Our friend John called us this past weekend excited, the hive in his backyard tree just split and the swarm was streaming out of the tree into a frenzied cloud next to his house. Having an active hive in his backyard, John is an experienced swarm catcher and generously guided us in collecting the bees into an empty hive.
Here’s a play-by-play of the swarm catching.
John called, the bees were just starting to swarm, leaving the hive. (this is neat. When the bees decide to swarm (either there is good nectar flow and the hive is full and needs more room, or the queen is old/unhealthy and they decide to replace her, etc.), the bees will build special cells for queen brood, usually 6-7 cells. The queen will lay eggs and the workers start raising the new queen larvae. When the first of the new daughter queens is ready to hatch from her capped cell, she emits this tiny, audible little chirp – a signal to her Mama Queen to GET OUT. So Mama Queen rallies her troops – 1/2 the hive. They quick slurp down as much honey as they can and beat it. If the queen doesn’t get out before her 1st daughter hatches, the daughter will kill her. There can only be one queen. Number one, first thing the newly hatched queen does is go around to the other queen cup cells and kill her sisters. This is all very Shakespeare.)
So the bees are spewed out of their tree, into a dark energized cloud of loud buzzing in John’s yard. Shortly after leaving the original hive, the bees started to collect on a high branch in another tree in John’s yard. (this is important. When bees are in swarm-mode it doesn’t mean they are out to get you. “Swarm” doesn’t mean vicious. Oppositely, they are extremely vulnerable during a swarm. They are looking for a home for their queen. They are not too terribly bothered/interested in people. They have full bellies, they are drunk on honey. So if you see bees swarming near your house, your kids, your kid’s playground STAY CALM. Go inside and call a local beekeeper. Please don’t call some pest control company to come and poison them. Instead, use the swarm as an opportunity to teach your kids about the importance of local pollinators in our agricultural and natural environment. And your local beekeeper will BE SO HAPPY)
I quick grabbed an empty hive and went over to John’s place. Jeremy happened to be biking by on his way to the Bike Coop – John interrupted him and brought him back to the bees too. So we watched and waited a bit for the bees to cluster together on a branch in the tree. A big, dark, blob of bees. A little wiggly, like a fuzzy, upside-down jello mold.
Once the bees were, for the most part, all collected (they collect together around their queen, for protection – while scouts fly off looking for a new home and report back), John and Jeremy climbed up into the tree, doing a fair amount of trimming through a massive lilac on the way up. Because the bees had collected so far up, our plan was to cut the branch down and introduce them to the hive down at ground level. With John holding the branch and Jeremy on the loppers, they were able to get the branch out of the tree – bees still clustered. A stick covered in bees is a very heavy stick. The stick was also pretty awkward, they swarm was large and spread out over several branching angles.
Our original thought was to lay the stick down in the hive, cover the hive, and remove the stick later. In retrospect this was silly, they were still in swarm-mode, there was just an added inconvenient box around them.
So we went back in, removed the stick and shook the bees off the stick and into the hive. (Imagine pouring molasses out of a jar. The bees are clinging to each other, so when you shake them off the stick they kind of pour off as collective bee goo. Fuzzy, buzzing molasses). With most of the bees in the hive, we carefully closed up the top-bars and set the stick with a few remaining bees on it right by the entrance, so they would be able to find their friends inside. This seemed to be great, we just needed to wait to see that they found this hive as a suitable home. Jeremy and I headed home to do chores.
A couple hours later John called – the bees were swarming again. Oh no! So we ran out to Lolita (our other hive) and grabbed a couple comb from the back of her hive – one nearly empty, one full of honey – and brought them over to the new hive.. as a hive warming gift. The bees were clustered along the end of the hive, they were bearding down into one of the trash bins the hive was set up on. They were flying all over. It was a mess. They were not at all interested in settling down in the hive we offered them. We set the comb in the hive and hoped maybe that would encourage them. They lived their whole life in a tree – maybe an empty box.. with angles was too much. Maybe having honey comb would make it feel more like home? We watched. And waited. Still bearding. And buzzing all around. A few bees went in after the honey. And then Jeremy spotted the queen down at the bottom of the trash bin. In the middle of a swarm of 10,000 bees, Jeremy spots the queen bee. In a trash can. (superhero powers confirmed). He scooped her up, very Prince Charming, big white horse.. and set her in the hive. Almost immediately the bees started funneling into the entrance of the hive. And that was that. Home sweet home. That night we came by after dark to check and see if we could move the hive to the farm. It was a warm night and there were a number of bees still bearding by the entrance. The next night was cooler, the bees were tucked in, so we hauled them to the farm and set them up near the orchard with a nice southeast view of Crow Peak and Lookout.
We had sealed their door shut to transport them, and they were already eating away at the paper by 8 the next morning, eager to get out… so we removed the paper (also not wanting them to over heat, trapped in a hot box in the sun. We have read there are recommended ways of moving hives less than 3 miles, so as not to disorient your bees. Because this hive had so recently been a swarm and we significantly changed to orientation of the hive, we felt somewhat confident that they would recognize a difference as they left the hive, would reorient themselves and not get lost. The original orientation of the hive box (in the middle of John’s yard) had the entrance to the north and a large branch in front of the door – and when we moved the hive, the entrance is now on the south without a branch. These are pretty clear indicators that something had changed and they should reorient themselves before leaving the hive. It was especially reassuring when, within minutes, they started bringing back grass pollen. John reported there were about a dozen bees that had made their way back to his place, and were gathered at the trash bin. We are grateful it was only a few bees and we didn’t lose the whole hive. In moving hives, it is suggested that you keep the entrance on the hive shut for an additional day or two after moving them – or you move the hive out somewhere over 3 miles away for a couple weeks and then back to where you want them. Clearly the bees are smarter than we are.
We’ve named the hive Pygmalion – after George Bernard Shaw’s story about the flower girl guttersnipe. Queen bee in the garbage bin.