A swarm of bees is a beautiful thing. A veritable cloud of bees all flying in every direction as they search for a pace to land their Queen. They choose a spot and form a protective ball around Her; a mass of bees with only one goal in mind: finding a new home.
I didn’t even see the swarm until I got into the hives yesterday for inspections. I began with the strongest of my hives and looked in their honey super only to be disappointed that they had scarcely touched the thing. Wondering why this hive─which had been so productive all spring─was not filling the combs with honey, I set the box aside and dug deeper.
This particular hive is made up of 3 deep boxes, as I am adopting Mike Palmer’s method for larger hive populations. Mike’s theory was that providing a third box─either a medium or a deep─allows the colony more space for honey storage or brood rearing and can lead to larger, more populous hives that are more productive and so make more honey. Makes sense to me!
The next deep box had been filled with honey and it was heavy! I set the box aside on top of the honey super and then did the same with the second deep; I wanted to get to the bottom box where the brood nest should be.
I tipped that bottom box over so that I could look along the underside of the frames without completely tearing the thing apart. It’s a less invasive way of looking for swarm cells.
Sure enough there were several peanut-shaped swarm cells, neatly opened and abandoned by new Queens. I set the box back in place on the bottom board and pulled several frames out for a closer look. Immediately I could see that the ratio of drones to workers was off, and there were no new eggs in the brood nest. All of these things are indicators that this hive had swarmed recently.
Swarming is a natural occurrence. It’s how bees reproduce. The bees raise themselves a new Queen─usually several─and a large portion of the colony leaves the hive, taking the old Queen with them. At one point beekeepers believed swarming was a good thing─a sign of a strong and healthy hive; now we realize that swarming is an indication of mismanagement.
After losing all 6 of my hives in the winter of 2014-2015 to a combination of mite-pressure and harsh winter conditions, I’ve been fairly diligent with the hives these last couple of years. This spring I’ve been in and out of the hives every 7-10 days looking for swarm cells, making sure the colonies have enough space, that their Queens are laying and that everyone is looking healthy. But swarming is a natural bee-instinct, and sometimes a hive is so determined to swarm that there’s just no way around it.
Disappointed I looked around the bee-yard and happened to spot a large dark mass on one of the birch trees across the way. Had that tree always looked like that? From fifty feet away the mass rather resembled the black knot fungal disease that often afflicts chokecherry trees. But this was not a chokecherry, it was a beautiful young birch tree. Maybe it was a large piece of chaga? I’d recently learned of this mushroom from Chance Gonyer of Collective Roots Farm, who is a seasonal employee and a colleague of mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’ve spotted several chaga mushrooms in the forests around Runamuk, but I did not recall seeing the fungus on any of the birches that surround the apiary.
Sure enough it was a large mass of bees on that birch tree! My heart jumped up into my throat and then began racing as my mind worked through the possibilities. Could I reach them? Could I actually successfully capture the swarm?
I’ve caught a few in the past, but I’ve also lost a few. If the swarm is too high up in the tree and there’s no good way to get at them, sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you can’t catch them and then watch helplessly as they sail over the tree tops to disappear into the forest.
This swarm was up just high enough to be out of my reach, but still low enough that I could probably reach them with a ladder. So I ran across the road to the house, smoker still in-hand to look for equipment.
My preferred tools for swarm catching are a 5-gallon bucket and a spare veil to cover it with, but I also grabbed a frame-brush─since this swarm was all up and down the side of a tree─a nuc-box and a spare frame of comb. I fetched the step-stool from the barn (because I don’t actually own a ladder at present) and hauled everything, still with the smoker in one hand, back to the apiary.
I sidled up to the copse of birch trees and set the step-stool as close to the offending tree as I could get. Smaller saplings and brambles made it difficult to get at, the ground was uneven and my veil seemed more of a hindrance than a help as branches smacked me in the face and threatened to pull the gear off my head. But I climbed up on the the step stool with my equipment and proceeded to sweep the swarm off the tree and into the bucket (or onto my head for those who didn’t fall where I wanted them to). Then I jumped down and dumped the bees from the bucket into the waiting nuc box with it’s single frame of comb.
I put the cover on as the bees who didn’t make it into my bucket took to the air once more. I waited, watching the nuc to see if those bees remained or took flight to join the others. If I caught the Queen they would stay and the others would eventually join them in the nuc-box. If I did not catch the Queen they would all land in a new spot, and then the question would be could I reach them for a second attempt?
I stood in the sun watching as the several thousand bees filled the air, going every which way, admiring the spectacle. Prior to leaving the parent colony bees fill their stomachs with honey─the only resource which they can carry to their new home─so there is little fear of being stung by swarming bees because if they were to do so that most precious resource would be lost. And it really is quite a sight to see.
They gathered on the V of a branch on another birch tree further towards the back of the bee-yard, some 12-15 feet up. And checking the nuc where I’d dumped the first round, sure enough it was empty once more. I would have to make a second attempt.
So I trekked across the road once more and came back with a pruning saw, which has a long telescoping handle and a bit of a hook that I could set the handle of the 5-gallon bucket into. In this manner I raised the bucket up under the swarm and knocked the branch so that the swarm fell into the bucket (as well as onto my head!). I lowered the bucket, covered the top with a spare veil and went to dump the bees into the nuc box.
Meanwhile the remainder of the swarm gathered once more in the same spot and fearing that I had not caught the Queen I hoisted my pail back up for a third try. This time when I went to lower the bucket the handle slipped off the hook on the pruning saw and came crashing down. Now I’d pissed the bees off and one of them actually stung me on the neck before I decided to take a break and let them settle.
When I do any significant amount of work in the apiary I load my equipment and gear into my Subaru wagon and drive it across the road to park in the bee-yard. So when I take a break between hives I can sit with the hatch open and drink water, make notes, and let the bees settle a bit before I go at it again.
After 5-10 minutes I went to look at the nuc box again and was encouraged to find bees still in the box. The cluster of bees remained up on the tree branch, but these ones were not leaving to join them, so it seemed as though I’d caught the Queen. Not one to count my chicks before they’ve hatched, I placed the nuc box on a nearby hive-bench and hoped for the best.
I resumed my hive checks and an hour and a half later as I packed up I gave the swarm-nuc one more check: there were still bees in it, coming and going as good bees should. It was safe to say that I’d caught the swarm and their Queen.
In the evening, after closing the chicken coop in the barn for the night, my partner Paul, and I checked the apiary one more time. We found the cluster of bees on the tree branch had dispersed. Either they had joined their swarm in the nuc-box, or they had returned to their original parent-colony. All was well in the apiary and I was feeling pretty good about myself.
Looking back over my notes, I realized that I had not actually opened that particular hive 7-10 days prior. I had only looked in the top to see how much space they had in that honey-super, and seeing that they had plenty of empty combs to fill I’d let them alone. In retrospect, that deep box full of honey had likely created something of a barrier in their bee-minds, and if I had instead placed that honey-super between the brood nest and that deep, perhaps the colony would not have felt the urge to swarm.
But as I said before, sometimes even if you do everything right, a hive will still swarm. It’s just the nature of bees─like other every living creature─to reproduce.