New Honeybee Colony

After I lost last year's colony of bees due to Varroa Mites, I immediately started researching where to buy a new colony. It's harder than you think! Last Spring, I obtained them from my local beekeeping association, which was fine, but I thought getting them directly from the source might allow me to learn a bit about their practices and provide an interesting field trip. I ended up ordering four pounds of Italians from Taber Honeybee Genetics in Vacaville (I also ordered four pounds for Dad, as he wanted to start another hive). I would have much preferred finding a swarm - I am starting to believe that swarms are generally healthier and stronger, having proved themselves genetically over time. However in all my hikes and walks with Joe, I never found one. So I went with my original plan, and today Dad and I went to pick them up.

Vacaville is about halfway between my home in Walnut Creek and Sacramento. Its history is in farming; and indeed we passed many almond orchards along the way. Once you travel back past the strip malls and restaurant chains, it's farm country.

The bee warehouse was unmarked, and surrounded by fields of wild radish in bloom. We weren't the only ones picking up our packages; there were several other families there as well. Inside the warehouse were the packaged colonies waiting for pickup, and walls full of wood, nucs, and supers.

We were lucky enough to talk to both the guy in charge, and the guy in charge of bees (two different people). The guy in charge generally warned us about Varroa and Nosema (an intestinal infection) and gave us instructions on how to treat those problems, which gave both me and my dad lots to think about, as neither of us have ever treated our honeybees (and we've both lost hives). Let's just say, for now, that the treatment didn't seem as horrible as I thought it would be. And the guy was adamant that we treat even if we see no sign of disease, as it's hard to see until it's too late. More on this in the Autumn, which is when we'll need to think about it again.

Then we got to talk to the guy in charge of bees, a quiet gentle man who spent a lot of time answering our questions about how the operation works. The company rents out 4500 hives of bees each year, first to the almond orchards, then to the sunflower fields when they bloom. In between they feed on wildflowers. That's the first 'tier' of their business.

The second tier of the business is raising queens. Behind the warehouse, there were about six 'breeding' colonies, as he put it, which provide the larvae.

Every two weeks, the beekeepers remove three-day-old capped larvae from these hives and insert them into special frames, 45 to a frame, which are then inserted into about 20-30 queen-less hives in another area.

Any larvae can become a queen, of course - it just needs to be fed royal jelly for the entire larval development period. And that's what these queen-less colonies do, of course - they get excited that there is a potential queen, and they feed the larvae solely on royal jelly. (Royal Jelly is a combination of digested pollen and nectar mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in the nursing bee's head.)

After ten days, the beekeepers remove the frames of queen larvae and put them in an incubator. They do this because the queens will kill each other if they hatch in the hive (there can only be one queen, after all). After the queens hatch, they sell them to folks who need to re-queen a colony, or add them into the packaged colonies which we purchase, or queen a hive that needs one in their own yards. 

And, just so you don't feel sorry for the queen-less hives, after a couple of cycles, they provide them with a queen that they can keep, and they use a different colony for the purpose of raising queens. It's all so fascinating!

Dad and I seemed to be the only people asking these questions, and we were the only ones to prowl around the warehouse checking out the bees. If I could urge everyone to do one thing in their lives, it would be to be more curious, about anything and everything! I learn so much from asking questions no one else asks. I often get to go behind the scenes, because everyone likes to talk about their job, if they're proud of it. Rangers are a perfect example. The next time you're at a park, talk to the ranger! Ask questions! You'll learn more in 15 minutes than you ever thought you could.

Anyway, we brought the bees home (buzzing all the way! So good to hear that sound again), and then they had to sit in a cool, shady place for the rest of the day, chilling. It's always advised to put your new colony in the hive in the late afternoon, so the bees can get used to their new digs before exploring the terrain. 

Finally it was time to release them. I set out all the tools I'd need, made sure I had the sugar syrup all ready to go, got rid of a few stray spiders in the hive, and then Tom and I made a plan. Tom was dressed in long sleeves and a hood; I chose to not prepare in any way except wearing gloves, thinking that I'd be fine. We lifted out the can of sugar syrup that is included in the colony, and bees came swarming out. 

The first job was to wire the queen cage to one of the bars in the hive, and uncap the candy plug that is at one end of her cage. The worker bees will chew through the candy to release the queen, and that is how they all get to know her before she starts laying eggs. The queen cage was simply covered in bees, and it was hard to get a wire on with gloves and uncap the candy. Finally I just took of my gloves and did it. Once the queen was in place, we could shake the rest of the bees from the nuc into the hive. Tom shook and shook and shook, and still there were some clinging and refusing to go into the hive. I left the nuc out by the hive so the stray bees can find their way up and inside. Four pounds of bees is a LOT of bees (about 3,000 per pound!), and they were crazy. I guess I'm just used to bees being very calm and not too disturbed by what we do - I don't remember it being so nuts last time! But it was nuts. We couldn't get the bars in, because everything was covered with bees. A bee flew up Tom's shirt; he had to go take care of that. We needed smoke, and hadn't even lighted the smoker, so Tom had to go get that and get it started. Of course then it went out and we needed to do it again! A bee got tangled in my hair; I had to walk away quickly and go get my hood. I cannot describe how many bees there were EVERYWHERE. Thankfully the kids were in the house, the dog was in the house, the cat was either in the house or hiding, so we only had to worry about ourselves. It took forever, but we patiently smoked the bees off or brushed them off with our bee brush until we could get the bars in. Then there were a lot of bees back behind the divider - we use that to keep the hive a manageable size for the bees until the colony grows - and we had to get all the bees out from the back of the hive. More spiders, really gross spiders, crawled out. It was bug Armageddon. 

Somehow I managed to take pictures during all this. And somehow - I do not know how - neither one of us got stung. That's pretty amazing. 

And here's a 10 second video of the chaos.

We walked away and left the bees to get acquainted with their new home. About an hour later, they were settling down and figuring out the whole system. I hope they like it here. I hope they decide to stay. I hope the queen is viable. I hope a lot of things, but we can only wait and see how things go. I'll open the hive next weekend and check to see that everything is ok with the queen; it will be hard to wait. Meanwhile you'll find me out in the garden, just watching.