Looking Back on a Busy Summer

Sometimes the best way to move bees is simply with your hands.

It is early August, and here in the Pacific Northwest, we are hot hot hot. We’ve had several weeks on and off of 90-plus temperatures, and the ground is hardened and cracked. Many of my plants have burned, not for want of water–which I am pouring on–but simply from being made toast by the blistering heat of the late-afternoon sun.

Spring was quite a while in coming, and our early season was very wet and cloudy, with few sunny days to warm the soil. Up in the “Bee-thedral” sat three new skeps all ready for spring swarms…

And my surviving winter hives wasted no time in filling them! Gobnait and Feather sent out swarms in mid-April on the first decent sunny days after the drones had begun flying. Both landed in my neighbor’s yard and settle blessedly low in bushes, and on fence boards. My bee friend Thea helped me to gather them, and just like that 2/3rds of my hives where filled.

I filled the last skep, Hope, on April 27th, after I’d lost several of my swarms into high trees. I figure that if they head that far up, they are not wanting to be here, and I just send them love and wish them well.

Most of the months of April and May went by in a blur of swarm activity. I was gathering my own swarms, plus others in town that needed rehoming, and on top of all that, several swarms came into my yard from who knows where, and I gathered them–so grateful for the abundance–too.

On some days, I was collecting multiple swarms. One particularly noteworthy day in May, I had five swarms in my yard: Once the four prime swarms had departed, the caste swarms began with their vibrant virgin queens, and some of the hives were sending multiple castes in one day!

My inexpensive and very successful bait hives!

This year, our bee club made some very simple and inexpensive bait hives out of recycled paper planting pots. We clapped two together, zip-tied them together, put in some old comb, and squirted them with Swarm Commander. I’d only used lemon grass essential oil to temp bees to my bait hives, so I was unprepared for the incredible lure-power of the Swarm Commander spray.

I hung three bait hives: Two in my yard, one in my neighbor’s. They filled up almost as fast as I could hang them. A few times, I got one emptied, tied it back into the tree, and within 20 minutes, scouts were all over it. A little while later came the whole swarm.

It was a crazy, intense two months. Six weeks after the first prime swarms were housed in my new skeps, they began sending prime and caste swarms themselves! Many of these swarms went to friends of mine. Some went into the habitat boxes our organization has dubbed “BeeHaven” boxes. These hives are hung on private and public lands as safe homes for bees. One of those swarms is hanging outside our city library in a BeeHaven box right now!

Feather and Gobnait hives. Gobnait getting ready to send out another swarm.

By the end of swarm season, I’d counted 21 swarms from my four overwintered skeps, plus the swarms from the new skeps filled in early spring. I am getting a real taste of what “small hive beekeeping” looks like! My skeps are swarm factories, and there is good and bad news with that.

The good news is that I have lots of bees. And the hives get many brood breaks, which is good for their health. I love letting my bees remain in as natural a state as possible and swarming is a huge part of that.

The challenge is that I am pretty much house-bound for all of April and May. I live in a regular city neighborhood, and feel duty bound to collect all the swarms from my yard, but for the really high ones who fly sky-high and far away (I know this because I’ve chased after them). I’m happy for the ones that I lose, as I know that I’m helping to repopulate my area with good, healthy bees. But I am also serious about being a good bee neighbor.

I have to admit that five swarms in a day is exhausting. I like to sit with each swarm, and I don’t just dump them into a new skep. Instead, I set up a sheet over an angled wooden plank, and rest the top of the plank at the entrance to the skep basket. Then, I pour the swarm onto the sheet, and they walk up and into the hive. In this way, they claim it and I’ve never had a swarm abscond from one of the skeps.

Inviting a swarm into Hope hive.

From start to finish, a swarm takes me about a good two hours to welcome into a new hive. First, I need to watch and wait until the bees settle somewhere. Then, I need to gather my gear and go to them. Gathering can be a quick as a snip of one branch, or a long process of gently scooping handfuls of bees into my gathering basket. I set up the sheet and hive, and once I pour the bees onto the sheet, it takes them up to an hour to all walk into the hive. Then, I need to carry the skep back home and put it in its permanent place.

After the swarms have been rehomed, I have to keep a very close eye on the parent hive, because it is a very vulnerable time for them. They are queenless, and will be that way for at least a couple of weeks. Their new queen must be mated, most likely several caste swarms will be sent out, and then the parent hive needs to set about restabilizing herself for the nectar flow, and for the coming winter. Meanwhile, the new swarms have a lot of work to do, too.

I don’t set up the skeps with much comb. Only a few pieces are waxed to the top to give the new bees a place to land and gather. They have an enormous amount of wax to build, and stores to gather. Plus, their queen must be successful in mating–and in returning home!

Valentine hive’s queen making the royal stroll across perfect new wax.

This summer, for the first time, I was fairly inundated with queens. I would find virgin queens walking about the bee yard. For several days, I watched Gobnait’s new queen flying out and returning from her mating flights. I can’t say how I managed to be there at the right time, right place, but I felt as though it was Gobnait’s gift to me: To reveal herself, her queen, and their communications on the face of the hive.

There are no words for such events. It was transformative and deeply humbling to me.

The new queen was very dark, and very curious. She walked all over the hive, asking for food, allowing herself to be groomed, rushing away when certain bees would nip and her heels, and eventually chatting at the entry hole with a fat, lazy drone who caressed her antenna for along time before she moved past him and went deep into the darkness of the hive. I remember wondering as she hesitated before entering the dark, “Does she know what awaits her?”

Flash forward one quick week. On a warm morning in May, Gobnait absconded. I went up to the Bee-thedral, and found no bees in front of the skep. I tilted her up, and not a soul was there, where there had been tens of thousands of bees the day before. I was dumbstruck and heartsick. Gobnait had come from a swarm of bees that lived in a tree in the city nearby. She had been with me for three years. Her new queen was in residence and she was all set to go into a healthy, abundant summer. Then, suddenly, she was just gone.

When I dismantled the hive the next day, I found a comb full of eggs from her dark and precious queen. Sealed honey was everywhere. I have no idea why she left. There was no evidence of mites or mite droppings in any of the open cells. Of course, I took it personally, and felt ashamed and sheepish for days. My bees had deserted me.

Putting a swarm in a BeeHaven Box, for our local City of Camas library!

And that, perhaps, was the lesson she left me with: What is this thing with shame? Why, when I believe I’ve “failed” with my bees, is there this nagging sense of shame and guilt? I’ve decided that keeping bees is a phycho-spiritual practice. It has, for me, nothing to do with “making splits,” “pinching queens,” “spinning honey,” “moving brood.” It has everything to do with heart, spirit, self-reflection, and growing the self.

My bees constantly throw me right back into my own arms, where I am left so sort with all the assumptions I have about bees, about myself with bees, and about myself with everyone and everything else.

This summer, I learned about small hives and swarming. I learned how curious queens are, and that you can never tell when or where you might bump into one so be careful where you put your feet. I learned that eco-floors beneath skeps are great, but you really need to screen them or the bees just treat it like more hive space and build right down into it, which keeps you from ever tilting your skep up to look inside. Oooops!

I learned that swarms will join each other, split from one another, and mingle if the opportunity permits. I have more trust than ever in the bees’ ability to do what is needed for their colony. I no longer feel the need to combine hives, to add queens to queenless hives, to feed constantly.

I’ve learned that I need to think of a different moniker than “beekeeper.” And I don’t know what that might be yet.

Charity sitting on her hollow log-round eco-floor. I have these lovely rounds under almost all my skeps now.

There is still a good deal of summer left, and while my bees are getting through the dearth of forage right now, the ivy bloom is still to come and it is my strongest flow of the year. For now, all my hives save Faith are queenright, and all are still raising a surprising amount of brood. Faith, I will allow to fade in her own time.

I didn’t mention this earlier, but I also added an indoor observation hive to my bee doings this year. I had it literally cut into my bedroom wall between two studs. The bees fly outside through a bamboo tube, and plexiglas covers the indoor face of the hive. I’ve named this hive Valentine, and she has simply exploded since I welcomed her in late May. Through Valentine, I am able to see the inner seasons of a colony, how they build up, stretch out, fan, propolize, and washerboard their interiors. I’ve watched baby bees hatch and seen

Bees in my walls. My own idea of heaven!

dozens of waggle dances and tremble dances. I’ve seen Valentine’s amber queen gracefully moving her loooooooong abdomen across the combs, pushing it down, down in the cells and placing her eggs just…so.

To keep the inside bees calm, I only look into the hive at night when my room is dark. I have a red flashlight and a magnifying set of goggles for viewing, and the rest of the time the hive is covered with a black-out quilt. I get to listen to the soft hummm of the hive, day in and day out. They are the very best of roommates.

Forgive me for rambling, but I realize a lot has

Adding bees by funnel into Valentine hive. They took about four full hours to walk in, two-by-two!

happened in these months! I now have a total of 7 hives: 5 skeps, Valentine, and 1 log hive that contains Gobnait’s swarm. As I said, Faith will not survive the winter, but I suspect the others just might.

I plan to weave three more skeps this winter, and will likely be selling off some older ones, as I have no desire to grow my little bee garden any larger.  And I want to let you know that I’ll be teaching 3 skep weaving sessions this winter! You can read all about that right HERE.

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