Gone! The Oklahoma colonies abscond

In an unexpected turn of events, the Oklahoma open-air colony I wrote about last week absconded from its nest. Even more surprising, the parent colony, the one that had lived for many years in the hollow of an oak tree on the far side of the pasture, absconded at roughly the same time.

Lorieann Bradley, who sent the original photos, told the story:

I am heartbroken! All of the bees have absconded! I have no idea why they left or where they went. I saw them every day when I fed my chickens.

On the 24th, when I saw that the comb was empty, I noticed a small swarm on the end of the limb about 6-7 feet away from the comb. It was terribly hot the last few days. I thought the bees may have gotten too hot, being crowded on the comb, and were spreading out to cool themselves off. Hoping they would go back to the comb when it cooled off, I went down to check on them after dark. They were still on the end of the limb.

Today, the 25th, there was not a single bee left on the limb! I did find just a couple of dead bees, and one barely alive bee on the ground. No sign of any others!

I made it a point to go across the pasture to check on the original colony… THEY ARE GONE!!!   No bees anywhere!

The question is why

This is nothing if not unusual. Absconding colonies are not very common, but to have two abscond at the same time is just plain weird.

When a colony of honey bees absconds, it is usually due to some uncomfortable condition. The bees may leave due to lack of food, frequent disturbance, loud noises, overheating, bad odors, parasites, predators, or the presence of chemicals.

Lorieann did mention the oppressive heat, and that is the only thing that seems to make sense, although we will never know for sure.

Honey Bee Suite

The open-air colony on July 21. © Lorieann Bradley.
Another view of the open-air colony on July 21. © Lorieann Bradley.
This group of bees was spotted on a limb near the open-air colony on July 24. © Lorieann Bradley.
Here is the open-colony on July 24. No one home. © Lorieann Bradley.
This is an earlier photo of the colony in the tree trunk. © Lorieann Bradley.
This is the empty hollow on July 25. © Lorieann Bradley.

How to light a smoker so it stays lit

Once you decide to light your smoker, how do you keep it lit? Many beekeepers report that before they’ve finished just one hive, their smoker is cold as night and they have to begin again.

In truth, everything you need to know about smokers you learned in elementary school. I’m thinking of those “fire triangles” that always appear in science textbooks. The triangle usually has a graphic of red and orange flames in the center, and each of the three points is labeled. Oxygen. Fuel. Heat.

Don’t forget the basics

If your smoker is going out, you are likely neglecting one of the three points. You may have put all three elements in the smoker, but unless they are pampered, the fire is apt to go out.

For example, when you build a campfire you generally begin by lighting some quick-burning fuel like newspaper, paraffin fire starters, or finely split tinder. Plenty of oxygen surrounds your pile, so you just add heat in the form of a match or torch, and the fire starts. After the starter material gets hot and burns on its own, you add larger pieces of wood, often called kindling. When the kindling gets going, you can finally add logs. Now all you need is marshmallows.

You know that hot air rises and you can see the burning gases (flames) as they rise from the fire. You can get quite close to the fire on the perimeter, but the space above the fire is extremely hot. Even your marshmallows will burn if held directly over the flames.

Don’t light the top

I have a neighbor, a regular he-man, who can’t build a fire to save his life. I’ve seen him try to light big slash piles of logging debris by dousing diesel fuel over the top. He lights it, flames shoot skyward among billows of black smoke, but within 20 minutes the diesel fuel is gone and his slash pile remains undamaged.

In the same way, some beekeepers stuff their smoker with fuel and then light the top. It may flair up for a few minutes, but then it goes out. When you light the top, the hot gases move up and out of the smoker, but they don’t ignite the fuel down below, so it goes out. You need to light the fuel at the bottom first, so the hot gases move up through the fresh fuel and make it burn.

Going back to our example, if you build a campfire in the style of a tepee or log cabin, you can still light it from the bottom and be successful. But the way a smoker is designed, it is difficult to fill the canister and then light it from the bottom. So you have to do it in increments.

Steps to lighting a smoker

The following steps take longer than lighting the fuel at the top, but the extra time is worth it. Properly lit, the fire will smolder for long periods without going out.

  1. Begin with some quick-starting fuel like crumpled newspaper or pine needles. This fuel should not be packed tightly, but should be light and fluffy with lots of air spaces. Ignite the fuel, wait until it burns on its own, and then push it down to the bottom of the smoker with your hive tool. Squeeze the bellows a few times to force air up through the lightly-packed fuel.
  2. After the initial fuel is burning well, add another handful of fluffy fuel to the smoker. Once it begins to burn, push it down with the hive tool and squeeze the bellows a few more times.
  3. Repeat the previous step one or two more times, always waiting for the fresh fuel to begin burning before pushing it down into the smoker, and always adding a few puffs of air.
  4. Once the fire is burning lustily and flames are licking the insides of the fuel chamber, you can add larger fuel and more oxygen.
  5. After the the larger fuel has ignited, you should be able to close the lid. At this point, the fire should smolder on its own with only an occasional squeeze on the bellows. Remember to check the fuel supply from time to time, and always add a few puffs of air along with the fresh fuel.

Once it’s hot, its’ hot

Once you have your smoker burning well, remember it will burn for a long time and it will be hot. It is easy to forget about the hot smoker once you have finished working your bees. It’s embarrassing to report that one day earlier this year after I finished hive inspections, I shed my bee suit and left my smoker on a wooden table in the backyard. Later, while talking to my husband in the front yard, I said, “I smell smoke.” It didn’t smell like the wood chips I had been using, and it wasn’t.  When I went to investigate, smoke was rising from a charred circle under the smoker. Moron. I could have burned the house down.

Honey Bee Suite

Table burned with smoker.
Oops. Embarrassing to admit, but I walked away from the smoker without checking it. © Rusty Burlew.

How often do you smoke your bees?

Are you a smoker? Beekeepers, like other kinds of smokers, seem to fall into two distinct camps: always or never. But like so many aspects of beekeeping, the decision to smoke your bees is not that simple.

Most traditional beekeepers keep their smokers close by, routinely lighting up no matter the circumstance. In my recent master beekeeping course the message was basically, “If you don’t use smoke, you’re not really a beekeeper.”

Many hobbyists on the other hand never use smoke. Some use nothing, and some use alternatives such as sugar water spray or mixtures containing emulsified essential oils. Although I have never tried the alternatives, it seems to me that honey bees are genetically predisposed to react to smoke but not necessarily to sugar in a sprayer.

Is it really all or nothing?

As usual, I reside somewhere in the middle of the smoker argument. Since I try to base my management decisions on facts not rules, I always ask myself if the present situation requires smoke. Furthermore, I ask if a particular colony requires smoke.

The mood of a colony can change drastically throughout the year, and it can even change during the day. With a few exceptions, I don’t see many downsides to using a smoker all the time, if that’s what you want to do. But if you would rather not use a smoker, there are times when it isn’t necessary but other times when it is foolish to go without.

My personal aversion to the smoker stems from the way it affects me. Sometimes I sneeze uncontrollably, to the point where I have to quit for the day, so if I can work without smoke, I generally do. But at other times, it is best for me to carefully assess the wind direction and position myself out of the cloud and proceed with caution.

Arguments in favor

A few puffs of smoke does wonders for a colony’s disposition. The bees disappear between the frames where they are out of harm’s way and out of your way. You can easily move frames, stack and re-stack boxes, inspect the brood nest, and scrape propolis without the fear of harming your bees. It is better for the bees because you are less likely to harm them. It also means you can get your work done more quickly, which is a plus for them as well as for you.

But just because something is good some of the time, doesn’t mean it is good all of the time. Many times I don’t use smoke or anything else, and I can go from colony to colony with easy efficiency.

When do I not use smoke?

    • During winter, honey bees are not eager to break cluster. I can tip up the quilt box, slide extra sugar patties into the feeder, and close the hive in a matter of about 10 seconds. Usually not a single bee emerges, so there is no reason to get everyone riled up with smoke.
    • Similarly, during a honey flow I often look under the cover to see if I need to add more honey supers. Honey bees are single-minded during a nectar flow, so I can take a quick peek and see their status without disturbing the colony. If they need a super, I can add one with no smoky disruption to their work.
    • In early spring when the weather starts to warm but drones are not yet evident, the colonies are especially docile. During these times, I can do quick inspections without smoke and the bees don’t even leave their frames.

When do I prefer smoke?

    • I use smoke during major disruptions such as complete hive inspections or colony splits. Smoke not only calms the bees, but they are more likely to stay on their frames, so moving frames from box to box is much easier.
    • Smoking can be helpful during queen introduction because the odor of smoke masks the pheromones of the new queen. As the smoke dissipates, her odor becomes more apparent to the bees, but the shift in odors is gradual instead of abrupt.
    • Smoke can be helpful when you are combining two or more colonies. I still use newspaper, but a little smoke keeps the bees calm during the process.
    • During a nectar dearth, a smoker can mask hive odors that draw robbers. Honey bee robbers and other predators such as wasps and yellowjackets are not drawn to the smell of smoke, so you are less likely to start a robbing frenzy.
    • Smoke can also be used during honey harvest when you remove your extracting frames from the hive.
    • It also makes good sense to assess your neighborhood. Nothing will interfere with your hobby faster than a neighbor who is intimidated by your bees. Smoking your colonies can keep them calm and close to home, behaviors that are especially important in an urban environment.

The exception for comb honey

Although convenience would dictate otherwise, I do not use smoke around full or soon-to-be-full comb honey supers. Consumers of comb honey eat the wax, and I have heard a number of consumer complaints about comb honey tasting or smelling unpleasantly of smoke. The smoke flavor can become incorporated into the wax and, if smoke was used during the capping stages, ash flakes can sometimes be seen on the surface.

The other downside to using smoke around comb honey is that the bees may decide to gorge on the delicate honey combs.  Even a few leaking cells can ruin the value of section honey, so it is best to keep the smoker well away from the completed rounds or squares.

The common sense imperative

More important than any of the situations listed above is common sense. But among those that extol the use of the smoker under any and all circumstances, I never see an exception for common sense.

The best example I can give is extreme fire danger. If you are living in an area with an elevated fire risk, if cigarette butts and campfires are starting wildfires that burn millions of acres, destroy homes, and kill both people and wildlife, perhaps you should forego the use of the smoker for a while. I can understand not wanting to harm a few bees, but how many creatures can you kill with a wildfire? Use good judgment and don’t compete for the Darwin award.

More is not better

Remember the saying “if some is good, more is better”? It applies to ice cream but not to smoke. Smoke should be applied in judicious puffs. Once the hives are open, small puffs can be used to “steer” the bees one way or the other. But do not over do it. Use too much and it loses its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the saying “moderation in all things” applies to both ice cream and smoke.

Honey Bee Suite

Smoker alight and ready. Pixabay photo.
Smoker alight and ready. Pixabay photo.

Who pollinates wild black raspberries?

On the nearly perpendicular hillside behind my house, fighting for space among the ferns and stinging nettles, the wild black raspberries grow. Sweet, intensely purple, and lightly hairy, these berries are my special treat. I collect them every summer, risking their savage recurved spines and the perilous embankment. At the end of each session, my hands are stained with blood and mauve, and my boots overflow with forest duff.

As I do this tedious work, I imagine the possibilities: ganache-covered chocolate cake relaxing in a pool of black raspberry coulis, ice cream the color of violets, or warm toast glistening with berry jam. And don’t forget key lime pie: a tart foundation for mounds of hollow-centered jewels.

So which bee is it?

So on a sunny afternoon last week, armed with a one-quart plastic container that once held yogurt, I ascended the hill. As I picked and cussed and backed nasty spines from my skin, I once again wondered who pollinates the black raspberries.

Since the plant is in the rose family like so many bee-pollinated berries, I assume it is bee pollinated. Every spring I try to catch a pollinator in the act, but nothing stands out. I’ve seen a honey bee or two, an occasional Andrena, and a few bumble bees, but no consistent visitors appear.

I was deep in thought about the mystery bee, my container nearly full, when I stepped backward onto a piece of broken limb. It rolled. I tumbled. In a flash I was sliding backward, head-first down the hill with an earthworm’s view of the firmament. Above me a pair of jays scoffed and jeered at my antics.

As I slid down the embankment, a place that smelled brown and composty, all I could think of was the container: Keep it upright! Keep it level! Feeling like the Statue of Liberty or the Olympic torch bearer, I slid down, down, down with one arm held on high. I watched it, concentrated on it, willed it to stay full.

Saving the berries

When I finally stopped, thanks to a young elderberry bush, I could see my boots silhouetted against the sky. Still, my berry bucket was level and brimming with fruit. Victory!

But the hardest part was yet to come. Turns out it is difficult when you’re upside down, nearly vertical, and holding a container of berries, to flip yourself over with the remaining hand. The ground was too steep to set the container anywhere and it was impossible to sit up. I kept grasping at things that came loose when I tugged. And when they came loose, other things got flicked about. Wiggly things with far too many legs.

Finally I was able to reach a sword fern, a plant with deep and tenacious roots. With the fern in hand I was able to get myself turned around and upright. It was then that I noticed everything in my pockets had fallen out; keys, hive tool, survey tape, and pocketknife had all continued on their journey down the hill without me.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I felt stupid for losing my balance and a little sheepish for prizing my black raspberries above life and limb. But then again, people who think hoards of stinging insects make fun pets are a little bit like that.

Honey Bee Suite

Wild black raspberries, ripe and delicious. © Rusty Burlew.

An open-air colony in Oklahoma

Open-air colonies seem to be everywhere these days. The bees living in this particular colony, hanging from a large oak in northeastern Oklahoma, have a history of dwelling in trees.

Both the new colony and the parent colony belong to Lorieann Bradley of Kellyville, Oklahoma. The parent colony has lived for many years in the hollow of an oak tree on one side of her pasture. On June 12, Lorieann looked up to see a large swarm hanging from the limb of an oak tree on the opposite side of the pasture. The swarm was about 300 yards from the original colony and positioned high above her chicken coops.

“I hoped it was just resting while the scouts looked for a suitable place for their new home,” she said. But “now there is a large open-air colony established on the branch!”

So far, the colony is doing great. “We have had several storms roll through with very high, 50-60 mph, winds. I checked on the colony this morning, and it seems they weathered the storms just fine.”

Preparing the colony for winter

Lorieann is now considering whether to cover the colony for winter or move it to a new location. Unfortunately, the combs are about 20 feet in the air and a fair distance from the trunk. She wonders how much weight the limb can handle, especially if she adds a canvas cover.

“The last few winters have not been too bad,” she said. “Some freezing temperatures, thin ice on the ponds, maybe an ice storm, and then it warms up to the 50s and 60s. Kind of crazy!”

The pictures below show the original colony which still lives in a tree hollow, the swarm, and the open-air combs. Lorieann is looking into options and promises to let us know what she ends up doing for the bees.

The big surprise

For me, the most interesting part of this story is that Lorieann is not a beekeeper. I was amazed by this because she wrote her questions and explanations with more nuanced understanding of honey bees than most of the questions I get from established beekeepers. She should definitely join the fold.

In the meantime, I know she is looking for advice and suggestions on how to protect this new colony, so anyone with experience or good ideas should chime in.

Honey Bee Suite

Here you can see the hollow oak tree where the original colony has been living for a number of years. The honey bees smear propolis around the entrance to reduce the number of pathogens entering the nest. © Lorieann Bradley.
The swarm settled on a limb about 20 feet from the ground. © Lorieann Bradley.
A beautiful swarm in a gorgeous tree. © Lorieann Bradley.
Instead of moving on, the swarm decided to build in the oak tree. Swarms are primed to build comb, so it didn’t take them long. © Lorieann Bradley.