand, we unstrapped, unscreened, and dropped a clump of grass to obscure the entrance and encourage reorientation, just in case any had already imprinted on the old location.

And so Cerys has joined Angharad and Blodwyn.

1The swarm seemed much too large for a single nuc body.
2Lifting the bucket was easy but when lowering it the other end of the pole kept finding branches on which to catch and interfere with emptying the bucket. So while one of us did the bee collecting the other kept trimming away the obstacles.

In an episode of ‘Murders at Barlume’ septuagenarian Emo takes half-his-age Beppe fishing and advises him that “There is a fine line between being fishermen and being two fools1 sitting on the beach.” Beppe reasonably asks, “Which are we?2

Beekeeping is like that, at least, for us. Some days we can clearly read the comb, understand the bee behavior, and act correctly with confidence. And other days we wonder what happened, what are the bees up to, and, most importantly, what should we do? Which brings us to last Sunday’s inspections.

Neither Angharad nor Blodwyn showed any sign of drawing out comb on the new plastic frames. Perhaps it is just too soon but to more strongly encourage them we exchanged each hive’s bottom two boxes so that the box of new empty frames would be between the box of brood and the box of honey. Then we added an empty box above the inner cover to hold a feeder of syrup.

And on to Dorcas. Still broodless and without our seeing her majesty but with a queen cell being built that was not there last week. It seems a bit late. Who do they think going to lay in there?

Leaving Dorcas still open but covered in a cloth we opened up Beatrix, bursting with bees. Starting from the far end we worked our way through honeycomb towards the brood chamber, finding some examples of cross-combing, on which we performed corrective surgery. We simply harvested the worst case.

Eventually we reached the beginning of the brood chamber, a comb of solid drone brood. We removed that also, after sweeping off the bees, and carried on. We found one pair of badly cross-combed bars. Unlike the honeycomb, we left these alone. The queen may have been lurking somewhere in the maze and we did not wish to risk injuring her. Or the brood for that matter.

Finally we found what we had been seeking, a frame with brood young enough to become queens. Carefully ensuring that the queen was elsewhere we transferred the comb to Dorcas and closed her up. Back at Beatrix we interspersed some black plastic frames to make up for the ones we had removed. We added them to the honey area since the nights were yet too cool to want to add empty frames to the brood chamber.

And so, having left no hive free of our ministrations, we returned home to ponder the answer for the day.

1The English subtitle actually used a ruder, slang term for ineffectual self-abuser, which arguably better captures the sense of the Italian ‘coglioni’ but we feel an urge to keep a pretense of gentility in our blog.
2Coglioni, as it happens.

Having made our scion we next needed to put it in place. Some simply put the scion on a pole or hang it from a tree branch and still use a ladder to reach the swarm, content with having the swarm at a reasonable height and accessible location. Others avoid ladders entirely and throw a rope over a branch to raise and lower the scion. We opted to build a rudimentary scaffold and use a rope and pulleys.

We used treated lumber, which may make some nervous but we assured ourselves that the bees will not be spending much time on it and the treatments are much less toxic than they once were.

We had planned on using lumber with the usual bodger’s two-by-four dimensions but in these times of irregular supply chains we had to settle for one-by-eights.

The arm need not be too long, just long enough to discourage bees from overflowing the scion onto the upright. For us, that was a two-or-so-foot piece of our lumber. We overlapped one end of it with one end of the eight foot upright, forming a right angle, and attached with one and one quarter screws. We had some problems finding sufficiently short deck screws.

The one advantage of using such wide boards is that we need not worry about attaching a diagonal support to prevent the arm sagging.

We then flipped the assembly and added some screws from the other side. This may not have been strictly necessary but with such short screws we felt better having some holding from each side.

Next we cut one more short piece of lumber to cover the arm and butt up against the upright. We attached it with the usual decking screws along the top. Along the bottom we positioned two pulleys, one near but a little away from the upright and the other near the end of the arm.

We threaded our plastic rope through the pulleys. The rope needs to be of a length that allows the scion to be in the bucket while someone comfortably holds the other end. That is roughly twice the height of the scaffold plus the length of the arm. Our is somewhat longer and we could not be bothered to cut it shorter.

At the end that would hold the scion, we tied a carabiner for quick connection to and disconnection from the eye screw in our scion. We attached a rope cleat on the upright edge opposite the arm. This was to allow the person doing the lowering, if not in a bee suit, to be a little further from the scion.

Scions seem to often be positioned in front of hives, presumably to better get a swarm’s attention, but that would be a windy location for us and require us to solve the problem of anchoring our scaffold to the ground. Also, the swarms we have caught had bivouacked behind our hives. Instead we looked among the carnage wrought by our last capture, hoping for a straightish tree trunk to which we could attach our construction, and found a suitable clump of two trunks we had cut to a few feet in height. Between them we cut a rude slot into which we jammed the base of our scaffold and stabilized it by running a pair of those long bolts used to fasten landscape timbers through one trunk, the scaffold held vertical, and into the other trunk.

We attached our anointed scion to the carabiner and raised it, winding the rope around the cleat. We had far too much rope to fit so we tied the rest around another stump. With the arm pointing into the woods, the scion is somewhat protected from wind by the surrounding trees. And now, with the scion visible from several windows of our house, we wait and watch.

When we first read about the Russian Scion on Sassafras Bee Farm‘s blog it was a little known tool in the USA. Now, years later, instructions and references and even videos are quite easy to find online.

As a quick reminder, after leaving its hive a swarm will collect nearby at a bivouac location until, based on scout reports, it decides on a new home. Then it flies off to occupy it. Just as a bait hive or swarm trap is a lure for such occupation, the scion is a lure for bivouacking. In each case the lure is installed where it should be attractive to a swarm and convenient for the beekeeper.

The common form of a scion consists of two pieces of wood, a flat roof piece and a centrally located, narrow, descending piece, and some sort of mounting hardware. The descender is covered in cloth that is impregnated with propolis, wax, and whatever smells welcoming to bees. The roof keeps rain from washing away the smells. And the mounting hardware is for hanging and removal of the scion.

A recent innovation is to use the lid of a five gallon bucket as a layer atop the roof piece. This allows the captured swarm to be easily contained in the bucket and transported to the awaiting hive. For our bucket we used one with a screw-on rather than snap-on lid with the notion that it would be gentler on any swarm we sealed within.

We began by cutting a disc of half-inch plywood of radius to cover as much of the lid bottom as possible while allowing us to close the lid.

We used a zipsaw with a plywood bit because ours had a circle-cutting jig. Such jigs are also available for sabersaw and router but the roof need not be a perfect circle or even a circle at all. The bees should not mind some plastic showing around the edges so even sawing a square is fine for the jigless.

Centering the disc on the underside of the bucket lid we drilled through both at the mark left by our jig using a large enough drill bit to accommodate the largish eye screw that would be our mounting hardware.

The descending part of our scion is some inch square cedar scrap. We cut its length to a bit less than bucket depth. At the center of one end face we drilled a hole for the just mentioned eye screw.

A thick dowel could also serve. We considered cutting an old broomstick handle but drilling the central hole would have been more challenging. Maybe not that much more since this does not need to be perfect either.

A long descender is better for catching larger swarms but if too long will either keep the lid from closing the bucket or crush bees on the bucket bottom. Our overcomplicated way to maximize length was to first assemble the scion by screwing the eye screw through the holes in the bucket lid, plywood disc, and descender, in that order. Next we laid a tiny scrap of 3/4 inch plywood in the bottom of the bucket and dusted the top of the scrap with powdered chalk. Then we screwed our lid onto the bucket as far as we could. If it bottomed out against the plywood scrap, which we could tell by the dust on the end, then we trimmed a tiny bit off the descender and repeated the process until the end came up clean. At that point we, of course, returned the chalky scrap to our collection of little bits that would be thrown away if not for uses like these.

Once the descender was the right size we applied a little wood glue to the end that would touch our plywood disc and reassembled the scion for the last time.

The disc did not sit quite flat against the bucket lid and wobbled a bit so we added four small screws to hold it more securely. In hindsight they would hold better had we placed them further from center but they seem to be adequate for the job.

Any swarms we catch will not have far to go to be re-housed but we felt uncomfortable at the thought of sealing bees in a non-ventilated container and decided to provide some airholes somewhere around the bucket rim. An inch square of number eight hardware cloth seemed as if it would be adequate ventilation but we did not know how to easily and reliably attach it. So we decided that sixty-four holes of one-eighth inch diameter would be a rough equivalent. Then we ran out of patience after drilling thirty-two. It seemed somehow even more tedious by our drilling from the inside of the bucket outwards in order to put the roughest sharpest edges where bees will not be in danger of cutting themselves.

We then stapled some burlap around the descender and rubbed it heavily with the swarm lure we recently made. And finally we installed the scion outdoors, which will be covered in a future post.