I said that twice this weekend.  Saturday morning we started working on the new native garden in front of the house.  A little after noon, as we were struggling to wrestle the fountain rock into position, I suddenly heard a distinctly loud buzzing sound.  Then I realized the buzz was bees, thousands, and thousands of bees. Proof that swarm season is in full swing.

Healthy honey bee colonies reproduce by swarming in the spring

The question was, were they feral bees from the surrounding woodland, or our bees!?  We’d heard bees above the chicken coop last summer, but never could find the source of the buzzing.  I ran down to the farm road and looked up the hill toward the hives. Everything seemed calm and quiet at the entrances.

We were concerned the Lavender colony may have swarmed, even though we had recently split this colony

Then I realized that it sounded as if the swarm was following me overhead, travelling with me as I walked down the road.

Mr. Curbstone took the other road, up toward the orchard and apiary.  From that vantage he could see the bees weren’t very clustered, but were up quite high. By the time I joined him this massive loose cloud of bees slowly rose up and over the redwoods along the creek, and then out of view.  A truly amazing sight, and fortunately, not our bees.

Two weeks ago we mentioned we were anxious to split our Lavender colony, because there was a run of bad weather heading in toward the coast.  We expected as soon as the warm weather returned, that colony may be ready to swarm.  We wanted to split Lavender before she swarmed though, and hoped that by splitting that hive we would not only create a new colony of bees, but might even prevent the Lavender colony from swarming at all this spring.

Sunday afternoon, right after we’d fed the goats, and were standing outside the goat yard, I suddenly heard the roar of another swarm?!  Really?  It was unbelievably loud, much louder than the swarm the day before.  I ran up to the road, and looked straight toward the apiary.  I couldn’t believe what I saw.

This time the source of the noise was from our apiary!

Perhaps motivated either by the beautiful weather this weekend, or maybe the feral cloud of bees that buzzed by them the day before, at 1:10PM on Sunday, it was clear that this time Lavender was definitely swarming.

An enormous beard of bees was welling up across the face of the hive, and the air suddenly seemed to be seething with bees.  It was an amazing sight…and sound!  At first I couldn’t believe these were all Lavender’s bees.  We were just in the hive two weeks ago, we’d split the colony by at least a third to half, and added plenty of empty combs to give the Queen lots of room for eggs.  We still couldn’t believe that all these bees in the air fit inside that hive!  I was truly awestruck.

This is a lot of bees, but there were many more in the air!

Of course, I ran in the house to grab my camera, having no clue if I’d even be able to photograph them.  When I returned, the area above the orchard road seemed to have the worst air-traffic control problem I’ve ever seen.  There were bees EVERYWHERE.  It looked like mass confusion all across the apiary airspace.  Although there is an element of randomness in swarming, in regards to which bees leave with the swarm, and which bees stay in the original hive, there is clearly a lot of communication going on amidst all the pandemonium.  It’s truly amazing to watch.

To get these photographs, I first had to walk THROUGH the swarm, which was only a few feet above the ground along the orchard path.

No suit, no veil...here goes!

I had no hat, no veil, no bee suit, but forged ahead through the swirling cloud.  Swarming bees, having just gorged themselves on honey (there goes the honey harvest),  are generally very placid.  I had one worker bee get a little in my face, but the bees were mostly too busy to worry about me. As I made it up the path to the level of the hives, the darker contrast of the trees behind the swarm made the bees even easier to see.

Although some bees were leaving with the swarm, others clearly were trying to get back inside the hive

The bees at this point were still quite well spaced apart in the air, and mostly hovering as a large loose cloud.  We tried to see where they were heading, but they didn’t seem to be going in any particular direction at first.

The difference between Lavender’s swarm, and the swarm the day before, may have been timing.  Generally bees will swarm, with the old Queen, and land somewhere near the original colony, perhaps in a tree, or on a fence. They’ll then cluster, to protect the Queen, and regulate body heat, while a few scout bees fly out to look for a new suitable home.  Bees are typically homeless for a few days until new accommodations are secured.  Swarms will typically stay clustered where they landed for 1-4 days, and once a suitable home has been found, the scouts communicate to the cluster that it’s time to move.  Saturday’s swarm of feral bees that flew overhead looked like they had a purpose, and a direction.  Perhaps they were finally moving to their new home.

The entrance to the Lavender hive was completely clogged with bees

Lavender though had only just swarmed, we were watching it happen.  They were in the first phase of locating their Queen, and just starting to settle into a cluster.  If you turn up the volume while watching this video, you should be able to hear the bees, although the video really doesn’t compare to standing outside with thousands of bees swirling all around you.

The video isn’t very long, because while I was filming this video Mr. Curbstone was suddenly stung (the bees really seem to like him this season), and at first it looked like he’d been stung inside his mouth, which, for a brief second, scared me.  Needless to say, I set the camera down, and we dashed into the greenhouse, as he’d now been marked.  I was relieved to see that he’d only been stung on the lip, as stings inside the mouth are especially dangerous, and a medical emergency, even for someone not allergic to bee stings.

After that momentary diversion, we noticed that the chaos outside the greenhouse was quickly starting to become more organized, and it was clear the bees were beginning to settle in an oak tree to the left of the hives.  Unfortunately, way way WAY up in a Live Oak tree, about 30-35 feet over our heads.

The bees choose the top of a large live oak to cluster in (yellow arrow)

There was no way we were going to be able to reach them that far up off the ground, especially with the slope.

For perspective, the yellow arrow is where the swarm settled, compared to the hives

All we could do was watch, and bid the Lavender Queen farewell.  I admit it is disappointing to lose her, as she’s been a very good Queen, but after the losses this winter, it’s also heartening to see these bees are doing so well.

The Lavender Queen (red arrow) will have left with the swarm, and hopefully will be replaced by a new Queen

Now it’s entirely up to the bees where the Lavender Queen will next take up residence.  We do have bait hives out, but the bees will choose where they want to live.

As the sun was fading, the swarm was clustering tighter together

We’d love to have the Lavender Queen return to the apiary, but the bees may choose to bypass the bait hives entirely.  We’ll have to wait and see.  Remarkably this colony was captured as our afterswarm colony exactly one year ago today.

Our lesson here is that for these colonies that build up so well in late winter, we should split early, perhaps February, and often!  We easily could have split Salvia, and Lavender, into at least three hives each.

My only fear now is that we moved the Queen cell we found during the split.  If the Queen had stopped laying soon after the Queen cell was being constructed, in preparation for swarming, the remaining bees in the Lavender colony may not be able to make a new Queen.

The bees were making a new Queen when we split the colony, and we're now concerned we've left them incapable of making a new Queen

Unless there are eggs, or another Queen cell, the remaining bees that didn’t leave in the swarm will be unable to produce a new Queen.  We’re crossing our fingers that in the last two weeks they had already produced another Queen cell, or there was one we missed.  We won’t know for certain until we recheck this hive.  So we’ll have to recheck the remains of the colony soon.  If necessary, we can combine the remains of the colony back with new Chamomile hive.  Alternatively, if we find more Queen cells, we may have to split again to decrease the chance of an afterswarm!  I can’t even guess at how many bees have buzzed through our apiary in the last 48 hours!

There’s nothing like beekeeping to keep you on your toes!  Needless to say, we’ll update once we know more.