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An open-air colony in a pear tree

I have an open-air colony in my backyard, something I never expected to see. Ever. But why a swarm of bees on the wet coast of Washington would elect to build a home in a tree is inconceivable. It’s also kind of hare-brained, I think.

One month ago, at the end of May, I wrote about a colony that threw three swarms in a week. One landed in a Douglas-fir and the next two selected opposite sides of a nearby pear tree. After a few days of bad weather, all the swarms sorted themselves out. Two ended up sharing one top-bar hive, and I managed to capture the third swarm and place it in a Langstroth.

Not the end of the story

Fast forward to one week later. I was working on my computer when I heard the familiar sound of a swarm on the run. When I got outside, a fourth swarm was issuing from the same hive that delivered the first three. Crazy, right? And, of course, the swarm choose the same pear tree that had been so popular the week prior.

The swarm was high—as they always are—and this one was quite a distance from the trunk of the tree, out where the limbs are skinny. It also wasn’t very big, which isn’t surprising considering it was the fourth swarm from one hive. I watched it settle, tried to photograph it, but I didn’t pay much attention over the next few days because of the weather.

You can just barely see the comb under the nascent colony of bees. The bees are high up and far from the tree trunk.
You can just barely see the comb under the nascent colony of bees. The bees are high up and far from the tree trunk.

Swinging in the wind

Rain and wind pelted those poor bees for a whole week. I didn’t think it unusual because nearly every year I have a swarm in a tree for a week of rain. It seems like standard operating procedure.

On the first sunny afternoon—day eight—I was clearing lunch dishes when I announced my intention to check on those bees. Just as I walked through the back door, the swarm rose from the tree and began heading south in the direction of two bait hives I had placed up the hill. I watched for a while, hoping to follow them, but they stalled over the garden, milling and cavorting but not going anywhere. I waited impatiently for them to do something, but finally I had to leave the house on an errand.

A colony in a pear tree

When I returned, the bees were in the process of re-grouping in the pear tree. That was when I noticed a small snow-white comb hanging from the branch where they had spent the last week. From my vantage point, it seems like there was some type of disagreement, as if the bees couldn’t decide what to do. Either that, or the queen decided not to follow the swarm. In truth, I have no idea why, but they were slowly—reluctantly, it seemed—coalescing on the little bit of comb they had built.

That was three weeks ago and the bees are still there today. They have built much more comb and seem to have settled in. Still, I think they won’t last much longer. The knot of bees is much smaller than it was and the weather has not been great. I can’t see very well, even with binoculars, but I do know that more comb is showing because there are fewer bees to cover it.

A numbers game

In a small swarm like that, the numbers are brutal. They spent a week in the tree before they tried to leave, and now it’s been three more weeks—a whole month. If they had a queen, I don’t know if she managed to mate. If she did, I don’t know if she laid eggs. And meanwhile, natural attrition is eating away at the small colony. I keep hoping they will recover, but I know their chances are slim.

In the meantime, the mother colony doesn’t seem strong either. There is a fair amount of activity at the entrance, but nothing like my other colonies. I shouldn’t be surprised since I split the colony in the weeks before it lost the four swarms, nevertheless I was hoping for a quicker recovery. Still, the split and the other swarms are doing great, so it’s been a net gain.

The longer I keep bees, the less I understand them. What a humbling experience they are.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Open-air colony in a pear tree after about four weeks. You can see more comb but fewer bees.
This is the colony after about four weeks in the tree. More comb is showing, but there are fewer bees every day.

Comments

Peter Borst
Reply

Hi Rusty

Nice story. One time I was at a Tom Seeley book signing and he described the decision making process a swarm goes through while “bivouacked” like this. When there is a unanimous choice of a home, they break cluster and go. I asked him if it was possible that a swarm stuck on a branch like this simply couldn’t break a tie between two good sites. Yes, he said, that is possible! (Grinning slightly).

Pete 🐝

Rusty
Reply

Pete,

That’s so interesting! Now I feel vindicated. They really did seem “confused” about what to do, and they loitered over the garden for more than an hour, but I didn’t know what to make of it. It’s too bad really. I would have loved them to choose one of my bait hives or at least go somewhere safe.

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