Starting in mid-May and going into June, every yard that is part of the HBRC reported swarm activity. Paul Kelly has called it the “year of the swarm”, but swarming behaviour does take place every year. What was different this year was the higher rate of swarming early in the season.
Swarming is the natural process of colony reproduction. Roughly half the bees leave the hive with the original queen, land on a nearby tree temporarily while they search for a new home (ie a hollow tree, a new box, or even in a wall!) to move in permanently. When they move in, they build comb, and a new colony is created. The original colony raises a new queen. For beekeepers, it is not ideal to have half the colony leaving. Beekeepers manage colonies to prevent swarming by dividing hives to give them adequate space. This summer we divided a lot of hives and expanded colony numbers. Our bees overwintered quite well and we have more than made up for any losses incurred over the winter.
With early warm weather in March and April, the bees were able to forage for lots of pollen and nectar which allowed them to rapidly build up their population. This was followed by an extended cold period where the bees were confined to the hives. This resulted in overcrowded conditions in the hive which led to increased amounts of early swarming behaviour. When the weather did break, a high bee population and a flourishing dandelion season enabled our colonies to produce a crop of dandelion honey.
Harvesting honey began a little earlier this year as the nectar came in early. In May, each colony had harvested at least one full super of honey. Since the spring the weather had been capitulating between hot sunny days and rainy days, the flow of nectar was more sporadic. Robbing also started earlier.
The honey harvest began in mid July. This year, basswood and linden trees produced a significant amount of nectar, so our honey has a definite aroma and an underlying taste of mint. One thing we are not seeing at all this year for a nectar source is sweet clover, while other flowers have been bountiful across our yards. We expect to see nectar gathered from alfalfa, purple loosestrife and Joe Pye weed as we go into August. The rate of nectar flow will greatly depend on how hot the remaining the days of summer are as nectar flows best with high daily temperatures and sunny skies.
At the end of July, we began our midsummer testing early as conditions were prime for Varroa mite reproduction. With colonies wintering well and building up early, the Varroa mites had an increased advantage. Early swarming and a greater amount of hive splitting did help counteract Varroa mite infestations. We are concerned that this will still be a higher year for Varroa levels, and we may have to do a midsummer treatment.
Towards the end of July, we were in an early position to take honey supers off and were able to more easily begin requeening colonies. We introduced 50 pure-mated Buckfast Queens that were mated on Thorah Island. This was the time of year where bees would supersede and give themselves a new queen, so we stepped ahead and ensured that we had the genetics in the hive that we wanted.