Thursday, July 9, 2009

More from the beeyard

Getting to the beeyard has been a challenge. We were in Ely, Mn for a week, and when I got back I had an extremely challenging and time-consuming project for work. So it was long past when I had hoped to get back to check on the small cluster of bees I left there after my last visit.

Yesterday I finally made it back, and found that the little crew was still there, limping along, not thriving as I had recklessly hoped. I absorbed the sight of a skinny queen, a neglible brood area and closed them up again. Then I got to work sorting through the equipment I have stored at the site, looking for more AFB.

I created a stack of boxes with frame that had no drawn comb on them, and set out creating another stack with drawn comb. At the start of a season, putting frames with bare foundation on them makes sense - the nectar flow isn't on, and the bees can focus on building comb without diverting them from honey-making. When the nectar flow is on - like now - a beekeeper will give the bees drawn comb, so all they have to do is spruce it up a bit, and start loading the cells. No time to waste!

I had finished going through the boxes and had a few more frames to add to the stack of contaminated frames I had created on my last visit. That stack is on the edge of the beeyard, in the bright sun. I circled around to the sunny side, where I would have room to work, and noticed that there was some activity along the seam where two boxes didn't quite come together. I had thought I sealed up the stack, not wanting robber-bees to spread the AFB to other beekeepers before I had a chance to scrape the frames and burn the spore-bearing wax.

But here was clear evidence had I had failed, and my heart sank. I swore loudly. I didn't swear much before I started beekeeper. I had a lovely store of words that served me well in any situation. But, beekeeping has presented me with situations that left me speechless, either with frustration or awe. So I've had to become creative. The swearing comes in at the frustrating times.

In situations of awe, I have learned to allow prayer to well up. And that is what happened next. I opened the top of the stack, and there were thousands and thousands of bees, milling around, lined up along the edges of the frames looking up at me. This hive had been occupied by a swarm. They were either feral bees or a swarm from some other beekeeper's yard. In either case, it was my great fortune. Blessed bees. Bees, beloved. My gratitude materialized in tender words for the bees, for myself, for the beautiful day, spoken out loud, drawing in the cattle in the adjacent alley pasture. I offered them red clover and bird's foot trefoil so they could be happy, too.

I figured the bees had chosen the contaminated boxes, so they must know what they were doing. However, sitting in my car, ready to drive down to the farmhouse for a visit, I considered an alternative - that the bees had few options with so many fewer natural cavities available - that the bees may have made a mistake. I considered that when I examined the colony, I saw a dwarfed brood area.

Back to the beeyard, this time wearing a veil and gloves. When I first arrived at the beeyard, before I found my gifted bees, I had set up a bait-hive hoping to catch just such a swarm. Now, I began the work of transferring the bees from the diseased boxes to the fresh, clean frames. It was easiest and quickest to rap the edge of the frame along the top of the clean hive, dislodging the bees and dropping them into the new hive. On just the second frame I pulled, I saw the queen. The biggest queen I've even seen. She was about 1.5 inches and a dark gold - almost brown. She dropped into the clean boxes easily. As the bees mounted up, some of them boiled out the openings at the front and started fanning queen pheromone into the surrounding air, so that forging bees returning to the beeyard where the hive is.

The new hive is located just a few feet from the old one, with the opening facing the same direction as the old one, as well. This is important because I wanted to take advantage of an occurence in beekeeping called "drift." When hives are adjacent to them, bees sometimes will join adjoining hives, even though the hive doesn't contain the scent of their own queen. Beekeepers note that the populations of hives in rows of hives that are spaced too closely will change over a season as forging bees drift to the hive at the end of the row. As I thought this through, something occurred to me - I was trying to catch the drifting bees - "catch my drift." Could beekeeping be the origin for this expression?

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