BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2009 My first year: rain, rain...

Swarming on the 4th of July
The way bees multiply, simply put, is by creating a new queen and splitting the hive up into "Loyalist" and "Separatists". The Loyalist stay behind awaiting a new queen to be born; and the Separatists move on with the old queen mother of them all.

It is an unselfish and beautiful thing when it happens on the Fourth of July. Scouts are sent out, make their case to the group for alternative locations through dance navigational movements in accordance with the position of the sun - perhaps to a hollow in a log or tree. They all take turns visiting those locations, finally to deliberate where to relocate while resting on a nearby tree branch. Despite all the bees efforts, this is when the skilled beekeeper can herd them back into a new home of his choice - if that branch is within reach. In anticipation of such an event I built a second hive and had it at the ready.

I'm in my first year of beekeeping and I write with mixed emotions. We have the largest and tallest stand of Sugar Maples on our road. My bees took to the highest branches of the tallest tree and waved at us in all their glory from limbs reaching perhaps 80 feet into the stormy sky.

We are in an "intervale" of the White Mountains of the Appalachians of the North East...shady and damp. It is colder here than my little Italian friends prefer, but they wintered in Maine and have proven themselves to be a hearty industrious hive; and a gentle one at that.

But the rain has been relentless. Only nine days in June with no precipitation and in that time hardly a one with even so much as spotty sun. During one break we quickly got our garden plants into their beds...but the flowers on my bolted herbs were soaked and not offering much in the way of pollen. Many an evening I watched the girls grumbling on the porch of the hive en-mass. Whenever a dry moment came along I opened the roof and carefully placed a bag of nectar-syrup to insure as much as possible a food source and made plenty of room for their numbers by adding another story. Most kept hives are lost to starvation and over-crowding under such conditions, I read.

Firework shows were all tentative throughout the county, the radio reported, as I sat on the porch with my cat about noon time. We then heard what sounded like a plane overhead only it never seemed to pass. Finally, walking into the garden, I looked up and beheld my bees in a swarm! The wind whipped and the clouds blew quickly across the sky. Thunder and lightening heralded the event. The greatest number landed on one large branch of our grandest maple, a smaller group on another....but by evening the majority united with the minority into one high and lofty mass of humming freedom.

Two scouts found their way into our house so we carefully caught and placed them into the new hive home hoping they would fly up and tell the others what a great new place they had found....but no luck. A handful of Loyalist lined up on the parent hive's porch waving their little buns in the air toward the swarm calling them back as well...but no.

Temperatures dropped into the 40's that night. I tossed and turned wondering if they could survive outside, but there they were Sunday morning clinging close to each other in the dawn's early light. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. The yard seemed to come alive with bird song, as if all weather concerns had gone with the winds of the previous day.

We watched with binoculars, hoped the adventurous bees would return home, and waited.

At precisely 1 PM the now familiar bee-plane noise rose in volume. All the scouts had returned, a decision had been made.

The fertile hay fields around our intervale, so beautiful with color, go yet un-mowed, unusual by this time of year. For this California girl now living in historical New England, "make hay while the sun shines" has gone from a hoky phrase of my Mom's to a call for action. We have empathized with the dilemma the rain has presented to the local farmers in this regard.

Those amber waves of grain must have been just too much to resist for my little band of Separatists observing the world beyond the garden from such heights. In an organized swoop, with perhaps a shout of freedom, they were flying off over the tree tops to brave their new world. The sun beat down turning their departure into a glittery fireworks display.

At home the Loyalist went about their chores as if nothing had happened. They cleaned empty cells and brought a rainbow of pollen in by the little buckets on their legs. They straightened up the hive, discarded, recycled and mended comb. I saw no queen, but many, many queen cells waiting for the moment to emerge and fight for their place over the hive or die. Several drones paced around waiting also.

Then, there she was. A new queen. The first to hatch. She had attendants...just a few. She was laying eggs in newly drawn comb so had obviously just returned from the one mating flight of her life. The other queen cells, created by the workers to insure the success of the hive previous to the Separatists departure, are often distroyed by the beekeeper to allow the new queen to move forward in her reign. In nature, they just fight it out.

I have a lot to learn about bee keeping but this short season with "my girls" has been a wonder. Taking control of their own destiny like that...beekeepers be damned. I know it doesn't seem right mixing America's heritage with stories of royalty and bees...but I'll never look at any insect quite the same again. It is possible I may learn that our little neck of the woods is not the haven for bees that it has been for us.

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