Though spring kept us waiting it has arrived in Maine in all its glory. I’ve been busy and have some exciting news to announce here soon, but from a beekeeping perspective I’ve mostly spent the last month worrying about the nucleus colony we moved into a hive in April. That nuc is the Little Engine that Could, and has fought a valiant battle. When we made the nuc last summer, it was from a parent hive in the throes of a major varroa mite infestation. We put a Russian queen into the nuc and re-queened the parent hive. The new Russian bees in both colonies did an extraordinary job of getting the mite problem under control, but along the way they lost a huge portion of their forager population to deformed wing virus. So both the parent and the nuc went into the winter behind in honey stores and with exposure to viruses and other diseases that come along with nasty varroa mites. Still, both colonies made it through the harsh winter. Then the Little Nuc that Could contended with an unusually long, cold, wet spring. I gave them plenty of sugar syrup but they didn’t have much natural nectar to encourage them along. The cold made it so they couldn’t make wax in the new hive and slowed down the brood rearing process. Then as the weather warmed up and they started drawing out some comb, the queen appeared to be failing. I won’t bore you with theories on why that would happen but it’s most likely the result of the disease exposure I mentioned.
A little over a week ago, the colony decided to make a new queen. You can’t see it very well because the bees tend to keep it covered, but in the center of the photo on the left there is a capped supercedure cell. With luck a virgin queen will emerge soon, fly out and mate with some amazing drones from hives that survived the brutal winter, and start laying eggs in a couple of weeks. With better luck, the two queens will work side by side and get the hive back up to speed. Then in all likelihood the new queen will do a bit of quiet matricide/regicide and start working solo.
(“But your title led us to believe this essay was going to be about bee sex. That’s the only reason we’re still reading.”)
Ah spring, when a thriving hive’s fancy turns to reproduction, and my hopes turn to a quicker way to get this little hive up to speed. (Please join me for a bit of positive reinforcement; say it with me:) I AM going to catch a swarm this spring. When I do, I’ll add it to the struggling hive, and I’ll be sure to take lots of photos and will describe the process on this site.
I have described my first and only adventure collecting a swarm and I’m eager to do it again – perhaps with a bit more style and aplomb this time. The Maine State Beekeeper’s Association has set up an amazingly slick new system for identifying, collecting, and finding good homes for swarms of honeybees. So I’m hoping for a call from there; I’m hoping for a call from my friend at the South Portland Fire Department; and I’m hoping for a call from my scores of Loyal Readers.
I also have a backup plan. In my own apple tree, and in the apple tree of a friend who lives at the other end of my neighborhood, I have a swarm trap (or “bait hive.”) I’ve mentioned a book before from my winter reading list, Honeybee Democracy. In it Tom Seeley painstakingly describes how a swarm of honeybees makes a decision about where to locate their new home. The size of the hive and the entrance is of the utmost importance, so both the box and the bucket have the right interior volume and entrance hole. The height is important, so my traps are at the maximum height for my ladder and at the bottom end of the ideal range for the bees. It also helps to have the entrance facing south and to have some old comb to attract a swarm. Last, we add a little lemongrass oil to mimic the scent bees use to attract their swarm-mates to a new location.
So think happy thoughts and before too long I may be telling you the story of our next swarm wrangling adventure. Stay tuned.