Swarms, pollen, traps and Marilyn

by Ed Colby

First the property manager called. A terrified homeowner had been “attacked” inside her home by a swarm of honey bees. Could I come to the rescue? It was a swanky address. The caller had her theory. “The farmers just clipped the fields and drove them out into the open,” she opined.

And I thought I was supposed to be the expert. I said, “Let’s get rid of the middleman – that’s you. Have her call me.
The phone rang almost immediately. The homeowner described a frenzied roar outside her window, then the room filled with bees. She told me they vacuumed 50 off the carpet.

I asked about the size of the swarm now hanging from the eaves of the house. She said, “At first it was just 50 or so bees, but now it’s thousands.”

It sounded like honey bees, all right, but you always want to be sure. I’ve chased some wild geese. I said, “Could you e-mail me a picture of one of the dead bees you vacuumed up, and one of the swarm? It doesn’t have to be a close-up.
I think she initially said yes, but then hysteria and frustration set in. “I’m being denied the use of our property,” she wailed. “This is our second home. My husband’s flying in tomorrow, and we’re flying home to Las Vegas on Wednesday. We have a child, and a dog. I can’t take this!” she screamed.

I explained that if these winged invaders were indeed little darling honey bees, she had nothing to fear.
She remained unconvinced. “The pest control people won’t help me. They say bees are endangered. I don’t care if they’re endangered. They’re awful! This is our home!”

Every time I tried to steer the conversation onto a productive, goal-oriented path, she cut me off.
She went on and on. Finally I had enough. I said, “You’re too upset for me to help you. Good luck with those bees.” And I hung up.

I can’t tell you why I did that. Maybe she was too dismissive of honey bees, or too wrapped up in herself. But I was pretty sure I couldn’t help her.

I have five beeyards, scattered from the Colorado River Valley to 9,000 feet in the Colorado Flat Tops mountains. Last Spring, my hives all tested either one or zero mites per 300-bee sugar shake sample. Even now, in four of these yards, I have trouble finding a mite. The fifth is riddled. I sugar-shook counts of three, five, 10 and 15 mites per 300 bee sample last week.

I bought this yard from Paul last Spring. It’s conveniently close to the farm, and so far it’s proven productive. It’s less than a mile from fewer than a dozen hives located on an organic farm. Coincidence?

Varroa mites like to breed in drone brood, and the wild card is that this was the only yard in which I did not remove drone brood from the hive.

I’ve never talked beekeeping with the organic farmer. Maybe I should. But I’m pretty sure location matters. Mite populations spread from hive to hive, so apiary location matters. If you know your mite numbers are low in the Spring, you may not have high mite numbers in August, unless your little darlings start running with the wrong crowd.

What do I do with a mite-ridden beeyard that’s on a nice honey flow? Treat it. My choice is Miteaway Quick Strips, a formic acid formulation that you can apply without pulling your honey. Downside: I lose a few queens using this stuff, but you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ll deal with the consequences. I can’t afford to lose the yard to mites, and I can’t afford to sacrifice the honey.

I put pollen traps on my hives when I put on the first honey super. This way, if I don’t get honey, I at least get pollen. I have a good buyer, and this is a good area for pollen. But the traps do handicap hive development. I’ve watched side by side hives of equal strength, one with a trap and one without, and watched the no-trap colony pile on the honey. This is purely anecdotal. I need to do a real test.

I like collecting pollen, because it diversifies my portfolio. We don’t ordinarily get bumper honey crops around here, and it can be a bust. Pollen’s more dependable.

My gal Marilyn helped me out this week by collecting pollen and supering a couple of yards. This was the first time she’s put on honey supers on her own. I said, “Don’t bother with a smoker. Just gently lift he lid and put on the super.” That’s how I do it. There were just ten of them that I’d marked for her that needed supers. What could go wrong?

Marilyn tends towards casual. She went at her task dressed in shorts and short sleeves. I’m surprised she bothered to wear shoes. She did put on a veil. The bees hammered her and drove her right out of the yard. She had stings on her hands, her ankles, her legs and arms, in her armpits. I said, “Girl, you didn’t wear any clothes? You need to show them some respect!”

Over supper, she explained how whenever she popped a lid, she’d hear a roar and the bees would come out at her. This didn’t sound like my gentle little darlings, but then I wasn’t there.
She insisted she’d finish the job. I told her to bundle up and wear gloves. I offered to light a smoker for her, but she demurred. She can be stubborn. She got home at dark. I was starting to wonder, but mission accomplished. What a gal!