Yellow Jacket

Yes, Caller, Those Are Yellow Jackets. You May Kill Them.

As I was saying yesterday, I get a lot of calls about bees.

And, as I was saying yesterday (or was I?), I’ve decided to say “yes,” even when people call not about swarms but about bees living in their homes or in other structures. I will say “yes” and then I will figure out a way to get those bees out of there…and into my beeyard.

Thankfully, someone over on suggested that she gets so many calls about bees which end up being calls about yellow jackets or wasps or hornets that she asks her callers to send pictures of their insects.

So, that’s what I now do. I say something like, “Before we discuss your options about how to handle those bees in your house, I’d like for you to send  a picture of them to me so I can figure out what we’re dealing with.” I ask them to send their pictures to my email address or to my cell phone.

Here are a few of the pictures I got last week. Interestingly, once these callers take a picture of these insects and then look closely at the images, they all say in their accompanying message to me, “You know, now that I look at these more closely, I think they’re probably yellow jackets.”

Yellow Jacket
Yellow Jacket
Yellow Jacket
Yellow Jacket
Yellow Jacket
Yellow Jacket
Honeybee swarm

From "Colony" to "Swarm" to "Colony"

I don’t love the telephone. However, these past few months I get a lot of calls about bees, and I like those calls a lot. Why? I don’t know…maybe because I’m never sure what situation will present itself, and that’s fun. These past couple of weeks, I’ll bet I get 2 or 3 calls each week about “swarms of bees” somewhere. A couple of months ago, this number was higher.

But what the callers usually describe are not swarms of bees. You see, Reader, a swarm is a very specific term used for bees in the midst of migrating from one home to another. Before they swarm, they’re part of a colony of bees. When they leave that colony and set up a new home, they’ll once again be a colony of bees. While they’re between the two—while migrating—they’re considered a swarm. They move from “colony” to “swarm” to “colony.”

A swarm is usually spotted hanging in a big, droopy, living, breathing blob on a tree branch or a light post or some other structure on which it’s easy to hang together. The swarm waits there for about 12-48 hours until the scout bees decide on a new home; once the new home is found…poof!…the swarm is gone in a blink of an eye. While it hangs there, however, a swarm of bees seems both awesome and scary (I call it “sublime”), so people call a beekeeper about it.

Honeybee swarm
Honeybee swarm

There’s a swarm season, Reader. Bees in Ohio usually swarm during our spring months…April through June.

I’ve discovered that people who call me about “a swarm” (when we’re not in swarm season) really mean to report “a lot of bees swarming around” their roofline or their doorframe or their soffit; the bees have been “swarming” for a while, and the caller is worried. Well, Reader, this is not a swarm…remember, a swarm doesn’t yet have a home of its own. The good news is this: The bees these callers call about already have a nice home. The bad news for the caller is this: The bees’ home is also the caller’s home.

This post is getting too long, so I’ll finish it tomorrow.

My Next Equipment Order

I’m gonna go ahead and list my next equipment order right here, Reader. That way, I can access it from anywhere…from my phone or from a computer. And, if you’re like I am, you enjoy seeing what other people order.

8-frame, medium hive boxes (20)

8-frame bottom boards (5)

8-frame migratory covers (5)

medium frames—grooved top and bottom (150)

PF120 foundation from Mann Lake (50)

5-frame medium nucs (2)

5-frame deep nuc (1)

5-frame nuc bottom board (3)

5-frame nuc migratory covers (3)

Bee Quick (1)

Queen catcher (2)

Large smoker (1)

Golden Bee jacket—size small (1)

Well, that should cost me an arm and a leg.

Top-Bar Hive with window

Deciding on a Top-Bar Hive

So, I shared with you yesterday that Jerod and I are planning our winter top-bar hive project. Unlike Langstroth hives, top-bar hives are not standardized. A Langstroth hive is what you’re used to seeing, Reader. Historically, Langstroth hive boxes are painted white and are stacked one upon the other. (I’ve decided to stop painting mine because painting takes time, I don’t like doing it, and I think they look better when the natural wood has weathered.)

But I also want to add some top-bar hives to my apiary. I can build them myself, they’re low profile, and they’re viscerally appealing to me. I think I love the simplicity. I also think they’ll be easier for folks to keep in their backyards because they don’t call attention to themselves, and they provide enough honey for the family and a few neighbors. The won’t give you hundreds of pounds of honey, but I don’t need hundreds of pounds.

As I said, top-bar hives aren’t standardized, so they come in an unlimited variety of designs…therefore, it shouldn’t surprise you that Jerod and I tend to like different types. Which will be good…we can try our hand at both. Or more.

Here’s the one Jerod likes:

Top-Bar Hive with window
Top-Bar Hive with window

I tend to lean more to the low side. I like the hives used by Sam Comfort:

Sam Comfort top-bar hive at the Northeast Treatment-Free Beekeeping Meeting

Or, I like Michael Bush’s Kenyon top-bar hive:

Michael Bush's Kenyon top-bar hive
Michael Bush's Kenyon top-bar hive

Here are a few of these simple babies at work against a wall in Albuquerque:

Top-bar hives in New Mexico

Finally for today…here’s a good link to refer to use as I begin to build my Michael Bush version of the Kenyon Top-Bar Hive.

Jerod Visits the Bees

Jerod is the first person other than me to work in my hives. He’s also the first person to visit the bees who wants to keep a hive himself…and I trust the way Jerod works, so there you go. In anticipation of getting his first hives next spring, he’s been reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping, and he wanted to see into a living hive so he could identify what he’s reading about.

So, he suited up, lit the smoker, kept the smoker smoking, smoked the hives, lifted the lids, removed the frames, and inspected the bees. I didn’t touch a thing. (He also helped me rake a mound of sugar from under each of the hives…I can’t tell if the sugar is slipping out of each hive or if the bees are removing it intentionally, but the yellow jackets were going bonkers in it. Damn yellow jackets).

Before we began, I asked Jerod what he was looking forward to as he got his first glimpse into a bee hive. He said he was curious to know what it feels like to be stung, and he was curious to see if he got a little squirrely when he saw that many bees in one place. I’m here to report that although Cricket, Jerod’s dog, was stung, Jerod was not. And Jerod was as calm and soothing as could be with the bees. And the bees responded by being mellow beyond belief.

We saw bees coming in loaded with pollen, we saw drones, we saw bees eating, we saw bees festooning. We saw bee bread and capped honey and capped brood, and we saw a bee get her first glimpse of the world…she was just poking her head from her capped cell. Very cool…she seemed all eyes.

It was nice to be able to take a few pictures for you, Reader…it’s not easy to handle a camera and the hive tool and the frames of bees all at once. And those gloves don’t make it any less of a challenge.

Jerod and I are now talking about building our top-bar hives this winter.

The Good News

Here’s the good news as promised, Reader. The bad news, as you’ll recall, is that the bees from the tree have now been combined with the Girls of Summer, and the small swarm I collected last week absconded.

But on Sunday’s inspection of the remaining four hives, I found two absolutely gorgeous queens at work. The queen in Tomboys was moving around on comb the bees had drawn on their foundationless frames. It was beautiful to see. And the queen in Girls of Summer is HUGE. I was spellbound watching her (also moving about on comb drawn on foundationless frames). I don’t know why it’s so uplifting to spot the queen and then to see how healthy she looks and how calm she is and how wonderful the hive is doing. But, I was uplifted.

Another thing that really surprised me was the health of the split hive. In July I took a frame containing one or two queen cells from Tomboys; from other hives I added two frames of brood and a frame full of honey, and I started a new hive. And though they haven’t drawn new comb since then, they’ve certainly filled the frames with which they began, and those frames were covered with bees. The colony seemed calm and relaxed and healthy.

I’ve decided to move the split hive into a 5-frame nuc for the winter, though. There’s too much empty space around the filled frames (they’re currently living on 4 deep frames hung in a stack of 2 medium boxes), and that’ll be hard to heat in the winter.

One thing I’m learning about beekeeping…timing is everything. Seriously…that “To everything there is a season” thing from the Bible makes more and more sense as I get older.

The Bad News

I have good news, and I have bad news, Reader. Let’s go with the bad news first and get it over with. It’s not the worst news in the world, and we all sort of knew it was coming anyway. And better that it came early rather than late. Everyone said it would happen, and they are 100% correct.

First and worst bad news: The August Boatwright hive—the bees we collected from the tree—is a goner. I’m gonna recycle the comb, and I’m gonna recycle the wonderful colony name, but as of yesterday, the bee-tree colony is a thing of the past. But it was a wonderful experience, wasn’t it?

I inspected all the hives yesterday, and when I got to the August Boatwright colony, I discovered no eggs, no brood, no queen, no stores, no pollen, and only a very very few bees. And the comb I collected from the tree was quickly filling with wax moths…it’s like peering into a home that’s been vacated…you know how the thing goes to pot right off the bat without people to care for it…how grass grows where it isn’t welcomed, etc. I’ll go into the reasons for this some other time…for now, all you really need to know is that I dismantled their hive, and I scooted another colony over near the spot previously occupied by the tree bees so the returning bee-tree foragers (if there were any) had a place to call home when they returned.

The second other bad news (which isn’t too bad…see how things are already looking up?): The little swarm I spent an afternoon capturing from our tree last Tuesday absconded. That means that every single one of them flew the coop. They’ve sought greener pastures. I hadn’t yet grown to love these bees. I hadn’t set them on their permanent site. I hadn’t named them. I hadn’t even peeked into their box to see how they were doing. But with no drawn comb and no food and nothing to make the place feel lovely, they left. I would have made it wonderful for them, Reader, but I don’t have any more comb to give them. All my other hives need everything I’ve got, and that late-season swarm had little chance of survival to begin with.

So, that’s all my bad news. Two late-seasoned bee experiences are a bust. I do feel awful about the tree bees. The triple traumas were just tooo much for them: their removal from the tree and their relocation; their getting dumped on the ground when I accidentally turned their box upside down (still cringing when I think of it); and their being robbed of all their nectar and sugar water by other bees who sensed their weakened state.

Tomorrow…I report better news (not earth shattering, just better).

Wax moths on comb collected from the bee tree
Wax moths on comb collected from the bee tree
Wax-moth larva weaving through the comb cells
Wax-moth larva weaving through the comb cells

What I Reclaimed from the Compost Heap

I spent some time yesterday setting up the site for the new bee colonies. First, Deb helped me move the remnant of an old wood pile. Then, I had to move the compost heap.

As I was shoveling the compost to its new spot, I uncovered something that promises to work great in the smoker I use to calm the bees. Yep, you guessed it.


I Love the Term "Beeyard"

In her very sweet way, Deb has “suggested” that we put no more bee colonies on our little hill.

Last spring we began this adventure with one hive. Then two. One died over the winter. We added two. That made three. We split one into two. That made four. We collected the bees from the tree. That’s five. And now we’ve collected the little swarm. Current count is six.

(You know that only 2 or 3 of these colonies will survive the winter. But then, I plan to capture some swarms in the spring, so the number should continue to grow. If you’re reading this post and you live in Cincinnati and you want to keep some bees at your place, let me know.)

And, although all six colonies are tucked into the woods’ edge, they’re still visible from our house. They’re also visible to any neighbors who drive by, and we don’t want to overtax our neighbors’ generosity in regard to bees. There’s always a breaking point, yes?…I mean, at some point some neighbor will say, “Hey. That may be a one or two too many bee colonies on the block.”

Although I think those colonies are spectacular to look at, and I never get tired of watching the bees dart through the woods and our garden, Deb admits she’d probably prefer gazing into the naked woods without having to see the hives.

So, last night after dinner, we went on a little yard walk to see where we can place the swarm hive and any future hives we might add. We decided on a spot behind the garage near the wood pile. The problem with our new spot, however, is that we’ll have to mow around the hives there. I’m not thrilled about that, but if that’s what it takes to keep a few more colonies around here, we’ll do it.

Maybe we’ll let some ground cover take the place of the grass back there. Or, better yet, maybe we can plant some wildflowers there. That would be awesome.