In the Charlotte area, March is an interesting month. In the 34 March’s I’ve lived in the Queen City, we’ve experienced eight inches of snow, early summer conditions, floods, drought, and everything in between. This year, we experienced a new phenomenon that The Weather Channel referred to as “Marchuary.” In the Southeastern U.S., the average temperature for March was actually colder than it was for January. Br-r-r-r!
After having experienced brief intervals during January and February when the weather was warm enough for us to open up our hives and commune with the girls, March was devoid of all but a few warm days, and those all occurred in the middle of the week when I was unable to get time off from work to visit the girls. So it was the end of March before a warm day fell conveniently on a weekend so we could visit the girls. It was not a happy reunion.
Georgia Tech and Michigan were both still healthy, but they had lost the vibrancy we had seen just a month earlier, and it was clear that their populations had not increased the way they should have. The queens were missing. (In fact, if you will recall from our earlier post, “A Little About Our Journey – Surprises from the Bees“, there were two queens in Michigan. Both of them were gone.) And both hives featured an abundance of swarm cells–that is, queen cells, built on the periphery of the brood frames, that signal the bees are ready to swarm. These swarm cells were already sealed, with the new queens less than a week away from emerging.
To add to our frustration, the bees in the nuc had obviously failed to successfully produce a queen. Perhaps the larvae we had provided were too old. Or perhaps they had produced a queen, but with all of the cold weather, she had been unable to successfully mate. We’ll never know.
It would have been easy to give up on the girls. But we decided to make honey out of spilt sugar water. We took one of the frames with queen cells from Michigan and put it into the nuc. We were going to give those girls another chance to get a queen. With ready to go queen cells and warm weather on the way, it seemed a sure bet that not only would the girls produce a new queen, but that she would successfully mate.
The interesting thing about the bees remaining in the nuc is that probably none of them were the original girls we had brought in from the cold, and certainly none were their progeny. The girls remaining in the nuc were all children of Michigan. What had started as a rescue attempt for some lost bees in the cold of January ended up producing a new hive, a split from Michigan.
We closed up the nuc, along with Michigan and Georgia Tech, and waited for the girls to work their magic . . .
It was just a couple of weeks later, on a bright sunny day in April, that Marianne and I were out in the yard, preparing to plant our vegetables, when she happened to look up from her work and called to me. There, about ten feet off of the ground, encircling the trunk of a dogwood tree near our vegetable garden was a swarm of bees. Unlike most swarms, which form a tight protective ball about the queen, hanging from a branch, these girls had decided to wrap themselves about the tree’s trunk.
I quickly grabbed a ladder and donned my bee jacket and veil. Marianne fetched a five gallon bucket, bee brush and a spray bottle with sugar water while I got our spare nuc box and frames with fresh foundation. I climbed up the ladder, sprayed the bees with sugar water to keep them calm, and gently brushed them from the trunk into the bucket. I took the bucket of bees, and poured them into the nuc. Even with all of the bees I’d brushed into the bucket, many more had gone into the air, and were now settling back on the trunk. In addition, half of the bees were on the on the other side of the trunk, where I couldn’t reach them. So back up the ladder I went. I repeated this sequence about a half dozen times moving the ladder several times from one side of the trunk to the other.
Finally, it appeared that I’d gotten the vast majority of the new bees . . . and, I hoped, the queen. By the time I’d collected all of the bees, we realized this group was already to large for a little nuc. So I quickly moved them to a new ten frame hive, and gave them new frames with fresh foundation. Some of the new girls sat on the entrance to the hive, facing into the it’s entrance, fanning their wings, spreading the Nasonov–also known as the “come hither”–pheromone, to guide their siblings to their new home. Seeing this behavior gave us great confidence that we had been successful in capturing the queen with the rest of the swarm. So we closed up the new hive, which we dubbed “SCAD Dad”, and put it into our new apiary. (Our daughter, Hannah, just started college at the Savannah College of Art and Design–whose mascot happens to be a honeybee–this year, so we decided to name the next two hives in honor of her school: SCAD Dad and SCAD Mom. Marianne insisted this one be SCAD Dad since I did most of the work collecting the swarm.)
Not long after, we were back in the nuc and the other two hives. Georgia Tech’s new queen was going gangbusters laying eggs. A couple of weeks later we rewarded the girls with the opportunity to fill a couple of supers with honey.
The news for Michigan wasn’t so good. No sign of a laying queen. It was the beginning of a troubled year for Michigan . . .
The nuc had finally produced a queen. She couldn’t find enough space to lay eggs, so we decided to help. Time to move the girls from a baby hive to a full-sized one. We put them in a new box, adding new frames with fresh foundation, and moved it to the new beeyard. The result: A very happy SCAD Mom hive, sitting next to SCAD Dad.
This completes the story of our first year of beekeeping. But that doesn’t mean nothing remains to be told. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that there’s always something new to learn from the girls . . .
Interesting swarm stories and information: