Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Long live the queen

I spent yesterday and today in my friend Rita’s apiary or bee yard. Rita has been a beekeeper for over ten years and recently became a certified apistic technician, hand-picked among beekeepers to help other, less-experienced beekeepers. Lucky for me, she’s a generous teacher and allowed me to help her with spring beekeeping tasks this week.
I admire how she treats the bees, as if each one of the 3.5 million bees in the apiary were her child. She moves methodically from hive to hive and can tell from the buzz that greets her upon opening it if the family has been orphaned, that is, queenless. She carefully inspects both sides of each frame, using quick wafts of smoke to coax the bees aside so as not to crush even one with the lever used to lift the frame. She determines the condition of the hive by the contents of the wax cells on the frames. Fresh honey, dry pollen and young brood on several frames indicates a family that’s ready for spring. Too much honey leftover from the winter may mean a varroa infestation. Shiny pollen means, again, an orphaned family. Queen cells and an overpopulated hive are signs of an upcoming swarm. During the inspections, adjustments are made, old honey stores removed and empty frames added to give the queen room to deposit eggs. We moved one small family from a 10-frame hive to a smaller 5-frame swarm hive. Another family that was overly populated was divided into two hives. At the end of each inspection, Rita delicately and patiently replaces the lid, again, coaxing the bees into the hive with smoke and lowering the lid without squashing one bee.
Yesterday, we captured two swarms. One was on a fence post and in that low position, was easy to scoop into the swarm box. The other was on a tree branch. We were able to trim away a few branches in front of it then I pulled the branch down with the swarm attached and cut the branch off so we could put the swarm into the box – easier said than done! By dusk, both swarms had fully entered their swarm box and Rita was able to move them to a more permanent position.
The highlight of my day today was finding the queen on a very crowded frame. Rita usually spots the queen quickly but I only saw her when pointed out. Today, I actually found her on my own. What satisfaction! Long and lean, once you’ve seen her, she’s easy to distinguish from the workers and drones but she’s a shy queen, often moving from one side of the frame to the other or hiding under her ladies-in-waiting. In each hive, if the queen was found, she got a blue dot painted on her head. This is to show that she’s from 2010. This year’s new queens will get a white dot on their heads whereas 2009 queens have a green dot. Beekeepers can quickly see how old a queen is by the dot color and it also makes her a lot easier to spot during inspections.
Tomorrow, one more afternoon of following Rita – I don’t know how much help I really am but it’s a privilege to learn from her. This weekend I’m off to check my one remaining hive, full of inspiration to capture swarms or divide the family and build up my apiary.

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