After a few years of beekeeping, it’s natural to assess a colony and predict what will happen next. But this year, as so often happens, I totally misread a colony that lives in my backyard. Twice. Or more, depending on how you count.
Last fall, during a pre-winter inspection, I checked all my colonies for honey stores. They looked good, and I thought each had plenty of food. Nevertheless, I provided each colony with a no-cook candy board as an emergency backup. The colony in the backyard ate through the candy right away, so I gave it some supplementary sugar patties. Two weeks later I went back with more sugar, but the patties were untouched.
At that point, I used my infrared camera for a more thorough check, but all I could see was the faintest red glow. The image reminded me of the last embers of a dying campfire, still slightly warm but destined to fade. After shooting pictures from all four sides, I decided the colony was history. In November, I strapped it down and stopped adding feed.
As the winter progressed, I monitored my other colonies on a weekly basis, but I skipped the backyard hive, figuring I would clean it out in spring. I never went near the backyard hive until one day in early February I noticed two little worker faces peering through the entrance. At first, I thought they were robbers, but it wasn’t warm enough to fly. Curious, I popped the lid only to find the sugar cakes missing.
Building them up
It was the weirdest thing. I briefly lifted the candy board and peered between the frames, but I could see no bees. None. But I added a candy cake and decided to see what happened. Five days later it was gone. I added three more, and they disappeared. Someone was feasting for sure, but who? And where?
I added that hive back into my weekly feed check and kept giving them more. After a couple weeks, I added pollen patties which disappeared as well. By late March, bees were boiling out of the entrance. Within that six-week period, my smallest colony (which I called my dead colony) became the biggest.
By early May, I knew my dead colony would swarm. As a proactive swarm-control measure, I split the colony in two, taking the top box and placing it atop another stand in a different location. As of yesterday, it’s doing great and is expanding into a second brood box.
But did that stop my dead colony from swarming? Far from it. On the following Monday, I heard a ruckus and saw a swarm leave the hive and land about 35 feet up in a Douglas-fir tree. On Wednesday, as I was working in the garden, I saw a second swarm leave the hive and land in the upper branches of a pear tree. On the following day, as I was photographing the swarm in the pear tree, a third swarm left that hive and landed on the other side of the same pear tree. Then it rained for three days and three nights.
Who gets to live where?
On the first sunny day following the rain, my husband said, “I think you have bees in your top-bar hive.” The thing is, my top-bar hive had gone empty last fall. After living there continuously for ten years, the colony had succumbed. When I went through the hive last fall, I could find no sign of disease or indications of varroa, and I was able to harvest many jars of honey. I think they most likely died of queen failure, although I will never know for sure.
In any case, I planned to demolish the hive this spring because it is ancient, falling apart, and in the densest shade you can imagine. As I’ve mentioned before, that hardiest of hives receives zero hours of direct sun per day, which is why the entire thing is rotting and falling apart. The legs are getting wobbly, too, which worries me.
In any case, when my husband reported bees, I looked and found, yup, bees. I went back to the swarms and couldn’t find the fir-tree swarm, so I think they moved into the top-bar hive. I didn’t see them move, but that’s my best guess.
We ate lunch together, and then I left to check on the pear tree swarms. Just as I walked outside the first one rose from the tree and headed northwest. I followed them as they crossed over the house and began circling the newly occupied top-bar hive. They began to go in—some actually made it in—but they stopped. After a while, I saw them in the bed of the pickup, on the tailgate, and covering one taillight. Later, I noticed they had gathered together on a low limb directly over the tailgate. Amazing! Easy pickings.
Hiving the swarm
Hiving that swarm was the easiest thing I ever did. The truck was parked right next to the top-bar hive and I think the swarm became confused when it found the hive already occupied. I don’t know if bees get confused, but that’s what it seemed like. So when they gathered to re-group, they settled on a low branch that was right next to the top-bar hive and over the tailgate. Sweet. I clipped the branch and put the bees in a box, not losing a single one.
I installed them in one of my Langstroth bait hives that was ready to receive bees. Twenty minutes later, a few were orienting, and it seemed like they would stay put. As of that moment, I still had the dead hive plus three others: the split, the top-bar hive, and a second backyard hive. So cool.
A popular hive
Later that afternoon, I was sitting on the tailgate watching the top-bar hive and wondering why it was so popular. I was also trying to guess how two swarms had gotten their wires crossed and tried moving into the same hive. I’ve seen it before—two swarms vying for one swarm trap—but it’s always surprising.
The top-bar hive has always been popular, which is especially surprising considering its location. My theory has always been that it’s inviting to bees more than beekeepers, which is probably its best feature.
Now the weird thing
As I was sitting there contemplating, I heard a familiar sound. I turned around to see the second of the two pear tree swarms coming over the house and heading right for me. I couldn’t be, I reasoned, so I crossed into the field beyond the tree line, hoping to see where the swarm was headed. But it didn’t cross the tree line. When I went back to find it, it was circling the top-bar hive. Unbelievable.
I watched them circle, hoping they would pick a low-hanging branch like their predecessors, but they didn’t. Instead, they accumulated on the top-bar hive and began marching in. At first, I saw a bit of fighting, but very little. Within forty minutes, it was all over. One colony had moved it with another. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.
So many questions
Did each of these three swarms independently decide on the top-bar hive as their next home? It seems unlikely, but if they did, why didn’t they make a last-minute check to see if it was still available? Maybe that’s a human concept, and bees just assume the space will still be unoccupied when they show up.
Furthermore, why did the last swarm decide to just ignore the previous tenants? Lots of people say usurpation is more common than we think, but seeing it is mindboggling. And who gets to be queen?
At any rate, things are calm now. Everyone seems busy and the blackberries are soon to burst forth which means work will preempt house hunting. But it was fun, even if it presents more questions than answers.
Honey Bee Suite