June 27, 2015
On a hot early summer’s day, with the annual monsoon season threatening to begin a week early, I visited one of the top bar hives that I am taking care of in east Flagstaff, Arizona. My purpose in opening this colony was to make sure that the bees had enough space in the brood nest for the queen to continue laying eggs. The brood nest is usually found in the front and middle portion of a top bar hive: these are the combs where the baby bees are being developed, as they go about maturing from eggs, to larvae, to pupae, and finally to adults. Colonies usually store honeycombs behind the brood nest, in the rear portion of a top bar hive.
The last time I opened the colony I found many drones in the rear section of the hive and not much room available for the bees to expand behind the brood nest. The presence of so many drones and drone brood suggested to me that the colony might be preparing to swarm. However, I wasn’t able to get very far into the brood nest area of the hive, especially the front section, near the hive entrance.
With monsoon season approaching, I knew that I needed to take a look at the front section of the hive, to see if there were any swarm cells on the edges of the brood combs, and to see if I could create some space with blank top bars to help the bees feel less crowded. When a colony feels crowded and “runs out of room,” making it difficult or impossible for the queen to continue laying eggs, that colony will often swarm, a natural reproductive process. If the bees were just beginning to prepare to swarm, my plan was to create some space within the brood nest with blank top bars, or to divide the hive into two pieces if they had already built swarm cells. If that happens, the beekeeper can take about half of the combs and about half of the bees–including the queen herself–out of the hive and place them into a new hive. That new hive can be moved to a new location in the apiary or to a different apiary entirely. The original colony already has swarm cells to replace the missing “mother” queen, and one of those swarm cells (if all goes well) will become the new queen of the original hive.
As it turned out, this colony was not preparing to swarm, but it was “getting mighty crowded” in the brood nest area. So, I wound up removing three beautiful fully drawn and heavy honeycombs from the hive, two from the area in front of the brood nest (near the entrance) and one from the rear honey storage area, behind the outer edge of the brood nest. Late spring/early summer is a good time to harvest surplus honey in our part of the Southwest. With the wetter weather of monsoon season about to begin, and with cold weather behind us, the bees don’t need as much of their stored honey. Whatever honey the beekeeper removes can usually be quickly replaced during monsoon season, when nectar flows reach their peak in the Flagstaff area, and the bees are actively building new honeycombs.
For the health and well being of the bees, this is good timing. I have learned that harvesting surplus honey in Autumn or early springtime is not a good idea. The bees need that honey to get through the winter, and in springtime they need that honey to stay warm during that time of the year when the weather can still be cold and snowy and the nectar flows are not yet very strong.
It remains to be seen if this colony will be able to replace these three honeycombs as the monsoon season develops. The last two monsoons have been very strong, and the bees have made a lot of honey in the Flagstaff area. This season could be wet again, or it might be drier. I am hoping for the wetter scenario, and that is one reason why I took three combs rather than two or one. I am confident that there will be enough rain and therefore flowers and nectar for the bees to rebuild their honey stores before another Autumn comes around again.
As an organic beekeeper, I am very grateful to the bees for this delicious Flagstaff honey. The bees did not seem to be upset that I was taking some of their honey. I had some soft weeds to use in brushing them from the combs, but none of the bees tried to sting me. In fact, they were completely docile during the entire inspection process, including the harvesting of the combs. I cut the combs from the top bars and dropped them into a five gallon bucket.
I am especially fond of this colony of bees. In fact, I may love them just a little bit more than the other colonies I am trying my best to take care of (don’t tell them that; they may take it the wrong way). All of the colonies I take care of are known by a unique name that tries to describe something meaningful about who they are as a distinct, individual entity, or “bien.” This colony once lived in a “short” 18 top bar Golden Mean Hive, which they quickly outgrew. I wound up putting them into a much longer 30 top bar Golden Mean Hive, the one that they are living in now, and that they are already are getting near to outgrowing. Because they needed a longer hive, I decided to call them The Long Canes.
Long Canes is a real place located in what is now western South Carolina near to where my ancestors once lived, around 1800. At that time the Long Canes was located on the western edge of South Carolina and the eastern edge of the Cherokee Nation. In other words, Long Canes was a frontier outpost located within what was left of the Cherokee Nation’s Lower Towns region. My ancestors, who were named Tyree and Delilah Gentry, had several social connections to the Cherokees who lived in this area along the Tugaloo River and later in Arkansas, to where they moved in about 1817 from Tennessee.
Recently I found an old letter in the federal archives that was written by General Andrew Pickens, one of the earliest and most prominent white settlers of western South Carolina. The letter dates from 1784 and was written to the governor of South Carolina. In the letter, which he wrote from the Long Canes, Pickens tells the governor about a large group of about 100 interrelated families who had begun moving into this frontier area along the Tugaloo River, following the end of the American Revolution. Many of these settlers had fought with Colonel Benjamin Cleveland at the pivotal Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina in 1780, a turning point in the war. Several of the people who were friends and relatives of my Gentry ancestors (like David Barton and Ruth Oldham) were part of this group that Cleveland led to settle upon these former Cherokee lands, along the Tugaloo, and Pickens wrote about them in his letter from the Long Canes. He wanted the governor to know about what was happening on South Carolina’s frontier.
I am proud of my Cherokee and British ancestors and of the wonderfully healthy, gentle, and productive colony of honeybees that I call The Long Canes. They are all beautiful. Their honey is wonderful and tastes like one of its major floral sources could be
the red maple tree. That tree grows in great abundance in that part of Flagstaff and it blooms in springtime, when the bees made this honey.