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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Three in the Hive is Worth One in the Bush…Or Who Am I Kidding?…

swarm cellsShortly after noon yesterday I was agonizing over an ongoing carpentry project out back when I heard that all too familiar crescendo of sound, the drone of insects, honeybees, thousands of them taking flight. As they fled, the bees were easy to see, back dropped as they were against the dark foliage of the walnut tree, each insect a glint of silver as the sun caught its wings.

I have seen countless swarms of bees in flight but the sight of a  horde of honeybees lifting into the air, a reverse vortex of sorts, a “bee”nado, impresses me still.

I have come by three new colonies this season: “freebees,” I call them. Two I hived myself'. The third flew in from somewhere and hived itself in a catcher hive. Of those three swarms one may have come from one of my two strong colonies, but I doubt it; I noticed no significant drop in population in either colony and flight to and from the entrances did not seem reduced. No question, however, about yesterday’s swarm; it  issued from a hive I’d nursed all winter by feeding sugar boards (two-three pounds of granulated sugar piled around the vent hole on an inner hive cover…seven sugar boards, to be exact).

A week ago I removed a super of maple honey from that hive and while the smoker was still fuming, checked the brood chambers for eggs, larvae, and capped brood. What I found on the bottom bars of the second box, dangling there like small thumbs, were a dozen or so swarm cells. At that point I made a snap decision: not to cut out the cells and discard them but leave them alone to twiddle away. My decision? I was planning on requeening that colony later this season. Allowing the hive to requeen itself saved me the $33.00 expense of  a new queen. The bees, in their infinite, instinctive wisdom would choose the most promising queen cell for their successor, and I would have a young, vigorous queen at work for this season and at no cost. The hive would first have to swarm. Then most likely it would settle in my walnut tree or cluster in another tree nearby… easy to recover, easy to hive. Seemed, at the time, a good plan….

The humming cloud hovered in place as more and more workers issued from the hive, taking flight, joining the air show. Soon the sky was alive with bees, a mass of insects aimlessly treading forty feet of airspace. Yes, aimlessly. Until the queen and her locator pheromone started the whole ball rolling.  Then almost imperceptibly the swarm began to shift position. Whoa! Wait a minute now. North?   No, not north…north, toward the property line?  What are you thinking? “Oh, no,” I thought, “they’ve filed their own flight plan.”

Bee lore has it that swarming bees can be coaxed to settle if someone (the beekeeper?) clanged and banged pots and pans together, a method this beekeeper has yet to practice. Too late to experiment now,  however, run to the kitchen, scoop up cookware, as by this time the swarm had already cleared the hedge bordering the property and like an alien horde hovered in whirling stasis over the neighbor’s roof.

When the queen alights, her court clusters around her immediately. In less than a minute the observer knows where the swarm will gather. Five minutes later the swarm has formed and clings to that spot, held there by their queen magnet. Now what once were my bees clung to a branch of an evergreen tree just off the neighbor’s deck—twenty-five or thirty feet off the ground, so high up, I couldn’t photograph them for this post. Definitely in the “no climb” zone for this beekeeper.

This morning I took my pair of binoculars, stepped through the hedge into the neighbor’s driveway (Unfortunate timing on my part. Just as I was lifting the binoculars, the neighbor’s daughter stepped out on her way to work, prompting an extemporaneous explanation as to why I was so close to their front room windows carrying a pair of binoculars). The bees still hung on high, clustered tightly together for warmth after overnighting out of doors. “A swarm in May is worth a ton of hay,” and as the bag of bees swung back and forth through the lenses, I felt a keen sense of loss--as if all the mechanics and engineers from Boeing had walked off the job at once without notice. No workers, no product, no profit.

A cool day today, and this afternoon I wandered back across the neighbor’s driveway expecting to see the swarm still huddled on the branch, but it was nowhere to be seen; only a half dozen laggards hovered about the abandoned branch, misled by their mistress’s lingering perfume.  Bees, I know from experience, are just a flight away from being feral; wild creatures have their own mysterious ways of doing things, and honeybees are no exception. You don’t own them; you only tend them for as long as they allow.

Thinking the swarm might have shifted position, moved closer to the trunk,  thus harder to see, I went for the binoculars again to make certain they had fled. Sure enough they were gone, leaving a new queen behind, and me with a memory and a reminder of a plan gone awry, of all the sweetness that might have been….

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