This summer I and other university students took a beekeeping internship class with an entomologist and master beekeeper, who has been caring for student farm beehives for the past several years as a demo item. The class was intended for training student farmers in the maintenance and caring of the Student Farm Apiary, and gave us intense hands on training during the busiest season for our buzzing buddies!
Every class day, except field trip days or when the weather was bad, we would put on veils or bee suits and crack open the hives. Through the instruction of our professor we received an excellent hands on experience (plus one mandatory sting), and learned how to check for diseases and parasites, understand comb development and hive structure, interpret bee signaling, and manage an apiary successfully. Part of our grade was our field journal, which was a constant diary of our interactions with the hives; what happened, when, and what we planned to do next. Bees are so dependent upon the seasons for when they forage, swarm, or store excess honey, a journal is a vital track record to remind you what did and didn’t work and when to do it again in following years. The ability to predict conditions based on the most current data is incredibly useful not only for tailoring your hive management to your local microclimate, but as we watch global warming warp our seasons we are unable to use the established seasonal guidelines beekeepers have used for centuries.
The other half of our grade was dependent upon our the work we accomplished in specialized teams. We had a hive construction team that put together and painted new hive boxes and stands that now actually belong to the farm. A mite monitoring team checked the hive bi-weekly using sugar shakes, sticky boards, and drone pulls to estimate the population of varroa mites in the hives. Another team mapped the colony development weekly to see where the observation hive was putting brood, pollen, and honey stores as the seasons wore on. Finally, a behavior team spent many hours watching the hive entrance to monitor hive activity and learning the “bee dance” to interpret the communicative dances the bees use to signal food sources. So cool!
During the first 4 weeks of class we had a swarm catcher (also known as a nuc box) on top of our nearby bee shed and breathlessly hoped to find ourselves with another colony. One day I came to class and there are my classmates all crowded around standing on tiptoe and pointing excitedly-we had caught a swarm! We happily donned our veils and went to check our established hives. One hive had an abnormal amount of queen cells, which isn’t entirely unusual during swarm season, and we pulled them off. As we did this however, we realized that despite the warm forage-encouraging weather, there simply weren’t enough bees. More so, there simply wasn’t a queen. Terrified of having a colony collapse due to being queen-less we incubated one of the cells we had removed. I carried the tiny queen brood cell in my shirt breast pocket carefully as some classmates climbed on top of the bee shed and found we hadn’t caught a wild swarm, but had caught our own hive’s swarm. The marked queen buzzed cheekily at us as we laughed over our inability to keep bees from doing what they do. The queen I carried was replaced in the now queen-less hive and we arranged for the swarm to have their own hive box.
It brought up an interesting question though. We, as beekeepers, often if not always suppress swarming in the hives we manage to keep them large and productive. There has also been talk of how “swarm happy” bought bred queens have become as late- probably a result of breeding for one characteristic and inadvertently ending up with another as well. However, if a bee hive feels like it wants to effectively split in two, should we let it? Will they be healthier if allowed to swarm or are they just perpetuating a self-weakening behavior? There are so many things we do in beekeeping that are tough choices and it’s hard to make clear whether it is better for our goals as a beekeeper or our bee’s goals as a bee. Unfortunately as as we watch our ecosystem become poisoned and our bees die out in horrifyingly large numbers, plus the effects of invasive diseases and parasites nearly wiping out feral colonies altogether, the need to encourage the integrity of our bee populations has never been more important, nor more difficult.
It was an amazing summer and aside from delicious honey, new friends, and a few funny stories I feel like I’ve gained what will be a life long passion. The Student Farm Apiary is my second home and each hive like a good friend- each with their own moods and personalities and flaws. Despite having a suit, I don’t have gloves. It gives me a better feel for the hive and I love feeling the bees on my fingers, despite them often being upset. A few swollen digits is a small price to pay for the appreciation I’ve gained for these wonderfully evolved insects and the insane work they do!