Great Swarms of Bees!

As many of you know, we have an observation honeybee hive in the Butterfly Center. It was initially installed in the Rainforest Conservatory by a professional beekeeper during the recent renovation of the Entomology Hall – and you can learn more about beekeeping in several exhibits there.

If you haven’t seen our hive, make sure to check it out next time you’re here.  The set-up is really cool – the one-frame-thick construction sandwiched between plexiglass makes it possible to see all the bees and watch their fascinating behavior.

If you’re lucky you’ll see the queen making her rounds, laying eggs in any available cell, several attendants clustering around her.  Drones are possible to spot, for those with a discerning eye – they are stockier and have bigger eyes than their hard-working sisters.  You can see workers coming in and out of the tube leading to the great outdoors, where they forage for pollen and nectar, or watch them working inside the hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
This is the tube the bees travel through to get outside the Butterfly Center.
See a full set of images on Flickr.

It’s especially fun to see the pollen-laden returning workers doing the waggle dance – telling their sisters the distance and direction to a flowering patch, and how productive it is.  Deciphering this amazing bee language won Karl von Frisch the Nobel Prize in 1973.

But the same features that make the observation hive such an ideal observation tool also bring problems.  The main constraint is the structure’s small size.  Beekeepers can add another hive body and endless numbers of “supers” to their colonies as the number of workers in them grow.  But the observation hive cannot be expanded, and with only three frames and one small super, it quickly fills up with bees during the active summer season.  During these months the queen is an egg-laying machine, producing several hundred to a couple of thousand eggs per day.

Bees have a natural way to control their populations – when a hive gets too crowded, they swarm!  As I now know, thanks to joining the Houston Beekeepers Association, swarms are a common phenomenon.  But most people don’t notice them – I certainly had never seen a swarm until this year.  During a swarm, the old queen leaves the hive, taking about half of the workers with her – they go off to find a new home.  The bees left behind tend several developing queens that were laid in anticipation of a swarm.  Usually there is more than one young queen – this is hedging bets, just in case the first queen to emerge doesn’t make it back to the hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
A swarm of bees looking for a new home. See a full set of images on Flickr.

When the new, virgin queen emerges from her pupa the drones swarm around, closely following her as she leaves the hive.  She swiftly flies high up into the air, hotly pursued by her eager suitors.  Only the fastest can reach her and there, high in the sky, she mates with several of the speediest.  The drones die after mating.  The young queen returns to the colony, her abdomen filled with enough sperm to fertilize the several million eggs she will lay during her lifetime.  She will never leave the hive again, unless she heads up a swarm.  If there are other developing queens in the hive, the new queen will sting them to death, eliminating all competition to her reign.

But what happens to the bees that leave the colony during a swarm?  Thanks to the observation hive, I can tell you!  Our colony swarmed late last week (for the second time this summer, we think – we missed seeing it the first time).  A few days before the bees swarmed, they seemed more agitated than normal.  It also appeared to us that there were more drone cells (bigger than the normal cells that contain baby worker bees).  It was hard to see them underneath the masses of bees, but we thought we could glimpse at least a couple of queen cells.  These structures, which look like peanuts hanging down off the edge of the comb, are the nursery chambers for a new queen bee.

Queens are produced by feeding the larva a special diet of royal jelly.  This amazing substance is produced by worker bees.  All bee larvae get a bit of this extremely nutritious secretion, but are also fed a lot of “bee bread” – a mixture of pollen and honey.  In contrast, baby queens are fed royal jelly exclusively.  As a result of this special diet they grow bigger (thus needing the special cell), are fertile, and develop several days faster than the sterile worker bees.  Queen bees also can live for several years, while workers survive only 6-8 weeks.

But back to the swarm.  At some point about half of the bees inside a crowded hive, led by the old queen, stream out of the hive, and land some likely place – in this case, on the branch of a jujube tree growing only about 15 feet from the Butterfly Center.  They formed a tight cluster of solid bees, probably 30,000 bees or so.  The swarm cluster may stay put for a few days while scout bees scour the surrounding area for a likely new home.  If they find a potential new home (usually in some sort of cavity) the group migrates en masse to take up residence.

Since swarms can sometimes take up residence where they are not wanted (inside the walls of a house, for example), responsible beekeepers will do their best to keep their hives from swarming by being sure the hive has room to grow, or by dividing a large hive in two before it swarms (the presence of queen cells is a good indication of an impending swarm).  We don’t have any way of expanding the observation hive – but were happy to see that this swarm was easily accessible.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Suiting up! See a full set of images on Flickr.

So Zac and I suited up and proceeded to capture the swarm.  Standing on a ladder, Zac gently brushed the bees off the branch and into a cardboard box.  The first glob of bees fell with a thump to the bottom.  We couldn’t get all of the bees but got most of them and taped a screened top over the box (unfortunately it turned out to be a bit leaky!).  We were fairly certain that we did get the queen, however, as the remaining bees did not stay on the branch but buzzed around uncertainly, eventually returning to the observation hive.  All in all the bees were fairly calm during the process although we both found several stingers embedded in our gloves after we had finished.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Attempting to move the bees.
See a full set of images on Flickr.

Since I had lost my “home bees” earlier this year, I had an empty hive box at home and was excited to get new bees!  After work that day I put the box of bees into the trunk of my car and drove home.  There I placed them in a corner of my yard for the night.  In the morning I would “hive” them into my empty box, which I had repainted and filled with new frames.  In the meantime I spritzed some sugar water over the screen to give the girls something to eat.

The next morning I saw that many more bees had gotten out and were flying around the box.  I suited up and prepared to put the bees into my hive.  Unfortunately it was not an elegant process – we had put so much duct tape on the box that I had a hard time opening it, especially with those heavy gloves on (really experienced beekeepers often don’t use gloves while working with their bees – but I’m still a neophyte and really don’t enjoy getting stung).

I finally got the box open and as gently as possible tried to dump the bees into the hive body.  It was a bit messy and bees were flying everywhere.  I managed to cover things over, and watched for a while.  The bees that had fallen outside the hive appeared to be crawling in to join their brethren (or should I say sistren). Thinking all was well, I went off to Wabash to get a couple more frames as I had only 8 of the 10 needed to fill the box.  About two hours later, my frames put together, I came back to the hive.  All was quiet, with some bees flying in and out.  Quite a bit of the sugar water in the boardman feeder had been consumed.  A good sign, I thought.

Cautiously I approached the hive, and gently lifted the top.  All was calm – too calm.  I lifted the top completely off and – oh no!!!  The hive was empty, except for a number of bees (probably from another hive in the neighborhood) coming to rob the feeder.  My bees had flown the coop!  Sure enough, I looked around and about 40 feet up in a huge water oak in my neighbor’s yard, I could see the cluster of bees as a dark wedge.  Drat!  There was no way I could retrieve them from so high.  A day or two later, they had disappeared – hopefully to a nice hollow tree and not to one of my neighbors’ attics!

I learned the error of my ways from Joe, another staff member here at the museum who – as I found out too late – has a lot of experience with bees (I think he keeps six hives himself).  He told me that when he is housing a swarm, he lets the swarm sit in the capture box for 3-4 days, feeding them with sugar water, before introducing them to a new home.  If you move them from one place to another too quickly after they swarm, he says, they just take off.

As they surely did.  So I guess I’ll be ordering another “package” of bees this coming spring, to fill my empty hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
See a full set of images on Flickr.

In closing, and despite the unsuccessful swarm capture, I can attest that keeping bees is easier than you think, is increasing in popularity and in importance (since many commercially kept bees are succumbing to various ailments), and is absolutely fascinating.

If you are a gardener, these essential pollinators are a natural fit – especially if you grow fruits and vegetables, as more bees mean a bigger crop!  There are some wonderful books on beekeeping, including the excellent “Beekeeping for Dummies.”  Leisure Learning offers a course on beekeeping at least a couple times a year.  And there are several beekeeping associations in the Houston area; go to www.texasbeekeepers.org to find your local chapter.

Bees, Benton, and my Back Yard

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Thousands of new bees for our hive

My neighbors had picked up my bees at the apiary in Navasota, since I was busy on the pick-up day.  Their drive back to Houston must have had a pleasant hum to it, with three “starter colonies” of bees in the backseat!  Each starter colony comes in a wooden box about 14″ long by 8″ high and deep, with screened sides, and holds about 3 pounds of worker bees (10,000 bees, give or take).  An inverted metal can holding sugar syrup to feed the bees blocks the hole where you will dump the bees out.  The queen cage (a very small box with screen sides and a sugar plug at one end, where she will come out in a few days to join the colony) is also inserted inside the box.

I had to keep the bees in their box a day longer than ideal – and that afternoon, when I went into my bedroom where I had left them until we were ready to hive them, I was greeted by a loud and ominous buzzing.  The bees were hungry!  They had eaten up all the sugar syrup.  As instructed I sprayed the screen sides with sugar syrup and the bees settled down contentedly.  Whew! 

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Benton in his bee suit helps me
change frames on the hive

This was it – we were ready to go.  My 5-year old friend Benton put on his “wee bee suit”, an adorable pint-sized bee suit available from Brushy Mountain Bee Farms, but I opted to go without protection.  Before the bees have their own hive they are not at all defensive and unlikely to sting.  We didn’t need smoke for this operation either.  My hive was all ready, having been put together and painted some weeks before (so any fumes would dissipate).

We took the box of bees, the spray bottle with sugar syrup, a Boardman feeder filled with syrup, an entrance reducer cut to fit with the Boardman feeder, and the all-purpose hive tool into the bee yard (a corner of my back yard that I’d fenced off to keep my dogs out).  We took the outer and inner covers off the hive, savoring the scent of beeswax on the new foundation of the frames inside.  Following my beekeeper friend’s instructions, I hit the bottom of the box sharply on the ground to knock the bees down, quickly removed the can and took out the queen’s little cage, and immediately put the can back in the hole.  The queen looked healthy and active – the beekeeper had marked her with a dot of paint.  I poked a little hole through the “candy” that she and the worker bees would chew through from opposite sides over the next couple of days, to give them a head start.  Benton took out a frame from the hive, and we wedged the queen box between the 4th and 5th frames.  We then took out three more frames to give us room in the hive to dump the bees.  This was it…the big moment.

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The bees move
into their new home

After hitting the box against the ground once more, I pulled out the syrup can and quickly inverted the box of bees over the hive, pouring and shaking them into the space where the frames had been removed.  I was a bit nervous and didn’t shake them out hard enough, so there were tons of bees still in the box when I stopped pouring.  We decided not to test the girls’ patience any more, and set the box on the ground while we replaced the frames and put the covers back on the hive.  Then we leaned the box with the hole facing towards the hive entrance.  Bees immediately began crawling up and into the hive.  They ignored us, just crawling over Benton’s ungloved fingers when he poked at them.  This was so cool!!!  After watching for a while we left the bees to themselves.  By morning the box was empty; all the bees had moved in to their new home.   

It was hard to wait for the recommended 7 to 10 days before checking on the bees.  During that week I had to refill the Boardman feeder several times, which I did at night or very early in the morning, not bothering to suit up.  At first temperatures were cool, so the bees were slow-moving and docile, hardly turning a wing when I switched out the feeders.  But one night was quite warm, and when I pulled off the feeder I was greeted by an angry buzz.  Bees poured out of the hole – yikes!  I dropped the feeder and ran, with a couple of angry girls following me all the way into the house.  I was lucky not to get stung – probably the darkness had helped to disorient the bees pursuing me.  After I’d taken a bee out of my hair, I humbly put on my bee suit and went out to retrieve the feeder and put on a new one.  All was calm again – but it was a good lesson I suppose.  The bees were definitely getting more defensive as they settled in to their new home.   Now I take the time to put on my bee suit before I mess with my new tenants. 

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Benton and I admire our new hive

Some nine days after hiving the bees, Benton and I both suited up in order to check on them.  We fired up the smoker and grabbed the hive tool and the frame we’d taken out the first time.  Before opening the hive we puffed a bit of smoke under the cover.  That stuff really does seem to calm the bees down and make them move out of the way.  When we took off the inner cover, we found a long piece of “burr comb” attached.  The bees had already filled up the space left between the 4th and 5th frame.  The fresh honeycomb was beautiful – clean yellowish wax, mostly empty except for some cells partly filled with honey or with bright orange pollen.  We tasted the pollen – it was sweet!  This is the “bee bread” used to feed the baby bees.   One by one we pulled out all the frames.  The more central ones already had good amounts of comb pulled out from the foundation, filled with pollen and honey and – baby bees!  Pearly white, curved grubs lay at the bottom of some of the cells, with tiny not-yet-hatched eggs in others.  The queen (even though we couldn’t find her) was doing her job!  The outer frames were still empty.  Before closing up the hive we put the 10th frame in and made sure they were all evenly spaced.  Soon it will be time to put on a second hive body!

Since the bees were no longer emptying the Boardman feeder, I removed it and put a full-length reducer at the entrance, leaving a 3″ hole for the bees to crawl through as they came and went.  As the number of bees increases I may remove the reducer entirely.

Everyone asks when we will start to harvest honey.  Apparently it may not be until the second year after starting a new colony, depending on the honey flow (availability of nectar-bearing flowers).  That’s okay – extracting the honey is hot, sticky work and Benton and I are really in this for the bees, not the honey.  His nickname, after all, is Bee!