8.08.2011

Worth A Fly?

Healthy Saratoga bees
At the Santa Clara Beekeepers Guild, Serge Labesque got us enthusiastic about getting our hives ready for winter. That's not easy. Getting beekeepers excited is easy - just ask us about our girls - but winter? Some of us get the shakes just anticipating all that down time we'll have while our bees stay inside their hive, snuggling up in a tight ball to keep warm, eating honey and relaxing.
    
Serge showed slides of top boards to create proper wintering ventilation flow, racks to make to keep frames dry and moth-free, and explained how to stack two hives on top of each other with a queen excluder between. This way, he said, the worker bees can move freely between the hives without the queens killing each other.   

Often weak hives starve over the winter as they can't eat cold honey even if it's nearby, and they can't get to honey if it isn't nearby. With a two hive colony, the starving bees send out distress signals and the warm, healthy bees fly up and feed them. You use nature to keep them alive.  

   
However, when Charlie asked a question about swarms, Serge answered with, "Swarms? I don't waste my time with swarms. They're not going to make it anyway."   
Notice swarm hanging from top

The first thing a beekeeper learns is that 75% of swarms don't survive winter. In fact, there's a saying, "A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon but a swarm in July isn't worth a fly."   

It's August. There's not enough time to build up comb and store enough honey for winter, all while making enough babies to keep the hive alive.     

Stopping by my mom's before the meeting, Charlie got around to doing some cleanup. When you have a lot of pretty property to leave extra hive traps lying around, you do.  There's no use bringing them home.  Who needs another tiny, frail swarm caught from Golden Gate park? We had to merge the two swarms we caught on the roof together, being so small.   

They weren't thriving - even then - so we brought them to the Saratoga bee hospital at my mom's, to recover.  Better but still sickly, we merged them with the Alameda girls - a third, healthy swarm. After all that, they're going strong. No wonder Serge doesn't have time for swarms.     

When Charlie lifted the hive trap, it was heavy. You know what that means: another swarm had moved in. This is the fourth Saratoga swarm we've caught since Father's Day. Where were all these bees before?   
 
Inside the Little Giants hive
During his last inspection, Charlie noticed the Little Giants - the bees from our Giants hive with the too-fat-to-fly queen that swarmed ten feet from their hive onto our squash plants - didn't have any eggs. Maybe that fat queen couldn't make the trip down to Saratoga, or she didn't like the warm weather, or the virgin queen injured her during their battle for the top job. Either way, they needed a new queen. 
 
Charlie added a frame of babies stolen from another healthy hive so they could make a new queen, but that would take a while. If they were going to survive winter, they needed a push. 
 
They got it. Charlie didn't have time, being late for the bee meeting already, to do anything but dump the new swarm into the Little Giants's hive, queen and all. Usually you put a sheet of newspaper between the two colonies. That way, during the time it takes for them to chew through, they get used to each other. We'd rather talk about bees than deal with these here. 
 
Cleaning each other
The Little Giants, at first, chased the new Saratoga girls away. That didn't last long. 
 
Bees on top of the frames began to clean each other, as if to say, "Come in, we have plenty of room. And let's clean you up a little before you meet the rest of the girls." 
 
We put the top back on, hoping this new queen stays and lays, being August and all. If not, a guy at the bee meeting introduced himself to us by saying, "If you need good queens, I'll have a few for sale soon." We got his number.