Four Hives at the Orchard

Well, folks, it’s been an exciting year so far.  The Dow Gardens orchards started with 2 hives this spring with very mixed progress including one dying out from disease (read previous entries to understand that saga). Only the queen from that hive remains as she was added to a split we made.

However, a peek at the hive stand would show any visitor that there are now four hives at the Orchard!  How did this happen?

Hives (from left to right):  T, unnamed, E and D.

The first hive (on the left), which is affectionately called T, is home to a golden queen who is ruling a small split that we made from our strong hive. They’re just getting started now but egg-laying looked promising this week!

The second hive (currently unnamed) is a monstrous three-story hive that is the result of a split we received from a former student (Thanks, Kathy!). It has been bringing in nectar all year, but we are waiting for them to raise a queen. They are nearing a tipping point where we would need to intervene by introducing a new queen ourselves. We just passed the one-month mark, and have decided if we do not see egg laying in our next inspection we will introduce a queen ourselves.

The third hive is housed in a nuc box.  It’s the result of a swarm we collected from a friend’s soffit.  We are calling this hive E, and although it is queen-right we haven’t seen her laying eggs in her new home yet. The full story on this hive awaits you later in the blog…

The fourth strong hive (we are calling it D) is the growth of a package we bought this spring.  After the summer rain we experienced last week, they pushed toward swarming with queen cells.  We choose to do a reverse split, taking the queen and a small amount of work force into a nuc and allowing the mother colony to raise a new queen. This maneuver has proved successful for us in the past to effectively control the swarming process and be responsible beekeepers. Both the nuc and the split are doing well, keep your fingers crossed that they successfully raise a good queen!

And now for the rest of the story… How did this swarm capture come about? 

Debbie sets a nuc box as an alternative for the settling swarm.

On June 1, Debbie received interesting messages from a friend. Upon investigation, her friend Allison had noticed a small number of bees entering and inspecting a small hole in her eaves. While this wasn’t a swarm size group of bees based on the initial photo, Debbie responded immediately and upon arrival found herself in the middle of a swarm flying, landing, gathering, and entering the cavity above Allison’s front door.  Debbie placed a 1-story nuc up near the swarm with the hopes they would enter. 

The Dow Gardens Bee team assembled…Debbie called in Elly and her husband, Charley. Charley, an electrician, helped us to remove a porch light that was near the cavity and we got to work.  Unfortunately, the bees had found the soffit more suitable than the nuc box and they were out of easy reach for vacuuming. We put our heads together to create a plan. Relying on Charley’s height, we rigged the 1-story nuc on a ladder pressed into the opening with the hope we would force all bees to enter and exit through the nuc box. At this time, we placed empty frames (a combination of drawn and undrawn) to allow the bees desirable space to settle. We also baited the box with a few drops of fragrant lemongrass oil. Our intentions were to add a frame of brood to lure the bees, especially nurse bees who take care of brood, from the cavity to the enticing location. 

The next morning, Elly and Tyler visit the house with crossed fingers hoping the bees have easily moved into the box and we can walk away with a captured swarm!  Not the case.

The open nuc box shares a cavity with the soffit to hopefully entice the bees to move down to a ready-made home…no need to draw comb.

We added a frame of brood from one of our hives, which gives off brood pheromones to attract the bees down into the nuc and anchor the bees in the box. We retrieved a frame of eggs and brood of all ages. The young brood will be open for around a week. We successfully installed brood into the box, but found that the bees are outsmarting our setup and entering and exiting around the box rather than going through it. So, we worked to tape up crevices around the box trying to force them through our nuc.

Elly and Tyler work to seal all points of entry forcing bees through the box.

We decided it was good strategy to leave the bees undisrupted through the weekend.  The enticing brood pheromone would call the bees down into our irresistible nuc box, and out of Allison’s soffit!

Unfortunately, this idea did not work. We returned Monday to see the bees outsmarting our setup YET AGAIN and flying out newly discovered entrances in the roof!  We took the box down to inspect the frame of brood. Our small 1-frame of bees had about tripled so we were succeeding in drawing bees from the cavity into our box.  Unfortunately, the most important bee, the queen, was nowhere to be seen and likely still located in the soffit. There were bees successfully flying in and out of the nuc entrance, and bees successfully flying in and out of the roof.  We relied on Tyler’s height to examine the roof and exclude any entry points with duct tape.

Vinyl tunnel from cavity to our nuc box.

A few days of this went on, plugging holes and attempting to force bees through the box. One day we decided a cavity space with the frames may be important so we added a second story to the nuc box with an absence of bees. In hindsight, this was probably a misstep because it did nothing to help the process along!

We then decided to make a concise tunnel that forced the bees from their cavity into the nest. So creative Tyler got to work fashioning a vinyl tube to connect the nuc to the nest. This again, was an unsuccessful attempt to move the bees from their space to our box. At this point we are concerned the bees are getting a little too comfortable in their space, so we begin to attempt to remove them with a vacuum! We didn’t really understand where the bees were inside the cavity. They had gone into a tiny crevice on the far end of the soffit and seem to be settled into the roof space above the brick wall. We checked the garage side and roof side for clues as to where they may be settling, and possible access points, but we’re unsure. When we use a flashlight and peek into the cavity we saw the cluster of bees approximately 6 inches inside the entrance.

Trap out cone in action.

June 7th was the big day.  About 1 week after the swarm settled, we got to work with the vacuum. Our bee vacuum is a simple design of a 5-gallon bucket-style vacuum with a hole designed to temper the suction as to preserve the live bees. We tried it with special nozzles and positioned every which way only to reach very few bees. We did suck up all returning foragers and force those bees to join their sisters in the nuc, which felt like progress, but without the queen we couldn’t say we had succeeded. The problem with this is that once the queen starts laying eggs and rearing young in the soffit, the battle is over, we lost.

Next up we decided to rig a trap cone.  If we cannot force the bees out, we can at minimum exclude the returning foragers from joining the troops.  Again, Tyler’s creative side showed, as he fashioned a cone of window screening with the goal of the bees escaping but having trouble finding the way back in. This worked for 1- day, but then the bees outsmarted us and wiggled their way into the cone.

At this point we are beginning to wonder who is the higher life form based on how any times they had ‘outsmarted us’. We felt defeated and questioned whether we could successfully get the queen from the cavity. We had thus far done a great job siphoning workers from the hive into our trap box, but a good core number of bees along with the queen were acting as a functioning hive inside the wall.

Allison, all along had been very interested in the bees. She and her husband Neal had set watch over nights, had reconstructed the trap cone, and worked to seal new entry holes as the bees discovered them.  Allison had shared this story with the world on her social media—Thanks Allison, we shamelessly stole your photos to help tell our tale!

We are grateful for Allison, especially as we approached the climatic ending of the story where (spoiler alert) Allison emerged as the hero!

We were ready to give up on the bees. The queen didn’t want to move into our luxurious accommodations, and we were starting to include the word exterminate in our conversations. We all agreed that getting the bees from the space was the primary concern, as the homeowners did not want sticky honey and comb in their walls. So, we decide to set the vacuum up for Allison to periodically remove the foragers who would bring back nectar. We removed the nuc box. We considered briefly a second brood frame and new fresh enticing trap, however, decided that it’s time to simply vacuum all the bees that we can. Tyler work on it for a few minutes, and Allison kept the vacuum.

Throughout the day Allison sent me photos of the numbers she was gathering with the vacuum. At one point, she noticed a large cluster rush out from behind the gutter. The bucket had a large number of bees. We returned to collect the bees and we poured the captured workers into the nuc box we had set. 

The queen settling into her new home at Whiting.

The next day we inspected that box. To our surprise, Allison had successfully captured the queen! We suspect the noise and stress along with significant reduction in returning workers caused the entire colony to abscond (try to find a more suitable home). Allison was at the right place at the right time and captured the queen. Tyler successfully photographed her upon inspection, and we are currently waiting for the queen to lay eggs. It has been around 1 week since we settled her into the nuc, which is a reasonable waiting period for a queen to begin laying again.  She’s small and dark and had a stressful couple of weeks, but we are hopeful she will enjoy her days at the orchard.

We returned to Allison’s home one more time and she happily reported very few straggling bees remain. She shared that she and her husband intend to seal up the cavity with the help of a contractor, understanding the risk this can happen again.

Allison, Elly, and Tyler smile after their success!

We returned to Allison’s home one more time and she happily reported very few straggling bees remain. She shared that she and her husband intend to seal up the cavity with the help of a contractor, understanding the risk this can happen again.

We are so grateful Allison stuck with us with patience as we worked to extract the hive. And in hindsight, knowing Allison would play such an active role in working with the bees we should have left a veil to help her have appropriate PPE. Fortunately, none of the players in the story were stung, and the bees also suffered very few casualties. Thank you, Allison and Neal for this opportunity!