An Overabundance of Bees
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
After our first ever hive collapsed last fall, we've been mourning our loss and planning for a redemptive second year of beekeeping. We'd have two hives, with two strong queens, and life would be perfect. Or so we naively thought.
We purchased two nucs from a beekeeper in Remington, west of us. He promised two experienced queens who had over-wintered and were of the Varroa Hygienic type. In April we picked them up and successfully installed the nucs into two hive boxes. We were on a roll. We gave them sugar water and marveled at the industrious nature of the queens. One was really rocking it in particular. Hive One was soon busting at the seams. Lots of busy foraging bees and gobs of capped brood. Even the start of capped honey! We high-fived in anticipation of this rich blessing. Busy, busy bees.
Slowly it dawned on us- Queen One might be an overachiever. She filled the hive with brood so fast, we started getting bearding in mid-spring. Bearding is when the bees get too hot inside the hive and so come out and hang out on the hive front, the equivalent of us sitting on our back porch, hoping to catch a breeze. This is a mid-summer activity for bees usually. That we had bearding in the temperate, lovely spring should have tipped us off that Hive One was growing precipitously fast.
Our next hive inspection brought home an intimidating reality for novice beekeepers: they were fixing to swarm. We saw at least 10 swarm cells and 6 supercedure cells- meaning that Hive One was making new queens, which, in addition to overcrowding, is the genetic marker that they need to swarm. Never having dealt with this before and our mentor on a fishing trip three states away (thanks Mick!), we thought we were clever in attempting to split the hive and so avert a swarm. We moved Miss Overachiever into a third hive box and gave her some nurse bees and resources. We accepted with some shock that we now have 3 hives. Ok, we'll run with it.
The next day Hive One swarmed. This was not supposed to happen. We had taken their queen and left them with several capped queen cells. The first new queen to emerge from her cell would, with the help of a few nurse bees, kill the other queens and a new queen would be born. She would take a few orientation flights, and then a mating flight, and would return to now manage and populate Hive One.
But Hive One didn't get that memo. Or they chose to ignore it because there they were, bearding on the front of the hive... and then filling the air with a cloud of confused bees. And then we saw it- the swarm cluster forming in the tree above the hive. We ended up with a swarm the size of two good clusters of grapes. Not really in the market for a 4th hive, but we wanted to be responsible beekeepers and deal with the swarm that was uncomfortably close to the neighbor's yard. Liability.
And so we moved around our schedules, found a gap between Zoom meetings and suited up. Bob climbed a ladder and cut the branch with the cluster on it, handing it down to me. It's initially intimidating to be this close to a cluster of thousands of buzzing bees. But they are actually very docile. In preparation for leaving the established hive, they have gorged themselves on honey and without capped brood to defend, they were actually in food comas. Reminded me of the men in my family on Thanksgiving afternoon, too full to fight.
Thankfully we had kept the plywood nuc boxes the hives had initially come in and so placed the swarming bees, branch and all, in the nuc box. We added a few frames with resources and shut the lid. We looked at each other, a bit dazed. Owners now of 4 hives.
Unbelievably, the next day, I looked at the hives and saw our new nemesis Hive One, fixing to swarm, again. This is off-the-charts not cool. I sent our mentor a photo and his only reply was "Oh man."
We watched as they relentlessly filled the air and then lit on a higher, less accessible tree branch, also in the neighbor's yard. This time with much less interest and curiosity but with grim determination, Bob and Bobby set up the ladder, rigged a supporting rope and cut off the branch the cluster had settled on. We put this swarm in the remaining nuc box.
5 hives. We're only zoned for 4. And really only wanted 2.
Practicing bee birth control seemed in order and so we went into Hive One and cut out every queen cell- swarm and supercedure- that we saw. No more reproducing queens for you, Hive One! The danger now is that if Hive One goes too long without a queen, the colony could become "Hopelessly Queenless" and slowly but surely, as the worker bees finish out their lifecycle, dwindle down to nothing and die out. We're watching for signs of a queen there (she can be hard to find in and among 10,000 crawling bees). If we don't see one, we'll have to requeen with one from the nuc boxes.
What started out as a hobby Bob and I shared, a fun backyard experience that would help build up critical bee populations and that might result in a bottle or two of honey, quickly morphed into an anxiety-invoking, liability-creating second job. We've had to make emergency runs to the bee store to get unanticipated hive boxes and our yard has the nuc boxes scattered around. We are frantically wrecking our brains- who among our friends said our beekeeping was cool? Would they want a hive? We'll set you up! Free to a good home! (Seriously, if you are interested, IM me).
We feel like we've grown up as beekeepers through this experience. We had to build our skill set overnight (so many YouTube videos watched) and can wax poetic about the benefits of checkerboarding a crowded hive and tell war stories about the swarms we've gathered. Cool things happened: Bob got to see a queen emerge from one of the queen cells we had cut off and we were able to identify the queen in the first swarm prior to her mating flight.
But I'm not going to lie: I have been watching the second original hive we purchased from the keeper out in Remington, terrified to see the now easy-to-identify telltale signs of a hive fixing to swarm. Bob and I have decided, and are at complete peace with this decision: if Hive Two swarms, we will watch and wish them well as they will eventually fly off to start a new colony somewhere else. Godspeed, little bees.