7.20.2011

Swarming on Squash

Charlie has been cutting out swarm cells, queen bee baby cells, from the Giants hive for a while now. The bees create baby queens by feeding  royal jelly - bee steroids - to a regular baby girl bee and they grow into great big, long queens.

They're easy to find, swarm cells. They're big, droopy blobs stuck along the bottom of the brood frames. Drone cells are big, too, but they don't droop. Bees make new queens when they're unhappy with their old one or when they feel cramped and need to divide and swarm.

Charlie realized cutting out swarm cells wasn't going to work. They were determined to swarm no matter what. He realized he needed to split the hive.

He built a nuc box - a smaller version of a regular hive box - to take the queen and five frames from the Giants to fool them into thinking they’d already swarmed. It was too late and therefore too cold to split it when he finished, so he brought it up in the morning. He opened the door to the roof and saw the sun for the first time in over a week.

He saw something else: a huge black cloud of bees hovering over the raised vegetable beds.

Out loud, Charlie said, "Seriously? You guys couldn't wait another hour?" When you're on the roof, beekeeping and tending vegetables by yourself for hours on end, talking to yourself is the least of your acquired bad habits.

He assumed they were rallying to head across the street to swarm there, but the longer he watched, the more he realized they weren't going anywhere. In fact, they were lowering their cloud onto the squash box, right in front of their favorite saucer of water, and less than ten feet from their old hive. 

"That Giants queen is a fat ass," Charlie said to himself again. "She probably couldn't fly much further."

The cloud landed and split between a zucchini plant and the wooden wind barrier right behind it. The Giants are our second package bees, healthy enough to swarm - duh - and there were at least 30,000 to 40,000 in this split. The original package contained no more than 10,000, so we must not be killer beekeepers (yet).

Charlie told himself, "If I can find the queen and get her into this box, they’ll all follow and this will be the laziest way to capture a swarm." 

He inspected the small clumps beginning to form into clusters and easily found the old queen on a zucchini leaf. She'd been marked when we bought her, painted with a big, bright white dot, but that's not what he found on her now. Queens get a lot of cleaning and crawling on so all she had left was a little shadow of a speck.

Not wanting to lose her, Charlie cut the whole leaf off and set it in the box. Some of the bees followed, if you can call that following. They sort of meandered accidentally in that direction, as if they didn't want to go just yet.

While taking photos, I found what looked like a queen, too, a younger, thinner princess: a virgin queen. To be safe, we flipped her into the box, too. 

That did it. There was enough pheromones coming from the box to get even the most laziest bees excited about making the journey into the box.

Being such a huge swarm, it took them until 8 at night to get in the box. Once they were mostly in, Charlie had to screen it shut. They were so tightly packed that he had to squish some of them just to get the screen secure.

When he caught the swarm from the Slackers, our first bee package, he put them in a new box and back on the same hive stand from which they'd left. It must have confused them, as at least half the swarmers returned to their old hive. 

"It's better to move you," Charlie said, this time to the bees. "Guess where you're going?"

Again, we drove to my mom's, this time with a cardboard box tightly packed with loudly humming bees. If you told me they'd lifted off and were hovering above the back seat, I would have believed you. 

Charlie added a frame of honey and a frame of babies to their new home, once they'd been released. With honey and brood, they'd stay. They'd have food and something to take care of while getting settled in. They'll love it in this ritzy, pollen-filled, sunny neighborhood.

Later in the day, Charlie peeked through the entrance slot to see how they were doing. When you do that, you can see the bottom of the frames and the bottom of the cluster. Inside their hive, bees cluster into a ball to keep their brood warm. There were a few dead bees on the screen bottom board and that’s normal. There were well over 30,000 bees in this little box and they only live six weeks. He thought he would see more.

Having his hive tool and being nosy, he scooped out the dead bees to get a better view. One of the bees he pulled out had an unusually long abdomen; skinny but different than the rest. There goes the virgin queen they worked so hard to make. There can only be one queen and she didn't stand a chance against that old, big fat ass queen.