Fear the Beard!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beard of Honeybees (A Swarm)
Sometimes -- even vegetable garden bloggers can hit mental subject roadblocks. It happens to the best of us. And, in my case, it happens to the worst of us. I knew I wanted to write about bees. But you just can't put pen to paper without having some sort of interesting subject matter in mind.

As it turns out -- the bees did all the work for me -- clearing that mental roadblock with one swift buzz.

While I had intended to write about the return of the bright pink Hello Kitty themed hive box -- I needed more than that. I wrote about Hello Kitty years ago. It's old news. Yeah -- I keep bees in a box painted bright pink with a Hello Kitty character stenciled on the side. What's so weird about that? Doesn't everybody do that?

The Return of the Hello Kitty Hive Box
As it turns out -- the honeybees I keep in two brightly painted hive boxes (pink and yellow) did all the hard work for me. They did what bees naturally do. The queen inside one of those colonies did such a fantastic job at laying eggs that the colony grew far too large for the multiple boxes I had assembled. And when a colony grows too large for the space it occupies: it swarms. That swarm is pictured above, right. And, yes, that's a closeup on my part. Bees that swarm rarely sting, and the swarm came from one of the most gentle colonies I've ever had the pleasure of keeping.

This is how new colonies are born or created in the wild. Normally, bees swarm in the spring or early summer. While it's not uncommon for colonies to swarm in the summer, it is rare. In most cases the queen stopped laying eggs weeks ago. I just hope she gets started up again to rebuild colony strength. Because, the unfortunate thing about swarms is this: about half the colony vanishes in the space of a day or two.

Second Hive Box with Bees "Bearding" in Front
That equals into a dramatic loss in honey production -- if you're keeping honeybees for such a thing.

I literally had to start over this year. The colony I'd nursed for the better part of two years, gifted to me by another beekeeper who got out of the business, up and vanished on me last winter. I didn't see much activity out of that hive in December after freezing weather set in. That got me worried. When spring finally rolled around and the weather warmed, a hive check revealed the worst of news. The colony was long gone.

I'll be honest, I missed them. A yard without an active box of pollinators around is an empty yard. It's a quiet yard. Once you've kept bees for a year or two, you're hooked. It's tough to live without them. One would think a beekeeper would get tired of excited bees whizzing to and fro and thonking into the back of one's head. Not so. They are like children. And when children leave, it gets quiet. Too quiet.

Hive Boxes-Face to Face-Shaded by Wisteria
I would come to discover that last year was a particularly nasty year for beekeepers -- and not just hobbyists like myself. When I discovered that one of the most experienced members of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA) reported the loss of 100 colonies, I suddenly didn't feel so bad about losing my single, solitary hive. Honeybee loss hits everyone equally -- from the very experienced to the novice bonehead like myself.

I could have taken several actions to acquire new colonies. I could have purchased a package of bees plus a queen -- but I'm not a fan of that approach. There's no guarantee that the queen you're purchasing is a strong one, and the process of introducing a new queen to a colony is tricky. If you don't know what you're doing (SEE: BILL BIRD), the queen can get killed during the introduction process.

Swarm in a Nearby Pluot Tree
The second approach, which is the cheapest one I might add, is waiting for an established, wild colony to swarm. Colonies that swarm in the spring often come from strong hives that feature strong queens, which means there's a good chance that the swarm will contain a nice young, strong queen as well. The problem with this approach is waiting for the phone to ring. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. You've also got to be prepared for a swarm call 24/7. Since I work full-time, bee hunting availability is at a premium.

The third option, which I chose this spring after getting a very nice offer from a very nice SABA member, is called a "Nuc Transfer." This involves the transfer of a queen, several frames of bees and several frames of honey to an existing hive box. The attractive offer came from SABA Treasurer Kate Morton, after I'd moaned about the loss of my colony the previous winter.

Honeybees "Bearding" in Front of Hive Box
"You want bees," she asked? "I have bees." When she quoted me a price so ridiculously low, I couldn't shout "SOLD" fast enough. I probably shouldn't be telling her this. She'll probably try to sell me another colony or three.

Sure enough -- her assurances of strong hives and strong queens were not empty promises. The swarm pictures included in this blog posting are proof of that. What initially started as three frames of bees in a small box -- something we call a "honey super" -- turned into three boxes stacked on top of one another overnight. Both queens were laying eggs at record rates. While I thought there was a chance one or both colonies might swarm, I also believed the addition of a true hive box at the bottom would prevent it.

Hah! Fat chance! Another boneheaded beekeeping move on my part. Add another one to a very long list.

Honeybee Collecting Siam Queen Basil Pollen
While I'd like to tell you that I kept and hived that swarm for myself, I'm not the best liar in the country. First and foremost, I've already tested the patience of nearby neighbors more than enough. Two colonies are fine. A third would be a little much. And while the City of Sacramento does encourage hobbyist beekeeping efforts, they also want beekeepers to limit the number of hives to just two. Two is exactly what I have. Adding a third, no matter how badly I wanted them, wouldn't have been the best of ideas.

Besides -- there's a popular poem regarding swarms that take place during the month of July. I didn't invent this. I'm not sure who did. But to beekeepers across the country -- and the world for that matter -- it's almost like a passage from the bible:

“A Swarm in May is worth a load of hay
A Swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A Swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.”

Fear The Beard!
Why are swarms that take place in May or June more desirable than those in July? It has to do with pollen production, and the ability of a colony to gather enough pollen to produce enough honey stores for the winter months. In many areas of the country, pollen production begins to dry up in July. The harder pollen is to find -- the harder it is for the bees to make honey. And if a colony can't produce honey -- it's doomed. It will not survive the winter.

But that didn't stop a beekeeper from Loomis from making the trip down to our North Natomas farm to take a chance on this swarm. Like many beekeepers, this particular gentleman had retired from the rat race that is full-time work to take on the full-time hobby of beekeeping. My swarm, which sprang from Kate's bees, are now his colony.

Best of luck to the little buggers. I will miss them.


If you're thinking the hobbyist beekeeper route might be the life for you -- I cannot stress the importance of belonging to a member organization like the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association. Here you will find the meetings and helpful people who are essential to getting started. And they will more than welcome you to the club as there's always room for more. Please feel free to drop by the SABA booth at the upcoming State Fair! You just might run into the wife that is Venus and her kook of a husband. Sample free honey! See honeybees in a glass enclosed demonstration hive! The SABA booth is always a top draw for kids and parents alike.