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The Year of the Swarms: A Beekeeper’s Diary

It has been a challenging year for all, bees included. As you’ll see through Victor’s notes, some of the bees were feeling cooped up and went to settle elsewhere. I noticed more bees buzzing around than the previous year, and they were crankier than usual. They could have easily swarmed in the tall trees just above their hives, and I searched for them, but there was no sign of them anywhere on the property. Read on for Victor’s diary from this past year:

A Beekeeper’s Diary

by Dr. Victor Lewis

Winter

In February, still in the dead of winter I went to do a quick check of my bees for signs of life and to make sure they didn’t need emergency feeding.  A very quick look, revealed to my relief the three hives I had going into winter were all still alive and the sugar candy I had made for them was still abundant.   I didn’t return for a real inspection until a warm day in mid-March and found to my great delight all 3 hives were in great shape.  In spring and summer a worker bee lives about 6 weeks but bees born in the fall survive through the winter.  Late in the winter the queen begins to slowly lay eggs.  The hive population which reaches a nadir of maybe 10,000-15,000 bees in February starts to climb as new bees emerge in late winter and early spring.  Population growth in a healthy hive is exponential as bees transition from winter to spring and then early summer.  A strong hive may have populations of over 80,000 bees at their peak.  

Management of hives strives to have the bees reaching a high population just as the major nectar crops come into bloom.  The brood, developing bees, requires a lot of care and so it takes a large number of bees to nurse the expanding brood nest not to mention foraging for nectar and pollen.  Once a honey flow begins it takes a large number of bees to gather the nectar.  A bee’s stomach is the size of the head of a pin and to fill her stomach once a worker has to visit many flowers, yet a strong hive can make several pounds of honey in a single day during a good honey flow.

Spring

With 3 strong hives early in the spring, at those early visits, I had visions of a bumper crop.  At a visit in early to mid-April I considered adding honey supers, boxes for the storage of honey,  but decided against it at that point.  An error that cost me.  The biological unit of the species Apis melliferra or Honey bee is the colony not the individual bee.  For the species to survive the colony need to divide and form a new colony in addition to the old.  For the bee keeper this is the dreaded swarm.  When a colony anticipates running out of room they make preparations to swarm.  They will prepare queen cells which will give rise to a new queen.  When the new queen is near ready to hatch from her capped over cell, the old queen and a significant portion of the bees, take flight all at once usually alighting in the branch of a tree or some object they can hang on to.  They then send out scouts to search for a new home, often a hollowed out tree, occasionally the space between the inner and outer walls of a house.  They then get to work in their new home.  Meanwhile the old colony, with a now greatly reduced population, awaits their new queen and carries on.  So much for that colony reaching 80,000 bees.

When I returned in the very beginning of May the hives were boiling over with bees.  I immediately added several honey supers but alas it was too late.  Repeated swarms issued from each hive, with hive populations cut by half my dreams of a bumper crops quickly faded.  Although the hives were able to hang on and produce enough honey for their winter needs as well as a small surplus it was far below my initial hopes for the year.  Oh well, as Red Sox fans are prone to say, “wait until next year”. 

Thank you Victor for all you do! Even with these challenges, we learn so much about bee behavior through you. In the end, many bees remained and they made plenty of delicious honey to share. A sweet reminder that there is always a silver lining. Wishing you all peace and prosperity for the New Year.

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