Thursday, June 14, 2012

Splitting the Hives

It's been a while since we updated you on the bees, so for those of you who are curious about how our lovely little honey-makers are doing, read on!

At the beginning of the season, which started here very early thanks to unseasonably warm weather, Garrett feared a swarm. Now, it's perfectly good and normal for a hive to swarm every year (sometimes more than once) and it's an indicator of a healthy, vibrant colony. Of course, if you're a beekeeper, you stand to loose your bees if they swarm and leave your hive, so it's important to watch for the signs and to set a swarm trap or split your hive manually (to force the swarm on your schedule) before the bees do it themselves. That way the beekeeper keeps his bees, and can decide how many leave the hive. Plus, as was the case for us this year, splitting one colony can allow the beekeeper to populate a new hive or two with the same bees. This works especially well if the beekeeper has good-tempered, productive bees (which we did).

This year Garrett split one of his larger hives into two smaller hives. To do this, he pulled the queen from the mother hive (the big one to be split) on a cool day. There were already lots of other swarm cells in this hive. Swarm cells are just new queens, and these cells are just waiting to be hatched. The first queen to hatch kills the others and leaves the hive on a mating flight to find drones. Once she's mated she returns to the hive and begins to lay eggs, which is how the new hive becomes established. By removing the existing queen to another hive, and leaving the healthiest, fattest queen cells (killing the others), Garrett stopped the mother hive from swarming and spurred the new cells into action.

(As a side note, the extra queen cells that need to be killed are actually worth money because people like to eat them for their purported health benefits. Well, some people. They are called "royal jelly" and Garrett actually did eat these cells himself, explaining to me that it's a beekeeper's secret as to how they taste. Since I didn't try them, I can't say for sure, but I've noticed that he's not running out to eat more. Smile.)

Once the new hives were populated with their new queens we had to feed the bees. Garrett makes a solution of sugar and water that the bees can eat while they are establishing their new colony (they have to draw out the foundations on the frames with beeswax and then they can start to fill them with brood- baby bees).  Giving them the sugar water solution helps to keep their energy up while they work, and usually increases their productivity because they spend less time finding food and more time drawing comb. For more on preparing hives, and to see pictures of foundation before it gets installed, check out this post. If you're interested in seeing another hive install in more detail, you can check out this post.
Ben adding the sugar water solution to the feeder.

After about a week, the beekeeper needs to go back to the new hives to ensure the queen has hatched and has left the hive in search of a drone to mate with her. This is called her nuptial flight. (Charming, huh?) He also needs to check the hive with the mated queen (queen mother) to be sure that she's still laying. To do this, he just pulls a few frames from the hive and checks for eggs and brood. Everything went well for Garrett's three hives when he checked them, so he fed them again and left them alone to get down to the business of making honey. A couple of weeks after that, he checked to be sure that the two virgin queens returned to the hive and have begun to lay. In both cases, his had, so we're lucky.

Garrett will continue to feed the new colonies until they've drawn out all the comb he wants for this year, or until they stop taking the feed. Once that happens, they're on their own and we'll check their progress regularly to keep tabs on a fall honey crop.

Here's a video Garrett shot of his new hives as they are first set up on our CSA farm. These hives weren't the new one from his swarm, these are from another area beekeeper, but the video shows the set up of the new hives, their environment and includes Garrett's discussion which is significantly more detailed than mine.

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