By Serge Labesque
Relocating feral bee colonies
It’s summertime, and that is when people most often become aware of bees that live near them, in tree hollows, or possibly in the walls or attics of their houses. All of a sudden, they want the bees gone. Hopefully, a beekeeper is called to help with the situation.
When I receive such a request, I first try to make sure that it is really honey bees we are talking about, and not yellowjackets or hornets. “They are all bees, aren’t they?” Well, to a beekeeper, not exactly.
If the insects are not honey bees and they do not present a direct danger, I tell the callers to just be patient until late fall, when the unwelcome critters will vanish on their own. Then the problem will have been resolved at no cost, and the insects will have lived their lives, as they should have. If on the contrary, it appears that the nest is filled with honey bees, I tell the callers how important the pollinators are and I ask them if they can tolerate and maybe even appreciate and enjoy the presence of the bees.
But there are times when the bees have to go.
When I started keeping bees, I collected swarms and pursued every opportunity to retrieve bees from any locations bees might turn into a nest. My goal was to capture the bees. I probably used all the tools and tricks to take the bees out of their nests, including “bee vacs”. Bee colony removal was hard, painful work. And it was brutal on the bees, too! Fortunately, I soon started to take the time to observe how the bees occupy and organize their lives in their natural nest cavities without beekeeper influence. I promptly abandoned the ruthless and noisy bee vacs.
I still relocate bee colonies from trees or buildings, when this is necessary. But I do this as gently as possible. Past mid-summer, I advise people to be patient and let the bees spend the winter in place, as the safest time to relocate bee colonies is in the spring and during the early part of summer. The method I use is actually very simple and it works well in just about any situation. It relies on a one-way exit cone that is set on the entrance of the nest and a trap hive that is placed right next to it to receive the bees. The trap hive contains a frame of mixed brood covered with young bees and several empty frames. A lot of fine steel wool is used to plug any hole or crevice that may become an alternate access opening to the nest.
It only takes one or two days for the foragers to adopt the bait hive as their new home. If the inside of the nest cavity can be accessed, the trap hive and the bees it contains can then be collected and taken away. Frequently, it is not even necessary to wear a bee veil or to use a smoker. Every bee, the queen, and their valuable comb can be placed in an orderly fashion in a hive. In the evening, they are all moved to the apiary where they may be re-united with their foragers. Since these feral bees may be of great quality, I occasionally raise a queen or two by using a small piece of their comb that holds eggs and young larvae.
However, when the nest cavity will remain inaccessible, the bees have to be patiently moved to trap boxes until the nest is emptied. This may take six or seven weeks of patient monitoring and managing of the boxes while the young from the nest mature and fly out. The last of the nest bees and the queen may finally abscond or join the trap bees, as no foragers are bringing them supplies. The nest cavity may then be sealed to prevent a swarm from moving in. Meanwhile, the bees that join and strengthen the trap hive raise young queens, build comb and prepare for winter by collecting remarkable amounts of nectar and pollen.
For sure, beekeepers have better ways to fill their apiaries than collecting wild bees. But there are times when it is good to know how to transfer feral colonies from their nest into our hives to save them from chainsaws and bulldozers.
August in the apiaries
Beekeepers may give less attention to their hives during the summer than during the spring. Yet, this is a good time to become better acquainted with our colonies and their queens. We can find out what some of their qualities and shortcomings are, and still have enough time to make necessary adjustments and to address health or other issues before the preparations of the colonies for winter are started in earnest.
Varroa mite monitoring ranks high on the list. Two or three tests during the month of August after testing in July are a good measure to figure out how the colonies are handling the pest. Assessing the level of mite infestation of a hive can be done easily by placing a sheet of wax paper coated with vegetable shortening on the monitoring tray. Twenty-four hours later, a quick count of the mites that are found on the wax paper gives an idea of what is going on. This needs to be done at the same time for all the colonies in a given apiary, because the weather and the location can shift the results significantly. We can then at least tell which hives in that particular location are doing well and which ones may have to be kept under watch or possibly requeened before the fall.
Typically, the honey flow decreases or even ends around my apiaries during the summer. Two years after the fires that devastated this area, this drop in nectar production is still particularly noticeable in locations where the hives depend to some extent on the natural vegetation.
Not surprisingly, the brood nests, which are shrinking at this time of year, have moved higher up into the hives. The lower combs which may have been completely occupied in late spring and early summer are being vacated. This is a good opportunity to remove some of the older combs, but not to the point of entirely eliminating the lower supers. The bees are actually beginning to use this space to deposit pollen and some nectar, stores that they will use in early fall to feed the developing winter bees.
Unless the bees benefit from a generous summer flow, we can let the honey supers become fuller without adding more nectar-storage space. This helps the bees begin to reverse the gradual move of the brood nests, and it is particularly important in hives with double-deep brood chambers. As the brood nests inch their way down on the combs, they frequently leave some bee bread they did not consume in the upper combs of the brood chambers. It is important to leave these brood-chamber combs in place, as the bees will need the pollen they contain next winter.
For our comfort, it’s best to visit the apiaries in the morning on in late afternoon in order to avoid the heat of the day. The bees have to work hard to prevent their nests from overheating. It is good to understand that the choice of the hives we use, their location, and how they are protected from the afternoon sun can affect the colonies significantly. Any work the bees need to do to cool their hives is done at the expense of nectar collection and care of the young. Without any doubt, the use of follower boards and upper ventilation slots is helpful. However, air circulation through the hives should not be excessive, as the larvae may suffer from dehydration. The ventilation of the hives should also be provided safely, by preventing robber bees or yellowjackets from entering the hives. This can be done by placing a double screen over the upper ventilation slots and by keeping the hive entrances defensible. Removing the monitoring trays is not a good way of providing ventilation in the hives. Indeed, the air flow may become excessive, especially in apiaries exposed to the wind, making it hard for the bees to control the temperature and relative humidity inside the hives.
Debris accumulates rapidly on the monitoring trays at this season. It attracts wax moths and Small Hive Beetles. This is a good thing, as these pests are drawn away from the heart of the hives. However, they must be removed when wax worms and beetle larvae develop in the debris. Soaked in water for a week, these deposits and their inhabitants can become a good fertilizing tea for a few garden plants!
Open-hive inspections expose the brood nests. They are infrequent and brief at this time of year. They should be performed only when the risk of triggering robbing is low, and they should be interrupted at any time robber bees come to the hives. These summer hive inspections may be justified when we see signs of possible health problems on the monitoring trays or in front of the hives. It is also good to find out how the young queens are performing. The brood they produce is a good indicator of their prolificacy and of a few additional characteristics, such as the very-desirable hygienic behavior. Having the smoker at the ready is a safety measure, but no smoke should be applied to the honey supers, or else the honey will acquire the taste of the smoke.
Monitoring and managing the honey supers, including occasional harvests of ripe surplus honey needs to be done without letting honey be exposed to robber bees.
By the end of the month, the colonies will have been assessed, and plans will be made and initiated to prepare them for winter. Their queens, health condition and their stores will be determinant factors during the beekeeper’s decision-making process.
The management of our hives at this season and over the next two months is the opposite of spring hive management. Instead of adding more space, we begin to reduce their volume, and we allow their contents to become more compact.
In summary, this month:
- Observe the performance of the queens and colonies. Take notes for later selection and for hive combination or queen replacement, as warranted.
- Requeen or combine hives that are not performing satisfactorily, and those that have failing queens.
- As always, keep an eye on the health of the colonies.
- Monitor the development of the mite population.
- Beware of yellowjackets and of the risk of robbing.
- Avoid hive manipulations that can trigger robbing.
- Keep the entrances of the hives defensible. Reduce them, if necessary.
- Ensure that the bees have access to water at all times.
- Ensure that the hives are adequately ventilated. Providing afternoon shade is helpful.
- Begin to reduce the unused volume of hives.
- Cull old and misshapen combs.
- Beware of the fire danger when using the smoker in areas of dry vegetation.
- Harvest only surplus summer honey.
- Give extracted supers and wet wax back to the bees for cleaning. To avoid triggering robbing, this should be done in the evening, when foragers are returning to their hives.
- Render wax from discarded frames and from cappings. Solar wax melters work very well at this time of year.
- Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.
Serge Labesque © 2019