The Honey Bees Return!

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It was a complete surprize.  We went out to put up some fencing to allow our Quarter Horse, Sunny, to mow the lawn for us, then my husband, Phil, went out to check on the bee hives, a little sadly, since his last check a couple weeks ago revealed that the last hive or two that went into the winter intact had not survived. I was pulling a burr out of Sunny's tail while he feasted on fresh dandelions when I heard Phil yelling from the bee yard. While I sometimes claim that "we" keep bees, really Phil is the expert apiarist, having studied with Bob Eastman and the Vermont Beekeepers Association as well as learning on his own from books like The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping, workshops at NOFA-VT, magazines like The Natural Beekeeper, and online sources, plus several years of experimenting.

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I joined him to find bees just pouring into the little hole near the top of the hive nearest the gate where we enter through the 4-strand electric fence. He happily informed me that they were moving in!

The chosen hive!

We sat down a couple feet from the hive, off to the side so as not to disturb their determined travels over our heads and into the hive, watching them and sending them Reiki healing energy, which we know from past experience that they love. Phil explained what he discerned was happening, and where they were coming from.

"Somewhere close by, whether in a tree, a wall, abandoned building, someplace sheltered, notwithstanding someone who had a very large overwintered hive, but I don't know of one in our proximity - these may even be from some of my old colonies that had the ability to overwinter somewhere and then return. So somewhere a large, overloaded hive had a swarm break away. The extremely hot few days [we've had lately] may have prompted them to do that. They awoke from their long winter strong and, with a queen, decided it was time to leave."

The bees are entering their new home in the little hole near the top

"Using probably multiple scouts, they stumbled upon the bee yard, and with the availability of leftover honey and comb set up, they decided to move in," Phil explained. "The hive will send multiple scouting bees in search of forage and a new home worthy to support them. And considering they found what was basically an empty bee sanctuary already, bee habitation, they settled on it. There's ample dandelion, flower growth. The scouts all dance the same dance, telling the colony and making the same noises to say, Hey, we found a good spot. They have a mystical hierarchy but still an overall feeling that the scouts know their business." 

Once the move has been decided, the rest of the colony moves as one, in what is known as a swarm or a bee ball. "They all landed on the roof and went in the two holes in the front; what we didn't see was them moving in. We saw foraging bees and cleaning bees working. What we didn't see was the swarm alighting on the box, which probably happened the other day when it was so hot," Phil guessed. "The guards go in, go through the whole thing, make sure there's no danger. They have to kill any ants or spiders in there, snakes, anybody. They drive everyone out. And then they move in. What we finally saw was them cleaning house already and foragers bringing pollen in."

"Hopefully the bees will take into account that there are dead brood in specific brood cells in the bottom supers in the larger bee boxes and will start to clean cells for the queen to lay eggs in, considering the top of the box may have leftover honey stores and pollen. They may move into the bottom darker sections where the queen can lay her eggs unobstructed. That won't be known for a couple weeks, because I'm not going to mess with them," he vows respectfully. "She will pick where she wants to start laying her eggs since there is no queen excluder or anything to stop her from laying eggs wherever she wants to," but the cleaning bees will help her choose the best place. "Since this is already an abandoned bee structure, there's already comb drawn out [wax made into the well-known hexagonal cells). If I go in there on the 30th [of this month], there should be capped brood [showing that the queen had been laying eggs]."

We've heard an old saying in Vermont that advises "A swarm in May is worth a load of hay.  A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon.  A swarm in July isn't worth a fly."  This indicates that if the colony doesn't start laying up honey stores soon enough in the season, it won't survive the winter.

These frames show the honeycomb and brood left by past bees.

Phil went down to the end of the row of hive boxes and removed three frames from the furthest box, which are plastic vertical trays that hang in the boxes like file folders and on which the bees create their honeycomb wax cells that they subsequently fill with honey or larvae. Some of the frames were built up with wax in a very smooth, orderly fashion, while some look more haphazard and lumpy.

"A couple of the package bees from a few years ago were not hygienic, they were not disciplined, and regardless of how much beekeeper interference with comb selection and cleaning, did not break them of their bad habits of generating burr comb and undisciplined hive structure. Hence, incredibly odd-looking comb."

The work of undisciplined bees

As we observed the newly arrived extended family acclimating to their home, occasionally one would appear at the bottom slot, which Phil helped them clear out by inserting a small stick in the opening and moving debris out of the way. These bees were cleaning house, removing dead bee bodies and other detritus left from previous occupants. They are very good at maintaining a clean, orderly house (I could learn from them!), and that's one chore they don't need help with.

Cherry blossoms

In fact, they don't require daily chores like other livestock. They need to be left alone most of the time, but when they need something - like supplemental food, another super where they can build more comb, an organic treatment to help fend off infestations - it needs to be timed correctly. Checking on them too often can irritate them, or even put them in danger if the weather is too cold or wet. They are quite self-regulating as long as we don't interfere too much with their natural systems - or as natural as they can be in a square box, considering they choose hollow logs in the wild. For this reason, we don't even harvest the honey in the fall, preferring to leave their natural food source to see them through the winter. If there's some left over in the spring, then we consider ourselves lucky. Phil says his main goal isn't honey production, "It's making bees." He wants them to become acclimated to this land, and reproduce hardier generations that can live in harmony with this particular ecosystem.

Apple blossoms in our bee yard

We're grateful that our bees can visit the blossoming orchards at Flag Hill Farm and the Mountain School to do their pollinating and gather pollen to feed the hive - and turn into honey. At other times of the warm seasons they gather from dandelions, goldenrod and many other wildflowers, each giving the honey a different flavor. We consume all our honey raw, as it retains all the natural enzymes, bits of pollen and other living nutrients that are so vital to our health, and which really make this food a valuable medicine. Our ancestors used honey for many healing purposes and we can too. It's great applied directly on the skin for eczema and other irritations, and eating local raw honey can reduce allergic sensitivities. And it's delicious!

A slice of honeycomb is a delicious natural snack!

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