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Our first swarms

The first that I knew that something was “up” was a subconscious awareness of buzzing. Given that our apiary is 100 feet from where I was sat at my desk, it must have been loud. Looking up from my Zoom call, I could see a swirling black mass of bees directly above our apiary. Shit…

Boom to bust

To recap – we have two colonies. Holly seems destined to be our problem child, while Ivy appears to be more successful – or so we thought.

On the 3rd July an inspection of Ivy revealed playcups across 3 frames, and we could see that space in the brood box was starting to run out, though there was still room to lay. Having been somewhat assured that we would not need to learn swarm management in our first year, we were relatively relaxed. We inspected Holly, who as usual was smaller as a colony, and had ample space. Discussing the inspection later, we decided to move 2 frames of eggs and sealed brood from Ivy to Holly – giving Ivy some space, and Holly a shot in the arm – numbers wise.

The next day, with the temperature hovering between 14c and 15c, and rain on the way, we hastily effected the swap of frames – not looking further at the frames. We didn’t want the hives open any longer than we needed to. I suspect that had we looked, we might have been able to delay the inevitable…

On the 6th July the house was visited time, and time, and time, and time again by bees – seemingly hell bent on keeping me company. Thinking it was nothing more nor less than a single inquisitive bee, I repeatedly shooed her out, until closing the doors became the only option.

On the 7th July, our neighbours who are most proximate to the hives started a group WhatsApp chat with us. Having said “Hello”, they politely said that our girls had been very moody that day, and that they (our neighbours) had more or less been driven from their garden. Hoping that this was a one-off, and that the reported bad-tempered nature of our bees was more literary prose than factual, we moved on.

Sitting on a work call at 11:15 the next day, even with my AirPods in, I became aware of buzzing. Thinking I had bee company in the room, I looked up, and then I looked out. What greeted me was the sight of a black cloud of swirling bees – directly above our apiary. Having experienced swarms in our garden before, I knew exactly what this was, and what it meant. By the time I’d hastily wrapped up my call, and put some shoes on, the air had cleared – meaning that they’d either returned to the hive, or sodded off. Hearing a loud buzz from another garden, I hoped that they’d settled, and I could retrieve them. After some rapid sleuthing, and a hasty message into our local community Facebook page, I found that they had not settled next door, and had in fact been spotted by a friend – making a bee-line for The Mount (above Guildford).

We were very puzzled, and quite sad.

Bees swarming in a tree

The aftermath

Inspecting the hives a couple of days later showed that both colonies had swarmed, and most likely within a day of one another. I suspect that our neighbour’s experience of their behaviour related to the swarm, and the persistent bee, or bees, in our house had equally been related.

We found nearly 20 queen cells spread across 5 frames in Ivy, and 11 queen cells across 6 frames in Holly. So – if there had been any doubt (and there wasn’t any), these were swarm cells, and not supersedure.

We took the steps you’d expect, which was to remove all but one QCs in Ivy, and left a conjoined pair in Holly – something that we now realise could have been a mistake. We feared damaging both QCs, and so worked on the basis that they’d sort themselves out – through a death match…

We were still utterly perplexed as to why they would swarm and leave, when we had clipped queens. The answer to this particular conundrum lay in a quick WhatsApp message to the person we’d bought the nucs from. The queens had not been clipped. Our bad for not looking more closely, but when half the queens had been clipped, and we’d been assured we wouldn’t need swarm management, we’d not looked. Our mistake in “assuming” – but still pretty frustrating. Hard to tell what we’d have done differently if we’d known. Still. Big learning point, and mystery resolved…

Smiles and worries

Inspecting Ivy yesterday we saw our new “Guildford” queen – and she’s a good size. She’s in lay, and all looks well in her world. Next week, we will clip and mark (assuming she’s still there…) and hope not to paint her from head to toe in tipex…

Holly. Oh dear. Holly.

No sign of a queen, no eggs, no queen cells, and no playcups. Either we have a new queen, and she’s not in lay yet, or we don’t have a new queen, and the colony have nothing to draw out. We just don’t know which this is, and only the next inspection will shed any light on this. With Ivy in lay, we have the option of moving eggs across.

Worryingly, we have what is either sac brood or bald brood across over half the frames in Holly, and in reasonable quantity. We know what max moth looks like, and we have found larvae/ caterpillars on the varroa board, and also found one in the sealed brood. We could see the tell-tale grey line just below the surface, and pulled the grotty thing out. Jen is sure we have sac brood, and I’m less sure – thinking it might be bald brood. We need to open the hive again when it stops raining long enough…

With Holly in apparent disarray, I felt a noticeable shift in my thinking towards the colony yesterday. I’ve realised that if I get too attached to them, I’m going to feel unduly parental, and with it, worried. We deliberately called the hives – and not the queens – Holly and Ivy. This was to avoid bonding, and the colonies becoming pseudo pets. Don’t get me wrong – I take the obligations immensely seriously, and will do everything possible to ensure that they survive and thrive. I just don’t want to get stressed and sad.

Another few weeks of learning. Another few years to go!