Spring has finally arrived! Our phenomenally appalling weather for almost all of March has thankfully moved on. Last week we had mudslides and fallen trees everywhere, but this week the sun is shining, and we’ve been enjoying some glorious spring weather. With the first warm spring days, also come the first spring honeybee swarms!
Our neighbors called us Wednesday to say there was a swarm in their plum tree. Former beekeepers themselves, they don’t currently keep bees, but have had feral bees in their attic for a number of years. Each spring they see a swarm or two in their garden. I’d enquired a couple of months ago to see if they would be willing to let us know the next time they saw a swarm in their garden.
Although we have two packages of bees on order, feral bees, wild bee colonies that have survived winter without any human intervention, no medications, and no supplemental feeding, are considered to be composed of far superior genetic stock than any bee you can obtain in a package from a commercial apiary.
Feral bees aren’t a guarantee of a healthy colony, but they certainly increase the likelihood of more robust, healthier bees. As such, with all of the modern day maladies affecting bees, many small-scale beekeepers would much rather start their hives with wild bees than commercial bees in their apiaries.
We weren’t sure what the likelihood would be of obtaining a feral swarm this year, so we went ahead with our package order, but those bees aren’t expected to arrive for a couple more weeks yet.
Curious to see where our neighbor’s swarm was, and whether or not we’d even be able to reach it, I grabbed my bee suit, a box, a spray bottle, bee brush, and a roll of tape, and set off for the neighbor’s yard.
When I arrived I saw a very tall pruning ladder perfectly positioned under a mature plum tree, and just above the ladder, a rather large swarm of bees hanging from the tangle of branches within.
Our neighbor’s weren’t home, and Mr. Curbstone wasn’t home either. I’m not fond of tall ladders, especially up past the 5th or 6th rung. That’s why Mr. Curbstone climbed the extension ladder when we installed our owl box recently. Even if I could muster the courage to climb it, it didn’t seem sensible to climb one that tall without someone else around.
Disappointed that the swarm seemed out of reach, and with no one to help, I set the box down and un-suited, and watched the bees for a few minutes. The only option available to me at that moment was to maybe try setting up our empty Nuc hive nearby, and dropping a pheromone lure in. I didn’t expect it to work, but figured it couldn’t hurt to try. The trouble is a swarm can take up to four days to choose a new nest site , and our surrounding woodland probably has much nicer hollow tree cavities for nesting in.
After setting up the Nuc, I headed home. About 5:30 PM I wandered back over to see if the bees were still there, and they were. There was shade across the tree now, and the bees seemed to be clustering a little tighter together. I chatted with one of our neighbors for a bit, while watching the bees, and after a while it seemed clear these bees weren’t going anywhere that night. Our neighbors willingly gave me permission to come back early the next morning to see if Mr. Curbstone might be able to retrieve the swarm.
Early the next morning, with Mr. Curbstone in tow, we grabbed our trusty box, our bee suits, and the rest of our gear, and headed back over to the swarm tree. The bees looked very cold, and were clustered very tightly together. The sun was up, but it was only 47 degrees outside. We inadvertently flushed a covey of California Quail as we walked down the driveway, and they flew up into the plum tree, knocking into the bees.
I could see a small blob of bees drop down to the ground into the damp grass, but once the quail flew off it seemed the vast majority of the colony was still intact.
The tree the bees had chosen was an old plum tree that hadn’t been pruned in some time, with lots of smaller tangled branches all around the bees. The bees themselves were stretched across a broad crotch on a sizeable limb, but underneath them it was going to be very difficult to negotiate a box to catch them in.
Our fearless neighbor, eager to help, offered to help prune some of the offending smaller branches out of the way.
After some light pruning, next we sent Mr. Curbstone, box and bee brush in hand, up the ladder.
I should mention that up to this point, we had no bees of our own, and that neither of us has ever caught a swarm before, nor been out with anyone else catching a swarm. We did go to a swarm catching lecture a couple of months ago, but that was all theoretical discussion, not practical experience. I’m not sure if we’re just brave, or completely crazy!
We were aware that bees in a swarm are generally very calm. Although they have their Queen with them, they have no structure to defend. As there was still a damp chill in the air that morning, the bees really weren’t moving much, or very bothered by the man in the bee-suit now eye level with them at the top of the ladder.
After some wiggling around in the tree trying to situate the box under the bees, we realized just how large the swarm was. It was wider than the box, so some periodic readjustments had to be made to ensure we didn’t lose any more clusters of bees on the ground.
As there was no way to know where in the cluster of bees the Queen might be, to be safe, we had spread out a large sheet under the tree to catch any more chilled blobs of bees that might fall. Fortunately though most of the swarm was quite quickly gathered into the box.
With the box now full of bees, and getting quite heavy and awkward to maneuver, Mr. Curbstone brought the box down the ladder, and we quickly covered 95% of the box with a manipulation cloth, leaving a corner slightly open so any stray bees could find the rest of the colony.
In the meantime, Mr. Curbstone took a second narrower box up the ladder to see if he could retrieve some of the bees still clustering further up the branch. He brought the second box down, and we combined those bees into the larger box.
We then left the bees alone for a while to give the straggler bees a chance to make their way toward the box as the temperatures warmed. In the meantime we came home and set up the hive so it was ready for the bees when they arrived.
We set up one of our new hives for the bees, and mixed up some 1:1 sugar syrup as food. The bees had swarmed more than 24 hours previously, and been caught outside in the cold overnight, so a little boost with some supplemental food until they’re settled in seemed prudent.
Once the hive was in position, it was time to go back and retrieve our box of bees. There were a few girls still hanging on the edge of the box, but we closed it up, hopped in the truck, but kept our suits on as we only had to go a very short distance. Yes, there were a few bees buzzing around inside my truck, but they were amazingly calm, docile bees, and they weren’t buzzing around too much.
Once we were home, we set the box in the shade as the sun was warming up the hillside where the bees would be hived quite quickly. We left them for about a half hour until everyone settled down. It’s amazing to listen to the roar inside a box of excited bees when they’re being moved, and then a few minutes later all you can hear is the quiet contented hum from the bees as they relax.
Now it was time for the important part. Getting the bees into the hive. The first hive body was full of frames, including some frames of drawn comb that one of our beekeeping mentors had given us. There can be risks to using comb from a different hive, but there are benefits too. His hives are mostly feral colonies, and he doesn’t use medications in his hives, so we considered this to be premium comb. Hiving a swarm without some drawn comb is more likely to fail, but drawn comb is enticing to bees, especially as they become desperate to find a new home when they’ve swarmed. A little drawn comb means the bees can quickly begin storing food, and the Queen has a place to lay eggs sooner than if she had to wait for the colony to make new comb from scratch.
On top of the hive body with the frames, we placed an empty hive body to help serve as a funnel as we add the bees to the box. Just so a large ball of bees didn’t slop over the edge and land on the ground. If we don’t get the bees in the hive with their Queen, it’s game over.
Once we dumped the bees in, we quickly draped the hive with the manipulation cloth, and left them alone for a few minutes. There were still some bees in the box, and soon it seemed that a number of the bees were trying to return to the box.
Concerned we may have accidentally left the Queen in the box, we pulled back the cloth, and dumped as many of the remaining cluster of bees in. We then just set the box by the entrance to the hive so the few stragglers could find their new home.
This time everyone seemed much happier, and the bees were transferring from the box to the hive, not the other way around.
As this was a substantial swarm, and we’re using medium 8-frame hive bodies, we went ahead and carefully slid the frames into the upper hive body. We left an empty medium over the inner cover, as the hive stand is not yet ant-proof, and if needed we can quickly shift to offering feed inside the empty hive body instead of at the entrance to the hive.
The empty medium was removed this morning. Except for feeding, now we’ll leave them alone for a few days. If when we open the hive after they’ve settled in it seems as if there’s too much room, we may remove the upper box, but we’ll see how many frames the bees are covering once they’ve settled down. We have no idea yet if we managed to safely transfer the Queen. We’ll have to wait and see what we find during our first hive inspection.
Depending on who you ask, the general consensus is that hiving a swarm fails approximately 20% of the time. Once the Queen begins laying eggs though, the bees will be invested in the hive. The next few days will be critical. If for any reason they don’t like their new home, they’ll simply leave for greener pastures. We know it can, and does happen, but we’re hoping they’ll stay.
So we’ve graduated from wanna-bees, to new-bee beekeepers, and couldn’t bee happier! So far this morning it’s looking promising. We even caught a bee returning to the hive with pollen.
We’ll let you know what we find after our first inspection of this hive in a few days. Now though, we need to hurry out and buy some more hive equipment before our packages arrive, as we’re now one hive short!
 Seeley, Thomas D., Honeybee Democracy. 2010. Princeton University Press