I’ve rounded out my second year of beekeeping. Some beekeepers might follow this up with something like, “Phew! Thank goodness!” But in all honesty (knock on hive body), it seems to be getting easier. The biggest lesson learned was to let go. These patchouli thoughts have not always been at the forefront of my landing board.
This year I had two stressors that were most memorable. The first being one of my new hives was very strong. So strong that before I knew it, they had maxed out their space and I was suddenly met with the thought of swarming. One day I rushed over to the fellow I buy my beekeeping supplies from and explained what was happening. “The top super is all filled, there are bees on top of the inner cover, there are queen cells all over the place, and and….”
I left his shop with a complete set of materials to build an entirely new hive and the dreaded mission of trying to do a split, as in his words, “It’s your duty, as a beekeeper, to manage your hives and keep them from swarming!”
A split is when you take a few frames of food and brood from the old hive, making sure you have a capped queen cell (the hive builds queen cells to have them at the ready if the old queen dies or they plan on swarming, upon which they take the existing queen along with them). You put all of this in the new hive, and cross your fingers, hoping for the best.
I got to work right away. I started gluing and nailing the supers together and assembling the frames and setting in the wax foundation. I painted everything with a quick-dry paint that had a built in primer to make things go quicker. I built the entire shebang in about 3 hours, with just about as many beers (the beers were very big. Just kidding, I’m a lightweight).
Beer (Just kidding) Honey.
But then the next day after my panic levels diminished a bit I started to get nervous about doing the split. I worried I’d overlook the existing queen and accidentally add her to the new hive (which meant certain death. A colony can only have one active queen, and they’d ‘out’ a second immediately). I worried I’d have two weak colonies. Most of all, I dreaded disturbing the brood chamber and ripping out frames in my debut of trying my hand at a split.
It’s worth noting that I have a pretty relaxed approach to beekeeping. I do minimal hive inspections, just thorough enough to make sure there are eggs (sign of a healthy queen) and no pests or disease. I don’t reverse hive bodies in the spring. I don’t re-arrange food and brood frames for winter, which some advise. Why was I rushing around to do something I was advised, when I hardly followed the rules anyway?
I placed an empty super with frames and foundation on the soon-to-swarm hive and hoped for the best. And you know what? It worked. They didn’t swarm, and they immediately began to fill up their new allowance of space.
But you know what’s so silly to me? This whole fear of swarming. Do you know why bees swarm? It’s because their healthy, robust, determined colony has run out of space and they need to do something about it. It is only really a freakout factor if you’re a beekeeper whose main objective is to harvest honey. If half of your hive flies away, there goes about $100 dollars in bees, and about $500 worth of potential honey harvest. But, if your main objective is not to harvest honey, then:
BIG STINKIN’ WHOOP DE DOODLE DOO
If your hive swarms, the best thing you can do is pat yourself on the back, give your swarmed colony an air high-five, and wish them luck in their continued success in starting healthy feral colonies (and hopefully not setting up shop in some asshole’s attic who will call the Orkin Man).
I may still try to do a split in the spring if I’m lucky enough to come out of winter with alive and well colonies. At least this is something I can plan ahead for, as I have an empty hive ready to go. Or, I might just set it up in the yard as a swarm bungalow getaway. We’ll see.
The second real stress that made an imprint was on the other end of the spectrum, as another colony I have became very very weak. In doing an early fall hive inspection, I noticed that I only had one full super of honey, and that many of the frames weren’t even full. I knew that I needed at least one full super to get them through winter, which was fast approaching. I invited a woman I knew from the New Jersey Beekeepers Association over to take a look and help me assess the issue. She advised that it was likely that this hive had swarmed (!), and the colony was in the midst of building the hive back up. She advised helping them out with some supplemental feeding. Though I don’t like to supplement feed, I understand that there are times you have to do what’s best for hive survival (especially since most of the fall flowers were on the outs) so I prepared a bucket feeder and fed them a heavy fall syrup (2:1) in which I mixed in a nutrient syrup (I’ve been using Honey-B Healthy which has amino acids and essential oils bees like, which stimulates feeding). This was tricky, timing-wise, and you really shouldn’t feed when the weather gets chilly. The cool air and syrup above can actually chill the bees at night and make them sick or die. I fed them for about 3 weeks steadily until the temps got chilly enough at night that I had to remove the feeder (the bees signify they’re done by stopping eating the syrup, and you can tell they’ve started to form their winter cluster. More on that in a bit).
Right before the weather got too cold to be able to open the inner hive cover (removing the lid releases heat), I did a quick peek and to my glad Gladys Knight feelings, all frames of the top super were filled up with enough food for the winter.
So, what’s happening now? The latest news is that the drones have all been kicked out (the workers kick the drones out as they are no longer needed and would eat up precious food stores if they were allowed to stay. The drones main role is to mate with the queen, but there’s no sense in that now, so she takes a mating vacation over the winter months, watching re-runs of The Golden Girls).
And (my favorite bee factoid), the colony has now formed their winter cluster. The winter cluster is when all the bees form a big sphere in the center of the hive. They vibrate their wings to give off heat, and the outer bees slowly rotate inward so they all get a chance to keep warm.
Are you thinking of penguins? I am.
Best of all, the queenie gets to stay in the center of this ball-o-bees, staying toasty and warm all winter long.
Talk about royal treatment!