I’m rapidly realizing that I’m going to need to think up some clever nicknames for my hives, because “primary” and “secondary” is boring. Suggestions are welcome! For now, I’m calling my primary hive London, and my secondary hive Paris. This is entirely because the original title of this post was ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ — until I reflected that it was probably unwise to reference a book set right before the French Revolution when I’m talking about insects that periodically decide to rise up and kill their queen. There are some omens there that just don’t need to be invoked.
Besides, as a Memphian, I am contractually obligated to make at least twelve Elvis references per year.
I’ve been working on this post for nearly two weeks, because it’s been a tough one to write. The good news is that Paris is doing great! Two weeks ago, there were no new eggs that I could find, but I finally, definitely laid eyes on the mated queen. On followup this past weekend, she had started laying a beautiful, consistent brood pattern. It’s great to see very few empty cells among all the capped worker brood. Here she is!
Currently, I’ve got my first honey super on the Paris hive, and they’re drawing comb and storing away nectar already! Not bad for a new split. I’m also trying a new piece of equipment on this hive: An upper entrance into the honey supers. It sits on top of the queen excluder and gives field bees direct access to their surplus honey storage. The idea is that it shortens the delivery time (workers don’t have to climb up through two brood boxes to store nectar) and so the bees have more time to forage, and store more honey. Like all beekeeping gadgets, I’m sure some people swear by them and some think they are terrible. I’ll let you know what I think once I have an opinion. It took the bees a few days to find the extra entrance, but they seem to be using it now.
So all is well in Paris. London, on the other hand… is a hot mess.
Two weeks ago during my hive check, I was really only concerned about Paris. I knew London was queenright and doing well. Then I pulled out this frame, and said a bad word.
The six fingerlike projections across the bottom of the frame are queen cells. The one on the far-left is open and still empty, but the other five are capped and occupied. The fact that they’re located across the bottom of the frame means they’re swarm cells.
The London hive was well on their way to preparing to swarm. Just to recap (see what I did there?), I split this hive a month ago specifically to prevent it from swarming. They had plenty of extra space: The honey super I’d given them a week or two before had still barely been touched. I can guarantee that the London hive contained zero swarm cells the week before. So, just what new shenanigans is this?!
A thorough search of the hive revealed more swarm cells — so, so many swarm cells, located on multiple brood frames. I wanted to give the London queen a stern talking-to, but she proved highly elusive. After two complete checks through the frames, I still couldn’t find her. I might have suspected she had taken some workers and swarmed already — except that there were too many bees in the box for that to have happened. The old queen takes about 60% of her workers with her when she swarms, so the absence of that many bees would have been very noticeable.
Situations like these are why beekeepers have mentors. Two hours later, mine arrived like the cavalry on my doorstep. We re-visited the London hive together, and discussed what was happening, and then… we took drastic action, and I learned something new.
It’s hard to convince bees to stay put once they’ve decided to swarm. What we did, instead, was try to convince them that they have already swarmed and are in their new home, using a method called a shakedown, or shook swarm.
It was, frankly, a little bit horrifying. My mentor smoked the hive so much that bees boiled out of the entrance, and we went through the hive frame by frame and shook bees off of every one into a spare box. When that was done, we checked every single frame for swarm cells and destroyed them, along with any half-constructed queen cups. (My mentor did remove two mature queen cells intact, which will let him try to raise those queens for his hives, so I hope he was able to salvage those larvae.) Through all this we searched for the queen, with the intent of catching her and keeping her out of the way so that she wasn’t at risk during the process, but we never did find her. What a day for her to show off her ninja stealth skills! Then, we reassembled the hive from the bottom up, adding empty frames to the middle of the brood chamber, poured the bees back in to this nice, newly-roomy abode, added a second honey super to the top, and closed everything up. Seriously disturbed bees? Check. More spacious abode? Check. Convinced they have moved into their new location? ….time will tell.
Here’s what that process looks like:
I insert a lot of humor into this blog, but I need to be serious here for a minute. What we did two weeks ago was a necessary last-ditch management method*. This was something that needed to be tried… but I regret the need for it deeply. We killed a lot of bees in the process. Hive checks are never 100% casualty-free despite my best efforts — but this was excessive.
So, this, here, this event that happened. This is why I read and research — and blog! — and ask a million questions, and try constantly to become a better beekeeper. I need to be good enough that I don’t ever have to do this again. I made the decision to keep bees, so I have a responsibility to them to treat them as humanely as possible. I want my best to be better than this.
With that in mind, and having had time to discuss the situation with my mentor, here are my takeaway lessons. I like lists! Let’s make a list. I call this one “Why did this happen, and what can I do to minimize the chances of it happening again?”
- The week that I noticed I had lots of drones, I should have split my hive immediately. It’s possible that by waiting a week to do the split, I gave the hive time to get into “swarm mode,” and set a move-out date in their tiny heads. And we all know how hard it is to change plans once there’s a date that the moving truck is scheduled to arrive…
- The bees had backfilled a bunch of their brood comb with honey. This left very few places for the queen to lay, so of course everybody decided they were out of space. I did try to give them some empty frames, but they just kept filling them with honey. What I should have done was give them a honey super when things started blooming and the population was increasing. I didn’t think it made sense to super before the spring split, but Memphis is weird. We’ve had things blooming all winter. The bees were finding pollen to harvest in February. Clearly they needed storage space earlier.
- When I did finally give them a honey super after the split, I should have taken a couple of frames of honey and pulled them up into the super to encourage them to move upward. I had to do this last year for them too. Instead, even though they had extra storage space, they ignored it.
- I’m using 8-frame medium hive boxes. I chose them for what seemed like good reasons back when I was young and innocent (errr, a year ago) but now that I know a little bit more about beekeeping, the concerns I had about using larger boxes are largely moot. I’m considering transitioning over the year into larger boxes, though whether I go wider (10-frame instead of 8-frame), taller (deep brood boxes instead of medium brood boxes), or both, I haven’t decided yet. My mentor estimated there were in the neighborhood of 45,000 bees in the London hive. That was way too many bees for the space they had. Despite splitting the hive, they were out of room, which is probably a big part of why they decided to swarm.
- Because I’m a new beekeeper, whenever I give the bees more frames, it is undrawn foundation, and they have to pull comb before they can do anything with it. Undrawn foundation doesn’t smell as good or as pulled comb. That’s not something I could help, and it’s a problem that will solve itself in time.
- My bees are mostly Italian stock. Italian bees are just swarm-prone. *shrug* Unless I want to incorporate some other genetics — which will happen anyway over time, as long as I let the bees raise their own queens — that’s just how the honeycomb crumbles.
Obviously, some of these factors are controllable and some are not. And in the end, the bees are going to do what the bees want to do.
For that matter, even after the shook swarm ordeal, they could still decide to swarm. Following my mentor’s instructions, I left them alone last weekend to let them settle. I hope there are no more swarm cells. I hope they haven’t swarmed when I wasn’t looking! I hope that we didn’t injure or kill the original queen during the shakedown….
This weekend, weather permitting, I’ll revisit London and discover whether or not the bridge is falling down.
*Why not just let bees swarm? Beyond the selfish reason — swarms drastically reduce the honey harvest — there are several others. Most relevant is that my apiary is in a relatively dense urban area. It’s irresponsible to allow a swarm if I can prevent it, when the bees may well choose to nest in somebody’s attic, or grill, or crawlspace. And there’s no guarantee that a swarm is going to find a new home, rather than encountering a homeowner who prefers to just pull out a bottle of wasp and hornet killer. Sometimes being a good beekeeper and being a good neighbor are the same thing.