16 November 2011

Swarm Season

Our growing apiary with the first swarm in a perma-apiculture box getting confused and hanging from the landing ledge. They were later convinced they would be more comfortable inside the box.Honey bees have a funny way of giving thanks for abundance. In the warm sunny mornings of mid-to-late Spring with the Queen bee laying thousands upon thousands of eggs, the hives near to bursting with hard-working activity, the collective bee-mind dedicates special care to the creation of Princess bees, future queens who will usurp their mother queen. When these young queens hatch, the existing Queen calls together her favored minions and they leave the hive en masse, called a swarm, which usually collects in a great ball of bees on the branch or trunk of a nearby tree planning out their future in the winds of fate. Meanwhile, the newly hatched Princess-now-Queen awakens to a fully intact and functioning hive complete with thousands of workers and plenty of space. This is the honey bee’s reproductive cycle and it tends to happen every year. Trouble for the beekeeper is that the seasoned and reliable Queen that gave you all of last year’s honey harvest is now sitting in a ball in some tree and she will have to be physically caught in a new hive box if you want to harvest honey from her again this year and keep expanding you apiary. And so the adrenaline rushes in drop-everything-fashion from the first humming vibration spiraling loudly into the sky of a swarm breaking away from their hive, carefully watching where they collect, pulling on bee-suits and gathering materials for a new hive and the tools to cut branches and scale trees. There is enormous investment and energy in keeping bees cycling within their natural habits, but it is good group work with the tremendous reward of future honey harvests, living the luxury of enjoying backyard honey all year.

This year we began swarming season with five healthy and strong hives which so far in the past two weeks have swarmed nine times! A lot of factors have led to this disproportionate frenzy of bee reproduction, not the least of which has been the unseasonably dry and warm weather; over a month of little to no rain in one of the typically wettest areas on the planet, a temperate rainforest in Spring, is no small matter. But the largest factor is our change in beekeeping methods this year. For the past two years we have been keeping our bees under the guidance of natural beekeeping: no non-organic chemicals and general respect for natural bee cycles of behavior. This year we decided to go even further towards what is known as permaculture beekeeping which is even less invasive of bee space and bee autonomy. We still provide housing for our bees, but no longer conduct frequent examinations, such as traditional inspections to root-out and destroy future queen cells as a method to prevent swarming. So we have been getting used to the buzzing vibrations of swarms in a flood of new queens, more than doubling our apiary in a stumbling explosion of bee box towers arranged along the earth’s natural magnetic lines in our forest hollow.

According to permaculture bee-keeping theory, honey bees are naturally drawn to form hives at the intersections of earth’s magnetic lines, a global grid that crosses every few meters in all directions. We doused our hillside for these points using two copper wires and have been housing all captured swarms on these points. As the theory goes, lightning is also drawn to these points of intersection, increasing the propensity for large trees at these points to become burned-out snags with hollow centers: perfect, natural honey bee homes prior to the invention of Langstrom boxes. Also, burned wood is naturally water resistant so we have forgone painting our new swarm boxes and instead have been blazing them black with flame. This has not been positive in maintaining our bee suits a gleaming white, but such are the sacrifices of trying new theories. So now our apiary is an eclectic mix of new and old materials, hybridizing our existing hives toward these new methods, starting all captured swarms in blackened towers and hoping they will stay.

In these modern times, generations of traditional bee-keeping methods have turned progressively toward the increased use of chemicals and the mechanical treatment of honeybees. In combination with the increased use of chemicals in traditional agriculture where honey bees pollinate, modern methods are resulting in alarming rates of hive collapse and a growing list of parasitic hive infections that decades ago did not exist. Faced with such realities, the investment and risk of trying a natural, permaculture method of bee-keeping is minimal in an attempt to raise hives whose natural defenses will be amplified by living a less stressful existence more aligned with their natural habits. Honey bees have been pollinating and producing honey for millions of years, long before humans ever got involved. Our relationship with honey bees will determine how long they continue to tolerate our sharing of their delicious labors. So this season we are welcoming our swarms, just hoping they choose branches closer to the ground.