Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bees at the Kentucky Shaker Village

On a recent trip in May to the lovely restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, I observed all manner of livestock: chickens, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys.  It occurred to me, as a beekeeper, to wonder if there were bees about.

Sure enough, during a morning stroll we found a couple hives in the apple orchard.  One hive was dead and empty, but the other seemed to be perking along quite nicely.

I don't know if the original Shakers had hives next to these apple trees, but I would like to think that they did.  I am fairly certain that someone kept bees there...for the honey to sweeten their food, and for the bees to pollinate their crops.

The Shaker's version of an assistant beekeeper, on the wall behind the hives.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Who Says You Can't Go Home Again?

During my picnic lunch on the back porch today, I watched the hive on the right swarm for the third time in two weeks.  Half the hive swarmed and departed, presumably with the original queen, two weeks ago Sunday.  Another football sized cluster went up in the pine tree on Thursday of this week and then departed to their unknown destination.

Today's swarm spiraled happily while I ate lunch (sort of like a golden snow globe, or an insect tornado), spinning in the air a long time before settling in the way tippy top of a black locust tree up above the hive.

They are way, way up there in that tall tree to the left.  No stress on me, since they were obviously too high for any rescue efforts.

So, I continued about my day, hanging out in the back yard working on projects, occasionally checking on the cluster.  After three hours, I heard the sound of the swarm on the move.  They spun around in the air, up in front of the pine tree, down closer to the yard, up around the pine tree, down closer to the yard.  I was hoping they would just chose to move into the small, empty hive we'd chucked back in the corner for just that reason.

The little empty hive is there on the cart.  The tall hive that produced the swarm is to the left.

More bees swirled in the yard, then more, until the whole swirl was down around the original hive.  The assistant bee keeper suggested that they had changed their mind and were going home, and I, expert that I am, insisted that bees NEVER go back home when they swarm.

And just like that they started landing on the hive they'd left three hours earlier.

They clumped around the entrance and several started putting their little fannies in the air to release the "this is home" pheromone.

And then they marched right back in the hive.

Needless to say, this led to googling and internet research.  We found many bewildered dialogues and conversations, all expressing the same slack jawed astonishment we felt.  The expert bee keepers said, "Yes, this happens, and you'd better split that hive immediately or they'll swarm again tomorrow."  The theory is that something happened to the young queen that accompanied them...or maybe she stayed home to do her nails.  Anyway, without a queen, they gave it up.


We did split the hive.  There are queen swarm cells in both the original hive and the new little hive.  Hopefully they will just get a healthy queen going without feeling the need to go up in the trees.  There are brood frames in both hives, and we have a super of uncapped honey on each.
We also moved the empty super that had been at the bottom of the tall swarmy hive to the top to give them room for packing away more honey.
Not wanting the "stay at home" hive on the left to feel left out, we poked around in it and robbed them of a super of honey.  We extracted five frames of beautiful, dark honey.  Pictures of the honey to follow.
Still stunned and now rather sticky from the honey, but wow, what a day.


Friday, June 3, 2011

A Sunday for Swarming

I walked out the back door on my way to Sunday lunch a couple weeks ago, and the air around the right hive was full of bees.  They were erupting out of the hive just as fast as they could go.

On the bright side, none of these thousands of bees had stinging on their minds, so I could walk right out in their midst and take pictures.

Unfortunately, it is somewhat like photographing the Grand Canyon.  Pictures don't quite capture the scope of the thing.

 I recommend clicking on these pics, particularly the green one above, for more of a view of the bees.  All those brown dots are bees swarming.

After a while they pick a spot, this time in the black locust tree, and they begin to gather.

More and more bees collect, until the whole group that has moved out of the hive are clustered around their queen.  They will stay here until the scout bees convince them to move on (or until the beekeepers come and either annoy them or convince them to be captured.)

At this point in the story, we were still hopeful of capture.

Here's the whole cluster...tens of thousands of my bees, up in a tree.  We suited up, got all our stuff and shook them out of the tree, but instead of falling neatly on the blanket and marching into the hive, they dispersed in the air, reclustered on the branch, and then headed off without us.

There are still bees in the hive and a new young queen.  This is how bees reproduce themselves on an organizational scale.

But it is a bummer for the beekeeper.
Click here for a more successful swarm story from a previous experience.