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  • Writer's picturewwambrose

Island Swarm

Beekeeping at a summer residence is hard enough. Doing it on an island off the coast of Maine, a 70 minute ferry from the mainland, makes it even more interesting. So when my No. 1 hive decided to swarm this week I had to improvise.

But let's back up. Beekeeping is all about assisting a colony through increasingly hot, dry summers, hopefully taking some of their honey along the way, and then setting them up to endure a frigid, harsh winter. Adding to this challenge is a gamut of environmental challenges, from parasitic mites to pesticides to apiary pestilence. It's a year-round endeavor. Adding boxes (called supers) and frames, removing supers and frames. Feeding them sugar water in the fall so they have enough stores to get them through the winter, feeding them sugar water in the spring to get them back on their feet if by some miracle they've managed to survive the winter.

Die hards and commercial operators swear by treating hives with various poisons (some supposedly bio-friendly) to kill off mite infestations. Two, three, four treatments during the year on top of regular inspections, adds to the workload. You want to give bees as much protection as possible in winter so you add insulation, you reduce the size of the entrance and close up other holes to keep as much heat in as possible. (The colder the hive the more worker bees need to work to keep the queen from freezing, and the more they work the more honey they consume). When spring comes it's the opposite: shedding insulation, opening the entrance and other holes to let them out to go find food. And then there is the issue of ventilation (don't get me started).

So how does it work if you're only around May through October? First let me say that my approach to beekeeping could be categorized as laissez-faire. I am not a die hard. I don't apply treatments, poisonous or otherwise. I like to think that my lack of intervention gives the bees more space to face their challenges on their own. There is a fine line, I grant you, between laissez-faire and lazy. But let's not argue the finer points here.

When taking this approach on our year-round Massachusetts farm my success rate for getting a hive through the winter has been appalling, maybe 1 in 10. Mites, pesticides, honey robbing from stronger nearby hives -- despite my best efforts (save the poison, and OK the laissez-faire thing) -- would so weaken the hives that only a few stragglers would crawl out on the veranda in the late Winter or early Spring to mutter "the queen is dead, God save the queen!" Only to die promptly from a combination of starvation and hypothermia. And the bad news: there is no new queen.

As it turns out, however, my laissez-faireism is pure genius off the coast of Maine. I say sayonara on Indigenous People's Day and hello boys and girls (and your highness!) in late April, at the earliest. In between they are bundled up prematurely, staked to the ground to withstand winter gales, and liberated belatedly. Somehow it works.

Until this year I've had only one hive at a time. The first one I set up was destroyed by a bear that had freakishly swum to the island (that's another story). I managed to get some honey but the hive didn't survive the winter because of the internal damage. The second one I installed has been a beast!

Maine hive No. 1

I call it my No. 1 hive because this year, in late April, I arrived with a second hive (my No. 2). Why? Because when you are not sure your hive is going to make it -- because it's on an island and you live 250 miles away -- and since everyone depends on you for your honey, you bring a second in case you have to replace the first. But sure enough No. 1 was cranking again in April, its second overwinter. Last summer I was able to take off 90 lbs of honey from No. 1 -- that is 90 pints or 45 quarts or about 11 gallons -- and still left copious reserves to last the Winter. That is what us beekeepers call a shitload of honey.

With a new hive you're supposed to watch it closely, feed it sugar water to get it started, add frames and supers gradually as it grows in size. When you set it up on a weekend in April and the next time you'll be able to get out there is mid-June, you need to improvise. In the case of No. 2 that meant adding extra supers and frames, installing some honey-laden frames to get them started, and praying. Long live the queen! I also threw another super on top of No. 1.

Now it's June. Hive No. 2 is kicking in -- evidence the queen is laying, lots of pollen being brought in by worker bees. Let's take a look at hive No. 1 -- my God I'm not sure I've ever seen so many bees. It is thriving. It is humming. The beast is roaring. Maybe too loudly?

Swarms happen for one of two reasons. The hive is not working out -- not enough food, too many mites, etc -- so the queen gathers the troops and heads out to find greener pastures. (Not an uncommon experience on our Massachusetts farm.) Or the hive is growing so fast there is not enough room for all the bees. In this case half the hive bolts taking the elder queen with them. If the remaining half are strong enough they will create a new queen if they haven't already.

I was sitting on our deck when I heard a loud, intensifying buzzing coming from the direction of the hives, some 100 feet away. I went to look and witnessed a swirling tornado of bees -- the telltale sign of a swarm in the making. I quickly donned my bee suit in hopes of adding another super to keep them happy, but I was too late.

An island swarm

WTF now what should I do? Luckily, in April I had brought up extra boxes and frames after giving up on beekeeping in Massachusetts. Using a nuc box with frames a gently lifted it under the swarm, giving the bees an off ramp from the tree. After installing the first five frames in a larger box (called a brood box) I went back and collected another five frames and added those to the box.

With a helper I cut the limb and dumped the remaining bees into the brood box and put on a cover. Then I took a super from hive No. 1 and added on top of the new brood box to provide some honey for the new colony. Tada, hive No. 3!

My helper

I've used up all of my boxes and frames so hoping we make it through the summer without another swarm. It's looking like another good year for honey but one never knows.

From L to R: hives No. 2 (new), No. 1 (original), No. 3 (swarm)

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