That’s One Way to Catch a Swarm…

catching a swarm in a log

About a month or two ago, I got a call from a friend (we’ll call him Shawn) who said he was sitting on his deck and realized there were bees swarming overhead. He sent me a video and the activity definitely looked like honey bees, so we headed over to see if we could find where the swarm landed.

After a few minutes of scanning the trees, we found it:

swarm in tree

Unfortunately, this is the swarm in relation to the ground!

swarm from ground

We weren’t desperate enough to rent a lift (yes, we’ve done this before), so we put two hives (one on the garage roof and one on the house roof). We put some drawn comb and honey in the boxes and a little lemon grass oil to sweeten the deal. The next day Shawn told us that the swarm was gone from the tree and he had seen a bit of activity in the hive above the garage.  We were so excited and I’m sure I prematurely celebrated on Facebook. When we went to retrieve said swarm, we found the box empty. Oh there had been activity alright, they robbed out all the honey!

So fast-forward to last Wednesday evening when Shawn messages me again to say, “I think I found your bees.”  The tree in the photo had been cut down by the neighbors and, currently lying in Shawn’s yard, was a log that seemed to be full of honey bees. I was in a meeting all evening, so I texted my husband who said he literally stopped what he was doing (dinner prep), threw the kids in the car and headed out.

It seemed like most of the traffic was coming in and out of the hole on the side of the log…

swarm log

In fact, this was the view when my husband looked closely inside, so he knew for sure they were living here!

inside swarm log

Once my husband figured out which part of the hive contained the actual hive, he used a chainsaw the cut the log a bit smaller so that it could be moved. He also nailed some mesh screen around both openings to keep the bees inside while in transit:

log ready to move

Then the tough part was getting the thing into my husband’s truck. I wasn’t there, so the men were left to do this without my incredible strength (ha!). They use a dolly to get it to the truck, then old-fashioned elbow grease to hoist it inside. (Hernia while beekeeping, anyone?)

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They managed it, somehow. If you look at the picture above, you can see how thick the tree trunk is. I’m not sure there would be any way to move the comb out of the trunk without damaging all of it and we are currently out of unused drawn comb to help sustain them, so, since it’s so close to winter, we decided to leave the bees in the tree trunk and attempt to overwinter them that way. We’ll fill in all the holes except one for extra insulation.

For now, all entrances are still screened except for a small one in the side hole. We also used a piece of lumber underneath to level it as best we could.  Bees will build comb perpendicular to the horizon line, so a crooked hive yields crooked comb!

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Things brings our apiary up to 11 hives!

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CSI: Backyard Beekeeping Edition, Part Two

CASE SOLVED

If you are just tuning in, last week I told you about how we installed four packages, only to come back 3 days later and discover that two of the four hives had gone missing. The queens were dead and we were sure they swarmed. It was evening, so we couldn’t do much, but we did discover that one of the hives was absolutely enormous. We were able to get out and work the hives yesterday. I feel pretty confident that we now have three packages all residing in one hive. Here’s the evidence…

The first hive looks like a hive would about 5 days after a package install: a lot of nectar and some evidence of brood, so that’s good. I even managed to get a good picture of the queen! (Click on the picture to see it even larger.)

Queen

The next hive, well that’s a whole other story! We are feeling fairly confident that the two “missing” packages drifted into hive #1. Our first indicator was all of this burr comb – in just 5 days!

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Additionally, there are just SO. MANY. BEES in this hive.

hive 1

We couldn’t leave all of that comb on the inner cover, so we began the fragile process of carefully cutting it off and attaching it to empty frames. There was also some burr comb further down in the hive. We left one frame out so there was room for the queen cage, and boy those bees filled that empty space right up!

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There were some eggs in this burr comb, and we weren’t able to find the queen, so we tried to do all of this work over the hive, incase she fell off.  Basically we used our capping knife to cut each individual piece off, then carefully removed it and attached it to an empty frame. We did this by kind of mushing the wax into the top of the frame, and then stretching rubber bands over to keep it from sagging or falling over. The comb was kind of hard to work with because it was hot, so the comb was REALLY soft.

I can say, both of these hives are incredibly gentle. Considering how large this hive is and how invasive our work was, the bees were really quite quiet and we barely used the smoker.

Once this hive has some time to get the new comb fixed up and some time to really get organized, we’re hoping to make a split or two. What I’ve learned about beekeeping is: take it one step at a time!

Also, I’ve decided to name the queens or hives so that it’s easier to discuss them.  I’m still working on names, but am open to suggestions!

CSI: Backyard Beekeeper Edition, Part One

CSI

Ladies and gentlemen, an investigation is currently underway in our bee yard.

Here are the facts:

We installed four packages on Sunday. Below is a beautiful artist’s rendering (via Microsoft Paint, ha!) of the layout of our bee yard. The four hives we installed are numbered (as you can see):

Bee Yard Final

At approximately 8:15 p.m., we wandered out to the bee yard, to check out the bee traffic coming into the hives. We noticed a normal amount at hive #1, no traffic at hive #2, no traffic at hive #3, and a normal amount at hive #4. This seemed strange, so we threw on our veils and opened hive #2. Let me tell you, there were NO BEES. Not a one bee. The queen was still in her queen cage and she was dead. The hive was completely empty – no comb had been built – nothing.

This was very upsetting, so we checked hive #3. Same thing! This time the queen, still in her cage, was alive, but there were NO STINKIN’ BEES!

Other evidence to consider: It was cool and cloudy/rainy on and off Monday – Wednesday, so we thought if they swarmed they had to have done it that very day because Thursday was the first day it was warm and sunny.

So from approximately 8:20-8:30, my husband and I walked around our 2.5 acres staring up into the trees like idiots. All the while saying, repeatedly, “why would they swarm without a queen?”, “What are the odds of BOTH packages swarming?”, “It’s not fair! Can’t we get a refund?”, and “WHY, do we have the WORST luck!?”

We found no evidence of swarming, so we sadly wandered back to the hives and decided to have a look at the other two while we were there. It was about 60 degrees and the sun was setting, so we didn’t really want to get too invasive, but at least open them up and make sure there were bees inside, for crying out loud.

So we opened hive #1 and, lo and behold, attached to the underside of the top board was the largest, most beautiful homemade comb I’ve ever seen. And, guess what, it was COVERED with bees. In fact, it looked about the size and shape of a swarm!

I didn’t have my camera with me, since we weren’t expecting such excitement, so I’ll have to get some pictures today, but our current suspicion is that three packages (#’s 1, 2, and 3) are in one hive.  We’re hoping to get back out there today or tomorrow when it’s warm and sunny and really have a good look and also to figure out what to do with that beautiful burr comb.

In the meantime, we put the remaining queen (still in her cage) in hive #4 with a queen excluder as an act of desperation. It seems that hive #1 might be the hive to split, but it was too late and cool to really do anything. The queen looked weak, so we’re hoping something exciting happens today.

In hindsight, I’m wondering if the hives are too close together, especially hive 1 and 2.  We’ve kept hives close before, but they were generally established when we moved them or were started from nucs.

We spent the rest of the evening engaged in our own bee-CSI conversation. Did the queen die right away and then the colony left hive #2, or did she die because they left?  Is the queen in hive #3 weak, which is why they left? Or is she weak because they left? Hive #1 was huge, but did it seem 3-packages-huge?

I’m going to tell myself all the bees are in hive one, so that I don’t sob uncontrollably. That will have to work… for now.

Recapturing a Swarm

Originally written, July 6, 2014

Recapture Swarm Title

Last spring, my husband I went to a Bee Club meeting where a guest speaker was to speak all about swarming. Why do bees swarm? How do you know they are going to swarm? What can you do to prevent this? How to recapture a swarm?  I remember having a small panic attack at the beginning of the meeting because I started feeling as though swarming was inevitable. Then members of the peanut gallery began sharing these bizarre swarming stories and I really freaked. But then, the speaker showed us a power point of swarms he had recaptured and that seemed manageable. THEN he gave us some tips for preventing swarms, and I my blood pressure returned to normal. Phew, it was never something WE would never have to worry about, as long as we practiced good hive management. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Let’s start at the beginning…

What is a swarm?

A swarm is when the queen decides to leave the hive and boldly go where she’s never gone before. She takes about 60% of the workers with her and ventures out in search of new territory. In total, about 8,000-10,000 bees leave with her (maybe more). Before these bees leave, they gorge themselves and fill their little tummies because they won’t be eating again until they find a new home and get back to business as usual.

Why do bees swarm?

Well, from a beekeeping standpoint, a swarming hive is both good and bad news. It’s bad news because 60% of your hive has decided to bolt, but it’s good news because it means the hive is strong and growing. The short story is, queens give off a pheromone that attracts workers to her. This is how everyone knows what his or her respective job should be in the hive. If the hive gets too large, more and more bees are unable to detect this pheromone. When this happens, their tiny bee brains assume the queen does not exist, so these un-pheremoned bees begin building queen cells in order to re-establish a queen.

Well, word will eventually spread to the real queen that there’s about to be a new queen in town and, since the hive is only big enough for one queen, the old queen will rally the troops and take off in search of a bigger, better home.

So the queen leaves and about 60% of the hive leaves with her. As soon as she lands, they begin to clump around her in order to protect her, but also to be closer to those sweet, sweet pheromones. They usually don’t go far, just to the first place that looks nice to land, and send out scouts. These bees, quite literally, scout around for a new place to live. Generally the bees have 3-5 days to find someplace new before they begin to starve. Because they are in survival mode, swarms are typically very docile. However, they still have stingers, so I’m not sure you’re going to want to go out and give the thing a hug or anything.

One peaceful Saturday morning…

coffee

Now that brings us up to speed. One week ago I was pouring a cup of coffee when I looked out the kitchen window at our two main hives. There was a cloud of bees buzzing around the entrance. This is common in the mornings and around dinnertime (we call it “rush hour at the hive”), so I commented to my husband, “The bees are busy this morning.” Then I walked over to the larger picture window in the kitchen and realized this loose cloud of bees extended up into the air above the hive about six feet.

I said, “Um… are we sure they aren’t swarming? That’s a lot of bees.”

My husband stepped out on the back patio and said something like, “Yeah….that’s not normal…”

By the time we threw some shoes on, took one more swig of coffee and stepped outside, the sky in the backyard was a cloud of buzzing. As soon as we stepped out we could hear the bees. They were about six feet about our heads and the cloud stretched about 100 feet from the hives to the closest tree in our backyard. Swarming bees are hard to photograph. You can see a few black dots in the picture below:

swarming bees

In hindsight…

I guess we should have seen this coming. For a week or two leading up to this, we had noticed a lot of activity in the hive:

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We also thought they were doing an awful lot of bearding. Bearding is when the bees cluster on the outside of the hive (like in the picture below). They do this when it’s hot out and also when they are thinking about swarming. Bees usually swarm in the spring and, of course it was hot out because it’s June, so we didn’t think anything of it…

bearding

Recapturing the Swarm

In about 10 minutes we watched that cloud of bees move slowly across the yard and settle on a branch. Of course, they WOULD choose a branch a million miles in the air, but at least they stayed in their own yard.


swarm in tree

My husband began calling around inquiring about the rental of a bucket lift. The cheapest we could find was $120 for four hours (although when the rental guy heard what we were using it for, he stared at us like we were crazy and said, “Just keep it until tomorrow”). We figured we’d pay at least that for a nuc hive and this is a stronger, more established cluster, so we decided to go for it.

bucket lift

When we were at that swarm meeting a year ago, an older gentleman stood up in the crowd and said, “Back in the day we used to just use a vacuum to suck swarms up.” All the young, hipster beekeepers gasped. A vacuum?! What if you damage the bees? Or worse, the queen?!?! Well, here we were, standing under this tree scratching our heads when my husband said, “Maybe I’ll use the ShopVac.”

equiptment

So he went into the garage and rattled around for a half hour or so and came out with a ShopVac that will gently suck the bees up then deposit them into a bee box!

bee vacuuming collage

In the end… it worked! He vacuumed them into the box pictured below and then installed them into a new hive in our back field.

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