"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bees and Heat

The last few days have been uncharacteristically hot, to say the least. Records were broken. In fact, records were obliterated - the previous daily high for one recent day was 77, back in the eighties; this 
time, we hit 88. And we had four or five days in a row over 80 degrees - totally unheard of for April. 

Also unheard of - the fields near me are being cut for hay. In April. I remember just a year ago or so seeing the same fields being cut in May and thinking, holy shit, that's early! If this trend continues, we will be cutting hay year round pretty soon, anytime the fields are dry enough to support a tractor. 

Another unsettling thing - despite the hot weather, I had seen nary a bee this year. A few bumblebees here and there, and as usual a ton of wasps, but no honeybees. A beekeeper friend of mine told me that her bees were so busy she was already putting honey supers on top of the hives, something she usually does in late June or early July. She thought it was probably from a lack of competition. I told her that other beekeeper friends of mine had lost most of their hives last winter - apparently the mites were just terrible last year. 

I wonder if our warm winters don't have something to do with the bee die-off. Perhaps if the temperatures are high enough, they don't really go into full hibernation and eat more of their stores? Perhaps the mites like the warm winters? Perhaps when fruit trees and other plants don't go into hard dormancy, they produce less or poorer quality nectar the following spring? In any case, I am worried about our fruit harvest this year, because there were seriously no bees around. 

Until the day before yesterday, that is. I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink, and looked out the window to see a vast cloud of big insects flying right outside. At first I thought they were flies and was grossed out; but I quickly realized they must be honeybees swarming. 

I ran outside to see where they were going. For a few minutes they kind of wandered back and forth across the front yard - a loose cumulous cloud of glittering bees, concentrated at the center and ragged around the edges. Then they veered toward the highway. 

"No! Don't cross the highway!" I thought. "Stay here!"

Finally, they settled into a blackberry bush, almost down on the grass, about two feet from the ditch along the edge of the highway. I didn't know how long they would stay there, but I know about five people who would be totally psyched if I called them to come collect the bees. There's and old saying: "a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon." I don't know what a swarm of bees in April is worth, but I'm thinking it's worth at least a quart of honey this fall. I put the word out, and sat down in the shade to keep an eye on the swarm. 

A neighbor of our called me back, and said they would be over in a half hour with a box to get the bees. He told me not to worry, they wouldn't go anywhere for a while. The queen was resting from her maiden flight. He also told me not to worry about getting stung - without a hive to protect honeybees are very docile. 

"You could stick your hand right through that ball of bees and not get stung." 

I believed him, but could see no need to put it to the test. 

My neighbor put on a mask, but was working in shorts and without gloves, and it the bees gave him no hassles. The way to collect a swarm is to bring an appropriate vessel, place it under the swarm, and give a sharp tap to the branch they are hanging on. All the bees will fall right into the box. In this case, he couldn't put the box under the bees, because they were practically on the ground. He set the box to one side, and carefully clipped the blackberry bush until he could grasp the one cane that supported the swarm. Then he cut that cane, picked up the swarm, and tapped it against the edge of the box. About two thirds of the bees fell right into the box. 

Since the queen is inside the ball, it's most likely that she fell into the box, too, but we had to wait to be sure. My neighbor put the lid on there hive, leaving a crack, and then we waited. If the queen were outside the box, the bees on the inside would soon figure that out and start coming out. If the queen were on the inside, the bees that were still outside the box - a few thousand - would begin to settle on the box and go inside. 

After a few minutes, my neighbor pointed out a line of bees standing on the rim of the box, pointing their rear-ends up in the air and waggling them. 

"She's in there," he said. "Those bees are wafting out pheromone to tell everybody to come on in." 

By this time, it was close to sunset. My neighbor said he had to go pick up his kids from sports practice, but he'd be back later to get the bees. They needed plenty of time to get all of them inside and to decided definitively that this was their new home. 

And that's what happened. I hope this turns out to be a good strong queen and that they make a good strong hive. Homero wants to try having bees again as soon as possible - in fact he was annoyed with me for calling any body at all, and wanted to try to get them himself. But we don't have any equipment anymore. We can start getting some stuff together and when and if we see another swarm this year, we'll be ready. If we don't see one - as seems likely; this was the first swarm I've ever seen - we will at least be ready to start next year with a bought colony. 


Anubis Bard said...

I'm jealous. If I were nearby, I'd have definitely taken them off your hands. You're right that bees can suffer from mild winters, because they tend to fly more, but there aren't flowers in bloom, and they go through their stores faster. Here we had a brutal cold snap in early April and I lost one of my two hives. I had ordered a package, so I'm back to having two hives and I'm hoping to split the one that wintered well.