Thursday, May 16, 2013

First Solo Cut-Out: Third Feral Hive Recovered... And It's A BIG One!

This has been one intense week. Monday was my first day of summer classes, spanning from 10am to 9pm. Three classes, each several hours long, with one break of 1 1/2 hours, and then a break of 2 1/2 hours. Rough. I need to start packing a fruit salad and yogurt as an energy snack. As if that wasn't enough, I got an email in the morning about a cut-out that was needed that afternoon. Any reasonable person would have been tired, and would have asked to see if it could be done the next day. But I was too excited to be reasonable. This would be my first cut-out to be done by myself!

I headed straight from Biology lab to the property by Palm Beach Gardens. Upon ringing the doorbell I was introduced to a really nice woman who, as it turns out, used to keep bees while living in France. She was very happy to have the bees rehomed to a "backyard" situation, where they would be looked after, instead of the large tree pot that was their current home.

As we walked out to the backyard, she described how the bees had originally arrived. They had shown up approximately 4 to 6 weeks before, and then decided that the pot would make a great home. It was large and roomy, had a nice dark interior, and small drainage holes around the top for small, easily guarded, entrances. "No big deal," I thought, "I'll just pick it up and move it into the open. Then cut out the few panels of comb to place into a nuc box, then be on my way...".

NOOOOOPE. I would most definitely NOT be right along on my way. These panels of comb were MASSIVE. I don't mean "Huh, that's some big comb.", I mean "WOAH... this is going to take a few hours...". An important lesson was learned this day: Don't ever underestimate the honeybees. I should have brought a complete set of ten empty frames. Unfortunately I only had five, and the location was a full hour away, in zero traffic, from my house. I also had work the next day, and then another full day of class. So there was no way to come back the following day, or even the day after that. I was going to have to make do with what I had.

The top of the tree pot was a good 3ft wide and just as deep. There were nine panels of comb, with the largest ones spanning from the top of the pot to the bottom. It wasn't just comb that had to be dealt with either, there were a serious number of bees in this hive!

Now, I haven't seen a huge amount of hives up close. But this comb was by far the most beautiful, perfectly filled comb I have ever seen. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the left side panel quite clearly. There is a half circle of capped brood, at the center, that is in the process of hatching. After this there is a very clean arc of eggs (looks like empty cells), followed by another perfectly laid arc of young capped brood, and then after that is shiny fresh wax filled with eggs (which you can see more clearly on the edge of the right panel of comb). This comb was stunning. I wanted to save as much of is as I could. If only they made curved frames!

After wondering just how the heck I was going to do this for a good five minutes, I got started. The comb was so long and new that they all drifted to the sides after flipping the pot over. However, at least none of them detached or broke off. Mike taught me that the proper way to go about this is to figure out which way the comb is facing, then flip the container over with the combs running away from you. So when flipping, you should be able to look straight down the spaces between combs. This follows the structural strength of the comb to avoid breakage. If you flipped a container with the comb running lengthwise, with the end of each panel at one of your hands, then there's a good chance of panels completely falling off and onto the ground.

It was extremely messy work and I wish I had taken more pictures, but, since I was doing it all solo, there was no way without being significantly slowed. Thankfully the bees had replaced hatched brood with honey and pollen along the tops of the panels. That way I wouldn't have to be so concerned about salvaging under-developed comb that only housed minor amounts of honey or brood.

That being said, I still had to cut into that perfect comb. It was mentally hard to do, putting hive tool to immaculate brood comb. Each panel got cut up into two smaller panels that would each be rubber banded into an empty wooden frame. Seeing the developing, bee-shaped pupae falling out and being crushed was really tough... but there was no way around it. Not just that but I had to be extremely careful with the whole thing. Careful to damage the brood comb as little as possible, careful to not crunch any adult bees on accident, careful not to be too rough and damage the queen without realizing. It was a lot of self-reassurance without having Mike there to ask questions to.

Eventually, I got all of the comb either transferred into frames, and what couldn't be framed got bagged up for wax reclamation. As I was pulling out the last three panels, I got a glimpse of the queen. She was quick though and disappeared into the mass of bees before the queen clip was ready. I was ready to start sweating about finding one queen bee among 10,000 bees. All of which were randomly walking around the pot and supporting wheelbarrow. However, just as I got the last panel out and returned with the queen clip... there she was! She had somehow made her way up from the bottom of the pot to the inner lip, and flashed over top of the other bees for just a second. That second was all I needed and I was able to clip her on the first attempt. Not to pat myself on the back, but picking out the queen is starting to become an unconscious reflex. All of this cut-out experience and hive checking is building some great experience!

Once she was clipped it was just a matter of placing her in the nuc box, setting the nuc box about 10 feet from the wheelbarrow and pot, and waiting. I dumped what bees I could from the pot onto the top of the nuc box, then put it back on the wheelbarrow. Then it was time for a dinner break.

I hit a great local Cuban restaurant, and then returned about two hours later after dark. All of the bees were off the wheelbarrow and in the nuc box with the queen. Perfect! There was still a giant beard on the front of the box though, due to the sheer size of the hive. I ended up just scooping them off the sides with my hands and putting them on top of the box. It was dark so they just stayed clustered up there, then it was off to the car for these bees.

After arriving at home, I went to the trunk to get the bees out and... crap, there were bees bearding from the entrance of the nuc and onto the walls of the trunk! I tried to get as many as I could out, but knew they'd have to be handled tomorrow. At night they seem to just go into stasis and ignore most of what's happening. The trunk would smell too much like the queen and they wouldn't follow her immediately to the backyard. So the nuc was taken to the back yard, set up into a full sized Deep hive body, and I went to bed.

And this is what I woke up to! I tried to manually get the bees out for about fifteen minutes, but there were just too many inside the trunk and inside the cab of the car. What ended up working was bringing the empty nuc back and placing it next to the car. It smelled like the hive and queen, so they quickly moved over into the box. The ones inside got heavily smoked and almost all flew outside on their own. They caught the scent of the nuc and went in, leaving only a few stragglers inside who got shooed out by hand. Success, hive #4 has been successfully relocated to the backyard for rehab!

I didn't have a spare telescoping cover (forgot to pick an extra up in Miami), so I cut a piece of pine board into a nice size for the hive. The triangle of wood is just heavy cedar to weigh down the cover. Right after they were checked on, I had to go to work. So I did that and then came home to see how the girls were doing. They were gentle the whole time and will let me sit next to them without issue. The first day was all orientation flights and sending out forager scouts. It was a constant cloud of 25-30 bees in the airspace around the hive, many of them departing and arriving from the surrounding area. The area around my home must be great, considering many of them were already returning with very full pollen baskets.

I also noticed that the Dothraki hive had extra guards at the entrance, and that there was a lot of traffic coming and going from their entrance. There's no way to visually be sure which hive the bees belonged to, so rather than risk the Dothraki getting robbed, I reduced their entrance to an opening of about an inch and a half. Afterwards they seemed to feel more secure and posted less guards. One interesting thing to note, however, is that at night they pack the entrance with "sleeping" guards so anyone entering would have to touch them. The new hive also has bees at their entrance at night. Both of these are new behaviors that I haven't seen before, so my hypothesis is that they post extra guards at the entrance when there is another nearby hive (possible competition).

I was also able to record some high definition video of the new hive's activity of their first full day. There's a lot of traffic coming and going for orientation and harvesting. There is also some fanning going on, although I'm not 100% positive whether it's ventilation fanning or pheromone fanning. It'd be great if someone could confirm which it is. I want to say it's pheromone fanning since there were only three bees total who were engaged in fanning. However, none of them had their abdomens pointed upwards to expose their pheromone glands. Three bees just doesn't seem like it's going to accomplish much in terms of air conditioning, so I'm a bit stumped on which it could be.

I highly recommend watching in 720p/1080p in full screen!

All in all the bees seem very happy. I released the queen at around 11pm on the day following the cut-out. After class yesterday, I checked back and the bees are still there. So they're happy, the queens happy, and they all approve of the new home. I'm thinking of moving them to the bee yard later today or tomorrow.

The only thing that worries me is not having a proper cover for them. I'm not worried about beetles that much. They were living directly over the dirt and had only two beetles that I could find, both of which are now dead. These are awesome bees, super busy, very friendly and patient, and I'm completely confident that they will be my strongest hive. If this queen keeps her immaculate laying pattern then this hive is going to be booming over the next month. They'll definitely need a second Deep box in two weeks, then another month or two to fill that up. Once that's done, it'll be time to add a honey super for my first ever frames of honey! After pulling a bit of honey, I will definitely be splitting this hive to start a new colony. Exciting stuff!

P.S. Regular readers may have noticed that some ad banners have popped up on the sides. I'm not a fan of ads, but the Google AdSense ads actually promote reputable beekeeping suppliers (ex. Mann Lake, Dadant) as well as some companies selling package bees. There is an ad that pops up every now and then for RoundUp (Monsanto), and I am working out how to specifically block that ad. AdSense allows blocking specific advertisers and, as soon as I know how, that ad won't be showing up here.

A click every now and then would be a nice help towards offsetting equipment costs for rehoming all of these bees. I'm just a backyard keeper for right now, learning everything I can about honeybees (majoring in Entomology, hoping to specialize in honeybees and social insects), and rehoming what bees I can as a free service in exchange for hands-on experience. My promise to you guys is that I will never put pop-up ads or obnoxiously place banners anywhere. Thanks for reading!