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1

This afternoon we got a call about some bees that were swarming in a residential neighborhood near us. We had caught a swarm the other day and that was a very good thing, as both of the colonies in our Apiary #1 had died out in the last few weeks. The first swarm went into our Green hive and earlier today they appeared to be settling in nicely, making orientation flights. They were a decently sized swarm, filling up about 10 cm in a 5-gallon bucket and, as long as they have a queen that gets herself mated they should do fine.

That swarm was in a tree, requiring the use of the swarm-catching-bucket-on-a-long-pole that Alex rigged up.

Alex maneuvers the bucket under the swarm
26 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Once the bucket was in place under the swarm Alex gave it a good thump to knock the bees off the cluster. Given the density of the foliage it wasn't possible to get all the bees to fall into the bucket, so he left the bucket perched nearby. If the queen had fallen with the first clump into the bucket, the rest of the swarm should follow her scent and join her.

Swarm bucket
26 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Which they did. And now they live in our Green hive.

Today's swarm was very different. These bees had just started gathering on the ground near a fire hydrant, and lots of bees were still in the air. They had formed a large patch on the ground. The resident of the house where the swarm was said the bees had been in a cluster hanging from the tree by the curb. This is typical swarm behavior. However, sometimes the queen falls from the cluster and ends up on the ground; because she's a weak flyer she usually stays there, and of course all of the workers eventually end up where she is.

There's a queen in there, somewhere!
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Alex searches for the queen
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Knowing that the queen was somewhere in that mass of bees on the ground, Alex's strategy was to find her and catch her in that little trap. The workers will follow the scent of their mother (or sister), so if we place the trapped queen where we want the bees to go, chances are we can persuade them to follow her.

It turned out that there were two queens in the swarm, which can happen. When a colony is preparing to throw its first swarm of the season, the workers will make some queen cells in the old hive. That way, when they depart and drag the old queen with them, the hive won't be left queenless. Sometimes one of the new queens emerges just as the swarm is taking off and gets caught up in the melee.

Alex found two queens on the ground. One he caught in the little trap, and one he caught by hand and set in the bucket. Without the security of a second trap the queen in the bucket was 'balled'--the bees literally killed her either accidentally (i.e., by smothering her) or deliberately (because they didn't like her for some reason). Anyway, when all was said and done the swarm was left with a single queen.

Caged queen on a hive box
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And it works!

Eventually most of the bees were in the box. Alex released the queen from her little cage and prodded her to go down. The last thing we wanted to see was her taking off into the air again! She eventually crawled down, and the bees did exactly what they were supposed to do.

Looks like a hive box full of bees!
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Once most of the bees had made their way into the box, Alex closed it up. We'll let it sit there until evening, when the last of the stragglers should head inside. Then we can bring them home and install them in our Rose hive.

28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

2

As with many things in life, catching a swarm of honey bees is all about opportunity and availability. In other words, luck. Bees swarm in the spring, as the nectar flow and lengthening days result in near-exponential population growth within a colony, and the bees run out of space in their hive. Capturing and rehiving a swarm is one of the best ways for a beekeeper to increase the number of hives in her apiary, for a few reasons:

  1. It's cheap! Darn near free, except for the minor cost of whatever modified box or bucket used to contain the swarm. For example, for a few years we used an ordinary cardboard file box (the type you'd buy for about $2 at any office supply store) with mesh-covered windows as our official swarm catching box. Last year my husband bought a 5-gallon bucket with lid from a hardware store, cut some windows in it and taped on some mesh. It works better than the box, which was falling apart anyways and needed to be replaced. Still super cheap, too.
  2. Swarms come from locally adapted colonies. True, the mother colony that threw the swarm may have originated as a package colony bought from a commercial beekeeper from anywhere in the country, but at the very least it survived the winter here, which hints at potential long-term suitability for this particular location.
  3. Every swarm that is captured by a beekeeper and rehomed in a managed apiary is a swarm that will not turn a neighbor's home/garage/fence/etc. into a hive. In terms of responsible beekeeping, this is a Really Good Thing™. It is much simpler to relocate a swarm than to remove an established colony from, say, inside the wall of a house. Most homeowners don't like being told that in order to get rid of the colony of bees that has taken up residence between the studs in a wall, the wall will have to be cut open to make sure that all the bees, wax combs, and honey are removed.
Ye olde swarm-catching bucket

Until this past weekend it had been an unfortunate spring for us as beekeepers. For the first time in our eight years donning the veil we had lost almost all of our hives over the winter; all of the hives at our house had died, and we were down to 1.5 hives at our second apiary. We had also missed out on a couple of swarm calls, which either came in when we couldn't deal with them or another beekeeper got to the swarm first. One swarm flew off before we arrived to pick them up, ironically as we were on our way down the highway so I could give a talk on beekeeping to the Watsonville Wetlands Watch.

Much of that luck changed this past Saturday, when we got a call about two swarms in a backyard apple tree. Given that it was a sunny morning, we decided to capture the swarms before the scout bees found a new home site and persuaded their sisters to move into it. They were both good-sized swarms, one a bit larger than a basketball and the other about the size of a football.

Two swarms in an apple tree
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Those streaky blurs in the sky aren't UFOs or dust streaks on the camera lens; they're bees in flight.

The swarms were both about 8 feet off the ground, which puts them nicely within reach of an ordinary ladder. We had brought a ladder with us and the homeowner had one as well, so we could catch both of the swarms at the same time. In the spirit of full disclosure: I can't take any credit for catching these swarms, as I was taking pictures instead of being useful.

Swarm of honey bees in an apple tree
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Swarm catching is pretty simple when the bees are clustered in a tree like this: You place a box (or bucket or whatever) under the swarm and either shake the bees into the box or cut the branch they're clustered on and lower that into the box. Shaking tends to send a lot of bees into the air, but as long as the queen ends up in the box the rest of the bees will eventually find their way to her. When they're all in the box you close it up and take it away.

The "small" swarm captured into a cardboard box
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The large swarm went into the bucket:

The "large" swarm going into the bucket
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We brought the swarms to the apiary. The next step was to pour the bees from the box and bucket into their intended hives. And this is where our luck changed. One of the swarms, instead of settling into our Blue hive boxes, took off into the air. This happens sometimes, when for whatever reason the queen flies and all of the workers go with her. If the beekeeper is lucky they land some place accessible and can be recaptured. This swarm gathered very briefly in the poison oak at the top of a dead coffeeberry bush, then flew away across the street. I was unable to see where they were headed.

The good news was that the larger swarm was much more cooperative and remained in the Purple hive where they were dumped. Joining them in this apiary is the Rose hive, which was a split from one of our downtown hives. The weather on Sunday and Monday was cold and rainy, and today was the first day the bees had a chance to get out and fly. Today (Tuesday) we saw them orienting to their new home. We shouldn't have any rain for the next several days, which will give them lots of time to forage. Swarms are usually primed and ready to go into building mode as soon as they reach their new home, so the queen in our Purple hive can start laying immediately (assuming, of course, that she was the old queen from the mother hive that threw the swarm; if she's a virgin she'll have to go on her mating flights first). It'll be three weeks before we see an increase in the number of bees; in the meantime the population will decline as bees die off due to natural attrition. Thus around mid-May we should start seeing some big orientation events. Fingers crossed!

I sort of assume that people appreciate the importance of honey bees. And then, every so often I am forcibly reminded that, even in the fairly ecologically savvy city where I live, there are those who would rather destroy honey bees than live with them. Fortunately, sometimes I am also reminded of the resilience of honey bees and the remarkable ways that they have adapted to living with humans.

Case in point. About a year and a half ago one of my students told me about a colony of bees living in a eucalyptus tree in his neighborhood, on a corner two blocks from the ocean. I went to check it out, and indeed there were bees coming and going from a hole about 3 meters above the ground. They seemed to be perfectly happy in the tree, and I was happy to know that they were there. I looked in on them every once in a while and noticed that in the early fall the entrance to the colony had been sealed up with some gunk that looked like white foam.

Given the stresses on honey bees these days--pesticides, varroa mites and other parasites, as well as some of the practices of commercial beekeeping--one of the most valuable things a hobbyist beekeeper can come across is a locally adapted feral colony. Local adaptation means exactly what it sounds like: bees that have evolved to survive and thrive in the conditions of a particular area. They will have survived multiple winters and whatever parasite load comes along with the location. While there would be a change in the royal regime every 2-3 years on average, the lineage of queens would be producing viable, vigorous workers. Beekeepers want to know that alleles from these locally adapted feral colonies are in the gene pool in which our queens are mating. Most of us would love to catch a swarm thrown by one of these locally adapted colonies (we may have done that earlier this season, in fact).

Yesterday I got a third-hand phone call about a "swarm of bees in a tree in such-and-such a neighborhood" and did I want to capture them? Mid-July is late for swarms, and after the caller mentioned what street they were on I realized we were talking about the feral colony I'd kept an eye on for the past year. I went down and looked at the tree, and noticed that the bees were in the same tree but had moved within the tree.

Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The bees are coming in and out of that orange blotch on the trunk. More about that later. This is a new opening as of this year.

Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There was zero activity around the 2015 entrance. The two entrances are less than a meter apart on the outside of the tree, but there is no way to know whether or not the internal cavities are connected. The absence of bees near the door they were using last year suggests that the spaces are not connected. I wish I had a fiber-optic camera, because I'd love to see what's going on inside that tree.

What's going on outside the tree is a lot of coming and going.

While the neighbors and I were watching all the coming and going, I got a little of the backstory of this colony. The neighbors next to the property where the feral colony lives told me that there have been bees in that grove of eucalyptus trees for the 15+ years they've lived in their house. Last year, when the bees were in the lower entrance to the colony, the owner of the house on the corner called in an exterminator to poison them. The bees died but the cavity in the tree still contained wax and honey, which would be very attractive to a swarm looking for a permanent address. It appears that the bees currently residing in the tree either found or made themselves a new door, which at some point in recent months had been sealed up with foam (the orange stuff). They chewed through the foam and are carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Why would somebody pay to have an exterminator poison a colony of honey bees that is posing no threat? The reason must be fear and ignorance. This colony is high enough that the bees' flightline is well above head height, and I imagine most people walking right next to the tree don't even realize that the bees are there. However, fear is a powerful motivator, with ignorance coming in as a close second. The property owners decided that the bees were either a nuisance or a danger, and had them dealt with accordingly. Their neighbors, on the other hand, are happy to know that the bees are there to pollinate their gardens. I've asked them to keep in touch and let me know if they see anything interesting happening at the tree, and they've agreed to let us put a bait hive out there next spring to see if we can catch a swarm from this locally adapted colony.

One potential problem is that at some point in the past year or so the interior of the tree has been poisoned at least once. I don't know what poison was used (it might not be difficult to find out but at this point I don't want to bother--concussion, remember?) or its half-life in honey and beeswax. It could be that the bees living in the tree now are doomed because they've been exposed to the pesticide, or that any swarms they throw contain contaminated bees. I will keep watching this colony, though, crossing my fingers that they can continue to thrive despite the unfortunate activities of their closest human neighbors.

Today's online version of the San Francisco Chronicle published another follow-up article about last week's rampage of bees in Concord, CA. The gist is that seven bees sent to the state Department of Food and Agriculture for testing, and the results showed that they did not possess Africanized alleles. This finding has led some to conclude that the bees that did the attacking were ordinary European honey bees. This, in turn, is a dangerous conclusion because the logical continuation of the thought process is that any hive of ordinary European honey bees kept in managed hives could suddenly and without warning become super aggressive. Let me address the study results as reported in the Chronicle, and then we can talk about the repercussions to beekeepers in California.

Thought #1:  First of all, only seven bees were examined for Africanization. Seven out of several tens of thousands of bees in the colony. So yeah, sampling error is a problem.

Thought #2:  Worker honey bees, all of which are female, are diploid. They inherit nuclear chromosomes from both parents. This is the same as happens for other diploid animals such as humans and most likely every other animal you would think of. The workers' brothers, the drones, are haploid; they develop from unfertilized eggs and thus carry nuclear DNA only from their mother, the queen.

Thought #3:  The test used by the state looked for the presence of Africanized alleles in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the seven bees that were examined. In sexually reproducing animals, the female gamete (egg) is much larger than the male gamete (sperm). The sperm provides DNA to the zygote that results from fertilization, but little else. All of the other cellular components, including mitochondria, come from the egg. Mitochondria are nifty little bean-shaped organelles, evolutionarily derived from some sort of aerobic bacterium-type critter, that are the "powerhouses" of cells. They are the site of cellular respiration, where glucose molecules are broken down and the energy within the chemical bonds is released to fuel the cell's activities. Mitochondria, as descendants of formerly free-living bacteria, possess their own DNA and are self-replicating units within eukaryotic cells. Because a diploid organism inherits mitochondria only from its mother, mtDNA can be used to trace maternal lineages through time.

Thought #3.5:  A hive of European honey bees contains a European queen and her progeny. Her daughters, the workers, obtained half of their DNA from her and half from their fathers. A virgin queen mates with 12-15 drones on her mating flight before returning to her hive to begin laying. If some of the drones she mates with have Africanized alleles, then some proportion of her daughters will as well.

Thought #4:  The results of the test used by the state cannot be correctly interpreted as indicating that there were no Africanized bees in the aggressive hive in Concord. Period. If the state wants to test for Africanized alleles, looking only in the mtDNA isn't going to do the trick. They can examine every single damn bee in the hive, and all they will find is the same mtDNA that the European queen has. They are looking in the wrong damn place--they need to examine the nuclear DNA for Africanized alleles. Now, there could always be something unusual about the mitochondrial genome of honey bees that I'm not aware of, which would mess up my entire argument. However, I am not the only person who thinks that relying on mtDNA to determine Africanization tells the whole story. Eric Mussen, apiculturist emeritus at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, said more or less the same thing a week ago, right after the attack happened.

Repercussions for beekeepers: Well, any beekeeper knows that public hysteria about bees is a real thing. Many people are frightened of honey bees and don't want them around. Responsible beekeepers take measures to ensure that their bees are not a nuisance or danger to the public. We really want to do the right thing for our neighbors as well as for our bees. Shoddy science reported as fact doesn't help our cause.

Five days ago the residents of a suburban neighborhood in Concord, CA, got to experience first-hand what happens when a colony of Africanized honey bees takes over a hive of European bees. According to the most recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the original colony had been managed by a beekeeper for 15 years without any problems. Beekeepers conclude that the Africanized bees invaded the colony, killed the European queen, and took up residence. They became agitated when the beekeeper tried to move the hive last Friday. Several people were stung multiple times and two small dogs were killed.

The reason I bring this up is to calm fears. As I wrote last fall, we already know that Africanized honey bees have been in the greater San Francisco Bay Area since 2014. I'm willing to bet that there are Africanized alleles in the honey bee gene pool around Santa Cruz, too. Let me explain why I'm not overly concerned about Africanized honey bees.

As a beekeeper myself I am growing less and less tolerant of bees that are in the least bit jumpy or overly defensive; they make working a hive more stressful than it needs to be, which means the hive is open for a longer period of time, which means the bees get more anxious, which means the beekeepers get more anxious, and so on and so forth. Life as a beekeeper, especially in a suburban area, is much more pleasant when the bees themselves are gentle and sweet. In our experience, the Italian and Russian strains of the European honey bees have a docile temperament and are easy to work with.

There's no doubt that the Africanized alleles are here, and they're here to stay. I touched upon this the other day when I wrote about the bees in our pantry. I also have no doubt about the impact that hobbyist beekeepers will have to control the spread of those alleles for extreme defensive behavior. You see, by re-queening aggressive colonies whose queen may have mated with Africanized drones, a beekeeper removes those alleles from the hive, effectively diluting them in the larger gene pool. Hobbyist beekeepers would be selecting against defensiveness and for docility. Now, I am not a honey bee population geneticist, nor am I an expert on the different strains of European honey bees. However, I do know that if we consistently cull queens whose daughters are too jumpy or quick to defend their colony, then eventually we should end up with less defensive behavior as the Africanized alleles become rarer in the population.

I should also say that those Africanized alleles are not going away. We, beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, have to accept that Africanized bees have been established in California for decades now and are expanding their range northward. A warming climate may enable them to overwinter successfully in areas that were formerly too cold for them. So we have them, and have probably had them for a while now. Most people encounter only foraging bees; these, whether or European or African descent, tend to be focused on their work and can't be bothered to notice the big lumbering mammal watching them (unless said mammal does something to provoke the bees, in which case all bets are off). It is only when they detect a threat to their colony that the bees become aggressive.

So, what should you do? Well, if you see a feral colony of bees, don't mess with it. This is the same advice that I'd give someone who asks how not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Pay attention to your surroundings, even if you're just walking the dog around the block. Who knows, a swarm of bees may have taken residence in a tree that you've walked past a thousand times before. If you notice bees flying into and out of a hole in a tree, watch them from a safe distance (binoculars are great tools for spying on bees). If you are concerned that a colony may be in a bad location because of proximity to people or livestock, contact a beekeeper who can remove it safely. Above all, keep in mind that in your daily life you do many risky things. If you don't believe me, check out these data from the National Safety Council in 2002 for chance of death due to:

  • car accident as an occupant of a car: 1 in 17,000 (yikes!)
  • falling from stairs or steps: 1 in 180,000
  • suffocation in bed: 1 in 565,000
  • drowning in a swimming pool: 1 in 450,000
  • contact with hornets, wasps, and bees: 1 in 5,000,000

So don't worry, but do be aware. And don't let the threat of Africanized honey bees keep you from enjoying the outdoors! And don't forget to look both ways before you cross the street, either.

I suspect that, for most people, opening the pantry and hearing the buzz of bees would be an alarming thing. For us, though, it's just a reminder to see if the queen wants any food.

Why, you may well ask, do we have bees in the pantry? Because this year we have a few hives that are more aggressive than we'd like. This queen came from our Green hive, which we thought early in the spring had gone queenless. They were pissy at the time, which is the norm for hives that are not queen-right. We weren't certain that the Green workers would be able to build themselves a new queen but when, after waiting three anxious weeks, we saw new brood in the hive we sighed in relief.

This new queen, however, happens to produce rather bitchy daughters. This has to do with her own genetics as well as those of the drones she mated with. The workers in this hive aren't really mean, but are more easily riled up and less forgiving than we like to deal with. Fortunately there's an easy solution to this problem: Re-queen the hive. More on that below.

This is a queen cage:

Bees in queen cage. 17 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Bees in queen cage.
17 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Queen cages come in a variety of forms but they are essentially all the same: A cylinder that has an openable hatch on one end and some mesh on the sides. The idea is that you put a queen inside the cage with some accompanying attendants. The mesh allows for air circulation, and you can offer food and honey to the attendants who will in turn feed it to the queen. There's a smear of honey on the mesh in the photo above; I fed and watered the bees when I got home this afternoon.

Now, about re-queening a hive. The first step is to locate and remove the existing queen. If the hive is "boiling over with bees," as one of our beekeeping mentors likes to say, then it can be a tough job. The queen is captured and placed into the cage with 4-5 attendants who will care for her for several days. Then you can place the new queen, hopefully of a more pleasant disposition, in her cage in the hive. Wait at least three days for the bees to get used to her scent--they'll kill her as an intruder if you don't--then open up the cage and let her go into the bowels of the hive. At this point the worst thing that can happen is that she decides to fly. This hasn't happened to us (yet) but it has to one of our mentors, who admits that he should have known better than to show off by opening the queen cage outside the front door of the hive, only to watch her take off into the air and never come back.

The former queen of our Green hive (the one who has temporary residence in our pantry) will go to a friend of ours who likes bitchy bees. Tomorrow we'll introduce Green's new queen, a Taber Italian, to the workers in the hive. After a few days to let the new queen's pheromones circulate throughout the colony, we'll release the queen into the and she'll start laying. Within a month or so, the temperament of the entire hive should have changed from moderately pissy to sweet and gentle.

Re-queening a hive can solve problems of overly defensive bees. Some beekeepers don't tolerate any hint of unpleasantness in their bees and will remove any queen whose daughters aren't easy to work with. I'm leaning in that direction, too. Having been chased by an overly competent guard bee and gotten a bad sting the second summer we had bees, I am more nervous around some of our colonies than I should be. In addition to making our hives easier to deal with, selecting for gentleness would also spread this desirable trait throughout feral colonies in the area. Sweet bees FTW!

In the meantime, until we can get our old queen to our friend, Ian, she and her attendant daughters are living in the pantry. The pantry is a dark place (remember, there's no light inside a bee colony, so they are most comfortable in darkness) where the temperature remains fairly consistent. Plus, the nosy cats can't get to the bees if I close them in the pantry. I have to admit that it's a little startling to open the pantry door and be greeted by a loud buzz. But better us than just about anyone else, right?

On a dreary day in mid-winter I stopped by the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, which is operated by my alma mater, UC Davis. I first visited the garden shortly after it opened to the public in 2009, when all the plants were babies. Even then it supported an astonishing array of honey bees and native pollinators, and now that the plants have grown up and the gardeners continue to make improvements, it will be indeed be what its name says, a haven for insects, wildlife, and people.

I love the sign that greets people as they enter the garden. It is hexagonal, of course, and has information or art on all six sides. It's a bench and an art piece, and an educational exhibit, all rolled into one.

Entrance to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Entrance to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Given that it is the dead of winter and raining a bit, there was zero insect activity. But I do kind of like gardens in the winter, especially after the solstice when the days are getting longer and plants start working on their spring buds. There's a feeling of spring around the corner even if it's drizzly and gloomy today. Plus, mid-winter is when honey bee colonies begin growing again. The bees will be out foraging any time it's not raining or too windy, and the queen will resume her egg-laying duties. This also the time of year when managed colonies are most likely to starve--if a beekeeper has taken too much honey, or hasn't right-sized the hives so that honey stores are near the clusters of overwintering bees, they may run out of food just at the time that there are more mouths to feed.

The spring nectar flow is when honey bee colonies grow, and thus are likely to throw swarms. Just as egg-laying is the way that new bees are produced, swarming is the way that new colonies are produced. A responsible beekeeper takes measures to reduce the number of swarms thrown by her managed colonies, for a couple of good reasons:  (1) bees lost when a swarm is thrown are bees that could have been used to start another managed hive; and (2) swarms often end up in undesirable locations, such as a neighbor's tree or house. A large part of being a good backyard beekeeper is keeping the neighbors happy. Gifts of honey are helpful, of course, but proper care to reduce swarms is just as essential.

Even with the most diligent care, some swarms are going to happen. While it's fun to go catch a swarm, there's also something satisfying about catching a swarm from one's own hive. The Honey Bee Haven beekeepers have put up a bait hive in a tree outside the garden proper:

Bait hive at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Bait hive at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The idea behind a bait hive is exactly what it sounds like. If a colony swarms, the beekeeper hopes that the bees will be attracted to the bait hive and decide to move in. A bait hive is usually a miniature hive box containing a few frames of drawn-out wax and maybe some honey. Hopefully the scout bees in the swarm will like the familiar scents of wax and honey, and convince their sisters that the bait hive will be the ideal home. It's a nice strategy, but doesn't always work.

I hadn't been to the Honey Bee Haven for a couple of years, and was happy to see that they now have established a bee hive right in the garden. And it's a pretty hive, too.

Bee hive in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven garden at UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Bee hive in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven garden at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Judging from the condition of the paint this hive is a relatively recent addition to the garden. I watched the entrance for a while, but given the weather conditions the bees were all sensibly tucked up inside the hive.

Of course, you can't just put a bee hive in a garden visited by the public, even if the garden's raison d'être is to be a haven for bees, without proper signage to inform said public. Besides, maybe the visitors don't know what a bee hive looks like, and are wondering what those boxes are all about.

Beehive

I really like that people can come to the garden and observe the activities of an actual bee hive. And I imagine that the beekeepers have populated this hive with what I call sweet bees; that is, a queen whose genetics produce mellow bees that aren't likely to take offense at visitors who are watching from a safe distance (in this case, about 2.5 meters). The door to this hive faces to the left in the photo above, so the bees' flight path will take them safely away from visitors.

The last time I visited the Haven it was summer, in the midst of a prolonged drought. One of very cool things I saw was a watering platform for bees. Bees do drink water, and they also take water back to the hive to dilute honey, reliquify honey that has crystallized in the comb, and for evaporative cooling when it's hot. The Haven provides water for bees, without threat of drowning, on these nifty slabs:

Water source for bees and other small creatures. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Water source for bees and other small creatures.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The slab slopes a bit so that water drains off the end and doesn't pool. Right now the taps are closed, and given all the recent rain it's easy for bees to find water, but in the summer one of taps will be opened enough so that the tiniest trickle of water drips onto the stone and accumulates in the little troughs. Bees can land on the stone and drink.

The Haven was designed and built to accommodate not just honey bees, but all sorts of animal pollinators. The planners included these "bee condos" to provide nesting areas for carpenter bees:

Condo for carpenter and other excavating bees at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Condo for carpenter and other excavating bees at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Carpenter bees don't eat wood, but they chew into it to make burrows for their larvae. They can be a nuisance, as to them the rafters or eaves of a human's house often make prime real estate for bee burrows. Providing them an attractive site to deposit their eggs might draw them away from human structures. Carpenter bees are large, shiny, black bees, easily distinguished from the fuzzy bumble bees, and as California native pollinators should not be regarded as pests. Watching them buzz through the garden like heavy air-borne tanks is one of the joys of spring. I think this year I'll put up a carpenter bee condo of my own and see if I can get them to nest in it. Fortunately, the Haven provides instructions for a DIY bee condo! If you've ever wondered how you can protect native pollinators, this is something that's easy to do.

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Much ado is being made of the fact that Africanized honey bees have recently been found in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of the articles I've read on the subject have disseminated information that is good, but can be confusing to the average person who isn't a beekeeper. Most people who don't understand bees fear them, and only want to know: (1) Should I be worried? and (2) How much should I worry?

First, some background: The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to North America with the first European settlers on the continent. It is a docile bee, easy to work with, and generally a good honey producer. Several strains, or subspecies, of A. mellifera have been bred over the years, resulting in stocks that beekeepers refer to as Italians (A. mellifera ligustica), Carniolans (A. mellifera carnica), Russians, and others. Beekeepers choose strains of bees that suit their preferences, in terms of temperament, honey production, speed of colony build-up, and disease or parasite resistance.

One of our bees, probably an Italian, on the screen door. 26 July 2915 © Allison J. Gong
One of our bees, probably an Italian, on the screen door.
26 July 2915
© Allison J. Gong

We began our beekeeping adventures with two packages of Italian bees, which proved to be very sweet and extremely productive. Most of our mentors told us not to expect to harvest any honey our first season, as the bees would be busy growing the colony and finding enough food to feed themselves over the winter, and yet we harvested over 100 pounds of surplus (i.e., beyond what the bees needed to overwinter) honey. Since then we've not had to buy packages again and have acquired colonies by either catching swarms (fun!) and splitting our existing hives.

Occasionally a beekeeper has to re-queen a hive, to replace one that has gone missing or is failing to lay well. Sometimes the bees take matters into their own hands(?) and rectify a situation that they feel is lacking; they will build a new queen from one of their sister larvae, who will supplant their collective mother and take over the egg-laying duties. We have re-queened hives that are bitchy, the ones in which the bees fly up at us the moment we crack the hive open and bang into our veils. I don't like to work with pissy bees, and while I know I shouldn't be afraid of our bees, I've had a bad enough sting reaction to warrant allergy tests that determined I have a mild-moderate allergy to honey bee venom. So I'd much rather work with sweet bees, like Italians or Russians that just look up at us from between the frames or keep going about their business as we tear apart their home.

Calm bees walking around on the top bars of frames. 11 April 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Calm bees walking around on the top bars of frames.
11 April 2015
© Allison J. Gong

How and why does a colony of mild-mannered, easy-to-work-with bees become a nightmare to deal with? What happens probably goes something like this. Worker bees may decide, over the course of a season, to supersede their mother and re-queen their colony. The new queen, who is the sister of the workers, flies out and mates with a dozen or so drones from other colonies, then returns to her natal hive to begin laying. If she mated with drones who carry Africanized alleles, then some of her offspring will possess those alleles. A beekeeper with a hive that has become more defensive can change its overall temperament by introducing a new queen that comes from a lineage known for its gentleness.

More about the Africanized bees: Africanized honey bees are the result of inadvertent hybridization between strains of the European honey bee, including the Italian A. mellifera ligustica, and the African bee, A. mellifera scutellata. The African bee was imported to a lab in Brazil in the mid-20th century, when beekeepers were attempting to increase honey production. It escaped from quarantine in 1957 and began hybridizing with the European honey bees that had been established in the New World for centuries. It has been expanding its range northward since; the first reports of Africanized bees in southern U.S. states were in the early 1990s. They have been in southern California since 1994.

An Africanized honey bee has a sting that is no different from that of a European honey bee, and she will still die when she stings someone. The difficulty, as far as humans and livestock are concerned, is that Africanized bees are much more defensive of their colonies and are generally easier to piss off. When they perceive a threat they usually  emerge from the hive in great numbers and attack the intruder. They have also been known to chase people long distances and keep attacking. People who accidentally upset a colony of Africanized bees tend to get stung dozens or hundreds of times, and the accumulation of that much venom can be fatal.

The only way to know for certain that a bee is Africanized is to examine her genome for African alleles. We know now that Africanized honey bees are in the Bay Area. Whether or not they become permanently established remains to be seen, but if there's one Africanized colony surely there must be others.

So, should you be worried? In my opinion, there are lots of things that are more worrying than Africanized honey bees. Then again, where I live they haven't been around very long and I've never encountered a purely Africanized colony. If we have bees in our hives that are pissy we re-queen the colony, so it's unlikely that any of our colonies will be taken over by Africanized bees. However, this is a biological system we're talking about, so nothing is guaranteed.

Here in northern California, most beekeepers aren't too worried about Africanized bees because we think they won't survive our winters. That said, we're heading into a pretty strong El Niño event and may not have a cold winter this year, although we all hope it's a rainy one (and a snowy one in the Sierra Nevada). Plus, with climate change and a generally warming planet, conditions that favor survival of the Africanized bee may soon prevail in much of the U.S. Residents of the southern U.S. should probably take care not to disturb a colony of feral bees because they may be Africanized. Call a beekeeper (not an exterminator!) and let a professional deal with it. Bees (both European and Africanized) that are foraging, though, tend to be focused on the job at hand and won't bother you unless you bother them first. Just leave them alone and watch from a safe distance.

In the spring and early summer, beekeeping is really easy. The nectar is flowing and the bees are busy and happy because there's plenty of food for everybody. The colonies build up quickly and, if a beekeeper isn't diligent, throw swarms when the bees feel they are too crowded. There's a certain amount of good-natured competition among beekeepers for swarms but around here there are enough to go around.

The hives at my house face directly east into a wild canyon, where they forage on blackberry, coffeeberry, and poison oak in addition to the gardens and ubiquitous eucalypts in the neighborhood. It's a pretty prime location for the bees, as they wake up as soon as the sun rises over the lip of the canyon and are shaded from the afternoon sun. Someday I'd like to do a pollen analysis of our honey and determine exactly what the bees are feeding on; it would be very interesting to see how that changes through the season.

Green, Blue, and Purple hives facing into the canyon behind my house, 16 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Green, Blue, and Purple hives facing into the canyon behind my house, 16 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

All through the spring I spent time on the landing at the top of the stairs near the hives, writing in my nature journal or drawing. I'd sit with my back against the fence, notebook on my lap and binoculars at my side, and watch birds flying past at eye level. Because of the nectar flow the bees were mellow and pretty much ignored me, even when they were foraging in the coffeeberry bush a mere meter or so away from my head. Sometimes they even landed on me, treating me as just another surface on which to take a brief rest in their busy day.

Have you ever just sat next to a bush that's buzzing with bees? It's one of the more joyful and pleasant things about springtime, in my opinion, and I recommend it highly.

However, all good things must come to an end, and this holds for the nectar flow as much as for anything else. This year we had a very strong nectar flow early in the season, starting in late January and continuing until, well, some time before today. I had suspected that the spring bonanza would be short and intense, with flowers putting all of their energy into heavy nectar production early in the year while there was still some water in the ground, and it seems I was right.

When the nectar dries up, bees and beekeepers enter a time called the dearth. We beekeepers can detect the onset of the dearth in a couple of ways: (1) the hives get lighter as the bees begin to eat through their honey stores; and (2) the bees get irritable because they're not finding much forage. While beekeepers in the springtime boast about being able to tend their hives naked, nobody would dare do so in the late summer or autumn. It turns out that right now our hives are sending us mixed signals. They are still putting up honey, at least some of them are, and they're getting pissy.

This afternoon I went outside to my usual spot on the landing to draw for a bit. It was very pleasant there for about 20 minutes, then a single guard bee decided that This Must Not Be. I've noticed that bees don't seem to like dark hair, of which I have quite a lot, possibly because it makes them think "Bear!" It doesn't matter whether my air is pinned up or flying loose, the bees find it, get tangled in it, and try to sting my head. That's no fun for any of us. Anyway, this persistent guard bee got it into her tiny brain that I was not to be tolerated, and she kept buzzing around my head. The buzz of an angry bee sounds different from the gentle hum of a happy bee and I was alarmed immediately. She made her point and I fell in line. I packed up my supplies and left, but the diligent guard bee followed me all the way back to the house. At that point she decided that she'd done her duty and let me escape.

This defensive behavior will only get worse as we move into autumn. Even if the bees have enough honey stored to last through the winter, they will react to the shortening days of late July and August by refusing to continue feeding their drone brothers and more aggressively defending their hives. There will be no more lounging on the landing for me until next spring.

On Easter Sunday we got a call about a big swarm of bees in our neighborhood. The woman who called has a couple of hives in her backyard, one of which had swarmed three weeks earlier. We caught that swarm and installed it into our Green hive at our house. This time it was her other hive that swarmed, and the swarm was HUGE. The bees went to her neighbor's yard and gathered in a tree about eight feet off the ground. It was very considerate of them to end up in such an accessible spot!

The swarm consisted of two lobes, each of which was about 1/2 meter deep and 1/3 meter wide. It probably contained 20,000 bees. See?

Large bi-lobed swarm of bees, 5 April 2015.
Large bi-lobed swarm of bees, 5 April 2015.

Each of those lobes easily contains as many bees as were in the packages that we bought when we got our very first bees four years ago. It was too big a swarm to simply shake into a box, so we tried lifting a hive body box with frames under the bottom of the lower lobe, hoping that the bees would find the smell of wax enticing and go into the box on their own. They proved to be not quite that cooperative, and we had to brush and scoop them into the box. But they did go willingly once we got started.

We lifted a box of frames under the swarm to entice the bees inside, 5 April 2015.
We lifted a box of frames under the swarm to entice the bees inside, 5 April 2015.

Then we brushed and scooped.

We brushed bees off the lobe into the box, 5 April 2015.

Eventually we got most of the bees from the lower lobe into the box. Then we shook the branch with the upper lobe to drop them into the gathering of their sisters. This put a lot of bees in the air, and we maneuvered the lid onto the hive and backed away to let everything settle down. As we were leaving we saw that some of the bees were lifting their abdomens into the air and fanning their wings. This behavior disperses a pheromone that is secreted from the Nasonov gland in the bees' abdomen, a sort of "this is home" type of thing. They generally won't do this unless they have a queen, so somewhere in that mishmash of 20,000 or so bees there's a queen.

Later in the evening, when it had cooled down quite a bit, we brought the hive home and placed it on our yard, between the Green and Purple hives. Now we have a Blue hive at our house!

The three hives in Apiary #1. The new swarm is in the Blue hive. 9 April 2015. © Allison J. Gong
The three hives in Apiary #1. The new swarm is in the Blue hive. 9 April 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

We can infer a bit about the origin of this swarm and the hive it came from. The woman whose hive threw it has two hives in her yard. One hive threw a swarm three weeks ago. On that same day, the beekeeper inspected both of her hives and found lots of queen cells in the hive that threw the swarm (I'll call this Hive 1, just for the sake of convenience) and none in the second hive (Hive 2). Then this humongous swarm emerged on Easter Sunday. That afternoon the beekeeper inspected her hives again and found several queen cells in Hive 2. So in the three weeks that passed between swarms from this beeyard, the bees in Hive 2 decided that they were going to swarm. They produced a bunch of queen cells, and probably just as the first new queen was about to emerge and announce her presence with authority about half the colony dragged away the old queen and landed in the neighbor's tree.

Typically, the first swarm that a colony throws in the biggest. One-third to one-half of the bees can leave, and they do drag along the old queen. One of the queen's daughters will have to emerge from her queen cell, take her mating flights and be successfully inseminated, and return to take over the egg-laying duties of the original hive. In the meantime, the swarming bees (with the old queen in tow) gather in a temporary resting spot somewhere and send out scouts to search for suitable place to set up a permanent residence. The scouts return to the swarm and try to persuade their sisters that they've found the perfect spot. The decision-making process can take just a few hours, or stretch out and last for days. A beekeeper on the lookout for swarms generally has to act quickly once a swarm has been spotted, because there's no way to know how long the bees will hang out and be catchable.

All told, this is the fourth swarm we've caught so far this season. We have populated all of our hives and used up most of our equipment. We will have to do a honey harvest in the next month or so, because a couple of the hives are getting pretty tall. In the short term, at least, there will be lots of honey for anybody who wants it.

 

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