Ed Colby: Keepin’ beesy

My weekend started out driving the Debeque Cutoff, on the way to my honeybee yard in Collbran. I watched a crow harass a golden eagle in the air.

At the bee yard I hoped to save some hives from swarming – the phenomenon whereby an established queen bee abandons a hive, taking with her about half the bees and leaving behind a newly hatched virgin queen.

Bees swarm when strong colonies build up quickly in the spring. This is God’s way of allowing honeybee colonies to go forth and multiply. While it may be God’s way, it’s not the beekeeper way. Strong hives that don’t swarm can make big honey crops.

When bees prepare to swarm, they raise new queens from eggs placed in special queen cells attached to the side of the honeycomb.

I’d seen unhatched queen cells in the hives the trip before but wasn’t sure what to do. In the past, I’d just let swarming happen. But my guru Paul suggested that I “reverse the supers” (put the top brood chamber box on the bottom and the bottom box on top) and take out the queen cells. Paul said this ought to confuse the bees enough that they might not swarm.

I methodically set about removing 18 frames of honeycomb from each of 22 hives, checking each for the telltale oversized queen cells. I also checked for signs of recent queen activity, because if a queen had died, or were failing, the bees might be raising her replacement. I didn’t want to remove queen cells from a hive that needed them.

I brought reading glasses to help me find bee eggs, a generally reliable sign of a recently active queen. With my glasses and good light I can barely make out the eggs. They look like tiny grains of rice. Without glasses, I’m lost.

After a time I took a walk in the woods. As I admired a honeybee suckling a yellow mustard flower in a sun-dappled glen, my glasses apparently slipped out of my shirt pocket.

I carried on without glasses. Some depopulated hives had clearly swarmed already, so I left the queen cells in them, thinking if they didn’t have a new queen already, they’d need one soon.

Other hives had quite obviously not swarmed. They boiled over with bees. I removed all their queen cells.

A third category of hive troubled me. I couldn’t tell if they’d swarmed or not. Should I remove the queen cells? If I left them in, the hive might swarm. If I took them out, I might deprive it of a needed new queen. I hate to work hard at something and not know if I’m doing it right.

Darkness caught me with the job unfinished and uncertain how to proceed in the morning.

That night at the Alpine Motel, I drew on nearly a decade of beekeeping experience. I outlined the problem. I considered every logical action, consequence and possibility. I made a decision: I called Paul.

Luckily he’s a night owl. I used to hate calling him all the time, but now that I work for him, I figure it’s just another job benefit.

I said, “OK, Paul, how can you tell for sure if a hive has swarmed?”

His reply answered nothing, but said everything. “I guess you’d have to look at it,” he ventured.

In the morning I went with my gut instinct. The day was glorious. I tasted honeycomb dripping with electric-yellow dandelion honey. When I pulled the brood frames, bees hung from them dangling in clusters. The little darlings crawled up my shirtsleeves, got inside my pants, tickled my chin. A bee sting, what is it? It’s nothing.

On the drive back, writing this column inside my head, I missed the Debeque Cutoff.

That was my weekend. How was yours?

[New Castle beekeeper and Snowmass ski patroller Ed Colby likes the Flamingo Cafe in Collbran for breakfast. His e-mail address is]


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