Spring in the Hives

(Written March 22, 2003) Today was a nice spring day and I opened the bee hives for the first time this year. It is always a surprise as to what you’ll find. The bees have been out flying, so I knew all 3 hives made it. Which is not a sure thing. Bees don’t hibernate, they just get in a tight little ball and eat honey to generate heat (that’s why they store so much of it). You have to be careful to leave them enough in the fall. And with the mites that are throughout the bee population now, they can become too weakened to make it all winter long (the Queen stops laying eggs in the fall and doesn’t resume til spring - so the fall bees aren’t replaced every few weeks like summer bees are). Even a well stocked healthy hive can die if the weather stays too cold for too long without a break. The bees need a milder day to move their “cluster” in the hive in order to get to unused honey supplies. I’ve heard tales of bees starving to death just inches away from ample honey supplies, simply because it was too cold for them to move to it.
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Besides the 3 hives in the yard we have an observation hive in the study (the bees come and go through a tube in the window). It is really useful for seeing what is going on in bee-land. For instance, last January (2002) I discovered that they had loaded up with pollen on a couple of mild days. That was the third week of January! Where in the world did they find that pollen? We have a witch hazel, but it typically doesn’t bloom until February some time. I still don’t have an answer to that one. This year was different though - there were no warm January days, and no sign of pollen in the hive till nearly the end of February.

The three yard hives still had a surprising amount of honey left, which means I can stop feeding them sugar water - no more Easy Street for the Girls… All three queens were laying eggs again, although one was way behind the other, so I moved some brood comb from the more populated hives to the weaker one. That might also help things out a bit with swarm season rapidly approaching.

There are countless articles in the bee magazines about techniques to keep the Girls from swarming. I’ve tried about all of them that made any sense at all. I think I’ve finally figured out why none of them seem to work all that well - bees just don’t read. It doesn’t matter how clever this “master” beekeeper’s idea may be - nobody ever told the bees… Whoever wrote the Murphy’s Law Corollary - “under the most carefully controlled conditions of temperature, humidity and environment the organism will do what it damn well pleases” could well have been a beekeeper.

So I suspect that we’ll see the usual number of swarms in the next month or two. If you’ve never seen one, it is a pretty awesome force-of-nature kind of thing. It is all over in a matter of minutes. At first there just seems to be a little increased activity, but then it rapidly grows until there are thousands and thousands of bees in the air. Imagine standing in the middle of a tornado made up of buzzing bees and you have the general idea (they have no interest in stinging you - you can stand right in the middle of it - and all those bees make quite a Buzz!!) Within 15 minutes it is all over - somewhere not far from the hive will be a basketball-size clump of bees hanging from a tree limb or bush. They become very quiet and if you hadn’t just seen them swarm you might not know they were even there. We’ve been walking in the yard after a day away and just happened to glance up at a limb to see the Girls hanging there. Hard to say how many of those we may have missed just because we didn’t happen to look in the right place. Once you find a swarm you’ve got anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to put them into a new hive - if you can get to them. In the meantime, they have scouts out busily looking for a new home. Once they find one you’ve lost your chance to get them back - they rise straight up and will generally fly several miles to their new home. Only about half the hive leaves in a swarm, and if you aren’t paying careful attention you might never know they left because the hive is still busy. But they leave right when the nectar flow is the greatest in this area, so it can really reduce the amount of honey you get.

The neighbors have generally been quite tolerant of the bees - and we try to ensure it stays that way by keeping them all supplied with honey. We have one young guy next door who is our biggest worry - his is the bees-are-stinging-bugs-are-bad kind of mentality, but we are doing our best to educate him. Except for the swarms (which are harmless, although quite dramatic) the Girls generally aren’t even noticeable to the folks in the neighborhood unless they have a nectar plant in bloom. Which likely means they are gardeners and appreciate the value of the pollination.

The Girls can become a bit pesky in the spring and fall, though. Not mean, just very inquisitive. During most of the summer they know exactly where the nectar is and they are busy getting it. But there are a few periods when there are no nectar or pollen plants blooming, and then they are searching. And I mean searching - it seems like every nook and cranny of the yard has a few bees in it looking to see what they can find. I’ve heard they can be a real nuisance at cattle feeds lots during those times - apparently the cattle feed is enough like pollen that they’ll settle for it if nothing else is available.

One neighbor has a swimming pool with a cover on it. It rained and formed a puddle on the cover during one of those times when pollen gets all over everything. The puddle was filled with floating pollen. Then on a hot day the water on the cover dried up and he said it was completely covered with a carpet of bees - the pollen was gone in a couple of hours!

So, the Bee Year begins. All summer long we will have a steady Bee River flowing back and forth from the hives right up into a big patch of clear sky. When the sun is just right you can see hundreds of little bright bits zooming to the sky and back. We also get a wren and catbird or two who think this is just the greatest thing. They’ll make repeated trips to the hives to either pluck a bee out of the air or snatch one from the grass in front of the hive. It’s kind of nice having your own little backyard ecosystem…

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