28 July 2018 – Overcast, rainy, and highs in the mid 60’s
July has been crazy. It seems like we are working all day, every day, as haying season just keeps slogging along. This is an unusually humid summer in the Black Hills, and the weather really is the main factor when baling and putting up hay. If you bale wet hay, it can cause all kinds of problems for cattle. If it is clover hay (which we have in abundance this year) it can mold and create the same chemical used in blood thinners, such as warfarin. Obviously, this is not great for cows, especially if they are pregnant. Another potential problem with wet hay is that the moisture can cause a little growth inside the tight bales, and this friction can be enough to start a fire. This is not something we want to deal with in the new barn!
The result of the hot and humid weather is that we can’t start baling usually until late in the afternoon, when the wind has picked up and humidity has dropped. So most mornings, Dave and I have kept busy moving rocks from around the barn.
Or we have been getting firewood.
Or we have been herding cows from pasture to pasture.
Or we have been weeding the garden.
Oh yeah, and we also have been catching rebellious bees.
One morning, after working in the barn, I was walking back to the house around 10AM and I heard a noise that was comparable to a freight train. I looked up at the trees in front of the beehive and I saw a giant, black cyclone of bees! The bees were swarming. After they swarmed, they landed on a branch in a nearby tree, about 7 feet off the ground.
This was quite alarming to me. As a novice beekeeper, I thought my bees were gone for sure. I immediately called one of my bee-friends and she gave me some advice. She asked if I wanted to keep the bees, and I said YES! She said I could catch them in a box, and then rehome them in a new hive. The problem is that I didn’t have an extra hive just laying around, but she said I could keep them in the box for a few hours, long enough to drive to Rapid and pick up a new empty beehive.
So here is what went down. (Unfortunately there are no pictures of this as there was a big sense of urgency to get the bees caught. Also, there were no other random photographers on the Holler that wanted to get close to the bees!) I got a big cardboard box and a step ladder and placed them out by the tree with the swarm. My friend had told me that the swarm rarely stings as they are not protecting brood or honey, only looking for new digs, so they would not be very aggressive. Regardless, I put my whole bee suit on and headed out to catch the swarm.
I placed the box as best I could judge under the ball of bees. Then I climbed the ladder and grabbed the branch the bees were lodging upon. I jerked it downward as hard and fast as I possibly could and a very large portion of the bees fell into the box. It sounded like someone dumped a box of marbles in the box and I was super excited about accomplishing this…..for about a half a second. Then, all the bees that were jerked out of the tree flew into the air in a tidal wave of angry buzzing! They went back to the branch, and I repeated the process of jerking on it three or four times until I felt the majority of the bees were in the box. I closed the lid and changed out of my bee suit and made a bee-line (haha) to Rapid City where I picked up a new hive at the local supply store.
I imagine some of you reading this are wondering why the bees swarmed in the first place. In my minimal experience, I am not really sure, but everything I read indicates that the hive was overcrowded. This is really a good thing, as it indicates the colony is quite healthy. The hive becomes so full of bees it is uncomfortable, so the queen takes most of the bees out in search of new living quarters. I should have realized this was about to happen, as I noticed some swarm cells in my previous hive inspection. The colony prepares for the queen to depart by preparing to make a new queen for the remaining bees, and they make distinctive, peanut-shaped swarm cells in which to hatch a new queen. I could go on and on about all the things I really don’t know about bees, but this would be the never-ending blog post. I have to quote one of the favorite things I heard from a beekeeper when discussing colony behavior, which is, “I doubt the bees are reading the same books we are!”
I returned from Rapid City and re-donned the bee suit. I picked up the box of bees, which I estimate weighed 15 pounds or so, and did all I could to dump them into a new hive. I set the cardboard box next to the hive and hoped they would all find their way into their new home.
The next morning, I went out to check the progress, and those dang bees all moved out of the hive and back into the cardboard box! What the heck? Obviously they can’t stay in a cardboard box for a South Dakota winter, so I visited the bee guru, aka. YouTube. I discovered a solution to get them back into the hive.
I made a ramp from the box of bees to the hive using a piece of cardboard. Then, I took a bed sheet and tucked the corners up into the hive entrance. Next, I dumped the box of bees onto the bed sheet. Believe it or not, the bees sent out some scouts that walked right up the ramp into the hive and after about 30 minutes, all the bees were out of the box and in the hive. Thank you, all wise and knowing YouTube!
So that was enough drama to make a bee movie… ha ha. The next week I wanted to check the status of the original hive and I was hoping to harvest a ton of honey since honey crowding can be a condition that causes the bees to swarm. Unfortunately, I only had about 4.5 frames of honey capped and available to harvest. Dave and I garnered about ¾ of a gallon, which was six pints and some change.
It is the clearest and most delicious and fresh honey, I am told. Personally, I don’t care for honey but I haven’t been able to train these bees to make chocolate or wine.
To end all the bee drama, two weeks later I opened both hives. They both appear to be doing great. The new hive, which I am referring to as B-plus, has tons of bees and obvious signs of eggs and larvae. I added a new deep super and another medium super to give them some space. They are also busy making honey so they can make it through the all too fast approaching winter.
The original bee hive, which I am referring to as B-minus, had no clear signs of a queen, but tons of honey. There were also a ton of bees, so I gave them another medium super. I dug through every single frame to see if I needed to add a new queen, but I was so excited on the 2nd to last frame in the bottom box, where I spotted the new queen. All hail the queen!
If both hives survive the winter, I will have been lucky enough to gain a second colony for free! The lesson I learned is not to immediately assume the worst when unexpected things happen. I saw the bees swarm and I immediately cursed it as a bad thing, but it turned out to be a really great thing. Actually, the swarm was an outstanding event that pushed me way out of my comfort level and left me with a new colony of bees. Life is good!