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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.



This afternoon we inspected our Purple hive to check on how the queen is doing and see if they need more space for either brood or honey. For the past few weeks I've been able to smell that they're making some very tasty honey (it smells like buttered popcorn) and we want to make sure that they have plenty of room to continue storing and curing nectar. I hope we'll be able to harvest some of that popcorn honey later this spring.

These bees are very calm and sweet. I love how they look up from between the frames.

We look down on the bees and they look up at us. 29 March 2015. © Allison J. Gong
We look down on the bees and they look up at us. 29 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

This hive isn't too crowded but they are busy bringing in nectar. The queen is doing her job, and although the brood might be a little spotty for us to be entirely convinced that all is well. It could just be that she's back-filling cells from which young bees had emerged, and those cells might happen to be not in a contiguous patch. We did find the queen, and she's a big fat one. We were able to catch her in a little cage and put a little blue dot on her thorax. Her daughter, on the outside of the cage, could smell her mother and was very reluctant to leave.

Here's the queen with a blue dot on her thorax. 29 March 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Here's the queen with a blue dot on her thorax. 29 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The queen needs to be released back into the hive pretty quickly, as she depends on her worker daughters to be fed and kept warm. While it's always tempting to do something dramatic like release her in the front of the hive and watch her walk into the bottom, there's always a risk of her flying away instead of cooperating with the beekeeper. Or she could get snarfed by a bird. So we released her into the top of the hive and watched her crawl down between the frames. You can watch here:

See how the workers respond to the presence of the queen? They know that if she's there then all is well with the hive, and they quickly rush to surround and attend her. And now we'll be able to spot this queen more easily when we inspect the hive because of her blue dot, and if for some reason the workers decided that they need to supercede their mother, we'll be able to recognize the new queen because she won't be wearing a blue dot.

Our Purple beehive, which swarmed on Wednesday (today is Friday), threw another swarm this afternoon.

It remains to be seen if we can recapture them. So far we haven't been able to see exactly where they've settled. Fingers crossed.

For the past week we've had rain, sometimes brief downpours and at other times more gentle rain, and the rainy days would be interspersed with sunshine. We were warned by one of our beekeeping mentors that this was "swarmy" weather:  The bees are locked up inside the hive when it rains, and swarm on the days that are going to be sunny. "Watch your hives for swarms!" we were told.

We did take care to minimize swarms from our Apiary #1. We split the hive and gave the original hive frames of blank foundation to work on, hoping that this extra space would counteract any tendency to swarm. It seemed to work on the original hive, but yesterday the split swarmed. Surprise!

Here's what a swarm looks like when the bees are getting ready to depart. They gather on the front of the hive until a certain critical mass is achieved, then they take off to a temporary landing site nearby.

These girls went down the canyon and decided to alight on the poison oak. All that green stuff you see in the video is poison oak, so nice and shiny. Alex was brave and bushwhacked a path through the poison oak, then he captured the swarm and brought it back up the hill. By the end of the afternoon the bees were safely (and, we hope, contentedly) ensconced in their new home, our Blue hive.

The swarm now lives in our Blue hive. We hope they stay here.
The swarm now lives in our Blue hive.

We hope they decide to stay here.

Just in time for Hallowe'en! I have photographic evidence that some of our bees have been taken over by parasitic phorid flies. These flies are a group of diverse animals, including wasps and nematode worms, described as "parasitoids." These are not your average parasites, which generally do not cause lethal damage to their host, although as in most areas of biology it is difficult to draw a solid distinction between the two.

It is generally in a parasite's best interest to keep its host alive, at least long enough for the parasite to complete its development and disperse to a new host--if the host dies, the parasite dies with it. Parasitoids, on the other hand, flat out kill the host. A famous example are the parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs inside the bodies of caterpillars; the wasp's larvae hatch inside the caterpillar and slowly devour it from the inside out. I'd link to a photo of this horrendous phenomenon, but those of you who know me personally know that I can't look at pictures of caterpillars. Makes my hands sweat just thinking about looking at one. Eww.

Apocephalus borealis is a phorid fly native to North America. It parasitizes various hymenopteran insects, including paper wasps and bumblebees. In January of this year a paper came out confirming that honey bees, Apis mellifera, are also parasitized by the fly. The authors speculate that the fly may be part of the melange of misfortunes resulting in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

The really interesting thing, to me as a beekeeper, is that the samples analyzed were from the San Francisco Bay area. Not only that, but the authors are soliciting additional data from beekeepers and citizen scientists and have put together a cool Zombee Watch program. Hmm. I'm a scientist and a beekeeper in the greater SF Bay Area, so I thought I'd keep an eye out for any bees that were acting strangely as described in the paper. Come to think of it, last fall (November-ish, I think) we went through a period of about a week when bees would get into the house in the evening. It was clear that they were coming towards the light, but I couldn't figure out what they were doing flying around in the dark when they should have been back in their hive. At the time I didn't know to look for phorids, though.

One evening this past July, a few days before leaving on vacation, I noticed a bee on the screen door. She was obviously dying--hardly breathing, non-responsive to my breath or touch--and I thought it might be worthwhile seeing if she were parasitized. I didn't have time to do anything official according to the Zombee Watch protocol, so I just put her in a ziploc bag and forgot about her. A few weeks later I came across the bag again and--lo and behold!--the bee was dead and there were four pupae and four dead flies in the bag with her.

I finally got around to taking pictures of the bee corpse and her equally dead killers:

Dead honeybee with four pupae (bottom left) and four dead phorid flies (bottom right).

Flies and other holometabolous insects go through four distinct life history stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The larva is a feeding stage (think caterpillar); in the case of flies the larva is the critter we call a maggot. After feeding for a certain amount of time the unwinged larva encloses itself into a cocoon and pupates. Inside the pupa the larva undergoes a drastic metamorphosis. The adult stage that emerges from the pupa looks entirely different from the larva:  it has legs and (usually) wings.

Empty pupae of the phorid flies

The adult phorid flies actually look kind of cool. If they weren't troubling my honeybees, I'd like them.

Adult phorid flies

The female phorid fly lays eggs inside the body of a live host. Maggots hatch out of the eggs and cause behavioral changes in the host. Parasitized honeybees abandon the hive and fly around at night, which is why they are easy to catch. They also get disoriented and walk around like, well, zombees. Eventually the fly larvae (maggots) burst out of the bee's body and pupate outside the bee. The host inevitably dies.

Now, isn't that a lot creepier than your average Hallowe'en tale?

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