Monday, May 24, 2010

Bees and Beasts

The rain finally let up for long enough this weekend for me to get in and check on my new bees. This is the first year that I've bought package bees. All my other colonies have started as nucs--basically mini hives where the queen and a few thousand bees are already on drawn-out comb with a small amount of brood, honey, and pollen. Just pop the frames into a hive body and add more for them to grow into. Easy. Since the queen is already laying eggs, the colony is working from day one. The disadvantage: more expensive than a package.

The package is basically a screened box with a few thousand bees just hanging out with some sugar water, but no comb. The queen is in her own cage with a few attendants and some fondant (soft candy made of sugar). The queen is new to most of the bees, so she's kept in the cage suspended among the rest of the bees to protect her until they get used to her scent and accept her as their queen. Installing a package is a bit tricker than a nuc. You have to get the queen cage out without letting it drop into the box or letting too many worker bees out, dump the rest of the bees into a hive, get the cork out of the candy end of the queen cage (not the other end or she'll walk out and/or fly away), suspend the queen cage between a couple of frames, put some sugar water in the hive to tide them over until they can forage enough nectar to sustain themselves, and close the hive up. After a week, you go back into the hive and see if the bees have chewed their way through the candy plug to release her. If they have and they have accepted her, she should be going about the business of laying eggs.

Lots can go wrong with a package, not least of which is the queen being killed by the colony if she gets out before they have accepted her. Sometimes, she simply gets stuck and isn't released by the bees. At that stage the beekeeper can dig out the candy and release her (trying to get her to into the hive and not fly away). Fortunately, when I checked yesterday, the queen had been released and the colony was humming happily. I'll check in another week to verify that she's laying eggs.

I still prefer nucs, but they were in short supply this year with so many people losing colonies to the harsh winter. Fortunately, one of the three hives that I thought had died has managed to pull through. It's not strong but there are signs of life. My biggest concern now is that we're having a repeat of last year's rainy spring which means the bees aren't able to get out and collect nectar during the tulip poplar bloom--the biggest nectar flow of the year for them. If the sourwood is absent again this year it will be another rough winter.

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