From BUST to BOOM in Nine Months

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bees Swarming to Meet You!

So -- is this what it feels like? To be a successful home beekeeper hobbyist? Folks -- I was an utter and complete FAILURE at this exercise when decided to adopt this hobby out of pure frustration a few years back. I too -- knew what it was like -- to have the shape of an "L" on my forehead.

I was "expert" at losing hives. I was an even bigger "expert" at losing queens. No matter what I tried -- no matter what I did -- I FAILED and failed MISERABLY.

But all of that seems so long ago now. Because -- today? I'm a successful beekeeper hobbyist as the photo to the upper right will attest. That is the current state of the neon pink Hello Kitty Hive. To put it short and sweet? It's loaded -- both deeps are packed solid with bees so thick that they fall out of the hive like a graceful curtain blowing in the wind.

One-Half of the Hello Kitty Hive
Much to my chagrin -- and the chagrin of others in the neighborhood -- the hive has now swarmed three times this spring. While many beekeepers are proud of swarms -- because it is the sign of a massively reproductive hive -- they do their level best to prevent it. A swarm happens when a hive becomes jam packed and overcrowded. But it also means you lose precious numbers of beekeeping friends that could have been better put to work making fresh honey for the wife that is Venus.

Beekeeper Keith Scott took these amazing photographs last week while collecting Swarm #2 -- that had come to rest behind the Dinner Plate Honeysuckle Vine. What he witnessed and photographed surprised even the most experienced of beekeepers. Tens of thousands of bees were still packed tightly into the hive even after the second swarm. Tens of thousands remain after Swarm #3 took place this past weekend.

I was surprised to find out that the activity gained the interest of a none-too pleased neighbor. I can't blame him for his dismay -- nor the note he left behind on the blog. If you do not have any experience with watching a hive suddenly swarm into the open on a bright and sunny day -- it can be one of the most terrifying and fascinating events to watch unfold.

Nobody ever said nature was pretty.

Bee Swarm #II in the Dinner Plate Honeysuckle Vine
To protect the innocent -- we'll call this neighbor "Mr. Neighbor." He left this note in the comments section of the blog: "As one of your nearby neighbors, I am a little less than amused by a swarming of bees. It seems to be happening again today (Apr 9th)...might have been nice if we had been warned or even given a choice as to whether or not we wanted this influx of bees."

Some of my more hardened beekeeping friends came to my defense by suggesting that I leave the next swarm in his bed. As much as I chuckled at the "Godfatherly" suggestion -- I was also concerned. I want to be a good neighbor. I like my neighbors. Sure -- Venus and I could have moved out to acreage from North Natomas into Rio Linda -- but that also meant isolation.

I've done that. I've been there. I had my two acres. I couldn't stand the quiet. I hated the privacy that acreage brings. I didn't know my neighbors from Jack. Bill Bird is a product of the Modesto, CA suburbs. I like waving to neighbors as I drive down the street. 4th of July Block Parties shared with family and neighbors are the bomb. Nothing is better -- in my opinion -- that a boatload of children screaming out TRICK OR TREAT on Halloween night.

Nephew Marquitos Stromberg With Yellow Carrot Harvest
Mr. Neighbor would later add that he had a grandaughter that very much enjoyed visting the home and backyard of her grandparents -- which I also identified with. Venus and I have not been blessed with the gift of children. We instead smother our love and affection on nephew Marquitos and niece Celina -- who reward us with "most favored destination" status. Can you imagine then -- how we would feel if Marquitos and Celina were suddenly too scared to visit "Tío and Tía?"

We would be crushed. Mr. Neighbor and his wife would feel equally crushed if their grandaughter reacted in the same manner. I can understand and identify with that concern. I can also identify with the fact that -- while bees are legal to keep in Sacramento City limits -- they can also be classified as nuisance problems. Therefore, it's best to reach out and react before problems are allowed to fester into something larger.

Promising "Mr. Neighbor" a jar of honey for his troubles also helped smooth things over a bit, as did a message of understanding. When the bees swarmed for the first time nearly two weeks ago, leaving a resulting mass of bees on a nearby peach tree, I wasn't sure what to do. I certainly did not approach them. Were they agitated? Would they reach out and "touch me" with a stinging party? I didn't know -- and I surely didn't want to find out.

Honeybees Preparing to Swarm
But the nice thing about beekeeping is this: you learn the basics from others. You find out that swarms are just a part of nature and nothing more. Better yet -- swarms of Italian honeybees are as harmless as any bee colony will ever be. You can reach out and run your hand over the top of one -- provided you have the nerve -- and they will not instinctively react with a stinging party. They have no hive to protect -- therefore -- no reason to sting.

And so -- much to the delight -- and chagrin -- of some -- Bill Bird is now a successful beekeeper with a strong colony inside that bright pink Hello Kitty Hive. What is my secret? How did this failure of a hobbyist beekeeper go from BUST to BOOM overnight? How did three frames worth of bees delivered last June result in a massive hive nine months later that is so healthy it's splitting at a record rate?

I wish I could tell you the secret. I'd like to know myself. While Venus and I did make every effort to keep the hive in sugar water during the first few months -- once the bees turned aggressive last October -- and our pathway to the hive turned into a mudpit -- we ended our feeding efforts. To be brutally honest? We didn't do a darn thing. We stayed away.

As it turns out? They didn't need our help. As it turns out? I have far more pollen sources around this North Natomas home than I ever dreamed possible. A colony this strong -- this large and this lush doesn't get this way overnight without a steady source of pollen from a variety of sources.

A Keith Scott Photo
Obviously? The bees found that source. I find that the colony is also very adept at "planting" its own sources of pollen around the hive. Am I trying to tell you that I have bees that farm? I can only tell you that the clover that is springing up in every corner of the Bird Back 40 is coming from somewhere -- seeds of which that have no doubt been deposited by a passing bee. I certainly didn't put it there.

The end result is this: Bill and Venus Bird have the pollinators that they desperately sought in 2007. Roseville area beekeeper Keith Scott is getting fat in the beekeeping hobbyist business with three new colonies catpured from the Bird Back 40. Neighbors like "Mr. Neighbor" and Greg and Dara DiBiase and many others are getting treated to a swarm show that many people never get to witness in person.

Interesting? Without a doubt. A learning experience? Of course! And the show is now just begining. Act II of the beekeeping experience moves from pollination to honey collection later this summer.

Stay tuned...


Fred Hoffman said...

Check with your home insurance agent and see if you need a rider for those bees...just in case.

Bill Bird said...

I'm not at all opposed to the idea of moving the next swarm into your bed, Fred.

Christine said...

Congratulations on your success, albeit delayed. Beekeeping is a lot like gardening it seems. Variable from year to year. I for one would love to see a "swarm." If you can get it on video it'd be a great blog post.

Fred said...

Ha! Just saw the comment by Fred Hoffman last night - Donna reminded me that Fred H. was the guy trying and recommending single-malt scotches around a year ago. At that time, I cut and pasted his choices into an email I sent to all my scotch loving friends and relations, and tried a few of his recommendations myself (btw, I've settled on Glenlivet 12 as my regular). Small world! Wonder how it would be to mix some of Bill's honey into a fine single-malt - probably a non-starter.


Fred "The Neighbor" Baucom

Winter said...

I'm digging the bee posts! I keep considering getting a hive of my own.... however my General-Contractor-Father-in-Law is allergic. Since I have lots of house projects I need his help on, I think I shall have to live vicariously through you for a while. :)

Bill Bird said...


As long as he doesn't venture into the hive after his "honey fix," then the Father-in-Law will be just fine. I tried, in vain, to get my father-in-law within 20 feet of the hive, explaining that a bee sting or two just might contain the healing qualities he needed in his fight against rheumatoid arthritis. He would have none of it. He kept his distance. He was never once stung. I would gift you with a colony, but the hive has split four times now. The number of bees inside that two-deep hive has decreased dramatically. I very much doubt they will split again. But that's this year! There's always next year!

Winter said...

"To fight against his rheumatoid arthritis..." oh gosh, that is classic. I'm going to have to try that one sometime, using any number of various ailments though. "Mom, it's okay! You need a sting or two to help combat your nonstop inquiries to me about the weather."

I'll let you know next year if I think we are venturing down the bee path. Thank you!