Lost Bees

Each spring I put a few bait boxes around the farm and wait to see who discovers them. I am always surprised to find an inhabited one, yes I am.

Last week Joseph was feeding the chickens and told me there was some scout activity around the bait box hanging 15 feet high in the maple tree. Fellow beekeeper Susan was visiting and the two of us stood there watching as thirty bees eagerly flew in and out. That number of bees indicated to me a colony who had recently swarmed must be ready to move in.

If the scouts are really efficient, they may find a desirable new home before the swarm departs their old home. In that case, the swarm leaves their old home, briefly lands on a branch to make sure everyone (the Queen!) is with them, and 20 minutes later, lifts off the branch and flies straight into their new home.

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Fifteen feet up, the bait hive has visitors

Susan and I spent a few minutes happily observing the in and out flights when she perceptively noted that one of the bees coming in had a full load of pollen. Oooh, that changes everything. Sure enough, we soon realized many of the incoming bees were carrying pollen — and pollen is baby food which must mean someone had started laying eggs in there. That told us a colony had ALREADY moved into the hive and they had set up housekeeping.

That’s how you want it to go with a bait hive. The new swarm moves in, spends a few days building comb and establishing their presence. Then, the beekeeper (that would be me) takes the bait box off the nail it hangs by and carries the entire box over to where the real home will be. Easy transition:  Just lift out each already-built-upon bar, covered with bees, and delicately place them in the full size hive. When bees are moved with their comb, they tend to stay in that location because they’ve already started building their home and want to continue.

So at dusk it was with great relish we drove this bait hive a few hundred yards to my next door neighbor Cathy’s empty top bar hive. I left the bait hive for Cathy and her husband to transfer. Then I went back to my place and put a second bait box on the tree in case any late scouts were still out foraging. An hour after sunset we also moved that box up to Cathy’s yard. All bees accounted for!

Two days later near dusk I was in the chicken yard and noticed a small cluster of 300 bees who, obviously, forgot the new location at Cathy’s place. They were mounded on the tree precisely where the bait hive had been. Lost bees.

I could have caught them all and brought them up to Cathy’s place, but I knew it would take me a dozen trips with each little cluster because gathering queenless bees is difficult. With a swarm, once you scoop the Queen up and put her into the box, all the other bees want to follow and stay with her. Not so with a Queenless bunch. They will keep flying out of the box, making it an endless task. So I made an alternative plan. I have a new but quite small swarm who in the past ten days had built five combs. Their Queen was already laying and they would benefit from a few more bees.

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The little bee swarm working on their fourth comb

If these lost bees had recently been in their own hive, they would have smelled like their Queen and would have been kicked out of the small hive’s interior, but I was pretty sure they’d been on the tree trunk for a few days and had lost her scent. To test it, I swept a dozen bees onto my hands and carried them up to this hive. When I set the little group down on the entrance board, half ran inside — incident free — and the other half lifted their butts to spread scent for their sisters, “Here! We’ve found our home.”

Using a feather and a small basket, I carried ten groups of 30 bees up to the small hive and deposited them at the front door. Through the observation window I watched every bee be welcomed in.

At the end of the hour, now in full darkness, I had just three bees left on the old tree. On the last trip, these three bees had flitted up each time I tried to coax them into the basket, so I thought they might be left-behind casualties. Nonetheless, I thought I’d give it one more try. I set the basket on the top of the ladder and said, “Little bees, the last bus is leaving for home. If you’re coming, it’s time to step on board.” As I laid the feather next to each maiden, she carefully stepped on and lowered her body to grip the feather.

I love when a bee story ends with a magic moment of connection that makes me feel useful to the needs of bees. For the last time that evening, I made my way up the path to the hive. I placed the feather at the entrance and each bee, up till then looking lost and resigned to a poor fate, quickly raised up to her full standing height and joyously ran inside to her sisters.