Sassafras Bee Farm Blog PictureThe Sassafras Bee Farm has impressively been blogging daily for the last two months, finding wonderful bits of beekeeping lore to report. We were excited by a particular recent post, which we shall cover after some introductory verbiage for the sake of non-beekeeping readers or just plain pedantry.

Swarming is the method by which honeybee colonies reproduce. When a colony grows large enough some bees will depart the hive with the reigning queen to find a new home while the remainder raise a new queen and carry on. Under favorable circumstances it is possible for a booming hive to cast several swarms in a season. As satisfying as this may be to the bees it is a loss for the beekeeper unless the swarm can be recaptured. This is why there are so many techniques to try to prevent swarming1.

When a swarm leaves its former home it does not proceed directly to a new one. Instead it clusters in a bivouac location until, based upon reports from scouts, it chooses its new habitation2 and flies thither. This provides an opportunity for the beekeeper whose hive has swarmed to collect and re-house the bees before they can choose to leave the apiary altogether. Unfortunately the bivouac location can be out of sight3, leaving the beekeeper unaware that swarming is occurring, or inaccessible as up a tree beyond the reach of the longest available ladder, swarm catching pole, or the beekeeper’s foolhardiness.

As a fallback the beekeeper can hang swarm traps, also called bait hives, in likely locations away from the apiary. These are suitably sized and scented boxes made to entice the scouts to convince their swarm to take up residence after which the beekeeper takes the box to the apiary and moves the bees to a proper hive. Of course, it may be someone else’s swarm that is caught.

Now from Sassafras Bee Farm we learn of another way to keep one’s own swarms, the Russian scion. This technique essentially applies the principle of the bait hive to the bivouac location. A tallish pole (perhaps ten feet high) is placed not very far in front of the hives. Larger beeyards may have more than one. Atop the pole is hung the scion. While there are more elaborate designs involving covered mesh baskets, it need only be a simple roof about a foot square to provide a bit of shelter to the lure beneath it. The lure can be a short, vertical length of wood covered in propolyzed burlap. Or just the propolized burlap itself hanging beneath. Or even an old frame. The bait may also be perfumed by some of the usual lemony essential oils. While the presence of this bait will not cause swarming it provides a convenient place for a swarm to bivouac which is easily seen and reached by the beekeeper.

Should Beatrix survive the remainder of winter she will surely cast a swarm if we are not timely in splitting her. Considering how often life and weather prevent us from timely care of our bees, a scion would be reassuring. We shall see if we are timely in constructing one.


1It is as easy as preventing teens from having sex.
2As described in Dr. Thomas Seeley’s HoneyBee Democracy
3 Ours was.

BeeBop

The bees came back. We thought that they were swarmers.

But the bees came back on the very same day.

The bees came back. We thought that they were gone-ers.

But the bees came back and we want them to stay.

This dreg of poetastry is set to the tune used in this film about a fellow with a feline although our sentiments towards our pets differ as much as possible, of course. ’twas inspired by the following event.

On Monday of last week a loud buzzing moved one of us to step outside and be surprised by a large cloud of bees near the front of the barn. In the few seconds it took to get the other of us, the bees had vanished.

We were in a state of shock at the thought that one of our hives may have just swarmed. Weeks ago we noticed that Clarissa and Dorcas were looking rather crowded so we gave them several empty top bars. Then as we observed a very slow rate of comb construction we feared that they would not be much drawn before winter. So, thinking fewer, more complete combs better than many, small combs, we removed most of what we had given them. Had that recrowding triggered a swarm?

We went to look at the hives. Except for a much larger-than-normal number of bees orienting in front of Clarissa, nothing seemed unusual. Peering in the windows showed the typical crowd of bees. Had the colony decided to swarm and changed its mind? The observer’s last impression of the cloud was that it had started moving towards rather than away from the hives. That would be good news. We thought it too late for a swarm to overwinter and for the remnant to raise and mate a queen. Rather than open the hives to our ignorant gaze we called Dr. Milbrath for advice.

She was able to come the next day to open the hives for inspection. In Clarissa she found properly laid eggs indicating that a queen was present as well as very many newly hatched bees. Likewise in Dorcas. Beatrix, uncrowded, was left unbothered. Dr. Milbrath‘s hypothesis was that indeed one of the hives was triggered into swarming by a very large hatching of young bees. The sudden population increase with insufficient time for queen pheromone to be passed around at a time when the lighting resembles springtime all combined to trigger an attempt at swarming. But when the swarm paused for assessment before proceeding to seek its fortune, it realized that it was queenless and simply returned to the hive. For the queen had not been prepared; not trimmed down to flying weight and prevented from laying. So she could not accompany the swarm.

All we can say is that we hope the girls have gotten it out of their system.

Fellow blogger My Latin Notebook had a recent post mentioning that famous medieval song Sumer is Icumen In. Reminded thus of Ezra Pound’s winter-damning parody and with the swarms of June still on our minds, we were inspired to commit poetastry with mischief aforethought and pen our own version for the frantic and dismayed apiarist. We now inflict it upon our gentle readers.

Swarming is a happening
Loud yell Uh Oh!
Swirling cloud and buzzing loud
Whither shall they go?
Yell Uh Oh.

Unreachable they cluster
While I fret below.
Shun trap-hive and fly on by
I’ve lost them now, Uh Oh.

Uh oh, uh oh.
And off they go
To neighbors fright, uh-oh.

Rest easy. Our repertoire is too meagre for threat of an encore.


We later noticed that this is our one hundredth published post. Break out the mead.

It has been a few days interrupted by storms since Annabelle cast her swarm and Beatrix still stands unoccupied. We are resigned that the swarm, Annabelle-At-Large, will not be back and wish her well wherever she has chosen to settle. That allows all our worries to focus on the remaining diminished colony, Annabelle-At-Home. We fretfully scrutinize all her usual behavior for signs of queenlessness or threat of afterswarm whereupon she puzzles us with unusual behavior.

Bees on the hive stand crossbar

Bees on the hive stand crossbar

Wednesday afternoon we were surprised to see drones crawling on the ground in front of the hive, as if evicted. The girls must feel there is not enough nectar entering the hive although we can see them bringing pollen. It has certainly not been dry enough for a dearth and the milkweed is beginning to bloom.

Looking for the drones again later that day we saw only one but our attention was caught by a small group of bees on the rear of the crossbar of the hive stand. We have seen isolated bees rest on the face of the hive or the roof. This was an unusual location and the bees did not seem to be resting but rather somehow fussing over one of their number.

Queen and court outside the hive

Queen and court outside the hive

Looking more closely we saw that one was a queen and the others were tending her although we could not tell exactly how. Nor could we tell if she was leaving the hive to be mated or returning afterwards. We wished to help but concluded that in our ignorance we should simply leave them alone. A few hours later she and her court were no longer in evidence. And so, not even certain whether we should be encouraged by having seen the young queen, we return to simply watching Annabelle and fretting.

Beatrix hoping to catch a swarm

Beatrix hoping to catch a swarm

Anything that takes us outdoors, whether fetching the mail or filling the bird feeders or, on this beastly hot, late Sunday afternoon, watering the newly planted trees, provides us with a welcome opportunity to stop and visit a bit with Annabelle, just to watch the girls come and go. This time in addition to the steady air traffic to and from the hive there was a towering whirlwind of bees not far to its north. Before we could get a camera, the swirling column glided off to the west, past the empty Beatrix hive, and was lost from sight in the trees. We intended chasing it but a ravine with impassable vegetation including risk of poison ivy prevented us from following. We were left standing with a sense of wonder at having for the first time seen a swarm and then a sense of loss as we realized that it came from Annabelle and we were bidding half our bees farewell.

Nasonov lure in Beatrix

Nasonov lure in Beatrix

Nevertheless we hurriedly fixed our last tube of swarm lure inside the currently unoccupied Beatrix, set her up with ten bars, and moved her to the south side of the ravine, trusting the winds to carry the scent into the trees and call our girls back to us. But this is a desperate act and we have little hope.

A swarm’s journey to a new home typically occurs in two legs. In the first leg the cloud of bees leaves the old home and settles not too far away into a great cluster hanging from a tree branch. Scout bees are then sent forth to locate likely candidates for housing and return to lobby for their choice. After the swarm chooses among the candidates (as described in Dr. Thomas Seeley’s HoneyBee Democracy) the second leg occurs with the cluster breaking up and the entire colony taking flight once more towards their new home.

We do not know which leg we saw. It is possible that we caught them at the end of the first leg, which would mean that they were on their way to cluster, probably within a hundred yards of the old hive. In that case Beatrix may still get the attention of a scout and have a chance of the bees occupying her. But she is in full sun while bees prefer some shade. And she is three feet off the ground while the bees prefer ten. Her main charm would seem to be the scent remaining from having been occupied.

But then we may have missed the first leg entirely and only spotted the swarm already en route to its chosen home, having rejected Beatrix. While a few fortunate beekeepers have had swarms rather directly occupy an adjacent empty hive it is more typical for a swarm to try to get some distance (a quarter mile seems favorite) from its original hive. Being next to Annabelle would have been a disadvantage to selection.

Interestingly we did observe a few bees entering the long ignored Beatrix last week. Was the swarm already clustered somewhere unnoticed by us while scouts were examining her or were they, as some sources say they might, investigating new locations before swarming? Either way Beatrix stands empty and seems likely to remain so. Our loss saddens us but it is some consolation that it takes a strong, healthy colony to swarm. This is encouraging for our remaining bees.

Foil covered roof with new vents

Foil covered roof with new vents

Meanwhile back at Half-a-belle, the stay-at-homes were bearding a bit so we decided it was time to modify the roof for summer. We drilled holes in the gables and covered them with screens as we had done when we built the roof for Beatrix. Then we covered the roof with aluminum foil as we had done last year. The bees should be more comfortable in the continuing heat.