This week, our normally quiet little homestead was all abuzz (literally!) with activity. The honeybees have declared that swarming season is officially now. Five swarms have issued from my two hives in five days. I was able to catch and hive three of them, and the other two were in easy reach but departed so quickly I barely had time to catch my breath after standing in the midst of the spiraling frenzy of thousands of stinging insects.
I have never minded having my beehives swarm as long as the remaining colony is strong and healthy. I may change my tune someday, but to me, swarming gives me hope that the dwindling honeybee populations have a chance to rebound. Even when I don’t catch the swarms, as I watch them take off through the canopy of the forest, I blow them a kiss and wish them strength and health and longevity. I also fantasize they will find a suitable home that is so wild and isolated that no GMO crops are to be found anywhere in their foraging range. (That is a pretty hard bill to fill these days, unfortunately) I have also never particularly tried to stop the swarms from happening in the first place, as I know many beekeepers do (I also don’t make my livelihood from beekeeping), so I guess it is a good thing I don’t really care when it happens. If I had invested time and energy in trying to suppress swarming I suppose I would feel differently!I’m not sure what the difference was this year, but each of the five swarms was accessible to my desiring hands. Last year, to the best of my knowledge and observation, I had four swarms come from the same two hives and every single one of them was at least forty feet up in the air. Two of those were probably upwards of seventy feet. My sweet husband even went so far as to put the extension ladder in the fully extended loader of the tractor, but to no avail… he still couldn’t reach. This year, the kiwi trellis attached to our outdoor kitchen seemed to be the hot spot for the honeybees to congeal after the mass exodus from the hive. Four of this year’s swarms landed there, a mere eight feet off of the ground. Kind of a dream come true!!! But because of the gangly nature of the kiwi vines, and the structure of the trellis, I had to slowly scoop or brush the bees into the hive boxes; I couldn’t just snip a branch and lower the whole mass into their new home. The one remaining swarm was slightly higher in a mulberry tree, and this did require some monkeying around to be able to reach. Oh, but sweet satisfaction in succeeding on that one! I can only guess that the two swarms that I missed left so quickly because it was threatening to rain or they had already scoped out a new home. But I am not a bee, so I will never really know for certain. What I do know is that I have THREE new beehives! And that I need to order or build some new equipment pretty darn quick because I had to piece together hives for the swarms in a hodgepodge fashion and I have no hive bodies remaining when it comes time for expansion! Or, heaven help us, if another swarm comes!!!
The fact that I was able to witness all but one of these swarms actually happen (and Opal saw the one I didn’t) seems like a very generous gift from the cosmos. Especially since it is spring and there is quite a frenzy of farming and lambing happening right now as well. (More on those next time.) So I will say my thank-yous to the forces that may be, and declare myself even more intrigued by the mysterious honeybee than ever before.
Wasn’t it just a week ago that I got into my beehives to check on their spring progress? Did I really say that I saw no signs of swarming? Did I really say that? Ha! The joke is on me, for sure! Just goes to show how little I actually know about the nature of bees after fifteen years of keeping them.
Today, my bees issued a giant swirling mass of buzzing bee love. The swarm: a beehive’s way of reproducing itself. Really, swarming is a good thing. Most of the time it shows that a hive is healthy and strong enough to split apart. To the beekeeper, though, it can sometimes be so humbling to watch half of your bees fly off into the wild blue yonder. We have the added bonus of living in a fairly deep hollow, surrounded by fairly large trees. It seems that any swarm that has ever come from the hives I keep down by our house tends to gather at least fifty feet up in a tree (fyi… this is not at all what most beekeeping books say will happen when a hive swarms. ahem.), making them very much out of reach for capture. So even though I said I saw no signs of swarming in my hives, my bees had other plans apparently.
I was just getting on the little tractor to do some mowing around the homestead when Opal came over with the report that my bees were flying everywhere. Time to shift gears, and not those of the tractor! I quickly shut the tractor off and went to watch the party. After what looked like mad chaos (even though I know it wasn’t), the bees gathered together in their swarm way up high in the sugar maple tree that is the centerpiece of our homestead. There was no chance of scooping them up and putting them into a new hive so I did the next best thing I could. I set up a bait hive. I painted some melted beeswax on the interior of the hive to make it alluring to the bees and put it in a location where I once had an empty hive that actually did attract wild honey bees… maybe cosmically, energetically, a good location? Now, its up to the bees. I will have to sit and wait the day or two it takes the bees to consider all their housing options and make their big move. No matter where the bees decide to reside, I wish them well. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed just the same…
Bustling spring just wouldn’t be the same without saying some thanks to our very important pollinator, the honeybee. I’ve been keeping bees as long as we’ve lived here on the farm. In fact, I established my very first hive on the farm before Eric and I officially moved here. Some years were bustling with the bees, some years not so much. Some years the bees swarmed like crazy, some years they didn’t survive through the winter. I can’t tell you the number of time I’ve established new colonies, but last spring was another of those times. This time, though, I found a local beekeeper in the nearby Amish community that had some nucleus colonies for sale. Locally adapted bees seemed a much better option to me than the mail order bees I had typically purchased. (Don’t get me wrong, though, not everyone has access to a beekeeping neighbor with hives for sale… so if you are looking to get started keeping bees and a mail order swarm is your best option, then go for it! We need bees far more than we need to dwell in the notion of imperfection. This world isn’t perfect. We do our best and move on.)
So far, my little local bees seem to be thriving. They made it through our fairly harsh winter and are very busy with the important work that they do. They were so busy, in fact, that I was worried they might swarm. I also thought that the hives might be getting crowded and could use the extra space of a honey super. I don’t keep the bees just for the golden nectar that they produce, I keep them for many more reasons than that. But, but… my family sure wouldn’t mind to harvest just a little honey from the bees this year! Once I got into the hives, I realized that they were not yet over-crowded and I did not see any signs of swarming… no queen cells that I could find which is just fine with me. When I open the hives, I generally do not pull the frames out of the hive body itself. I always feel like a big awkward destructive bear. Instead, I look down into the frames from the top and will then tip the hive body on it’s side so that I can look up into the frames from the bottom. Most of my beekeeping over the years has followed a more instinctual path. I am not a pro beekeeper by any means, I just like having the little critters around. I keep my bees in the standard Langstroth hives. I am very interested in trying out top-bar beehives someday, but I just haven’t made that move yet. Last year I did try out a new type of frame, called a foundationless (“foundation” is the thin sheets of beeswax that you place in the hive to give the bees a guide where to build their cells) frames, that allow the bees to fully build all of their beeswax cells themselves and not necessarily be locked into the rectangular shape of the frame. The beekeeper does paint a small bead of beeswax across the top of the frame as a subtle guide, but otherwise you leave the beeswax construction up to the bees. I’ve never seen a wild hive that is rectangular! Plus, the production of fresh wax is very cleansing for the bees… kind of like us humans having a good old sweat. I could certainly see where these frames could prove problematic for the commercial beekeeper, but I’m more concerned about the health and well-being of the bees. So after a good look in my hives, and putting on some honey supers just in case, I will leave the bees alone for a while. I will watch them from a distance, say hello to the hard-working little foragers when I see them in the gardens or orchard, and do my best to create health-giving farm environment in which they can thrive. I sure do appreciate having them as neighbors!