Bees are mysterious creatures. I never quite know what they are about in my back yard, but as long as the hive hums like a well-tuned VW vanagon, I don’t worry too much.
We had a swarm move into a hive this spring. The old home, a huge willow tree, developed cracks then came crashing down in several pieces, so the colony was looking for a new home. My bee box was set up with some old, crossed comb in it, waiting to be cleaned out. I’d harvested the honey back in early February, when I knew the old colony had died, but left the wax for another day, which had just not arrived yet. The scouts found the already furnished apartment and moved in. A few days later, the whole family arrived, cleared out the worst of the mess, and settled down. Pollen was carted in quickly, but I did not realize, until I opened the hive a week or so later, that they had also relocated all of their honey. The top box was two thirds full, by weight, and the bottom box at least half full, of dark, overwintered honey. There was no way they brought in and processed that much nectar in a week and a half. I was a little distressed—I wanted to clean out some of the worst crossed comb—but thrilled to see the size and health of the swarm. Who knew that colonies moved all of their food stores?
The swarm colony likes to camp out. For the first week, there was always a bearded clump hanging off of the entrance board in the evening. I was worried that they were thinking of swarming the first morning I saw this, but there was no other sign of movement, so I shrugged it off. After seeing how full the two boxes were, I added a third, which helped reduce the size of the camp-out, but it never went completely away. Over the next week, more and more bees moved inside at night, probably because it has been raining in the evenings.
Yesterday, we went into both hives. The “new” hive, of purchased bees, had not shown any queen sign for the first two checks, so I recruited a friend with sharp eyes and we cracked the hive. This time, there was considerable honey, pollen, and larvae in the hive, so we cleaned up a bit of weird comb and reassembled the hive. We both turned to the swarm hive, which had the new, empty box on top. “Do you want to drop that one down?” my bee partner asked. “Do you feel brave?” I replied. He shrugged, “It’s going ok so far.” Together, we lifted off the roof, quilt box, and burlap ad peered inside.
The swarm hive was packed with bees. They were building comb, nice and tidy, in the top box, which we lifted off. Bees flew everywhere, but not in a threatening manner. I cracked the second box and lifted it. Bits of honey comb stuck to the tops of the bottom bars. We scraped it all off and placed it to one side, then lifted the last box, also heavy with bees and honey. “What a mess,” my partner observed, looking at the crossed comb in the bottom box. “Yeah,” I agreed. We quickly placed the empty box on the bottom, the lowest in the middle, and the bottom one, which was the messiest, on top. “Harvest that one first,” my partner observed. “That’ll clear it out.” Lid on, no stings, bees everywhere.
Later last night, I went out to settle the chickens and rabbit in and checked on the hives. The New Hive was quiet, everyone tucked in for the night. Once again, the Swarm Hive had a camp out going—one small clump, perfectly circular, in the front of the hive and the other, much larger, on the small pile of honey and comb that we had scraped out. Bees, some laden with pollen, piled up and hummed softly to themselves. This afternoon, the clumps were reduced, but not gone. I think there is a contingent that just likes sleeping outside. Bee mysteries.