A friend of ours found a bee swarm on a sapling in his yard and asked if we might, pretty please, come take it the hell away.
Another friend of ours just had all her beehives decimated by a bear, so this seemed like a no-brainer problem-solving mission.
All we had to do was go get the unwanted bees and bring them to where they’d be appreciated.
Easy, right? Ha.
Bees tend to swarm in early June.
But, let’s back up a moment.
As winter settles in, all the male bees (drones) are booted from the hive to conserve resources. In the spring, they are reared again and the hive comes back to full capacity with a select handful of new drones expected to mate with the queen and start the cycle over again.
Bees communicate through pheromones which are produced by workers, drones, and the queen. These are shared when members of the colony feed each other, thereby passing the pheromone (and information) from bee to bee. The queen produces her very own, Extra Special Queen Pheromone which attracts the workers to her and gets them to do all the stuff she wants them to do (draw comb, forage for pollen, and tend the brood, specifically). Since everybody in the hive knows that they can’t survive without the queen, they’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to keep that lady happy.
Because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
In May, when temperatures start to warm up, the newly-repopulated hive becomes more and more crowded until a large portion of the worker bees lose contact with the queen. When they reach this point and are no longer receiving her pheromone signals, they believe they are queenless and are motivated to create a new queen.
This is when swarming can happen.
Because there is no space in a colony for more than one queen, and because over-crowding can motivate a swarm, the old queen will leave, taking about half the colony with her. This group goes in search of a new home, which can take hours or days. Since the queen is not a particularly strong flyer, she will need to stop for breaks and THIS is when people tend to see large swarms of bees on tree branches, doorways, cars, etc.
These potentially daunting clusters are merely the queen bee taking a pit stop and her colony surrounding and protecting her.
From this resting place, scout bees will go off in search of new digs and the swarm will tend to stay where it is until that new spot is found.
Our friend’s sapling happened to be this swarm’s resting place.
So, the other night, armed with a bee suit, a smoker, a bee brush, a hive super filled with drawn comb, a bee patty, and a rubbermaid container with a tight-fitting lid, I went to get that swarm.
Getting the main cluster into the box was the easy part (the bees didn’t really see that coming, so they were moved before they had a chance to assess the situation). It was the remaining bees that were the trouble. They’d dispersed and scattered, making a catch of any significance pretty impossible.
This was when I started collecting bees one by one, allowing them to crawl onto my hand and then placing them into the bin.
It would be a gross understatement to say that this exercise required a display of patience and calm not typically exhibited by this particular beekeeper.
But it was also really, really lovely.
The sun was setting and the bees were being rescued and the world was silent except for some crickets and, of course, the bees, and everything was pretty gosh darned great.
I didn’t want to leave any bees behind, so it was important to be peaceful and methodical. By the end, I felt reasonably sure I’d gotten almost every bee.
From the swarm site, I drove with my friend’s new hive to the site of the most recent Bearmageddon and did my best to set up her hive with the new bees.
In a day or two, I’ll go back with a frame of drawn comb that has eggs and brood in it. This will give the bees what they need to make a new queen.
That is, if they’re still there.
So it sounds like the old queen went out with the rebels but when the swarm landed they needed to make a new queen. What happened to her?
Love the bee blog. Please contact us re permission to reprint
Sure thing. Thanks!
Excellent. My lone successful capture of a swarm was when I found one on an apple sapling like that. I just sat a hive box (deep body on a bottom board) under the sapling, then bent the tree over and shook the bees into it. Once I had most of them in it I put the top on and put a queen excluder on the entrance. If the queen is in there, all the other bees (the ones that didn’t fall into the box) will go in to get to her. I let it sit a couple of hours, then when they were all safely inside I moved it to where I wanted it. I thought that would become a regular June practice around here, but I’ve never found another swarm.
A cliff-hanger! I really need to know what happens.