All’s Right With The World

I wrote this last week during an extended lunch break and decided not to post it because it’s long and rambling and doesn’t say much about anything. But so what? Here it comes…

Have you ever walked towards your beeyard, sight unseen, and heard the deep hum of a swarm in flight? I have. I’m still not at the point yet where I’m 100% comfortable with swarms. I will always say this because it’s true: The best beekeeping day of my life was the day I caught a swarm on a farm in the country where my bees couldn’t stress out any humans who would then pass on their stress to me. Humans ruin everything.

The sound of a swarm in the distance should be exciting and fun for me (as it should for everyone), but it’s not. I’ve never fully recovered from the stress my neighbours caused me when they freaked out over one my colonies swarming past their back deck when I lived in the city. Although I live in a much more rural environment now, I have one particular neighbour whose kid’s swing set is not so far away from my beeyard. I single out the swing set because I imagine if my bees ever swarm, I know they’ll damn well land on that swing set — and I don’t know how my neighbour will react to that.

So when I came home after lunch yesterday and heard that oh so familiar hum that made me think, “Swarm,” I wasn’t 100% comfortable as I walked towards my beeyard. Would I find bees filling the air like in some ridiculous scene from the Old Testament? My thoughts were, “No, I’d rather not see that today, if you don’t mind.”

And I didn’t. I saw this instead:

That Twitter-compressed video clip doesn’t capture the scene well. Play it back in full-screen mode to get a better sense of it. Bees filling the air everywhere. (Fireweed seeds floating about too.)

I also saw this in front of most of my hives:

A borderline swarmy colony? (Sept. 07, 2016.)

A borderline swarmy colony? (Sept. 07, 2016.)

Some unusually hot and humid weather had all my hives humming. It was a collective hum that created the auditory illusion of a swarm. It made me think, “Not a problem!” It also made me think, “I’m not sure I want so many bees in a such a small space.” I have enough space for my bees to get along, but I’m beginning imagine what it’ll be like next summer when I have about half a million bees spread out over nine or ten colonies, all of them having a great time doing their thing — in a beeyard that could easily get slightly crowded if I let it.

I might move some of my hives to other locations or at least sell off some brood and knock them back a bit in the spring. My aim in beekeeping has always been quality, not quantity. I’d rather a calm beeyard, not something that can easily get away from me.

That’s one of the reasons why I recently stopped feeding my colonies that were started up from nucs in July. (Here comes a slight digression.) I’ve been feeding sugar syrup like most Newfoundland beekeepers do with nucs. But most new beekeepers will start nucs from bare foundation or foundationless frames, which means their bees need to draw out about 16 frames of comb and fill those combs with honey (or syrup) and pollen before winter sets in. Constantly feeding syrup under those circumstances is understandable.

In a 4-frame nuc with such a small cluster of bees, many of them nurse bees that aren’t going anywhere, having an artificial source of nectar right in the hive saves the bees the trouble of foraging for nectar so they can focus their immediate attention of building comb and rearing brood instead. Sugar syrup isn’t the greatest thing in the world to feed honey bees, but at least while they’re stuck in a single deep (and sometimes they are literally stuck in the hive for weeks thanks to cold and damp Newfoundland weather), that syrup, from what I can tell, gives them a huge boost. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that without constant feeding, most nucs in Newfoundland working on bare foundation or no foundation wouldn’t be strong enough to survive their first winter. As a test, I’d like to see someone build up a nuc in Newfoundland with no feeding of any kind, just whatever nectar the bees bring in themselves, and then compare it to a nuc that’s fed sugar syrup, though I doubt anyone would want to risk it for the sake of science. (But that’s another digression.)

At any rate, I’ve been building up my nucs with drawn comb this summer, not bare foundation, which means my bees don’t need to make any comb. They already have it. Yet I’ve fed them a constant supply of sugar syrup. Why? I have my doubts that any colony needs the assistance of syrup once it expands into a second deep with drawn comb. Each of my colonies that were started from nucs are packed with bees, more than enough bees to get the job done, the job being collecting nectar to make enough honey to keep them alive all winter. Every time I look inside my nuc-hives, they seem to be full of brood and plenty of honey too. I’m wondering if I could have put honey supers on them and gotten a fall honey harvest out them. It’s possible.

Either way, all of my colonies raised from nucs seem to be in great shape and they’re backfilling the brood frames in the top box too, which in a fully established colony often signals they’re getting ready to swarm. But at this time of year, it usually means the brood nest is contracting down into the bottom box of the hive, which is exactly where they usually go just before winter. The bees will spend the winter gradually eating away at the honey stored above them. So why should I continue to feed them, especially if the flow of nectar from Goldenrod and other flowers is coming on strong? I don’t know.

So I’ve decided to leave my bees alone at least until October. Let them bring in nectar and make honey on their own. I’ve heard of colonies swarming in the fall because they were constantly fed syrup during the fall nectar flow, so much syrup that the queen became honey bound and fooled the colony into thinking it was swarming time. I don’t want to deal with anything like that. That’s a perfect example of what I mean by things getting away from me.

So it’s no more syrup for my bees until October, and if they don’t have enough honey then, I’ll load them up with syrup and hope for the best. (End of digression.)

In the meantime, though, I still have one colony that has so many bees in it, I’ve been concerned that it could possibly swarm. It’s from the hive in the above photo (and the one below). It’s the only hive that I’ve put honey supers on this year. (I rebuilt my beeyard this year almost from scratch and I want to make sure most of my colonies have more than enough real honey to get them through the winter. So I’m only taking honey from this one hive.) I consider the chances of this colony swarming to be low because the queen is young, is in great shape, and had room to lay last time I checked inside the brood nest.

At least two frames of drawn comb (from recently emerged brood) in the top deep (the box with the duct tape on it), also known as plenty of room for the queen to lay. (Sept. 07, 2016.)

But after walking into my beeyard, catching wind of the omnipresent hum, and honestly feeling apprehensive at the thought of a swarm taking off, and then seeing how crowded this hive has been for a the past several weeks with nurse bees hanging off the bottom bars all the time…

Nurse bees hanging off brood frames in the bottom box.

Nurse bees hanging off brood frames in the bottom box.

…and seeing the bees constantly fanning the entrance even though the hive couldn’t be more well ventilated, as I demonstrated in this video clip on Twitter earlier this summer…

…and even fanning into the night…

A night shot of some bees ventilating the bottom entrance. (August 08, 2016.)

A night shot of some bees ventilating the bottom entrance. (August 08, 2016.)

…I couldn’t help but think, “I should probably tear open that hive just to make sure nothing funky is going on.”

I hate opening the hive of a colony that’s chugging along so beautifully. A hive crowded with bees doesn’t necessarily mean a swarm is coming. I knew I was riding the line with this one, though. It was packed with bees right to the very top, every single frame, including all the frames in the two honey supers, heavy just from the weight of so many bees. In my calm mind, I thought everything was perfectly cool. But my paranoid mind — the one that worries too much about humans and their reactions to things that are perfectly natural and entirely harmless — wouldn’t let me relax.

So I pulled off the top honey super (nice and heavy with honey just the way I like it).

Top honey super heavy with honey and bees.

Top honey super heavy with honey and bees.

Then I pulled off the second honey super (just as heavy, even better).

Then I pulled a frame from the edge of the top deep in the brood chamber. Solid capped honey, heavy as it gets. (I didn’t have time to take photos after this.)

The next frame was mostly capped honey and some pollen.

The third frame in was a brood frame with a big patch of empty cells in the middle from recently emerged brood — all kinds of room for the queen to lay.

The next frame was dark solid capped brood, ready to emerge soon. The frame after that nearly identical. Then I found another brood frame with a big empty patch in the middle — again, more room for the queen to lay. The frame after that had more empty cells as well. And no sign of swarm cells.

I love it when things work out the way they should. Seeing all that extra room inside the hive was exactly what I wanted to see. Even though the the hive is packed to the gills with bees, it’s well balanced. Just before the queen runs low on space to lay, large patches of capped brood emerge, freeing up space. Pollen and honey takes up space, but then is consumed during brood rearing, which again frees up space for the queen to lay or for more nectar storage.

Knowing when to step back and leave everything alone so that the bees can sort it out, and then to watch them sort it out so beautifully, everything timed so perfectly and in balance — and all of it without swarming — it’s one of the most gratifying moments for me as a beekeeper.

I put the hive back together, the bees calm and apparently none the worse for the experience, and felt totally relaxed. It was great.