Last year I was a beekeeper, this year as my queen died over the winter and the population plummeted in the spring before I could get another queen, I was expecting to cease being a beekeeper.
But never one to give up, I got a new queen as early as I could, I’d asked all three local bee associations for help (which none were willing to give), I’d downsized the hive – leaving it where the old one had been, so that returning bees would go to the same place, and given it will be three weeks before new bees from the queen start being productive, I had bought a “micro” hive about the size of a shoebox and was considering downsizing again to something about 1/30 the size of the hive last year.
But things were dire. Bees at this time of year don’t live long, and below a critical threshold, there just aren’t enough bees to look after enough young to sustain the population, it didn’t look promising. I desperately needed to find a way to boost numbers and literally every bee now counted for them to have any chance .
Things were so desperate, I had thought of cunning plans to capture any other bees that were around. I set up a trap, but it only caught TWO bees!! I was literally at the stage of picking up bees that had “got lost” around the hive++, when I heard a buzzing sound (a warm day about 4.30pm). Now a buzzing sound around a hive is not unusual. But this was more the intensity of a a helicopter … and looking up what do I see, but the sky is filled with bees. And unlike the only swarm I’ve ever seen, these weren’t going anywhere, instead they were flying around and around above my head.
I had to capture this swarm.
I remembered that last year I’d tried the idea of using a cardboard box to lure some bees from a tree near my mother. It was a complete failure. But the thing about boxes, is they are flat and easily stored. I ran into the workroom to search for it … on the way nearly knocking over the old beehive I’d been cleaning & had left to dry. I grabbed the box and some tape and quickly put it back together and went back to see if I could see where they were settling and if so, where to put this “Lure box”.
Where were the bees?
They weren’t in the trees, nor on the house, … they were starting to form a “beard” on the small hive where my struggling bees lived. It was obvious this was not a random swarm that just happened to be in my garden, but a swarm intent on a take-over. They were intent on setting themselves up in the location where the smaller hive was now, and where I used to keep my hive.
To stop the aggressors killing all my old bees … who had not hope at all of keeping them out … I shut down their entrance completely. That still meant some of the invaders were inside, and some of my old bees out foraging were locked out … but there was no alternative. I then simply removed the small replacement hive and the old bees, and put back my old big hive**.
Fortunately, the old bee hive was put together with the frames roughly sorted ready to try to find somewhere to store it until the next year (when it would be possible to get another bee colony).
And when I put that where the bees clearly wanted to go, the bees just willingly marched in. I’ll call them “tiger bees” as they are distinctly orange with a black stripe. By 6.30 pm, the tiger bee swarm had all settled in my old hive (except for a few scouts guarding the entrance). But my old bees were in disarray. They were either still shut in the smaller hive, dead having tried to go into the larger hive, dead in the smaller hive where the invaders had killed, them or flying around where they expected to find their smaller hive – but could only find the big one, in short scattered to the four winds.
As the tiger bees were already settled, I decided they didn’t care where they were, and I thought that if I moved them immediately, they’d reorientate themselves when they came out the next day. So I put the old hive aside and placed the smaller hive back where the old bees that were still airborne would expect to find it. That worked partially, for at 8pm, when I checked again, I could see some old bees trying to find the entrance of their smaller hive, but … they had clearly been ruffed up & disorientated by the experience and were having problems.
To add to their misery, the location was not quite the same, and bees get easily confused by the smallest changes, so they were having problems locating their entrance. Given how late it was, and how critical their numbers, I decided they needed help. A quarter of an hour scraping bees from beneath the hive, and they were more or less all inside.
The great thing about this, is that in a few days time, I can swap the hives over again. And now, the tiger bees out foraging will return to where I place the much weaker hive. Bees apparently let in foragers with honey or pollen and so swapping them would hugely boost the numbers in the old-bees hive (just what they had needed).
My only regret is that whilst I looked, I never spotted the invading tiger queen. So, it is possible she’d got into the smaller replacement hive ahead of the swarm … or she never made it here. However, it was easy to check if there were still two queens alive with the old bees, as the bees would be in a ball trying to kill one queen. I checked the small hive, and there was no sign of a “balling”.
However, there were the signs of a stupendous struggle in the smaller, old-bee hive: the bottom of the hive was littered with dead bees. Perhaps a third to half the bees were dead. Clearly the tiger bees had been intent on annihilating my old bees and taking the hive for themselves.
The Next day
I went out today to put on a feeder for the tiger bees and to level the bee hives (which had been more or less dumped in their locations yesterday) and to my surprise they were already very active. They had clearly been spring cleaning the old comb – removing any dead pupae that were left in. Interestingly, there were also tiger bees on the smaller, old-bee hive. I had expected them to orientate their “home” when they left in the morning to forage, not as they entered, but it is possible a few tiger bees had already been out foraging – and having never stopped to orientate themselves as they left, they returned to where they expected their hive to be, only to find the old-bee hive sitting there. Or … they could just be robbing the old bee hive. Either way, the fate of the old hive was in the hands of the bee gods as there really is not a lot I can do about it. If the old bees were so depleted they can’t defend their hive, they are a lost cause, but if their numbers are being boosted by the tiger bees then great. Either way, I’ll only be able to tell after the bees settle down.
Except for swapping around the positions of the two hives (which even without the benefit of boosting the numbers in the old hive, will make working on the old hive easier), my plan is to leave the bees a few days and then check for a queen. Some people would say I ought to try to combine the colonies, but if I do that I have to kill one of the queens, and I’m not sure both survived the events. So, if I were to combine, I would have to find both queens. I know my old queen is likely to be between the two remaining good frames – which are matted together (the problem of foundationless frames). Given those bees are struggling I don’t want to break them up. So finding her is not possible without doing a lot of damage.
However, in a few days, both queens should have started to lay. And if I don’t find signs of laying amongst the tiger bees, then I will need the queen from the old bee hive -which is when I will definitely combine.
And if there are eggs, and they look like they’re doing well, there’s not really enough bees in the old hive that they can be much benefit the tiger bees. So, almost out of curiosity I will leave them bee and see how they do.
Both old and new hive i.e. nuc are polys. The old hive from Paynes, which is a good idea because the polystyrene insulates, but with a small colony, there were clear signs of condensation. The old bees were Carniolan. These are Mediterranean in origin, which is nothing like the climate here, so I was trying to replace them with a more northern variety. The first available was a Buckfast “open mated” from Corsock. These looked like the new “tiger bees”, so I’m beginning to think the new bees are buckfast.
After reading what I could, and not being able to find a single treatment where varroa weren’t in some way resistant, I decided not to treat for varroa mite. It seems the main damage from varroa, is not the mites themselves, but viruses brought in by new varroa mites. Paradoxically, if you’ve already got varroa mites, there’s less opportunity for new varroa to bring in viruses. So what treating can do, is get rid of the mites, and allow new mites to come in with new viruses.
++There had been signs of “bee robbing” at the old-bee nuc earlier in the day – that is bees defending the entrance and the occasional fight – to the death. As a consequence, I’d made the entrance only just wide enough for a bee to get through – and this seemed to have stopped the robbing behaviour. But suddenly I’d started to see about half a dozen “crawling bees”. I’ve seen this when the weather is cold – they don’t seem to have the energy to get airborne. However, this was unusual on a warm day, and except for collecting them, I wasn’t certain what I was going to do, as it could be a sign of disease. In retrospect, it could be that they were the “casualties of war” … foragers who’d had their wings clipped in a robbing attack, who’d tried to fly out and instead of flying … landed on the ground.
** And before anyone asks … no I didn’t put on my bee suit. At first I was in a rush to get a lure box ready without missing where they landed. Then I was in a rush to stop the invasion Then I was in a rush to put my old hive where they wanted to go. It was only when I started “brushing” the bees off the old hive onto the new – causing them to go airborne, that I thought a suit was a good idea.
I went out midday to have a look, and saw a large bee out the front of my old-bee colony. It was my replacement queen. Obviously I tried mouth to mouth resuscitation (OK, I put her aside with some water to see if there were any signs of life), but no, she’s completely dead. I can’t see any stings or bitten off legs. I read somewhere that they “heat” them to death – by forming a ball, whatever way she was dead.
So, I shut up the old bee colony in the hope the tiger bees would leave them alone. But a few hours later, when I looked in the old-hive, it was now pretty full up with the invading “tiger bees”. The sensible thing seemed to be to combine the two … but hey … I like a challenge, so I was thinking about continuing the experiment, but with those tiger bees that had been invading the old bee-hive.
I read a few articles about combining hives, which suggested that it was a bad thing at this time in the year as they would fight. But it soon dawned on me, that pretty much all the old bees had been killed, and those that were left were being left alone by the invaders and then I saw some larger bees that keep pestering my hive around, and I realised despite being larger, this new swarm could also be susceptible to its own invasion. So, sentiment went out the window. I yanked out some empty frames from the tiger-bee hive, and put what remained of the smaller old-bee hive, into the tiger-bee hive and then put the smaller (nuc) back together as a lure for any other swarms.
So, now I’m down to one hive – but at least it’s now a pretty strong hive.