Lonely Superorganism ISO Single (unmated) Lady

Now that’s a title for the press!  We’ve had a whirlwind spring and neither of us have found the time for writing a blog entry, but we sure have invested time in beekeeping!  Both the gardens’ hives and our personal apiaries are buzzing!

Summarizing what has happened the past few weeks into interesting tidbits, is challenging. It is so much!

Old Friends: Our friends, Allison and Neal, came to visit a couple of weeks ago.  If you recall we interrupted a swarm as it moved into the soffit at their home.  Since the swarm had already settled on their soffit as a suitable new home, it took several attempts over multiple weeks to retrieve the bees. After capture, we successfully rehomed them to Whiting and even more impressive is the small hive made it through the winter!  As we inspected with Allison, we did notice a few larvae that seemed to have died in development – a potential sign of foulbrood.  Since we had EFB (European Foulbrood) in our apiary last year, and conditions were right to give them a course of antibiotics (no supers on the hive yet), that is the way we went to prevent spreading or a heavy infestation again this year.  At the end of last season, we made a plan that if we saw signs this year, we would ‘shook swarm’ ALL hives in this apiary (that is shaking them all onto new equipment to get rid of the bulk of the pathogens). Unfortunately, since spring was early and the number of hives has grown so drastically, we are no longer in a position to do that.  We have 5 hives at Whiting and 10-20 frames in each hive.  We did briefly consider shook swarming just this hive, however decided to treat it with antibiotics instead.

Allison took a selfie of Allison, Elly, Debbie, Tyler visiting the DG hives located at WF orchard.
Photo credit to Allison for capturing the queen from her swarm.  One year post extraction this is likely the only remaining bee we moved.  But all workers are her daughters!

 Swarm Season:  Yes, swarm season is upon us – in fact it has been for quite some time. We have been working hard to prevent swarming in all hives that successfully overwintered, both in the orchard and personally.  Starting in April, we have been managing space by adding supers and additional stories. In a hive, when we find charged swarm cells (a new queen in process), the strategy we like to utilize is to take a reverse split.  This in effect can simulate a swarm. We find and remove the queen, take worker bees, resources (honey and pollen), and space for her to lay. We try to minimize the amount of open brood going with her.  We then leave the bulk of the hive in place and give it more room in the form of a honey super, so the bees don’t backfill the broodnest before a new queen emerges and starts laying. The honey flow has been gangbusters this season, and this has been an issue in some of the hives we manage. Sometimes a hive like this will be broken down into smaller hives if it has a large population. We have agreed that inspections are easier with only one-story brood boxes. This has allowed us to take advantage of the early spring weather and the quick population build up in these strong overwintered hives to make multiple splits and grow the number of hives.

This has resulted in us having MANY hives. There are currently five hives sitting at Whiting. Take those hives, plus Debbie’s, plus Elly’s…  and we are over 40 hives this season!  Yikes!  Have I mentioned I feel like 2024 is one for the record books?  We have high overwinter survival, early and strong nectar flow, quick build up, and many swarmy hives that we managed in such a way to increase our numbers.

Swarm Captured:  While we work diligently to prevent swarms from the hives we manage,  we have also responded to one swarm in the community so far this year.  We like to capture swarms for the genetic diversity added to our apiary, and also to help prevent swarms from going into soffits in the community.  This particular swarm was out in the Bullock Creek community.  It was a Friday.  I got a call to collect a swarm and we were racing a storm.The swarm was hanging about 25 feet in the air in a maple tree.  So I grab a ladder, a cardboard nuc, 5 undrawn frames, a rake, some extension saws, and 2 guys looking for an adventure!

This couldn’t have gone more smoothly!  Three sharp minds, 2 tall guys, and some luck on our side, we had the swarm in the box in around 30 mins!  We taped a cardboard nuc box on a cultivator, sent one tall fella’ up on a ladder to hold the box under the swarm, and then position a second tall fella’ with an extension saw to knock the branch downward dislodging the swarm into the box. On the first blow we got the majority of the bees.  And we noted most bees that were returning were going to the box and not on the branch.  This is a good indicator we got the queen.  However, we did take a final swing to dislodge as many remaining bees as possible. We had approximately 85% of the adults in the box and we left explaining to the resident that those few stragglers would dissipate over the next few days.  We no-more-than got down the road and he was texting indicating the remainder of the swarm moved on!  This is a greater reminder that time is of the essence and that with swarms; scout bees are out looking for ideal cavities.  If they find one the momentum to move is on, and it’s hard to change that.

We set the cardboard nuc at the Dow Gardens apiary.  The swarm wasn’t huge, and we chose to anchor it in place with a frame of brood from another hive.  Unfortunately, when we were pulling this frame of brood we noticed charged queen cells! The adventures continue…

2024 the year of increases:  A hive with charged queen cells means an inevitable swarm, so we have to do something to manage this hive.  At this point we are running out of equipment!  Dow Gardens has limited frames, no more nucs, etc.  We consider digging out a Snelgrove board to control this swarm.  However, decide to pull a reverse split to simulate a swarm as described above.  So here we go now again with a 6th hive on campus!  We will allow this queen to go through the process, which we will mark 1-month on the calendar before we inspect for successful requeening.  In the meantime, we are giving them an extra super because the nectar is coming in by the bucketful and we are trying to minimize backfilling as the current brood emerges.

Presenting Queen Dean the Great:  Well, since a rookie staff member, Dean, was up for the adventure of collecting the swarm, we decided to affectionately name the captured swarm Queen Dean.  Interestingly, we did not see any signs of a queen in this inspection, however we did see a freshly emerged virgin queen and a freshly opened emergency cell.  Either we didn’t get a queen with the swarm, or bees didn’t seem to like her!  Today (5/28), 11-days post capture we inspected the swarm and are grateful we added that frame of brood so they had the resources to raise a new queen.  We do see the swarm doing what swarms are programmed to do, which is draw out wax on undrawn comb!  We also see nectar coming in and honey being capped. 

Another previous split we made early in the year was 100% honeybound with a queen just finishing up the requeening process.  We decided to remove a frame of honey (no bees), give it to queen dean and give her room, and to complete that story today we confirmed that was the right choices as she is laying a beautiful pattern and had just a couple capped brood indicating she’s been laying a little over a week.  Successful split!

OK, but Queen Dean (QD), leaves me pondering a mystery.  On the frame of brood we used to anchor the swarm, we saw emergency cells that were made and already emerged!  There were 4 of them, all flapped open.  The mystery is did we not get a queen with the swarm?  Was it an afterswarm with a young queen?  Do they not like their queen?  Either way we suspected a young queen to be in the hive, mating, etc.  We did see her today.  But quickly reassembled the hive after confirming they had room.  We are marking the calendar 2 weeks, to allow QD to mature, mate, mature eggs, start laying, etc.  I am really trying to wrap my head around the process of mating flight and queen rearing this season.  And reading a book by Adrien Quieny, the point that stuck out in my head is interrupting the requeening process after emergence but before they begin rearing brood results too often in the bees panicking and killing the queen!  So for now we’ll peek for room, but largely trust the process for 2 weeks.

Queens Galore:  So a favorite technique I have relied on the past few years for managing spring growth includes using empty deeps from deadouts to give strong overwintered hives room early in the season.  This year it was midApril.  Any hives that died, I would perform a quick autopsy to confirm no signs of brood disease and an absence of mice, and then roughly clean up the boxes and stack them atop any hives that overwintered strong that I was concerned for early swarming.  I am especially mindful of giving this space to hives of my favorite genes based on temperament, ability to build up, memories of the low mite counts, and honey production.  So come early May, I have some behemoth 3-story hives that are potentially bursting at the seams, but hopefully I have prevented early swarming in.  I then begin to monitor for swarm cells, which this year even my weakest hives built up fast and hard and necessitated swarm control.

Break down 1 or 2 stories of the behemoth hives to create nucs is a great way to repopulate/grow an apiary.  I also keep my eyes on the calendar as swarming hives raise new queens.  This year I collected virgin queens from hives in the requeening process.  We would confirm the first couple had emerged, and then look for intact queen cells with a sort of flap chewed in the capping.  Tyler and his keen sense of hearing listed for piping queens. Together we harvested more than a dozen beautiful queens from 3 locations of our favorite genes and made splits.  Personally, the number of hives I manage started with 11 coming out of winter and now sits at 36!  This is primarily due to that technique, and a focus on raising more bees and less honey.

So if you’re reading this blog because the title grabbed your attention, now is the explanation!  Assembling strong nucs with food, room, brood, and lots of bees is a good strategy.  They will, of course, raise a queen of their own if you give them eggs or young larvae.  But I believe that working with bees natural biology works best, and that swarm queens are the best queens!  We worked with the natural spring build up and the natural swarming process and expanded our personal apiaries.  We could have chosen to queen those nucs with purchased queens or queen cells.  But after a little trial and error, my favorite method is to use queen cages stuffed with marshmallow and introduce virgin queens to well packed nuc boxes for splits in spring.

Last year, 2023, was a reality check for both Debbie and me.  As I have grown my apiary I have purchased bees over the year.  There have been years where I came out of winter with strong enough hives to split and repopulate and didn’t buy bees.  But there were also years when I was too distracted with a young son and didn’t stay on top of mite control or winter prep, and just banked on buying bees in the spring.  After years of realizing I didn’t always love the new genes, and only having so much resource to build up from my small number of bees… we took a big leap and pledged to no longer purchase spring bees!  Honestly, I feel like we learned the hard way last year as we bought bees with EFB that it is important to us to manage our bees our way.  With the exception of perhaps wanting specific genes or early queens, we are moving forward hopeful to embrace sustainable beekeeping practices.  Yes, we took this to an extreme this year!  (Did I mention I started the spring with 11 hives and now manage 36?) 

Both personally and at Whiting am no longer orienting towards all spring hives being honey producers and playing around more with raising queens, making splits, managing nucs, etc.  It’s been eye opening and a fun year for this flavor of growth!

And cheers to the Dow Gardens apiary where we now host 6 hives (for now) in the Whiting Forest orchard!

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