Thursday, April 26, 2018

How to Change an Aggressive Colony of Bees from Demons to Angels.

Well, that was fun.

A friend of mine "inherited" a honeybee colony when she bought her property a few years ago and they came with it.  They'd always been gentle little things, causing no more trouble than drinking from her birdbath and drowning in it occasionally.  She'd enjoyed watching them flitting around her butterfly garden and pollinating her squash.  She's not (yet) a beekeeper, but felt strongly that her property benefited from them being there, so she called other beekeepers out to check them every now and then to make sure they were healthy.  Life was good.
After my inspection. Man, that's a lot of bees!

That changed this spring.  They started buzzing her up at the house a couple hundred feet away, fifty or so at a time, getting caught in her hair and stinging the dogs.  Something was wrong.  So she hired me to come check them, to see if the little jerks at her house were from her hive or a feral colony.  I suited up, lit my smoker, and dug in.  It didn't take long to find out that yep, it was her hive.  I got bumped by a couple bees twenty feet from the hive, and man did they boil out as soon as I took the top off!  Ever seen three hundred tiny little faces lined up along the edge of a beehive box, glaring at you with much malice in their beady little eyes, vibrating with malevolence while five hundred of their sisters dive bomb your face?  I have.

Thanking the Lord for xanax, I gritted my teeth and went through the whole thing anyway, checking for swarm cells so I could squash them and forestall these genetics from escaping into our local area more than they already have, giving us time to figure out how to deal with them.  The five boxes took me well over an hour to look through, and I got stung through my suit fourteen times that I could count.  Three of those were on my face, so I spent the rest of that day looking like I'd had a bad collagen injection from a cut-rate plastic surgeon.  (Not to worry - I was all better that evening, after a swig of liquid benadryl and a nap.)

They were scary mean, so I knew and she knew they had to be dealt with.  How they got this way we'll never know for sure, but it's likely her old gentle queen was superseded, and the new one bred with some drones from a mean queen in another colony.  I told her we should requeen with a more gentle one, and we set about finding her.  BeeWeaver was all out for the season, so she called Tanya Phillips of Bee Friendly Austin to see if she had any available.  After describing to her what I told my friend I'd gone through, Tanya strongly recommended she get Les Crowder to do the requeening.  Of course I jumped at the chance to tag along!  So I called him and we made a plan.  I installed queen excluders between all the boxes so he could find the queen easier the following week, and we met up at my friend's house five days later to do the deed.

How to haul bees with a Miata.  Who needs a truck anyway?
Les is a soft spoken man who just feels good to be around.  He worked the bees so gently, taking care not to squash any if at all possible, taking his time easing each frame out, working slowly and methodically, waiting for the bees to get out of the way before doing the next thing.  I like that.  I'm the same way.  Part of it is self-serving - the more bees you kill, the madder and more likely to sting they get - but a bigger part of it is the guilt I feel for killing them just so I can hurry up and get things done.  Yeah, yeah, there's over twenty or forty thousand of them in the hive so what does it matter to kill a few.  Well, there's over half a million minutes in a year, so what does it matter to kill a few of those instead?

I was ready with my little bottle of alcohol when Les found the queen (I bet she makes a great swarm lure!).  We talked a bit about what an amazing animal she was, such a strong queen to make such a productive and healthy colony, how Mother Nature sure knows how to breed things better than we can.  Of course we both knew what had to be done, and into the alcohol she went.

Beeswax makes a great entrance plug.
Les proceeded to move the hive to a new spot further from my friend's house as I gathered up tools and set a box on the original spot to catch the foragers so I could take them away that night.  On Les's suggestion, I'd brought a frame of open brood with eggs from my Sweetheart Hive, a darling little feral colony I'd cut out of the floor of a storage shed in South Austin last fall.  We put it in a box with a few frames of capped brood from the aggressive hive, and I set it in place.  Taking some of the capped brood and the majority of the foragers would lessen the numbers of aggressive bees my friend had to deal with while waiting the month and a half for the new queen's more docile daughters to take over, and if all goes well I'll end up with a new colony headed by a daughter of my Sweetheart queen.  Nice trade for being willing to deal with the jerkiest of the jerks for a month or two.

Les told me where the queen cage was so I can find it easily when I come back in a week to let her go, and we left, glad to be away from that colony.  Man, they were not fun.

And the vibrating begins.
I'm so glad my friend called Les to do this.  Not only was it fun to work with him (yes, him - not those bees), but I learned things, AND he saved me from making a big mistake.  If it had been me, I'd have let them release the queen in a few days, or released her myself in three.  Les said with Africanized bees, which these very well may have been, that's too early.  They'll likely kill her unless you leave her in the cage for at least five days, or better yet a week.  So yeah, my inexperience with Africanized bees would have at best cost my friend more money and frustration having to find a new queen and having this done all over again, or at worst doomed her colony.  Crisis averted!  I'm so glad I got to avoid screwing up and dealing with the guilt that would come along with it, especially because I'd told her, before I found out how mean they were, that between the two of us we could absolutely handle caring for this hive without having to call anyone else in to help.  Ooof.

A cold front blew in last night, so I decided it'd be best to wait 'til just before dawn this morning to go get them.  It was perfect - almost all of them were in the boxes, and it was so cold that the few left outside couldn't put up much of a fuss.  I plugged the entrance with a wad of beeswax,
I wonder if Joe knows what's in the boxes.
ratchet strapped the whole thing together, carried it to my car, ratchet strapped it to the trunk, and away we went.  With thoughts of what would happen if they slipped on the way, or worse yet I got into a wreck, I used two one-ton-test straps to hold the boxes together and five to strap it to the trunk, then oh-so-carefully and oh-so-slowly putted all the way home.  Yep.  Seven tons of ratchet straps.  I probably would have used more had I had them. *snicker*

As if riding four miles on the back of the Miata wasn't enough to piss them off, they got loaded into the tractor bucket when I got home and, as daylight broke, we slowly vibrated our way across the creek to the spot I'd carefully picked out for them, Joe Dog following behind.  Their new home is a few hundred feet from my house, a hundred more than that from my beeyard, across the creek and through a bunch of brush and trees.  I would have put it even further away, but wanted to keep it a good distance from the county road back there.  Bicyclists ride by there fairly often and I didn't think they'd appreciate SURPRISE BEES!!!1!!  Though I guess it would have made them pedal faster ... more cardio, yes?

Before I opened them up, I turned the tractor around and headed it towards home, still running, so I could make a quick getaway, or at least as quick of a getaway as one can make on a tractor. Man, they were
Opened up and all done! Yes, I took that photo while hiding on the tractor.
Mama didn't raise no fool.
mad. Good thing it was still cold or me and Joe would probably have gotten nailed a few times again.

It feels good to have accomplished this.  I'd always wondered if I could take working a really aggressive colony.  Living in an area Africanized honeybees have definitely infiltrated, that's a very real possibility.  My friend said Les told her this was one of the most scary-aggressive colonies he's encountered in this area.  With his decades of bee experience, that's saying something.  So now I know.  I'll be fine.  So long as I have xanax.


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