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Spring project: Rescue honey bee swarms around Pittsburgh and Forest Hills

Filed under: Beekeeping — jet @ 23:37

Drue and I are trying a project this Spring to trap honey bee swarms. Bees reproduce by swarming, about half the hive takes off on short notice and goes looking for a new hive. They need to find a new home within a day or so after they swarm, they can’t transport food to survive on while they are swarming from one hive to a new space. The real problem is that on average, only one in six swarms survive in urban environments. If they can’t find a new hive and start foraging for food within 48 hours after they swarm they will probably die of starvation.

Here’s what we want to do — place “swarm traps” at places near the parks and other areas where swarms are likely. A swarm trap is basically a transportable bee hive with desirable (to a bee :-) characteristics of a good home. If we catch a swarm, we wait until it’s dark, plug up the openings on the trap, then bring it home to put in an empty hive or give it to a fellow beekeeper who has an empty hive. The swarm has no food, so they need to go to a hive with food as quickly as possible. We might feed them during the pick up, that’s only possible in the dark.

Swarms are relatively tame. I helped a friend fetch one out of a tree last summer and the bees were really happy after we put them in a hive-like container. We literally scooped them off the branch with our hands and put them in a box, it was kinda like cleaning up Legos. With a trap, they even do the “put them in a box” work for us.

Here’s what we need to manage a swarm trap:

– permission from the land owner to place the trap on a tree about six feet off the ground. We just ratchet-strap it to the side of the tree, it shouldn’t damage the bark.

– a way for someone to check the trap every day during daylight hours for a new swarm. It can be us or someone near the hive who just takes a look once a day.

– access to the trap after dark to retrieve a swarm, preferably in the evening an hour or so after sunset.

Here’s what we *don’t* need:

– a permit from the city. This isn’t a “beehive”, it’s a “trap”, and the land owner won’t be keeping bees.

– help installing the trap or retrieving it if it’s with swarm. Bees are pretty gentle creatures but it took us a few weeks of practice before we were comfortable handling them in a way that doesn’t make them cranky.

If any ya’ll are interested in hosting a swarm trap, let us know, and we can work out the details in person.  Swarm season usually starts in April/May, but last year’s warm winter had it start so early we had a hive swarm the second week of April.



Western PA Beekeeping Meeting

Filed under: Beekeeping — jet @ 16:04

Just home from the Western PA beek meeting and I learned a lot more this year than last.   Some of it good, some of it helpful in retrospect.

Feral Swarms

The best talk was a tutorial on catching feral swarms. I had no idea this was a “thing”, but the guy giving the talk lives in western Ohio and caught 64 swarms in two months. He constantly bought new hives and ended up with three different yards with 15-20 hives in each, all feral swarms. Primary cost: hives and 2700 miles on his truck.

Feral swarms aalso, it turns out, have amazing genetics relative to package bees from the south (duh). One swarm built 17 frames in a double deep in two weeks, he put on two mediums, those were built in two weeks, then by the end of the flow he had 2 mediums and a deep full of capped honey.

One yard of feral swarms produced 550 pounds of honey from eight hives. That’s 70 pounds her hive, I’m happy if I get over 40 from a hive.

So, hey look, we own two acres of wooded land a mile from here, and that land is within a couple miles of forests and wooded parks. I wonder how many traps I can put up, and more importantly, where I’d put all the bees.  I also have friends who live within a mile or two of the two main wooded parks in Pittsburgh (The City of) and will ask them if I can put swarm traps on their property.

Traps are easy to make out of 1/2″ plywood, two sheets and some 1x2s will make 5 swarm traps.  Just make it the size of a deep, removable lid, 1 1/2″ entry hole, and ratchet strap it to a tree as high as possible.

Dying Hives


It hit the upper 40s today so we cleaned out the three hives that deaded out during winter. It will be 70F in Tuesday and we don’t want any bees rotting/decomposing in the hives. (10 years ago we had 2′ of snow on the ground around this time.) We recovered maybe 10 or 15# of honey and fed the surviving hive a pound of protein patty. It’s going to be warm enough for them to do cleansing flights starting tomorrow but there’s no food out in the wild.

One thing I overheard at the meeting was that it was so cold in Ohio that bee clusters couldn’t survive going and fetching honey from other parts of the hive.  The bee cluster generates warmth by the bees dislocating their wings(!) and vibrating their wing muscles.  It should be close to 90F in the top of the hive, so it’s normally safe for bees to leave the cluster for food then return.  It’s possible that it was so cold last month that our hives suffered the same fate — the cluster ran out of fuel and it was too cold to go for more fuel.


Another hive down

Filed under: Beekeeping — jet @ 15:56

Lost another hive, one with plenty of food remaining.  Not sure if it was mites, disease, or just too damn cold for small cluster of bees.


Two hives down

Filed under: Beekeeping — jet @ 22:10

Here we are, six days later, and we’ve lost two hives. The first hive was the knee-biter hive and started off with relatively few bees and a few days ago they were low on bee count. I suspect they just couldn’t form enough heat for our unusually cold winter. The other hive had 2-3x as many dead bees as the othe rhives when I cleaned them out, so
maybe they tripped over a number-of-bees-for-heat problem or got hit hard by mites.

I added 3-4k of fondant to each of the remaining hives. Next decent day we’ll move all the uneaten fondant to the surviving hive and prep the dead hives for nucs.

One plan is to do “walk-away splits”. Wait until the healthy hives have capped brood including capped drones, then split each hive in half. Don’t worry about where the queen is, just split the brood and nurse bees between the healthy hive and the empty hive. The hive without a queen will start raising virgin queens ASAP, and that hive should have brood within six weeks (if I’m doing the mental math correctly).

The hive with a queen will now have a half-empty hive and no real reason to swarm. The queen can lay lots more bees and the hive can build a lot more honey.


Winter Check of Bees in Pittsburgh

Filed under: Beekeeping,Pittsburgh — jet @ 23:53

Surprise 64F day today so we checked the hives. The nuc with the $$$ queen has bees, but I’m not sure enough to survive the rest of the winter. We rearranged all the fondant in the hives so they could continue to “eat up” in the fondant over the next few freezing days; we’ll check them again this Saturday.

Last year we got blindsided by the strange Winter and early Spring and the hives swarmed before we expected. We think our frames were honey bound, they had enough fondant that they didn’t eat the honey then the
queen had no place to lay. This year we’ll check weekly (if possible) and switch from fondant to syrup as soon as possible.

Another thing we’ll try is flipping the top and bottom deeps and frames. We can pull any honey leftover and extract it then replace those frames with built frames so the queen has plenty of room to lay. If they’re getting syrup until the first pollen hits we should have lots more eggs and fresh bees at the start then Spring honey.

Fingers crossed, thumbs held.


In other beehive news,

Filed under: Beekeeping — jet @ 23:25

Well, it was a happy/sad weekend for our bees. We’re having a brief warm spell, 50F instead of 25F, so I re-checked the hives for fondant. The weaker hive is a dead out, but I had time to clean up the mess before pests come in. Most of the dead bees were in the bottom and a small cluster, maybe the size of a grapefruit died at the top of the hive near plenty of fondant. They just couldn’t keep up the temperature in the 0F weather a couple of weeks ago. Some of them were face-down in comb looking for warmth/food, but the rest were just in a ball.

Cleaned all that out then went to look at the hive that was performing good hygiene and kicking out dead bees. They were strong, just starting on the fondant I put out a few weeks ago, and pissed off. Which means they’re pretty healthy if they’re in the mood to defend the hive.

Today we went to the Western PA meeting of the state beekeeping association and saw some good talks on splitting and feeding. We’re going to remake our most recent batch of fondant mixing in bee pollen and aminos. One of our local beeks, “only 48 years in the business”, has about 80 hives and has been experimenting with foods for the past 10 years in controlled a/b tests.

His results are almost unbelievable. He has so many strong hives now that he’s starting to pre-order queens so he can split as many as 40 hives. “Overfeeding” bees seems to be the right thing to do, not the wrong thing. Give them enough carbs, vitamins, and aminos that the younger bees can mature and the older bees are ready to go as soon as it gets warm.

Another speaker talked about splitting and winter hives and planning in Summer what you want in the Spring. If you want 10 hives next year, assume a significant portion will die out and plan on having 13 strong hives by the end of summer.

Tomorrow we’ll redo the fondant for the one strong hive and start getting ready for the two nucs that show up in March. We’ve also got a new location for two hives (if we can split/buy more) and a potential third location next year for as many as 16 or 20 if we have the time/investment dollars.


Busy as a, well, bee

Filed under: Beekeeping — jet @ 21:08

Good contract gig, finally finishing my latest lasersaur, and because I have so much free time…. BEES!

Photos for now, but words and updates of my hive tracking spreadsheet coming soon.

photos are on Flickr

and videos on vimeo.

Testing a link to Repasky’s book on swarming.

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