First Swarm of the Year

Swarm on Crepe Myrtle

Swarm on Crepe Myrtle

Saturday began like any other day – getting up and realizing that I’m running late.  I rushed to my job to set up some equipment at a convention and while there conducting the work I was to do, I bumped into a fellow beekeeper. In these parts that’s a pretty good thing – there are precious few of us around here. It was really refreshing to actually sit down and talk bees to someone who was as interested in bees as myself. Talking bees to my wife elicits little more than a glazed over, blank stare. Little did I know, that meeting would be an odd coincidence, or a herald to yet another hive to enter my apiary.

Upon arriving home, I kicked back and figured I’d have a day to just do nothing. We all need those days once and a while. A day to regather our wits and purge our stresses by doing little more than lounging on the couch and taking in a few shows. It didn’t last long tho. A friend called me, telling me that his yard was full of bees and there was a mass of bees on one of his trees.

I was a bit unprepared for that. I had an empty hive out back and was planning on gluing comb-guides into the foundationless frames but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. It was supposed to be a cut-out hive that I was going to transfer one of my TBH’s into. I’d not opened my Top Bar hives yet this Spring, figuring I’d let them get up a head of steam first before disturbing them so I simply didn’t bother preparing any further yet. I figured I’d let them build up their numbers and do a split while I was in there later on this month. Next Spring I’ll make sure I have my empties and frames ready by February.

Not being one to pass up an opportunity, I rushed out and grabbed the empty hive and pulled the frames. Some wood-glue and fifteen minutes of fiddling and the comb-guides were installed. By the time I was ready to go the glue was hard enough to support the guides and I figure by the time the bees were in it the glue would be pretty much set. That was cutting it closer than I wanted, but it had to be done. I tend to frown on cross-combing and the guides help prevent that.

Anyway, my tools for this job was the hive, my veil, a camera and some duct tape. About as simple as one can get. It was a very nice day – t-shirt weather. The bees picked a convenient day to swarm. I’ve missed calls before because I was not available and that’s pretty frustrating. Not this time.

Close-up of Swarm

Close-up of Swarm

When I arrived, I didn’t see anything at first. I was expecting one of his fruit trees out front to have a ball of bees, but I didn’t see him or any bees on them. But, he poked his head from behind the house and hollered at me. I pulled around back and saw him pointing at a 4′ tall crepe myrtle. Hmmm, thoughts of having to cut off a branch entered my head. Not ideal, but better than nothing. I got out and there wasn’t hardly a bee flying – the mass was pretty much complete by now. A few would zoom off, then return. But it was pretty cool nonetheless. The swarm was about the size of a foot-ball – perhaps a little bigger – and hanging about midway up the little bush, right out in the open. We could wal up to it and kneel before it to examine it and not be bothered.

Tho I considered just snipping off the branch, I decided that there might be just enough room to squeeze my hive up underneath. I pulled the hive out from the car and duct-taped the bottom-board to the hive-body. Hive staples are normally used but I didn’t have any handy. I put a queen excluder between the bottom-board and the hive to ensure that the queen didn’t just up and fly off. With no brood to attract her, there was nothing keeping her there. Of course, chances are good she’d stay, but why risk it? I’ll remove the queen excluder as soon as I see some brood-comb.

We then removed a few landscaping bricks from around the bush so I had room to slide the hive in. And it did just fit under the swarm. Before pushing it in under the mass of bees, I removed three frames from the center so they’d have a place to drop.

Normally, swarms are extremely docile. However, flying bees are curious and seem to like my ears, so I tend to wear a veil even on good days. This was one of those good days. But that was all the protection I utilized. I prefer bare hands where possible anyway and if one is careful not to pinch a bee between arm and body or similar, stings are extremely rare. Swarms don’t have a hive to protect so their defensive nature is extremely muted. They’re also gorged with honey too so they’re clumsy fliers too. When bees swarm, they’ll store a lot of honey in their crops to be used to make new comb and keep the colony sustained until a new source of nectar and pollen is found. That makes it harder for them to sting or do much of anything.

Bees tucked into hive.

Bees tucked into hive.

After pushing the hive-body up under the swarm, I had the owner and his son back off a bit. I wasn’t worried about angry bees, but was more mindful of an uninitiated person’s tendency to swat at anything that lands on them and once the swarm was shook off there’d be more than a few bees out flying around. I grabbed the branch firmly and after double-checking to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be, I yanked the branch downward hard. Virtually all the bees fell right off the branch and down into the hive. I yanked again to make sure the queen wasn’t still hanging onto the branch, and that was that.

There were hundreds of bees flying, but the greater mass of bees just fell right in. They were too close to each other to take flight and they were pretty full of honey, so they just dropped in with most landing on the queen excluder. I pulled the hive out from the bush a little so I could carefully put the frames back in. Even with bare hands, the bees were just not interested in me. A few landed on me then flew off. Once the frames were in, the bees that were climbing up climbed back down to get to the queen so it was easy to put the cover on without crushing bees.

Bees making themselves at home.

Bees making themselves at home.

And that was it. 15 minutes of anticipation and a few seconds of excitement and I’m left wanting more. I’m sure more swarms will pop up here pretty soon. I left the hive there for the rest of the day to let the flying bees settle down and make that hive their home. That evening I returned and once the bees were all tucked in, I slapped a bit of duct-tape over the entrance, and taped down the cover and my friend and I lifted the hive up into the bed of his pickup. It was really light, of course – no comb full of brood and honey yet. I put some duct-tape on the cover and then put a large brick on that. The tape gave the brick traction so it didn’t slide off during the trip. We put a couple more pieces of duct-tape over that for good measure. Humanity would collapse without duct-tape, that I’m certain of.

The ride was only about ten minutes. That was about as long as I was willing to keep the tape on the entrance. Otherwise I’d have cut some screen and put that on instead. The bees were okay tho – there was enough air to keep them happy for a bit.

I had spent the afternoon putting down some bricks for their new home and leveling them to make sure the hive sat flat. Actually, I gave it a very, very slight forward tilt so that water would not enter the bottom-board and pool in the hive. I left enough room so I could work my Top Bar hives and get them transfered into new equipment.

Once we arrived with the hive, it was a trivial matter to put it down on their new bricks. I peeled off the duct-tape from the entrance and walked away. I didn’t see any bees coming out tho – usually at night they stay home and don’t fly. I checked it the next day and the bees were busy flying in and out of the entrance, happy as can be. In about a week or two I’ll examine the frames for brood and once I’m satisfied that the queen is laying good I’ll remove the queen excluder from the bottom. Now I’ve got to paint the rest of my hive bodies and glue up the rest of my frames for the next swarm…

Michael Vanecek

I've been keeping bees with no treatments whatsoever for several years. I've followed a basic philosophy of if the bees don't bring it into the hive then it doesn't get put into the hive with good success. After a life-time of naturalism, this was simply the logical course to take with honeybee husbrandry and proof is out there buzzing and making honey right now.

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