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A Happy Birthday Bee Swarm

11 May

For almost a year now, this hive has stood silent in my backyard. Today, just in time for my birthday, we caught a wayward swarm (likely from my other hive)  and installed the girls all snuggly into their new home.


A gorgeous swarm in the neighborhood

Our swarm transfer process


Exposing their Nasonov glands to waft a “homing” pheromone

For more on technique, see:


Spring Hive Check: What to look for + how to prevent swarms

25 Mar

‘Tis no time for inaction. The dandelions are blooming and neighborhood fruit trees are covered with frizzy flowers, all of which means SWARM SEASON is upon us!

So giddy up, it’s time to dig into my hives and see how they fared the winter.

First hive check of the year

Spring is unpredictable in Albuquerque with great swings from night to day, so I try not to open my hives AT ALL until late March when temperatures stabilize. This restraint prevents me from destroying clustering bees or chilling brood but it’s also a fine line — how late is too late? If I delay too long, will the colony swarm?

What the landing board can tell you…

To slake my curiosity, I watch the landing board for weeks before opening the hive. I’m looking for 2 things:

  • Pollen on the legs of bees entering the hive: If worker bees are carrying pollen inside the hive, this likely means a) there are fresh larvae inside needing pollen and b) those workers aren’t robber bees.
  • Lots of orienting bees in the afternoon: When temps warm up each afternoon I should see the familiar arc of new bees orienting themselves near the hive entrance. If I don’t see this but there’s pollen entering the hive, something is keeping the queen from laying aggressively.

First… a health check.

Once it’s consistently warm enough (above 60° F), I’m ready for my first hive check of the season. Here’s what I look for to determine the overall health of the hive:

  • Bees: Are the brood boxes full of bees? If so, this means a strong hive with enough bodies to possibly split the hive.
  • Pollen: Are the bees finding and storing pollen in the hive? Pollen = protein for new larvae, so it’s  a critical component in building colony numbers.
  • Capped Brood: Is the queen laying? The ultimate goal of the first Spring check is to determine whether the queen is solidly laying worker brood. A solid brood pattern looks like the image below, with worker brood as far as the eye can see with only a few holes for heater bees.

A gorgeous brood pattern -- solid worker brood as far as the eye can see.

Then… a swarm check.

While we’re in there, let’s gauge the colony’s likelihood of swarming. Here are the indicators I look for:

  • Drones or capped drone brood cells: If there are drones walking around, consider making a hive split. If there are capped drone cells (but no live drones), start preparing for a split, maybe 1 or 2 weeks out.
  • Swarm cells: If the hive contains swarm cells, split ASAP. In fact, some experts say that the presence of swarm cells means it may already be too late as the hive is determined to swarm regardless of your interventions.

In the case of my hive check this weekend, I found drone cells (but no live drones) and queen cups (but no swarm cells). In about a week, I’ll go in and split this hive in two. More on that technique below…

Problem solving.

With a strong disease-free hive, the main goals for Spring maintenance are to provide room for brood & honey and prevent swarming. Here’s how I manage both:

Provide room

If the hive doesn’t have enough empty frames in the brood chamber, the queen can’t lay eggs. And if the super (assuming you’ve overwintered with 3 boxes) doesn’t have empty frames, there’s nowhere to store honey.  In my case, I had both problems. Nowhere to lay eggs and nowhere to store new honey. My hive was totally honeybound.

So, I decided to “checkerboard” the hive by alternating empty and full frames in the super and upper brood box (but keeping existing frames with brood next to each other for warmth. It still gets chilly at night in Albuquerque).

How to checkerboard a hive:

Split hives

If your hive is burgeoning with bees, drone brood, and swarm cells, make a split ASAP. Otherwise, start preparing for a split in 1 or 2 weeks.

How to make a split:


If your brood pattern is spotty or the hive is aggressive (in urban areas, it’s important to promote docile bee genetics), make a call to your favorite queen breeder and order new royalty for your hive.

Hive splitting = Lazy girl’s swarm prevention

17 Apr

The Great Split of 2011

Last year, one of our hives swarmed 6 times. Each swarm involves dropping everything to capture and rehouse the wayward dames, none of which is easy to do with a full-time job.

So this year, we split our hives the minute the nectar started flowing and they began to look crowded. This year, we hope to be sipping wine after work instead of chasing swarms all over Albuquerque’s SE Heights.

Hives are ready to be split when:

  • The hive is strong.
  • Nectar is flowing.
  • You see drones in the hive (not capped, but actually walking around).
  • And definitely if you see swarm cells. But splitting before you see swarm cells is OK too if you’re a risky sort of beekeeper.

How to make a split:

About two weeks ago, we followed the Bush Bees process for a walk-away split which involves far more wine-sipping then it does bee-checking, so I’m a hopeful believer.  Only time will tell though, and we’re still a couple weeks away from knowing whether there’s a laying queen in both hives.
UPDATE 5/20/2011: So it looks like 2 of our 3 “walkaway splits” were a success this year! Score one for lazy beekeeping.

Becoming the bee hero

20 May

The bee hero

Beneath the desire to keep bees there lies an even more secret… even more primal… desire. It’s the archetypal — dare I say, boyhood — desire that leaks out in the fury of a brave dream filled with rescue and danger and buxom lonely maidens.

It’s the dream to become a hero. And in this case, a bee hero.

You’ve seen it in the machismo of a bare-armed swarm rescue. Or the bravado of a bee-wrangler when the cameras are rolling.

I spied it this morning as my husband donned his bee suit on the way to capture yet another bee swarm. In his mind’s eye, he was apparently a massive, bee-eating robot off to save the world as he hummed to himself while suiting up, “Transformers… more than meets the eye. Transformers, robots in disguise.”

Indeed, from mere mortal to giant white bee-snatching robot in the zip of a zipper. Believe me, your children are all now much safer.

How to catch a bee swarm (with photos!)

13 May

Swarm season is raging in Albuquerque! In the past 3 weeks, we’ve captured 7 swarms some of which (she says blushingly) were our own.

If you’ve ever wondered how to catch a swarm or wanted to learn more, here’s a quick photo essay documenting the process.

Step 1: Prepare their new home

First, prep the girls’ new home if you have the luxury of doing so (if not, they can stay in the cardboard box for an hour or so). In our case, we’re combining today’s swarm with a small colony from earlier this spring. We’ll separate the two boxes with a sheet of newspaper allowing the girls to slowly become acquainted. We’ll also provide a top entrance for the new box filled with swarm bees.

Step 2:  Transfer the swarm to a cardboard box

Next, we grabbed two ladders. I’m holding a cardboard box (any box will do) while Alex shakes the bees from the limb into the box. Really, it was that easy. Once most of the bees are inside, we closed the box part way and carried it over to the new hive.
Swarm Capture

Continue reading

How to report a swarm in Albuquerque

20 Apr

This is what a honeybee swarm looks like

April and May are swarm season in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you happen to encounter a swarm in your yard or neighborhood, please give a quick call to local beekeepers who can come pick up the wayward girls.

Help! I need to report a swarm in Albuquerque

Capturing the impossible swarm

16 Apr

Swarm of bees up in my neighbor's tree

Swarm season is coming on strong in Albuquerque. This week, like an instantaneous bloom, area bees have exploded and spilled into the sky.

For many beeks, this means a free batch of bees to start a new hive. For homeowners it can be frightening.

In my ‘hood, yesterday brought this high-flying swarm perched acrobatically 40 feet up in an old elm tree. Too precarious to snatch, the swarm colony will have to find a home on its own.

We’ve opened up all our empty hives, dabbed ’em with a bit of Honey-B-Healthy, and are waiting patiently in the hopes that the home of their choosing is ours.

UPDATE: It’s three days later and the girls have finally left their perch although we have no idea where they went or if any bees survived the rain and wind that must have made for a harrowing time on the lam.

Albuquerque honeybees living out of a semi

12 Apr

Honeybees swarming from a semi-truck

A truck driver turned on his air conditioner and it didn’t work. He opened the back of his trailer and a huge cloud of bees flew out!

Turns out there was a hive so massive living in the ductwork of an Albuquerque semi-truck, that local beekeepers were able to make 18 separate hives from the giant swarm.

Read the full story at: