Hiving a Swarm of Bees

Sometimes you get lucky and the bees just come to you. A bit of luck and a bit of planning is what it takes to make it happen. I walked out to enjoy the morning on a  lazy Sunday and discovered a swarm from a neighboring hive had decided to move in to a bait hive I'd set out on the cardeck. 

I use guidelines gleaned from the wisdom of Dr. Tom Seeley, who has studied bees for over forty years. He found that bees prefer hives that are approximately 1.7 cubic feet in volume and have a small opening, roughly the size of the smallest entrance for a commercial entrance reducer. It works best if you give them at least a single piece of empty comb. Better not to have honey comb in there, since other bees robbing will deter the scouts from choosing this as their new home. 

The last part is to use a chemical lure. Some use synthetic queen pheromone, but I use lemongrass oil, since it contains 4 out of 7 of the volatiles found in the queen pheromone.

Then sit back and wait for the bees to find you. 

I have been lucky so far as to have three swarms find my apiary this spring. The other two were my second favorite way to catch a swarm. They moved into the stacked equipment I have stored in the open under the car deck.  I store the supers this way so I don't get wax moths, and almost every year I get a swarm interested. 

The other way I catch swarms is to actually go and get them. I've caught three this year, though two were from hives I manage for other people. 

Catching a swarm is usually pretty easy, so long as they have landed in a place you can reach, and on a branch far enough out that you can shake it above a box. I prefer cardboard banker's boxes, since you can use the lid to catch stragglers. Just hod the box under, make sure you're ready for the weight of the cluster as it falls, and give the branch a good shake. The bees fall and you're supposed to catch them, and most importantly, catch the queen. If the queen makes it into your box, the rest will follow. 

This swarm was caught in a magnolia on a rainy day, so I put an old umbrella over them to help them dry out.

 

B-Code work in progress

I've been working for the last several months on B-code, a project combining my interest in studying bees from a scientific point, with the goal of learning how bees can adapt to alterations in their environment for collaborative art projects. 

For this first study, I built a clear hive body that fully encompasses a mature hive and utilizes a form most conducive to how a hive is shaped in nature: a sphere. Each flat panel allows the outside form to nearly disappear when photographed, and glare off the surface is further reduced by putting the light source inside the form. 

Each of the flat panels were formed by pulling flat sheets of PETG over plug molds in a vacuum. Then individual panels are clipped together so they can be easily removed and replaced. Hexagon panels are viewing panels, and the pentagons each have ports for entrances, feeder attachments, and ventilation. The whole form nests to a very small space once disassembled. 

The overall goal for this first iteration is to determine whether or not bees can successfully live in an all-plastic hive in the ambient humidity and temperature ranges my my lab. This is step one towards the final goal of growing collaborative sculptures, where I can manipulate the comb-building process enough to make forms that are truly unique. 

Results of first trial: Success. 

Expanding the Apiary at Bloomfield Farm

In November we added another six hives to the apiary at Bloomfield Farm. These hives came from my own apiary in Southern Marin, where I've been keeping bees since 2010. 

JB truck with hives in front of bloomfield farm's barn

Before we moved the hives to their new location, we had to unpack all the woodenware so we could move the hive boxes onto new stands with new lids. It felt like Christmas, only better, since this is the kind of thing I won't have to return the day after!

Hive stands from Country rubes. worth the price, with screened bottoms that can be closed, monitoring boards, and beetle baffles. 

It was the perfect day to move hives, cool in the morning and then warm and calm as the day progressed. I drove the truck down to the orchard where the four established hives waited, a platform empty and ready for six more hives to join the group. 

Awaiting the new hives

Everything goes as planned, moving the hives into their new locations. I took the time to do some inspections to verify that the hives were doing well, checking brood and resources. I'd also brought a few supers full of honey to supplement the two native hives that hadn't produced much over the dry summer. 

gorgeous, Healthy brood

Beautiful bee bread, made from pollen

The bees were looking very happy and healthy. The two images above were the bestest, boomingist of the hives, but most of the rest had begun to slow down brood production in preparation for the winter season ahead. In our warm coastal climate, its not unusual to have drones flying all winter long. 

When I chose the hives to bring up to Bloomfield, I made the decision to bring up my most favorite queen with the idea that this would be a good place for her to breed the following spring. She's an old queen, with a faded red mark telling me shes's from 2013. I've had some amazing queens from this old girl, and it made me a bit wistful to think she'd be so far away here in Bloomfield. 

When I opened her hive, I found tragedy had struck. When the hive had been moved to the new base, and all that was left was to shake the bees off the bottom board, I found my old queen, dead on the screen. 

The queen is dead

Its too late in the season for any of this queen's eggs to make a new viable queen. So I just had to suck it up, take a goodbye selfie, and get on with the rest of my work. 

A few days later I returned with a nucleus colony to provide a new queen for this hive. I made special introduction boards and have separated the two hives with a paper grocery bag. It takes some time for the bees to chew through the bag, and when they succeed, their pheromones will have mixed enough so they won't fight, making it easier for them to accept a new queen. 

nuc introduction

Long day, but by the time it was over, I have ten beautiful hives, side by side, ready to start gathering pollen and nectar from the eucalyptus blooms that had just started to open. 

Now we are ten

barn at sunset

Marla Spivak, one of my heroes, on the future of honeybees

Marla Spivak is a beekeeper and researcher in Minnesota who has ties to the Bay Area.  Our bee club has the pleasure of seeing her speak every year, and many of us are continuing to breed her Minnesota Hygenic bees with our own.  Her bees are selected for their resistant to varroa mites.  We love her, and love her message.  

This is the latest from Marla to CNN.com: 

http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/17/opinion/spivak-loss-of-bees/index.html?iid=article_sidebar

Make Beekeeping Free and Accessible! (Success!)

We need your help!  We need 500 people to sign our petition by June 2 to make beekeeping free and accessible.  The City of San Rafael is considering new limitations on beekeeping- imposing big permitting fees and tough restrictions for those who want to keep hives.  This is an important issue- as San Rafael is the county seat in Marin.  

The Marin Beekeeping Club found out about this issue only days ago, and there will be a hearing on the draft proposal in only a few days on June 2nd.  Among the worst of it, permits would be $389 per year, with a limit of three hives, and only in single family housing with a large plot of land.  In a nutshell, it puts socio-economic limits to who can own bees and who can't.  

Our nearest big city, San Francisco, has no permits and no regulations.  Here is what San Rafael proposes:

 

C.  Bees. Keeping of bees on residential property shall be subject to review and compliance with the following standards:
            1.   The bee-keeping use shall be limited to Apis mellifera (European/western common honeybees) and must be an accessory use to a single-family dwelling;
            2.   The property owner must sign the application consenting to the bee-keeping use on the property;
            3.   The applicant shall notify all adjacent owners and occupants of contiguous developed property of the intent to keep honeybees at the subject property, and shall provide proof of notification to the community development department, planning division.
            4.   The maximum number of bee colonies (hives) that may be kept per single-family dwelling shall be limited to two (2) colonies on lots that are ten thousand (10,000) square feet and less in area, and four (4) colonies on lots greater than 10,000 square feet in area.
            5.   Permit holders shall operate and maintain the bee-keeping use in accordance with recognized best management practices that provide safe and healthy living conditions for the bees while actively conducting inspections of colony(s) and avoiding nuisance impacts on surrounding properties and persons (i.e., managing and controlling colonies to reduce occurrence of swarms) and protecting the public health, safety and welfare.
            6.   The applicant(s) shall submit written evidence that they have obtained bee-keeping training, which shall be subject to the satisfaction of the community development director.
            7.   A convenient and adequate source of water shall be available to bee colonies on the property at all times.
            8.   Bee colonies shall be maintained in hives capable of inspection to determine compliance with these standards, and shall consist of moveable frames and combs. Hives must be maintained in a sound and usable condition at all times.
            9.   A bee hive box (colony) shall only be located within a fenced, private residential yard area generally located behind the residential dwelling unit. In no event shall a bee hive box be located less than ten feet (10’) from any residential property line and less than twenty-five feet (25’) from any dwelling unit on an adjacent property.
            10. A barrier of at least six feet (6’) in height consisting of a solid fence, wall and/or dense vegetation shall be installed and maintained between the bee hive colony(s) and all abutting properties. Fencing, walls and vegetation shall comply with the Fences and Walls regulations of Section 14.16.140.
            11. Hive entrances shall face away from the nearest residential property line(s).
            12. Bee colony(s) shall be promptly and properly removed if the permit holder discontinues the bee keeping use on the property.
            13. Bee keeping permits are issued to the permit holder at the specific location identified on the permit, and shall not run with the land. A new bee keeping permit shall be required for a new bee keeping use to be operated by an existing permit holder at a different location, or for a new permit holder to keep bees on a site that has been previously used for bee keeping.

So why the new fees and heavy restrictions?  Beekeeping has never been more difficult, more expensive, or more crucial to our communities than it is today.  We need to clear the way to encourage people to do their part, not impose fees and fines.  San Rafael isn't reacting to nuisance bees- in fact, there have been no complaints in the city.  

We in Marin want San Rafael to be more reasonable and adopt the same standards as San Francisco. From the SF.gov website: 

"Bee pollination plays an important role in agriculture contributing to productive crop yields and diverse ecosystems. Bee activity is addressed in two areas of the San Francisco Public Health Code to state that honey bees are not considered a wild or potentially dangerous animal and that honey bees are not considered a public health nuisance just because they’re bees.

San Francisco allows urban beekeeping without any specific permit requirements; however, bees can pose significant health and safety risks and urban beekeeping is subject to the law of nuisance and regulation by the Department of Public Health. Beekeepers must manage their colonies in a way that’s sensitive to surrounding areas and neighbors. If bees do create a nuisance situation, the Department of Public Health can issue citations and require mitigation of any hazard, which can include reducing the size of the colonies, moving the hives to another parcel, or requiring that all beekeeping operations in an area cease altogether."

San Rafael needs to adopt the same attitude.  Please take the time to go online and sign our petition to keep the practice of beekeeping free and accessible.  

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/758/713/229/beekeeping-in-san-rafael-must-stay-free-and-accessible/?taf_id=11283488&cid=fb_na#

Followup to this article: San Rafael is now a permit-free beekeeping city, and any problems will be handled by existing nuisance laws. Success, thanks to all who signed the petition and spoke at the city council meeting. 

Hive Extraction

Largest of two hives extracted

Largest of two hives extracted

This week I extracted two hives from one building project in Corte Madera.  I responded to a notification through the Marin Beekeepers Club that a new building project had hives that had moved into the unfinished walls.  I met Joe Clarke at the construction trailer and he showed me the place where the hives had taken up residence. 

We walked around to building four, where he pointed up to the base of the second story. Bees were happily flying about the entrance to their hive, located at the metal support structure that tied the second story balcony wall to the first story.  The second hive had taken up residence in the same manner just two apartments down in another balcony wall. 

The first step was to determine exactly where inside the walls the bees had built their hives.  While they are typically nestled between studs inside the wall, they sometimes can straddle a stud or be in more than one open chamber inside as their hive grows.  

Joe's crew quickly took up the task of drilling pilot holes new teen the studs to look for comb and bee activity.  At each hive they'd drilled at the base of two panels and again at the top to see the comb inside. Good news was they were easy to access from the balconies. 

Joe is cutting open the panel to expose the hive.  Notice the two bore holes to determine exact hive location.

Joe is cutting open the panel to expose the hive.  Notice the two bore holes to determine exact hive location.

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Joe had grown up with a hive of bees in his historic NY state home as a kid, so he personally assisted me by cutting away the wall panel so I could access the hives.  We decided on using a circular saw instead of a Saws-all, reducing the overall vibration to the hive and damage to the comb beneath the wall panel.  

 

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While Joe cut away the panel, I readied my equipment.  I'd brought with me three buckets to hold the comb, another full of wash water to keep my hands and tools clean and not too sticky.  I'd also brought my not-so secret tool- my bee vacuum.  

What's a bee vacuum, you ask? Just googling "bee vacuum plans" turns up dozens of homemade solutions for how one sucks bees into a vessel, and some are downright bizarre.  The big idea is to  gently pull bees from their comb without harming them in the process, and having them land in a place where they can be relocated into a hive.  

David Peterson of Ross showed me my first bee vacuum in person, and being that he is the most practical beekeeper I know, I decided that I'd use his plan to make my own.  This is the general idea. The end result being that you can simply remove the shop vacuum from the top, plug the hole in the bottom where the hose was attached, and the hive can be moved with no additional disturbance to the bees while en route.

Image subject to copyright, though vacuum idea is gratis for all. Not pictured here is a baffle, or opening next to the shop vac that can be opened wide or closed down, allowing suction to be adjusted lowest suction necessary. 

Image subject to copyright, though vacuum idea is gratis for all. Not pictured here is a baffle, or opening next to the shop vac that can be opened wide or closed down, allowing suction to be adjusted lowest suction necessary. 

The first of the two hives had taken up residence only weeks earlier.  The fresh white comb had not yet been filled with honey, and the queen was only just beginning to lay eggs. The combs were small and easily accessible inside the panel, and great place to start.  This is where I put my camera down and went to work.  

 

New comb in a young hive.  

New comb in a young hive.  

Needless to say, the first extraction took only a few minutes.  I was able to find the queen and put her in a queen cage for transport.  No comb was saved, since it was fragile and mostly empty.  

In the foreground you can see my bee vac all set up and ready to go. See the baffle on top that I'd mentioned earlier.

In the foreground you can see my bee vac all set up and ready to go. See the baffle on top that I'd mentioned earlier.

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Joe and I reassembled our tools at the second of the hives, where he repeated the process of cutting open the panel. 

This hive was much further along, having filled the entire space with comb.  I began first to suck the bees on the outside into the bee vac, being sure to get the guard bees first.  Next step was to remove the honey comb on the outside, placing it gently into a bucket with a honey gate to catch the drips.  Beneath the outside honey comb was the brood chamber, as seen in the next image.

This is really cool.  The bees covering the top left corner and through the center are nurse bees, and beneath them you can see a bit of the worker brood, made of eggs and larvae.  The light yellow cells are capped larvae that are pupating into adult bees.  On the outside edge of the brood comb, on the lower right corner the cells are puffed out, and those are capped drone larvae.  Drones are the  male honeybees.  

This is really cool.  The bees covering the top left corner and through the center are nurse bees, and beneath them you can see a bit of the worker brood, made of eggs and larvae.  The light yellow cells are capped larvae that are pupating into adult bees.  On the outside edge of the brood comb, on the lower right corner the cells are puffed out, and those are capped drone larvae.  Drones are the  male honeybees.  

It was beautiful to see a feral hive in its entirety, with the brood in the center ringed by pollen and then honey.  Once again, I set my camera aside and concentrated on gently removing the hive.  I patiently sucked the bees into the vac, as more and more poured out of hiding to cover the brood nest.  I must admit, it can be a bit overwhelming unless you calm yourself and concentrate on one task at a time.  

 Once the bees were mostly in the vac, I began cutting the comb, one piece at a time.  The most important thing to remember when pulling out the comb is that it can be very heavy, and the weight will destroy the comb if the pieces you cut are too big.  Later when I get back to my apiary, I will cut the comb again to fit into empty comb frames, so I make my pieces approximately the size of my frames.  I carefully brush the bees off the brood comb and into a lidded bucket before placing the brood comb in its own bucket, stacking the pieces so they don't crush one another and air can still flow to most of the brood inside their comb.  

The idea is that when you return to your apiary to finish the job, you will have a bucket of just bees, a bucket of just honeycomb, and a bucket of brood comb.  This keeps things simple, keeps bees from drowning in their own honey, and makes sure the brood is safe too.  Its tough to catch a queen when there are so many bees, and she may not survive the process, no matter how carefully you do it.  Saving as much brood comb as possible ensures that if a queen is lost, they can rally and make a new one from existing eggs in the brood comb.  

Back in the apiary, the vacuum hose attachment becomes their entrance for the first few days until they can be moved onto a real bottom board.  

Back in the apiary, the vacuum hose attachment becomes their entrance for the first few days until they can be moved onto a real bottom board.  

Time is of the essence, and one must work quickly so ensure the survival of the hive.  It took approximately two hours to complete the task of removing this hive.  When the wall panel was free of wax and bees, we quickly covered the buckets and moved them into my truck along with the two hive boxes and the rest of the equipment.  The buckets need to be kept out of the sun so the wax doesn't sag and melt.  

The next step is to place the hive and buckets where they will live in the apiary.  I placed this hive on an old beat up stand with free space next to it so I could work on getting the comb cut and set into the hive.  This ensures that when the bees reorient themselves, the will be able to locate their own hive and not get lost.  

Comb is placed on empty frame as template and cut to fit. Frames are preloaded with rubber bands to secure the comb

Comb is placed on empty frame as template and cut to fit. Frames are preloaded with rubber bands to secure the comb

I worked quickly to cut the comb and place it onto the hive.  Brood needs to be kept warm to survive, and eggs must not dry out.  I preload frames with rubber bands before I begin, and use a flat surface to work on.  

Bees will begin immediately to attach the comb to the frames.  

Bees will begin immediately to attach the comb to the frames.  

As each frame was filled with comb I placed it in the hive, ensuring that nurse bees would make a beeline for their babies and begin setting everything back in order.  The bees will set to attaching the comb, and then they chew away at the rubberbands, until they fall to the bottom of the hive. 

Fast forward example: Bees have attached comb to frame.  Most of the brood survived, and the bees were able to make emergency queen cells from surviving eggs. 

Fast forward example: Bees have attached comb to frame.  Most of the brood survived, and the bees were able to make emergency queen cells from surviving eggs. 

Ouch, poor hive!

Ouch, poor hive!

This image is from a hive that I rescued two weeks ago.  Poor bees had taken up residence in an owl box that was never designed to hold the weight of so much honey.  I got the call after dark, and couldn't get there until the next morning.  Even so, the hive survived and went on to make a new queen, with a little help.  The frame image above is from their hive.  

 

 

 

Once all the brood comb was placed in the largest of the two extracted hives, I took a step back and evaluated my setup.  Its very important to feed the bees with pollen and honey or their equivalent as quickly as possible.  I didn't have any sugar syrup prepared, so I started by giving the largest of the two hives some chunks of honeycomb in the top above a queen excluder in an empty honey super. Below the queen excluder, just on top of the brood frames I dribbled pollen substitute.  

Two days later the comb is almost empty of honey as the hive feeds itself.  

Two days later the comb is almost empty of honey as the hive feeds itself.  

Both hives settled in their new home, it was time to take a break and eat lunch.  I also made the sugar syrup, a 1:1 ration of sugar to water to stimulate wax production.  Then I set to evaluating the smallest hive.  First I released the queen from her cage and marked her with a green pen for 2014.  They didn't have enough bees to fill out all the frames of a hive body, so I placed a follower board in and made the space smaller so they can begin to draw comb and keep the place warm. Keeping the hive as small as possible is important so they can regulate their environment and concentrate on recovering.  First day I fed both hives my sugar syrup.  By the second day I'd extracted the honey from the comb and fed it back to them.  They'd already consumed all the sugar syrup- a good sign.  I normally don't feed bees honey back to them this way unless its a situation like this with an extraction and lots of honeycomb.  

Pollen substitute and honey fed to the bees.  Note follower board just to the right of the feeder to limit the hive size.  

Pollen substitute and honey fed to the bees.  Note follower board just to the right of the feeder to limit the hive size.  

In the next few days I'll check in on the larger of the two hives to see if I got the queen, and when I do I'll move the hive onto a real bottom board.  I'll be monitoring regularly to feed them until they've drawn out ten frames of comb, at which point I'll let them continue on their own.  



Nucs for sale

This week I sold another round of nucleus colonies, this time to a good friend and mentor Arthur Baker, who is expanding his number of apiaries in Marin and Sonoma counties.  

Among the sites for my bees is Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, founded by the brilliant and lovely couple Mimi and Peter Buckley.  Arthur's new hives will start by visiting the fields of vegetables that will be sold to local restaurants and markets, and next spring will pollinate the apples for feeding their beautiful pigs. 

from Front Porch's website, "We grow our produce to order for local chefs and knowledgeable grocers who share the same passion for flavorful, old-time varieties, ones that need a bit more love and attention than the commercial hybrid types." 

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Arthur was interested in locally adapted genetic stock for his hives.  My hives did a terrific job through the winter despite our summer drought, and after the spring honey harvest I split my strongest and divided and requeened my least desirable hives. As with every year, for my queens I select bees exhibiting signs of varroa resistance, hygienic behavior and a propensity to propolise, plus even temperament and good honey production.  

This year I added to my apiary the genetics from Sue Cobey's Caucasian bees, via friend and mentor Volker Ackermann, who let me in on learning to graft queens in his apiary and then gave me several beautiful queen cells for my own hives.  I can't leave out Robert MacKimmie, the guy in the photo, who was also there to show me how it's done.  

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Arthur's new queens are a mix of my own stock and the Caucasian lineage, and I wish them all well in their new homes.  It's a very satisfying feeling to hand those cardboard nuc boxes off and see them loaded in the truck.  ictured in the photo is Robert MacKimmie, expert beekeeper, inspected his grafted queen cells.