This has been a very good summer for bees. In general they enjoy heat, and the heat is bringing out the blooms earlier and in greater numbers than in previous years. This combination means the bees are doing gangbusters.
I look at the bees a couple of times each day - just a visual inspection of the hives as I drive by or am out doing chores, and today I noticed a "beard" of bees on the outside of one of the hives. the video below shows what I saw
This sort of behavior isn't normal from the bees, even when it's hot. When they feel like its too hot they will have a few bees, or maybe a hundred sometimes, fanning air out the entrance to provide a breeze. they'll also go and get water, and sprinkle the water in the hive, and the evaporation of the water cools the hive. Bees are pretty good about maintaining a pretty precise temperature in the hive, mostly for the benefit of brood, but also to dry and cure the honey before they cap it. Below is a video of what normal hot-weather bee behavior is. It's way different from the beard of bees. These two videos were taken about 1 minute apart on the same day.
003 from bruce king on Vimeo.
004 from bruce king on Vimeo.
When you see the beard of bees its a pretty clear warning that a swarm will be coming very soon; the hive is not swarming right then, but it'll be in the next three days -- as soon as tommorow. My bees usually swarm between 10am and noon, and so I'll keep a careful watch on them from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. A swarm is pretty easy to see; 15 to 20 thousand beese flying in a dense cloud around the hive, eventually picking a direction and all flying in that direction. It's a little like a bee tornado, and you can see it from a couple of hundred feet away. The basic plan is to notice the swarm forming, and then hope that they land somewhere nearby -- following them with a new hive, you "capture" the swarm by moving the queen into the hive -- the rest of the bees will follow, and by dark they'll all be tucked into the new hive. I then close the hive entrance, and then move the hive back to the bee yard.
What a swarm does is half the bees and the experienced queen leave the hive. Inside the hive, a new queen hatches, and her first act is to kill all the other queen cells to solidify her hive. She'll then mate with a dozen or so drones from this hive and other hives, and then return to her hive and start laying. her eggs will eventually produce more workers, and since she's in an established hive with stores of food and workers, the new queen usually does well. I won't open or disturb the hive for a few weeks after the swarm -- but I will check to make sure that the queen is laying eggs and raising brood, because sometimes the new queen doesn't work out. In that case I'll buy a new queen from a bee supplier and re-queen the hive with her. I don't want to lose the hive and workers.
The experienced queen and the workers she takes with her have only the food in their bellies to set up in a new hive; so when I capture a swarm I'll usually either feed them with sugar water, or I'll put a comb of honey into the capture hive. Bees that have just swarmed are ready to make new honeycomb, so I'll usually use this opportunity to have them draw out new combs for their use; I'll put in flat sheets of stamped wax in the frames, and in the normal course of their business the bees will complete these frames. As with the donor hive, I own't disturb this hive for a few weeks, and then I'll look to make sure that the experienced queen is also happy and laying and functioning, re-queening if I need to.
Since I was out in the bee yard I did pull 120lbs of honey off the hives; looking through the honey supers and taking the capped frames out, replacing them with new flat wax frames. One reason that bees swarm is that they feel crowded, so giving them more "space" in the form of areas that need work delays more swarms.
4 weeks ago