Tuesday, October 4, 2011

September Swarm

Photo by Shane VanOosterhout

   On September eleven my honeybees swarmed.  I got the news from my father who casually mentioned something about seeing a "bee house in the trees."  Vaguely worded, but I know how to decipher.
     "Which trees?"  I asked, a sick feeling in my gut.
     "The pines."
     "Which pines?  We have lots of them."
     "By the chicken pen."
      I walked outside to discover a few thousand bees settling on a pine bough eight feet off the ground.  I felt dishonored -- they could have at least waited until next spring to pioneer.  After all, I had given them a deluxe home, hand built from cedar, covered by a pitched copper roof. 
     People say honeybees swarm when their hive is crowded. My hive was half full.  As I lamented the hubris of my bees I recited from memory an old nursery rhyme: 

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
*A swarm of bees in September
Will be dead by December.

*Last two lines author's addition

    I photographed the swarm, then consulted my library of beekeeping materials.  Could I intervene and save these feckless bees from their suicide mission? 
     Fortunately, swarms typically linger in one spot for several days while scout bees check out the real estate. The next morning the swarm remained intact, swaying gently like an enormous flower bud on the end of its stem.  
     I severed the pine branch and dumped the cluster of bees into a tall plastic container.  After knocking off the last bees I laid the branch across the top of the container and closed the lid, leaving a half inch space for the bees to come and go while collecting pollen and nectar. They buzzed in baritone.  Some of the guard bees flew in defensive loops around my head and chest as if to say, "I have my eyes on you, fella."
     For seventy-five dollars I purchased a nucleus box made from pine, and two pounds of fresh pollen cake. (If you are wondering, yes I sampled the sticky amber-colored pollen cake -- it tastes subtly of flowers). The bars in the nucleus were treated with pure lemongrass oil, an odor honeybees find irresistible, as do I. 

Photo by Shane VanOosterhout

      When I transferred the bees from the plastic container into the nuc I was amazed to discover a yellow crescent of honeycomb hanging from the branch. Nearly a foot in length and four inches at its peak it had been fabricated in only five days.  In the warmth of my hand, liquid honey made almost entirely of fresh pine sap and emergency sugar pooled on my fingers, which ended up in my mouth.  Pine flavored honey is an unexpected delight.
      Happily, the original colony seemed to recover nicely from its sudden population decline.  A new queen successfully established -- although I have not yet seen her -- thus keeping the hive from falling into chaos.  Guard bees are actively kicking out the lazy male drones and ruthlessly fighting off mercenary fall yellow jackets that occasionally invade the hive to steal precious honey.
     The nuc is also doing well.  Even after several frosts there is an ample supply of pollen on my property due to my expert gardening and cultivation practices.  A wealth of golden rod, asters and native perennial sunflowers provide the foraging bees enough pollen to take to the nuc, their hind legs stuffed with bright yellow balls of powder, the magical stuff of life.


1 comment:

Bees-on-the-Net said...

Bees often do things which beekeepers don't expect. A lot depends on where you are, I'm in San Diego and I've collected swarms on Christmas Eve, which makes no sense!