What a day to be a bee! It’s sunny and warm, the orchard is bursting with blossoms, and everywhere tiny flowers are peeking out of the grass… bliss!
It’s been a rough winter for bees, especially this last bit — with the rains and storms dragging on through March, the poor little gals haven’t been able to get outdoors to gather nectar and pollen from the early blooms. If it’s too cold or wet, they simply can’t fly. So, they’ve been out in force on these gorgeous sunny days, making up for lost time!
We keep our bees here on our ranch, as well as on a few friends’ farms in the area. Ten hives is a lot for one location — we’re surrounded by “town,” not open land, so the bees will have to compete for forage — and it turns out that other local farmers are more than happy to have us park a few hives on their property. (We trade a jug of honey at the end of the season as rent, which does sweeten the deal!) And, as a bonus, we get to drive through some of the most beautiful farmland around to tend the hives. Today, we’re delivering three brand-new colonies to replace the few that we lost over the winter… some of the weaker hives dwindle down to a handful of bees during the cold months, and they just can’t keep each other warm enough to survive. Sometimes we’re able to combine them with a stronger hive, so at least the bees get a second chance.
Ready to go! Tom picked up these colonies from Randy Oliver in Grass Valley before dawn this morning — it’s best to transport the hives while the bees are still asleep. It’ll be mid-morning by the time we get them to their new home, though, so the entrances to the hives are blocked with cardboard to keep the bees in. We can hear them scratching and chewing at the paper, and they actually manage to push it out bit by bit!
Our first stop is a friend’s old overgrown plum orchard near Newcastle. It has been untended for many years, but the owners are hoping to gradually prune the tangled trees back into shape. Our bees love the nearby mandarin trees, and the open fields dotted with wildflowers.
We’ve learned that it’s very, very important to make sure your smoker is well-lit before opening the hives… nothing quickens the pulse like a box of feisty bees and no smoke to calm them!
The hive on the left here is the new one. To the right sits a colony that made it through the winter in spectacular fashion — that box is bursting with bees!
A quick check inside the hive reveals that the queen is present and laying eggs — just what we want to see. There are even some swarm cells: elongated cells filled with royal jelly, in which the bees will raise a new queen. The old queen will then leave, or swarm, with a portion of the bees to set up a new colony.
For now, we’ll remove the swarm cells — we don’t want them to swarm just yet, and we certainly don’t want to lose half our bees. We’ll take one of the queen cells along in case any of our other hives turns out to be queenless; properly cared for, this little wax pod will hatch out a brand-new queen:
But, just in case they do decide to swarm, we leave behind an empty bee box — with any luck, the scout bees will “smell” it out as an ideal new home, which makes things much easier for the beekeeper!
On to stop number two — Dan Macon‘s farm just outside Auburn. I love tending the bees here because we almost always have company:
We keep the hives in a fenced-off corner of Dan’s pasture, and the sheep and goats are terribly curious as to what we’re doing! The grass inside the fence is extra-tall and green, and occasionally a clever goat will try to squeeze inside. It adds a whole new dimension of fun to the process of checking the hives!
As we were loading up the truck to head home, this little one even gave me a smile — green grass and sunshine, a perfect spring day… what more could you ask for?