Monthly Archives: March 2015

That’s a 2-Cat Swarm!

Swarm season can be an exciting time of year if you are adept at catching bees.  We’ve seen and captured a lot of swarms over the years… some with quite a bit of effort… and some with unsatisfactory results.  So far this year, we have had the easiest time yet.  Here are three different 2015 swarm stories and we are only one week into the season!

Last year, after simultaneously getting konked on the head with a pair of limb clippers while jumping off of a 6 foot stepladder and getting rained on by angry bees, I was determined to find a better way of catching swarms.  With some research I found that bees swarm first and make a game plan second.  Seems a little risky to me, but that’s what they do.  Once they cluster on a branch they send scouts to find a suitable home.  These scouts measure the volume of a potential place and report back to the cluster.  They like the volume to be close to that of a brood chamber, which is the large wooden box at the bottom of a Langstroth hive.  See this post for hive components.  Besides measuring for volume, they tend to like places that are about 6 feet off the ground and at the edge of a wooded area.  Facing a meadow or open area is a nice touch as is an aroma of lemongrass oil.  (I’m not kidding)  They also like the potential nesting place to be dark, so a solid bottom board is a must.  They also prefer to make their honeycomb on a 45 degree angle, so placing an older frame with comb on it in the box on an angle is attractive to them.  I put a reducer at the entrance too, so the bees can be sure they can defend themselves once they move in.

Swarm-05 So, with this new knowledge, I put up a bait hive with the aforementioned parameters this Spring.  Our very first swarm was spotted about 30 feet in the air on a pine branch, so there was no way we could have reached it without a bucket truck.  I watched it all day to see what would happen… The bait hive was within sight of the swarm cluster.  I noticed a few scout bees at the bait hive at first and then I noticed that there were bees going in and out of the bait hive, but the swarm was still in the tree.  At one point I was convinced that another swarm had already moved in and the swarm I had been watching was going to be out of luck.  As it turns out those bees must have been busy sweeping before the queen arrived, as all of a sudden the swarm cluster broke apart from the tree branch and disappeared, then it reappeared on the bait hive and all the bees funneled in!  That was rather exciting, and I must say was a lot easier than the ladder fiasco.

Swarm-48I mentioned that honeybees swarm first and think second.  On this next swarm, I’m sure the decision to swarm on the morning of a thunderstorm, was not popular.  You can see in this next photo that the bees are clustered on this tiny pine tree and practically touch the ground.  The bees are soaked with rain, and we probably would not have even noticed them had we not walked right by there.  It’s debatable whether this swarm or the bait hive swarm were easier.  On the bait hive, we carried the whole hive to where we wanted it and just set it on it’s cinder block foundation.  On this wet swarm, we placed a few pieces of plastic foamcore on the ground and then clipped off the tree at the base.

Swarm-56We placed the entire swarm, still intact, in a cooler and carried that to its new Langstroth hive home.  It was easier to carry than the bait hive just because it was lighter.  Once at the new box, we placed this entire swarm inside – branch and all – and left them to dry out.  We had never dealt with a wet swarm before, so we weren’t quite sure how to handle it.  Experience has taught us that the less traumatic the transition is, the better for everyone involved.  Here is a picture of placing the branch inside the box.  No protective gear was required since they were all drenched with rain.  They soon dried out, and we’ve removed the branch, added the remaining frames and all is well.

Swarm-47On this third swarm, we were a little skeptical when we got the call.  There had been bees in this particular house before and it was an extensive removal some years ago.  Not wanting to tackle anything that entailed ripping out walls, we asked a bunch of questions over the phone like, are the bees flying in and out of a hole or are they just sitting there?… How long have they been there?  How many bees do you see?

Well, really, have you ever tried to count bees?  It’s difficult to picture just how many are in a cluster.  What looks like five thousand to you may look like 10,000 to someone else, so beekeepers usually measure swarms in “cats”.  Yes, cats.  Now, I know that cats vary in size, but that’s what we do.  We compare the size of the swarm to how many cats it looks like.  It’s not rocket science, so a good ballpark reference is way better than a guess.  A 1-cat reference is clearer than saying, “Oh, I dunno, maybe 35,000.”  Most swarms are 1-cat.  A 3-cat swarm is a whopper, and the lady on the phone said without a doubt that this was a really large 1-cat swarm. Yep, definitely one cat.  She was rather fascinated by the way we measured and it wasn’t until we arrived that I understood why she found the cat reference profound.  When we got there, we were happily surprised to see that it was a solid 2-cat swarm, maybe even 2-cats and a kitten!  After looking at it for a minute, it was astonishing to see the definite outline of a cat.  No wonder she was so sure it was a one cat swarm!  Can’t argue with that.

RabbitEye Farm is a guest contributor for the Chattahoochee Valley Beekeepers Association bee-blog.

Queens and Brood Chambers

brood weak hive get new queenOnce the weather begins to warm, beekeepers need to check their hives all the way down to the bottom board.  It’s a big task and requires taking the hive boxes completely off of the hive to inspect them.  There are many reasons to do this, but the main reason is to see where the brood cells are in the hive.  Brood cells are the cells where the queen has laid an egg that will hatch a new baby bee.  These look totally different from honey cells.

The queen lays eggs (brood) in a pattern.  The number of eggs and the pattern in which she lays them can tell you if she is strong or weak.  Weak hives may have lost their queen and need to get combined with another hive, or be re-queened.  Re-queening is where the beekeeper introduces a new queen. (You can buy them on the Internet, or from another beekeeper that raises queens.  A hive can also make a queen, but they need brood to do this.)  One queen per hive.

In this picture, you can see a queen box on the lower side.  This introduces the new queen slowly giving her the best chance of being accepted.  The box is like a tiny cage with a sugar candy doorway.  The bees eat their way through the candy, which may take a day or two.  By that time, they have become accustomed to her scent and treat her as their own.  This is common practice, but is still cool to do and cool to watch someone else do.  Hopefully the new queen will lay lots of eggs in a tight pattern.

swapping brood chambersThe queen isn’t usually easy to find.  Most of the queens in our hives are not marked and are barely larger than the other bees.  We track her presence by looking at the eggs and the pattern in which they appear.  The queen only moves UP through the hive frames and not DOWN.  They are positive thinkers for sure!  Anyway, this trait would mean that the queen would eventually move up and get into the honey supers.  Beekeepers want to keep the queen and the brood at the bottom and have only honey in the top boxes.  This is critical for honey production. The way they accomplish this is to swap the two brood chambers.  The brood chambers are the two larger boxes at the bottom of the hive.  See this earlier post to learn about the parts of the hive.  If the queen has moved up into the second brood chamber, the beekeeper will swap the two so that the brood chamber where the queen is (and the brood), changes to the bottom one.  The queen will eventually move up into the second brood chamber and he will do this swap again at a later date.

Fruit Trees, Bud Break and Dormant Oil

fruit tree sprayed with dormant oilDormant oil is a type of spray used on fruit trees while they are in their dormant stage (Winter).  The purpose of the oil is to suffocate over-wintering insects and/or their eggs that hide in the nooks and crannies of the fruit tree bark and end up damaging the fruit.  Many growers spray more than once during the dormant season, but they want to get as close to bud break as possible with their last spray session.  They also want to spray on a day that the temperature is above freezing for at least twelve hours, and preferably twenty-four hours without rain.  The desired effect comes from the physical property of the oil (suffocation) and not a chemical property (insecticide).  The entire tree must be covered with the spray.  Since it doesn’t take a lot of oil to suffocate a tiny insect there is less oil in the “dormant oil” spray than you think.  It’s mostly water.  A common ingredient in dormant oil is Neem oil, which comes from the tropical Neem tree. It’s organic and has some anti fungal benefits as well.  I chose to use something more native to our area, however, and mixed my own version of dormant oil using peanut oil.  There are many recipes on the Internet, but the basic elements are mostly water (1 gallon), some oil (1 cup), and even less liquid soap (2 Tbs.).  The soap acts as a surfactant since water and oil don’t mix.  I used a brand of soap that was fragrance free (Seventh Generation) because my biggest concern with any type of spraying is its effect on our honeybees.  With no fragrance, there would be no attraction, and also with the time of year being late Winter, the bees are not out foraging yet.  Cinnamon has some anti fungal properties and is included in a number of recipes, but it will clog your sprayer, so it’s better to leave it out. You will need to shake the sprayer often to keep everything mixed.  Do not spray if the tree is beginning to bloom because the blossoms will not be able to be pollinated, and you will have no fruit.  In mid Georgia, it is getting late for spraying plum and peach trees since they are usually the first to bloom.  You have a little longer for apples and pears.  Please don’t use a chemical insecticide.  Honeybees are one of the first things affected by insecticide, and if there are no pollinators… you guessed it, no fruit.