Finally the rain stopped long enough for everyone to get their hay cut, dried, baled and bucked into the truck so we could load it into the barn. Here’s a video of the last run through the field, picking up stray bales.
It’s spring, it’s honeybee swarming time. This is when hives of bees seek to expand by splitting the original hive in half and making an entire new hive.
If you are one of the rare people who has seen a swarm, count your blessings. You’re seeing a miracle of nature.
Swarms are nature’s way of increasing hives. Bees create more hives by splitting and moving. When they have everything perfect in the hive — plenty of brood eggs laid, pollen and honey stored in the comb, the hive neat and busy — word goes out it’s time to move on. Look at this lovely swarm in our upper field.
The departing hive leaves behind food, brood, nurse bees to care for the hatchlings and a few nascent queen eggs, one who will become the new queen of the hive.
About 70% of the hive, including the old queen, leaves in search of a new home. Before they depart, each bee fills her belly with a few days’ worth of honey. Swarming bees are at their wooziest, nearly drunk with honey. An elder beekeeper once told me, “They’re so full of honey they couldn’t bend their fat little bellies to sting if they wanted to.”
True. I’ve scooped up swarmed bees in my bare hands with nary a cautionary buzz and placed them into a hive box. Once I got the queen inside, the rest of the bees marched in on their own and immediately began creating wax and building comb for tomorrow’s nectar.
If you see a swarm clustered somewhere, leave them alone. Everything’s fine. The scout bees are looking and the rest of the bees are simply waiting for them to return and tell them where the new home is. It may take a day or two, even three sometimes, but they’ll move on soon as the scouts approve the new location.
Give them wide berth and don’t bother them. They only have enough food to last a short while and it’s important they don’t waste their energy. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to see them lift up in a cloud and fly off. When we find them, people like me bring wild swarms home and offer them a new hive which we then take care of organically — no chemicals for our bees!
Given the rarity of bees these days, you may want to call your friends over to see the swarm before they leave. Who knows how much longer we’ll be able to do that?
Have a look at this little honeybee doing her waggle dance for everyone. We took this when we were moving a swarm of bees into a new hive. About 15 minutes into the move, she was so pleased she had to share with everyone that something nearby was making her very happy.
Miss Amelia and Harmony in the field
This is a video of us getting ready to move the cows from the east pasture up the road to the high field. Miss Amelia loves getting a carrot. Harmony checks Joseph’s pockets for more. What sweet girls. Our neighbor Susan came down to pick up some eggs and took the video.
It’s been rainy, no surprise since we’re in the Pacific Northwest. Still, we have no complaints because we rarely get snow, which is fine with me. Since we moved our giant beef cows to our friend Vickie’s pasture, our pastures are doing better. At least this winter we’re not getting our boots pulled off when we walk through mud.
Evenings are quiet. We bring Missy into the barn, wipe her udder down and set the bucket under her to milk. When we’re nearly done we let Harmony in for what’s left and that’s always a fun time. We love these girls.
I woke at dawn and nudged Joseph awake. Here’s what the first hour of our day looked like.
Let me start this tale about a porcupine and a cow by mentioning that we NEVER can go away when we’re milking because I’m the one who milks Miss Amelia and you can’t skip a day or the milk will fill her udder and that’s uncomfortable as well as unhealthy. Unlike feeding a dog or parakeet, milking a cow is something most friends can’t do easily. (If you can and you live nearby, I’d like us to become better friends.)
I was scheduled to teach a bee class at a farm festival in Oregon and we wanted to stay overnight so we taught our farm intern, Lane, to milk Missy and Joseph showed Andrew, our other farm intern, how to take care of anything else she’d need.
Off we went. Don’t most tales about mishaps start with something like that? …. thinking we had everything handled, off we went.
The next day, 20 minutes before I was scheduled to teach my class, we got a call that Miss Amelia had a run-in with a porcupine.
When a cow is curious, she’ll get quills in her nose, just like a dog who’s been sniffing around. Miss Amelia, however, decided she just plain didn’t like the look on the porcupine’s face, so she tried to bump it with her head and horns to tell it to get out of her yard.
The porcupine took advantage of this situation to give her a PORCU-PUNCTURE treatment.
A quick call to our vet (on a Sunday) who suggested if we were handy with pliers, that’s all he was going to do. But he said to do it soon as the quills would cause swelling and it would be harder the longer we waited. We were four hours away even if we left that minute so we asked our neighbor Brenda to step in and cover for us. Brenda did and here are photos of how that went.
Brenda brought her needle-nose pliers and removed 148 porcupine quills from Miss Amelia’s forehead. Lane and Andrew, our farm interns, helped steady her.
Apparently the porcupine handled that situation well as we didn’t find one anywhere out in the field. I’m going to guess Miss Amelia will rethink that idea next time she sees a porcupine waddling across the pasture. Live and let live.
Brenda, Lane and Andrew gave her a clay masque to draw out anything that might be itchy.
I think the quills did some acupuncture on her cranky point — she’s been sweet as can be ever since. The clay masque surely helped, I know she felt special. The only thing she didn’t get was the little cucumber slices to go over her eyelids. We took her halter off and sent her out in the field with a bin full of cow treats (carrots, cabbage and beets) to take her mind off the whole thing.
Miss Amelia got the cow version of a spa treatment and I think she kinda liked it.
Jacqueline & Joseph
Joseph and I answer calls for swarms of bees. Swarming is what bees do to create a new hive. It’s how they create another bee family.
A hive will swarm when everything in their hive is perfect — plenty of honey, baby bee eggs laid, pollen ready to feed the larvae, and they’ve left a few new queens in eggs to hatch so there will be a bee-mama ready to start laying more bee eggs. The old hive leaves everything ready for the new hive to grow strong. Really, it’s remarkably generous of them, isn’t it?
When the hive swarms, about 2/3 of the bees and the old queen leave but before they do, each bee gorges herself on honey so she’ll have enough food in her to last the few days it may take to find a new home. A bee in a swarm is full of honey (drunk on honey is what we call it) and very peaceful.
Swarming bees are very unlikely to sting anyone, they’re at their very gentlest, because they
1) have no home to protect, and
2) are too drunk on honey to feel worried.
We’ve collected swarms by lifting clusters up with our bare hands. Sadly they are also at their most vulnerable and many get picked off by birds in air or are harmed by humans who think they are dangerous.
Here’s what a swarm looks like hanging in a tree. They’re patiently waiting for the scouts to find them a home.
Last year I saw a 12 year old boy on the side of a road spraying a swarm in a bush with poison to kill them. There was no reason for this. The bees were no danger to anyone where they were, off on the side of a field. If he’d left them alone, they would have moved on as soon as they found a new home. Instead he killed them, a terrible loss to us all.
When the swarm is ready they take off from the hive and find a tree or bush where they can hang in a cluster. As soon as they’re settled the scout bees take off and look for a new home for them. Each time a scout returns to the swarm with a suggestion, she brings other scout bees with her to see what she thinks might make a fine new home. Good places are anywhere dry and protected, like in an old hollowed out tree or something that resembles that.
A swarm may sit in its temporary location for 20 minutes or they may be there for up to three days (though that’s more unusual). In the meantime the scouts are busy looking until they do. Once the scouts decide on a good location, news of the new home spreads instantly — the swarm lifts as one and flies to it.
If a hive doesn’t find a new home within that time, they are in great danger because they are subject to weather, predators or scared humans finding them and killing them.
The more people who know what a swarm is doing — and that a SWARM IS NOT INTERESTED IN HARMING ANYONE — the better. The bees are, as most everyone knows, having a very difficult time right now and the salvation of the bees lies in saving these wild swarms so they can grow stronger.
If someone sees a swarm here’s what to do:
1. Leave it alone. The scouts will find a home soon enough and likely within a few hours the whole swarm will be gone.
2. Call your neighbors to come see this ever-more-rare occurence. Some worry that in just a few years, bees may die off and there will be no more swarms.
3. If the swarm needs to be moved, call a local beekeeping group (look up the county extension service, they’ll know who they are) and someone will come get them. I do this all the time in southwest Washington and the greater Portland Oregon area. (photo: Joseph helping catch the bees i’m taking off the branch.)
4. Please do NOT harm the bees. I tell people to stay ten feet away and just watch. Or stand further away and use binoculars. It’s an amazing sight. If the hive is in any danger from people it’s a good idea to cordon off the area until they move off to their new home.
5. Keep anyone who wants to bother the bees away from them. I’ve rescued bees that have been sprayed or dowsed with water which did nothing except make the bees susceptible to getting cold. There’s just no reason for that.
Miss Amelia birthed her new calf Monday morning at dawn. A beautiful fawn colored heifer with a big white heart on her forehead who we’re calling Harmony. Sweetheart she is.
Today is sunny and warm and we have about 1200 daffodils all around the farm that are standing tall with blooms a day or two away from opening. The greenhouse is ALIVE with salad greens! Some are leftover from fall and going to flower and seed, others are ready for eating. Chard, orach, kale, parsley, brussel sprout and borage flowers, pea sprouts and five kinds of heirloom lettuce make their way into every salad we eat these days.