By: Ed Colby
I’d never seen bees just pour out of a hive unless they were swarming. But on a warm late April afternoon, half the bees in a recently re-queened split emptied out onto the grass in front of the hive. I ran into the house for my camera and took some pictures. As I watched transfixed I saw the fat queen. I wanted a photo, but by now I’d misplaced my camera in the beeyard. By the time I found it, she was gone.
I kept watching. Within half an hour, the bees were heading back to the hive. Many of them had taken flight, only to land on the tops of nearby hives. I kept looking for the queen. I had a new plan. When I spotted her again, I snatched her and dropped her into a queen cage. I put the cage in the hive, thinking, “At least they won’t swarm without her.”
That evening I called Paul, who knows everything, but in a lifetime of commercial beekeeping he’d never seen such a thing. “Maybe there was another queen in there,” he opined.
I pick up my queens at the UPS depot, where they know me. When I stopped by for my last shipment Mary reminded me that her kids took piano lessons from my former wife Linda. She recalled that long ago, when she bought pollen from me and gave some to her husband for allergy relief, his lip puffed up. She assured me she’d followed my explicit instructions, allowing him to only eat a grain or two the first time.
I’ve sent a couple of people to the hospital with allergic reactions after eating my pollen. How do health food stores sell this stuff without even a warning label?
You might think I don’t have much to do, lollygagging in the bee yard like I do, watching bees wander around on the grass.
I’m really pretty busy. I don’t have a wage job anymore, but the bees keep me hopping. I used my California almond pollination money to buy another yard from Paul. The California bees came back begging to be split, and suddenly I have way more bees than I ever dreamed I might.
I had phenomenal Winter survival, for once, and now I have way more hives than I ever have before. It’s not 400 or 10,000, but I don’t have a fork lift or help or even a dependable big truck. I can’t worry about every single colony. I make mistakes as I charge ahead, but I try to learn from my blunders and then never look back.
It all started in March when some of my bees headed out to pollinate Colorado orchards just as others rolled in from California. There were mite tests and treatments. I made splits and nucs. I either had too many queens or too few. I made trips to Grand Junction to pick up the orchard pollinators when they’d finished their job. Then the weather turned and colonies teetered on starvation. I fed honey and corn syrup in snow storms.
Next the clouds parted, and when I wasn’t looking, the little darlings went on a tear. Before I could put on honey supers I found swarm cells in brood supers packed tight with yellow-green dandelion honey. Everything happened so fast! I made more splits, but I ran out of queens. I made splits anyway. I ran out of equipment, but I made do. It wasn’t always pretty.
Pat’s a better beekeeper than I am. He used to work 40 hours at the grocery store and run 900 hives in his spare time. I asked him how he did it.
“I take every shortcut there is,” he replied.
I’m not saying that’s good advice, but it’s memorable advice that I constantly take to heart. I want to find time to raise some queens. When I put a rotten cover on a hive, or a warped bottom board, when I place a super on a split but can’t find the time to rotate out some of the old comb, when a frame breaks and I stuff it back in the hive anyway, when I know I need to re-test for mites but have to run to another yard before it rains, I recite to myself Pat’s mantra.
I’ve got eight yards. I might give up one currently vacant apiary that can be productive but generally isn’t. My gal Marilyn said, “Don’t do it. That’s such a beautiful valley. Going there’s like going on a mini-vacation.”
She’s right, of course. We all need to stop and smell the roses. I should put a few colonies up there, at least, just so I have an excuse to go there. But I probably won’t. It’s really not worth the trouble, and I need to take every shortcut there is.
Ed Colby practices beekeeping in Aspen Mountain, Colorado, where he lives with his partner, Marilyn.