Free Bees, Courtesy of Migratory Beekeepers

Catch a swarm without even trying.

The cherry trees are blooming in the Wenatchee area and that means the bees are back.

Every year, thousands of beehives are shipped to the area and placed around orchards to pollinate the flowers. Apricots are first — although there aren’t many apricot orchards in the area. Then comes cherries and then apple and pears. The season has just started and it should go on for at least a month.

My friend Tina and her husband Bill have a cherry orchard in Malaga, not far from where I live. Although they usually keep one or two of their own bee hives, that’s not enough to pollinate their entire orchard. So they rented about 30 hives, which were delivered the other night, likely right from California. (Migratory beekeepers move bees at night when they’re all inside their hives.)

The other day, Tina excitedly texted me that the bees were swarming. Turns out that they’d found her empty bee hives — her bees had not survived the winter — and a swarm had moved into one of them.

If you’re wondering what all this means, you might want to read a post I wrote back in 2013, “Bees: Capturing My First Swarm.” It explains why bees swarm and what’s usually involved in capturing a swarm. But Tina didn’t have to do any of the work. The bees just moved into an empty hive on their own.

I told her she should put other empty hives out to see what else she could catch and she said she did. Then I asked if I could put one or two of mine out. After all, if more than one colony was swarming, it would be great to catch as many of them as we could. Great for the bees, since they’d get a new home easily. Great for us because we’d get free bees. And it didn’t affect the migratory beekeeper since the bees were going to swarm anyway. If we didn’t catch them in our beehives, they’d end up somewhere else.

Keep in mind that buying bees usually costs about $100 to $150 per colony, depending on how many you get and how you buy them. And where you buy them from, of course. Since it’s common to lose 50% of your colonies over the winter here, a lot of folks spend a lot of money buying new bees. I replaced 6 colonies one year and swore it would be the last year bought bees. Now I make new colonies through splits and try to catch a few swarms every summer.

So yesterday I cobbled together two complete hives with ten frames each. Each hive has a mix of frames from a failed colony — three of my eight colonies died or disappeared over the winter — and frames from extracted honey. There’s lots of room for a queen to lay eggs and lots of room for incoming bees to store honey and pollen. And even a little honey to get them all started.

It’s kind of like finding a roomy apartment, fully furnished with just the kind of furniture you like, and a fridge with food in it.

I put one hive near the one Tina had already caught and another right near where half the rented bees were set up. And then I left.

Today, I dropped off some spare equipment to help Tina set up a few more hives. Not complete setups, but hive boxes (also known as supers) and tops. She’ll still need bottoms and frames.

Free Swarm
In less than 24 hours, bees had moved into my empty bee hive.

This afternoon, Tina texted me: “Look what you got!” And she sent a photo of the hive I’d placed near hers with bees all over the front of it.

It looked as if a swarm was moving in.

I texted back, asking if I could pick it up on Friday morning so they’d have enough time to settle in. She agreed. Then I suggested that she put a box where I had that one when I moved it. Maybe she’d catch another one.

Robber Bees?
There aren’t enough bees around this hive box to assume a swarm has moved in. When I pick up the other one, I’ll take a peek inside this one.

She sent me a photo of my other hive, too. There was some activity around the front, but not much. Robber bees, perhaps, or maybe some bees just checking it out. Maybe she’ll send another photo tomorrow.

My beekeeping season has been off to a slow start. It only recently stayed in the 40s at night and we still have cool, rainy days. I checked the hives when I got home from my winter trip, just to see how many survivors I had and to seal up the dead hives so the other bees wouldn’t be tempted to rob. When I bring the new bees home, I’ll spend some time opening up my hives, shuffling frames, and seeing if I can spot the queens. I’ll do hive splits on my healthiest hives — I know that two are going like gangbusters — and put the splits on my little bee trailer. But rather than put four occupied hives on it before taking it up to Wenatchee Heights, I think I’ll try leaving one of them empty, just to see if I can attract any other migrants looking to settle down in the Wenatchee area.

8 thoughts on “Free Bees, Courtesy of Migratory Beekeepers

  1. Do you have to do anything to disinfect the old hives where the colonies failed? Is it mites that kill off weak hives over the winter, or something else?

    Bees are incredibly good at sniffing out honey from old hives. My father in law had a hive move into the hollow space inside the walls of his front porch in NM. All it took was a loose swarm and a little hole in the stucco. Since he didn’t want bees right at his front door and also didn’t want to tear the porch apart, it was a problem. He tried to smoke them out, and then to seal them off, but eventually ended up poisoning them since the local beekeepers couldn’t find a way to get them out without extensive demolition. The poison did the job, but on hot summer days the leftover honey seeped out as the walls heated up. It drew bees like crazy, and the new bees kept finding little cracks and holes to get in. Next thing he knew there’d be another hive in the same spot, it happened several times.

    He finally ended up having to tear down that wall and re-build it without all the poisoned honey inside. The stucco layer is pretty thin on typical pueblo-style houses, and since the house structure expands and contracts with the seasons there’s almost always a weak spot that cracks and crumbles. When there was honey inside the wall the bees would relentlessly search till they found a way in, and would work at the little crack or hole till it became the new entrance.

    • I inspect my home weekly throughout the warm months to prevent bees and wasps from setting up on my eaves and inside my garage. The wasps/hornets are terrible; if I don’t stay on top of them, they quickly get out of hand.

      But that’s why I bought supers with honey in the frames. I figured the bees would check them out and if they wanted to swarm, they’d move right in. It worked. According to my friend, I have bees living in both boxes now. In just about 24 hours. I’ll bring them home Friday morning. Or maybe I’ll bring down my bee trailer with two more empties on it, and let them move into a mobile home. :-)

  2. Congratulations on your new freebie swarm.

    Doesn’t all this bee moving confuse the hell out of the bees?
    I think it was Karl Von Frisch who worked out that bees have a communication system, via dance, which shows they have a sense of space and can navigate from food source to hive by reference to the orientation of the sun in the sky.
    So, if the hives are moving from Southern California to Canada in the space of a few weeks, why don’t the Palo Alto bees want to get back to Palo Alto, if they can remember how the sun in the sky looked back there?

    Can bees constantly reset their ‘GPS’ systems without deficit to their navigation ability?

    • Believe it or not, the bees are more confused by a move that’s more than 5-10 feet and less than 3-5 miles than a trip across the country. I’m more worried about moving them up to my house, which is less than 2 straight line mikes from Tina’s, than putting them on my bee trailer and moving them up to an orchard five miles away.

      It’s actually pretty sad to see bees getting lost. Here’s an example. Say I move a hive from my garden to my bee yard, which is about 800 feet away. I do it at night when the bees are all inside the box. In the morning, when it warms up, they start going out to forage. They don’t necessarily pay attention to where they’re leaving from since the area is familiar. So when they come back with pollen and nectar, they go back to where the hive was before I moved it. Then they just fly around that immediate area, looking for their home and never find it. I’ve noticed that the closer the move, the more bees will do it — unless the move is just a few feet. Then they figure it out.

      Migratory beekeeping practices can cause other problems with bees. In the case of Tina’s rented bees, it doesn’t seem as if the bee hives are properly maintained for optimum bee health. They must be overcrowded in the hives if so many of the hives are swarming. (Since writing the post, we’ve each caught two swarms in less than three days.) it’s a HUGE business in the US, though, with thousands of bee hives shipped across the country for the almond bloom in California alone. Good money in it, but too many logistical headaches to make it worthwhile for me to attempt.

      • Fascinating stuff.
        Perhaps the small moves are more confusing because familiar features are still there but at new orientations to the hive, whereas a move of hundreds of miles is just a complete data-wipe, so no point in stressing about familiar landmarks and fragrances, there aren’t any.
        I’m guessing that bees show preferences, so if it is apricot time and a particular bee gets bored with apricots it might just start heading out for the promise of a whiff of cherry?

        Varroa mite is still a problem here, Tina’s rented bees might bring in that sort of pest if they are not well cared for…

        • I think you’re right about the location finding: familiarity vs. data wipe.

          I don’t think they have a preference other than wanting the food source with the most high-quality pollen. When the hive is active, the main goal is to bring in as much food as possible while the queen lays as many eggs as possible. It’s all about colony growth and stocking up on food for the winter. Fortunately, they produce more honey than they need for the winter so beekeepers can steal some.

          Varroa is also a problem here. Believe it or not, there’s less of a problem with colonies from swarms than colonies from nucs. Varroa prefer to feed on developing larvae; of course a swarm leaves all that behind. So although varroa can still be present in a badly affected colony that swarms, its less of an issue. I use natural and chemical treatments for varroa: screened bottom boards year-round, powdered sugar dusting during inspections and honey harvest, and chemical remedies after honey harvest. I suspect that migratory beekeepers don’t bother with any of that because of the hassle involved in treating hundreds or thousands of hives.

  3. I wonder if you could mitigate the impact of a move by cooping them up, restricting them to a small area for a day or two before letting them go. Build some 6′ x 6′ or 8′ x 8′ frames with bug screening, installed as box around the hive temporarily while they learn their new location. A bowl of sugar water in the corner to keep them busy and hydrated, put it up and take it down at night. Sort of like training wheels until they get settled in their new spot. I don’t know if anyone’s tried this before, maybe bug screen would interfere with their navigation system, I just don’t know.

    Bees aren’t the only ones that get confused by moving things around a bit. I once trimmed a tree branch that was rubbing against our house, and when I went to collect it off the ground I found a hummingbird nest with two tiny eggs in it. I’ve got a real soft spot for hummingbirds so I felt terrible, I would have waited till fall to trim it if I’d have realized it was there beforehand. Their nests are so small and well camouflaged that they’re nearly impossible to spot in the dappled shadow from the surrounding leaves. They’re built mostly of spiderwebs with bits of moss and lichen on the outside, very strong and light, perfectly blended to the branch. The eggs were still intact in the tiny cup, which was still firmly attached to the branch despite the impact.

    I put it back up in place by wiring it to the stub of the branch remaining on the trunk. It ended up about 12-14 inches away from the original spot, which was as close as I could get it. I waited and watched until the mother hummingbird came back, figuring that a foot away was close enough and that she’d find it for sure. Sadly, it wasn’t. She kept zooming around, inspecting the area where the nest used to be, settling again and again on the branch a foot away from her eggs and flying away again. It was like she could’t wrap her (admittedly tiny) brain around the fact that the situation had changed. Even though she directly overflew the nest in its new location several times, it was like it was invisible to her.

    I watched it off and on for the next few days, but she never came back to incubate the eggs. I hadn’t touched the nest or the eggs on the ground, only the base of the branch 8-10 feet away, so human scent wasn’t the problem. I think the spacial dislocation was just more than she could handle. I know from experience with hummingbird feeders that they are very precise navigators. In the spring when they come back north for the summer I’ve seen them go back to the exact spot where a feeder was located last year, even when there’s no feeder there at present. When I’ve moved one to a different, nearby area (ant problems), it can take hours or days for them to spot it in its new place. They are spectacularly capable fliers, but some of their behavior seem to indicate that they’re aren’t very mentally flexible.

    • That is such a sad story but as an example of ‘site fidelity’ it is very interesting.

      For each of the last 8 years a pair of wood pigeons have nested in the wisteria on the front of our house. The wisteria is a very tangled mature climber with many nodes and branches which could support a nest. But the pigeons build in exactly the same spot each time. Each winter, when I trim the plant, I remove their ramshackle twiggy construction. Each spring, they build again on the same branch bifurcation, using fallen twigs from the same birch tree nearby.
      They build after the droops of blossom have faded and when the leaf growth is starting to become dense. At the moment the flowers are in full bloom but there is no leaf cover. Yet the pigeons are here, grazing the lawn and making regular flights to check on the spot where they will start to build in a months time.

      Your humming birds (Rufous?) and my pigeons share a complete fixation with a specific point in space.

What do you think?