This weekend at Smoke Farm, with rain showers passing through and a steady plopping of spring droplets, I watched bees from the newly introduced Italian colonies emerge from the hive, perch momently on the edge of the bottom board, turn slightly and look out into the vast world. A sudden burst of vibration emanated from their body, and they were off, into the rain drops, the overcast, the unknown perils. Such bold, willing sacrifice, I thought.
Initially, I took the naming of hives very seriously. My first three hives were named Republic, Kingdom, and Rogue. I wanted to evoke well-ordered, prosperous colonies as well as leave room for the rebels. Republic and Kingdom did terrific for two years, and Rogue, although never growing out of one super, was always good for a frame of honey now and then.
Last year, I dedicated hives to the people who lived near those bees. One for Matt, for all the work he put into building hive bodies with me, and one for Asha, my god-daughter. One for Michael and Kelle, and one for myself. Matt’s bees took on some obvious attributes of his–they worked incredibly hard, made a lot of honey, and they had a bad attitude once in a while. Asha’s just did their thing, developing normally, making it happily through the winter, there to say “hi!” when I appeared. Michael and Kelle’s were the most gentle bees, very productive too, and they had a penchant for swarming. My bees died, and I wonder if there is a connection to all the changes I went through last year.
For commercial beekeepers, as well as the literature that informs us enthusiastic hobbyists, bees meant for keeping should have certain attributes. They should be gentle. No one wants to open a hive that is constantly banging into your veil and pressing their stingers through your shirt and gloves. They should also be productive, making an abundance of honey for the keeper to harvest. Many commercial people look for a lack of propolis in the hive (a collection of resins from trees the bees use to seal the hive) because it is so sticky, and most honey producers will tell you that swarming is bad. When the hive swarms, half the colony leaves with the old queen, and the laying of eggs and development of worker bees can be set back nearly a month, rendering the hive too weak to make the beekeeper honey. And recently, universities and commercial beekeepers have been trying to breed or select bees that are resistant to varroa mites because untreated, a colony will eventually die.
To me, every colony is different, and rather than name or dedicate a hive, this year I want the bees to teach me who they are. The colony at Michael and Kelle’s house that swarmed twice this spring left a whole box of pollen and honey-full frames. I get the feeling they are geared toward swarming, but I also have a hunch that after this first impulse, they are going to settle down and produce a lot of honey this summer. The queen of the Longfellow Swarm had just begun laying eggs, about a week after swarming, and the workers had set about filling the second box with new comb and honey. These gals are going to be robust, and I have no idea what to expect from them later in the year. Asha’s Carniolans are awaiting some attention from me, as I suspect they might swarm in early summer. But before I get too bold and decide the fate of their stock, I want to get to know them better. And besides, for many centuries the best way to expand your apiary was to catch swarms, which is incredibly fun and challenging every time.