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MY FIRST SWARM!

and boy, they did not make it an easy one.

There’s another awesome advantage to having your hives right outside your front windows (I love having the hives so close to the house; it’s often not recommended, but there’s much to be said for the close connection):

When you glance outside, five minutes after seeing nothing unusual, and see that they’re swarming!

It was sensational.  I knew right away, because I’d never seen anything like it, and I could hear them roaring, too, from inside.  I ran out and took a couple pictures.I always imagined a bee swarm was like, a cloud of bees, grouped together, like a thing you could point to.  No.  They’re zooming around in straight lines in all directions, buzzing loud like they’re angry (they must really be excited), and they just fill all the air.  They filled the visible sky.  You’d have to zoom out quite far before the swarm entity would appear like a cloud.

Then the air full of bees started to move.

All I remembered was that I would have to follow them, so I quickly grabbed a roll of flagging tape.  Because of course they headed out over the densest, awfullest brush around here.  I flagged my way in, thrashing after them, though they were easy to follow by ear – so loud!!

Seriously, ten minutes from “no unusual bee behaviour here”, to gone.  Now if I’m going to be retroactively honest with myself, I think maybe one of my hives has split-swarmed before to vistas unknown.  because there were times it seemed like fewer bees than there should be in the box when I opened.  If they can go that fast, entirely possible.

They didn’t go too far.  I got under the epicentre of their sound, looking up at them.  They seemed to be concentrating.  Their thousands of bodies in flight made a distortion like heat shimmer. And then, sure enough, I saw a crowd of bees starting to form on the trunk of the big maple I was under.  That’s where they were choosing to stay.  Ok.

Time to go home and google!  (yes, first I pulled a couple physical books).  I found out some things .  Things like that they don’t initially go too far, they just make a temporary stop and send out scouts from there to find a new home.  A little like committing to move by selling your home and moving all your stuff out before thinking about where you might go next, or calling any real estate agents.  So the cluster of bees in this current temporary location could stay there a few days while deciding where to live henceforward (settling arguments comparing the great view in option A to the third bathroom in option B), or… maybe just an hour.  Act fast.  Don’t smoke them, do mist them with water (this was so clutch!).  They’re full of honey, and docile.

I went back to the tree.  The silence was striking, like the bees had turned off.  They had all landed, and were quiet.  I’d have never found them, visually, if I hadn’t followed them when they were noisy.  They were way up on the maple, wrapped all around the trunk in a two foot band, like you might collar a tree to keep squirrels out of it.  A band of bees instead of metal would be very effective against squirrels.

I got my long ladder, and climbed it, and learned that I needed another ten feet (twelve actually- I measured later, and the bees were 27+ feet up).  Then I made at least six phone calls, to everyone I knew who might have an extension ladder, and a marginal interest in bees.  No one answered.

Ok, time to work with what I got.  I took apart my 3-way ladder and dragged a section of it up the first  ladder, and lashed it to the tree for a second flight.

Not Worksafe approved.
Where the bees were

Just as I started rigging that, I heard a distant clap of thunder.  Are you joking?  Are you f#$%ing joking!!?  (I was answered by another thunderclap, just in case I hadn’t heard correctly).   And Really, bees?  You picked a rain day?  We’ve had a series of thunderstorm squalls the last week, and they move in fast, and dump sudden torrential amounts of rain.  Because my heart wasn’t already pounding.

Then I gathered my stuff.  Bee brush, string, squirt bottle.  A bucket?  I went with a nuc box.  (spoiler- should have used the bucket- it would have been easier to tie to the tree and to carry down on my arm, or lower down).

Last, I made one more call, to leave “the message”: Umm,  if I don’t call again by 4:30, the place to look is at the bottom of a tree, follow the flag line from the beehives.  But this time someone answered the phone, and ground support was mobilized:)

Up in the tree, at the top of my ladders, I was quite comfortable.  Nice view.  I dragged up all my stuff in a couple of trips and stationed it in the branches.  I tied the cardboard nuc box securely to the trunk of the tree below the cluster, and started scooping bees and dropping them into the box.

So, this is the good part, and there are no pictures, because trust me, none of this situation screams “Selfie time!”  I had lots of things on my mind and God I wish I could take pictures of this! only passed through fleetingly.  I really wish – but it was out of the question.

Standing on the top rung I could just reach the bees with my bee brush.  Although they were thickly wrapped all the way around, the heaviest mass of them was on the far side of the trunk from me, so I was reaching around and trying to shake chunks of them loose and quickly scoop them into the box.

Bees hate the bee brush (but I couldn’t reach without it – later when they were lower I could just use my hands).  They hate it with a fiery passionate fury that supersedes their much touted docility when swarming.  I don’t know why they hate the bee brush so much;  maybe it tickles.  Or pokes.  But it incites them to wild rage. It’s actually funny to watch them attack the brush so viciously, seething with hate, uselessly stinging the brush hairs with all their might.  But I was attached to the brush – guilt by association, and I took a few stings. The squirt bottle was amazing.  I’d feverishly mist around my head when I got a cloud of buzzers mad at the brush, and they’d go placid like they forgot all about it, and settle back down.

After I got a few stings, I went down and got out of tree-climbing-appropriate wear, into my bee suit.  Because limited visibility and loose snaggable fabric will be just the ticket!  Back up in the cloud scooping bees, my friend arrived at the foot of the tree. I could hardly hear him for the bees humming at my head, like standing next to a big diesel.  The ground support was really helpful, though, because he could see the other side of the trunk that I couldn’t, and report if I was making headway (“What?”) , and “Up!  Down”, (“What!?”)  to get remaining clumps.

It seemed to go pretty well.  I was getting bees into the box.  Only thing, they seemed to want to come out of the box.  It was like a really slow boil over.  I’d dump bees in, they’d flow back over the top of the box.  I’d scoop them back in with my hands.  The upper trunk was mostly cleared – blessedly, they did not move away upwards.  They were teeming out of the box and wrapping the tree again lower down.

I went down tree for a break, and because I needed snips.  I was shaking, dripping with sweat, suit soaked, feet sore from the ladder rungs, but exhilarated.  Seems I was exerting myself to balance and cling to the tree and work.

Back up, now the air smells like rain, the wind is coming up (still thundering), there’re more bees out of the box than in, and I’m getting reports from the ground that masses of them are clumping on the back/trunk side of the box (that I can’t see).  I figure the queen must be in the vicinity now, no longer up on the original spot (good!), and I decide I have to untie the box from the trunk and move it down, so that I can sweep bees into the box again.

I have to interject for a moment how awesome this all was (while also being risky and sketchy).  All these bees!  Individuals, but together, a fluid mass.  You never get to experience the hive as an undiluted entity.  Unlike when you handle a frame covered with bees, now, the “thing” is the bees. You can hold a handful, a baseball sized chunk, of bees! They’re hot!   And vibrating.  There is a penumbra of potential energy around them, a considerable power, humming, vibrating my arm.  Amazing!

I had to get a grip on the box now, and untie the strings I’d lashed it to the tree with, using knots that I’d tied without the untying in mind.  It was all neater than this in my imagination of how it would go.  But the box is covered, inches deep in bees, as are the strings, and there are multiple random little maple branches dipped into the box that are now one with the bees-  I had to snip those off.  I had to reach into the bees to hold the box, and again to expose my knots, and untie with one hand, while supporting the box.  The bees are heavy!

I lowered the box a couple feet, and then I had to tie it on again, because I had to hold myself on the tree with one hand and use the other to scoop bees.  I never had two hands free.  My second tying, one handed, tree swaying now, was much less secure than the first, and I worried the string would give suddenly, and the box drop.  I swept the bees in.  I was seriously tired now.  Almost two hours in, and the soles of my feet were asleep, I was shaking like hard shivers, it was imminently going to rain, and it had just occurred to me that I had NO IDEA how I was going to bring this box down a ladder that I absolutely needed two hands to climb, as it was straight vertical.  Not a clue.  And I’m watching my string around the box slip further with every movement of the tree.

I was definitely making an effort to keep my priorities straight:

  1.  Don’t fall out of the tree
  2. Don’t drop the box of bees
  3. Don’t hurt any bees.  In that order!  (it’s easy to flinch from a sting or to avoid crushing a bee, and flinches can become slips).

I was hugging the tree and box together, it started to rain, and wanting to cover the box, I realized the lid was out of my reach!  I’d moved down, and it was still lodged in the branches above us.  I could just touch it  using my bee brush.  As I was frantically whacking at that, trying to dislodge it, the rain started to pound down in big thumping thunderstorm drops.  I realized I had a very limited window left, and I had to get down, with the bees, now.   With the combination of desperation, fatigue, and the bee magic vibrating through my upper body as I hugged the box, I kinda blacked out a bit and don’t remember any thoughts or “hows” until it was over, but the lid came loose, I set it on the boiling-over bees, balanced the box on my shoulder and upper arm using my head (cheek and ear to this magical radiating box), and got down.  At some point  the lid was knocked off and went down on its own.

The rain didn’t last long.  The remaining clumps of bees in the tree  came into the air, confirming that the queen must be in the box, as the bees appeared to have changed their minds and direction, and were now headed into the box.  Yes!  When  I came back after the squall, they were almost all in.

Doesn’t look like it’s all that dramatic, does it?  The bucket is for the rain- there’s a big screen window in the top of these boxes.

WOW! So exciting!

On the bright side, swarm catching will probably be easier from here on out.  I’m sure swarm catching events can be much harder than that, but really, I think they are often much easier.  Location, location, location!  So this was one heck of a beekeeper threshold experience.  Next thresholds:  being called to collect a swarm from somewhere else, and having a swarm voluntarily arrive.  Heard this is a nice place with vacancies.

The story’s not over yet.  They still have to get into a hive at dusk, but, that will be part two.  I manage that just about as elegantly.

The bee swarm managed to eclipse not only Cotton and chicks first going out on the grass today (old hat for Daisy) and Foxy’s fourth chick (it’s a mom-sitter), but also the arrival of NEW BABIES- GUINEA KEETS!  Galahad will be so excited;  he hasn’t seen them yet as it was almost dark and they stayed in their box.

It was a huge day!  To think it started out with me thinking “I think I’ll call this a day off.  Just do what I feel like, maybe get in a nap.  ”  Ha ha.  Ha.

Swarm catching, part 2

Big day

It was one of those days, where I get up for the hens, but am not ready to commit to being awake, so I bargain with myself, Well, I’ll just wear my sweat pants to do the chickens.  It’s like, bringing the comfort of bed with you.

Then the next thing, I stop for “lunch”, and turns out it’s 5pm, and I’m still wearing my sweat pants.  And of course I’m full of ticks, because I haven’t been dressed appropriately.  All day.  Those are good days, though.

I see this is how I come to be found wearing pajamas and rubber boots so often too – the early morning “I’m not really getting up this early, I’m just going to do the chickens and then I’ll make tea” rationalization.  What really happens is HW catches me in the middle of the day and I get a “wrath of god” bossy lecture:  “Little Nibbler, operating power tools in your pajamas is NOT appropriate!  Go get some work pants on, and some real shoes!”  And I can’t really argue with him, at all.  “But I’m just-I only have four more cuts! -Ok fine“.

First thing- chicks on grass!  First day outside for the cheeps.  Mom is beside herself to be on grass. She’s not waiting for the box to be opened.  She was out of her mind excited, cropping grass as fast as she could between clucks.  I haven’t had a salad in weeks!   The little brown one thinks it’s cold on the feet.  She jumped back in.They’ve got her surrounded.  I don’t know if chicks are as interesting to them as birth is to people, or just that they haven’t seen her for awhile.  They all have to stare.

I cleaned a bunch of junk out of the greenhouse and  put in the irrigation, working “with” my sidekick pet chicken Apples.  I’m working.

She still “lives in the house“, but I take her with me outside pretty frequently.  She rides along on my wrist like a falcon, her wings slightly out like she might have to throw them open for balance.  But she doesn’t seem ready to jump off when we walk through chicken land.

She’s a different little bird.   Just watches the others, while they watch her.  What the…?   Is that chicken riding the human?  She moves around the greenhouse pretty comfortably, getting some food variety and real dust baths.

All assembled, and as an added bonus, it actually works.   The lines charged, and it seems to drip evenly.  I wasn’t sure if the passive pressure from the stock tank that catches the water off the GH would be enough.  An experiment.

It’s not.  Half the tank emptied, but it took all day to happen.  The tank fills much faster than that in a good rain, so the drip will never keep up.   I was expecting as much.  I need a little submersible pump to push water.  That’s ok;  I needed one anyway to move water from where I catch it off our roof to the greenhouse where it needs to end up, the part I’ve been doing manually for years.  So done with that.  First I need to measure the head, and I haven’t managed that yet.

Then near the end of a full day I go to just do a couple repairs on the old coops that keep going and going, and discover … four broody hens! Now I have to make broody accommodations in a hurry!  One express broody kennel.  I can make them in less than an hour now.

line up the covered wagons

One hen will go to a friend, one goes in this broody kennel, and the other two – are full size!!

This is new!  I’ve never had a layer hen go broody before.  That’s what the Silkies do.  This is a new world!  I don’t know why I didn’t expect it – Chanticleers are heritage birds; it’s reasonable.   Perchick and Cream Puff, full sisters, broody the same day, different coops.  Perchick is serene, but Cream Puff is all fluffed out, and looks both surprised and irritable, which seems about right.

What to do with them?  A broody kennel is not big enough for them.

I evicted the rooster that was baching it, staying alone in the “temporarily” converted chickery-to-coop, and moved Cream Puff in.  I elevated him to the big coop, making his wildest dreams come true.  He’s been trying to figure out how to get in there for days, and every night after making a hundred circles around the ramp gives up and goes to bed in the wall tent.

I put Cream Puff in the “temporary” coop at dusk.  It’s the perfect size.  I tried to carefully gather her and move her, with her eggs.  Yeah right.  Big flapping drama, chase scenes.  I should have waited another hour.  She’s such a nervous nelly, always jumpy, of course it would go badly.  I should have waited until pitch dark.

I locked her in with her eggs and hoped.  I could watch  her through the gap in the canvas, pacing around, trying to escape.  I’m in a box!  I must get out!  Must.  Get out.  Oh, eggs!….eggs….I’m in a box!  Must get out! 

It’s like a switch flipping in her brain.  From agenda, to egg trance.  Must get out!  Oh, there’s some eggs….eggggggs…..Must get out!  Egggggs…..  Luckily, she settled on the eggs finally.  We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.  I hope all the action didn’t break her up.

She’s in there, but fully alert

The Silkies moved effortlessly, of course.

Perchick must wait until tomorrow for me to build her an eggery.  She’s hoarding all the eggs in B coop.

 

Tomatoes already?!

I haven’t even gotten everything into my garden yet, and tomatoes are already forming in the greenhouse.  I’ve also canned a round of rhubarb.  I think it’s not good when the harvest starts before the planting is done.  Better…next…year.

In the meantime, my greenhouse companions, the Blondies, are joyously scritching around in the heavy mulch, until it gets too hot and I kick them outside for the day.

One chick decided to have a dust bath.  Very funny – a chick the size of a tennis ball taking a dust bath.  Really into it.  I’ve not seen a little chick dust bathe before.

They’re getting their wing feathers and little stubby tails.

A pile of snakes sunning in the pile of straw.

Honey!

I harvested (stole) honey from my bees this year.  How exciting!

They filled four supers this year, I took two, and they’ll winter in two.  This is my first “harvesting”, as I took no honey last year.  It was a revelation, also known as a comedy of ignorance.

First I had to get the supers off the hive.  I had no idea how to do this, so I made the best of it, and it worked.  Well, I think the right thing to do is put a one way valve thingy between the supers to move all the bees into the lower levels.  I took them off in the afternoon, first lifting several frames out of each box (they are SO heavy.  I should have gone with  short boxes) until I could lift each box down. I also shuffled frames around, to make sure they had only frames fat with honey in their wintering boxes.

Then in the interest of putting the bees back into the hive, I took each of the frames I was going to keep for honey, held it over the open hive, and gently brushed the bees off with the bee brush.

Ooooo, they HATE the bee brush.  They go mad trying to sting it, burrowing into the bristles with rage.  This method put many of the bees back into the hive, but it was obvious I was never going to get all of them back.

Also this took a long time.  The hive was open for a goodly length of time, and it’s all very disruptive.  My bees are so nice.  They hardly sting me, and they’re staying very organized, only storing honey and not brooding in the upper storeys.  But still, they were losing their patience, especially with that @#$% bee brush!

So I left the boxes, and frames I was taking, outside until dark.  Just sitting there next to the hive.   It worked like magic!  Almost all the bees returned to the hive at dark, leaving the frames of honey behind.  At dark I went to get them, putting the frames into a big Rubbermaid one at a time.  Each bee I found that had got caught out too late I put back into the hive doorstep.  Bee casualties of the day: 2 (one sting).  Not bad.  This actually worked so well I’ll probably do it like this again.

Then I took the honey over to my neighbour’s extractor, another thing I’d never seen.  It holds four frames at a time and centrifuges the honey out, which drips down the walls of the cylindrical chamber, to run out a tap at the bottom.  Wow.

First you must artfully slice off the wax caps with a hot knife (“What’s that?” I said – luckily, he had one), then drop each frame into the frame-holding basket in the extractor.

It’s time-consuming!  Slicing off the wax, corralling the stray drips and mess (all contained in the same Rubbermaids, which will be returned to the bees to clean up – zero waste), and finessing the extractor.  The extractor is revved up slowly, then you flip the frames and run it again to get the honey off the other side of each frame.  It’s amazing.  The frames come out feather-light, all the comb intact.

When they were all done we cracked the tap and started filling jars.  I knew out of two supers I had a few serious bricks of honey, but I also had a half-dozen totally empty frames (from the sides of the supers), and several partials.  I wasn’t expecting much from my two not-full supers.  I was hoping to get 6 half-pints to give away for Xmas.

WELL!  The honey started flowing, and kept flowing.  I filled all the jars I had, and then he had to round some up.  An astounding (to me) amount of honey.  The only thing I expected to need, that I brought, was a spatula.

Also, I was under the impression that when you open the tap, store-ready honey comes flowing out.  Nope.  There are hundreds of wax caps and chips, some debris, and the odd dead bee that gets centrifuged out of the frames.  Filtering is a second process (that I haven’t done yet).  The right thing to do is to decant the honey into a big vessel or bucket, and then strain it later into giveaway ready jars.

After a rest, all the wax floats to the top of the honey so I’ll probably skim it off and then strain.

Naturally, I completely forgot to take any pictures until nearly the last jar was full, and then found I had only my phone, with a fogged up camera.  Yay!

 

Pollen baskets!

The bees were coming home loaded today with pollen baskets.  A soft snot-green colour- I wonder what is the source.  Bees at the end of their workday were zooming in every few seconds with payloads, as the sun ran out.

They are still in winter wraps, but are very lively with this warm early spring we’re having, already polishing off bottles of syrup within a week and thoroughly exploring, sometimes a little too adventurously.

I do a fair amount of bee rescue, returning bees who have got themselves in trouble to the hive.  I find them in buckets, or frantically lost in the house, raging at the windows.  Half drowned, half froze, half exhausted-  I run them back to the hive, transfer them from my finger to the doorstep, and watch as they wearily drag themselves back in the door, or are helped.

Today I had my face quite close watching a sodden bee (who could at first only wave one antenna to let me know she lived), pull herself back inside when a small black flying insect landed on the bee porch for a rest- just a little gnat.  A guard bee dashed out, snatched the insect up with her bee forelegs, and then seemed to throw it.  It flew away with alacrity, lucky to escape.  A beat after she chucked it she zoomed at me.  Hey git out of here!  You’re too close for comfort too.

 

First frost

Doesn’t it seem early for frost?   I’m not ready for winter!!

We had two nights of light frost, enough to fry some of the squash leaves, and last night a proper frost-all the open areas whitened, and ice on top of the chicken’s water.

I have pretty much the entire garden covered, and all the new trees.  Everything sensitive is festooned with fabric and feed sacks where I ran out of fabric- not a Better Homes & Gardens look, but there should be another week or two of ripening weather before Jack Frost comes calling with a heavy knock.