You Can Be As Sweet As Honey, But The Bees Still Might Swarm
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by Brian Cruey, who as General Manager of Naumkeag for the Trustees of Reservations, knows about beautiful gardens.
Last week during one of my evening garden walks, I noticed something funny on a limb in one of the trees near my barn – a large dark mass. As I got closer to inspect, I started to panic as the realization of what was happening started to dawn on me. My bees had swarmed.
Now, this is my third year as a beekeeper and so far I am not doing so well. My first year, my hive didn’t survive the winter. My second year, I was taunted, stalked and ultimately humiliated by a black bear that destroyed my hive. I’ll admit, I almost didn’t even try again this year, but being one who can’t easily admit defeat I decided to give it another go.
Things had been going great. I moved my hive from last year’s spot and put it down by the barn where I secured it inside electric fencing. I knew the bears were back in town because I’d seen them on the road a few times, but so far they had left me alone and I was feeling pretty optimistic. My bees were going gangbusters and I had just put on my first honey super (a box that goes on top of the bigger brood boxes to collect the honey) thinking this was the year I would finally get a harvest. Discovering that my bees had swarmed was a real blow.
Bees swarm for a number of reasons but usually it’s usually because there’s not enough room for the hive to expand, the hive is overheating because there are too many bees or poor ventilation, the queen is getting old or a combination of those things. Before a hive swarms, the queen will lay a new queen in special queen cells that the hive has created in preparation for the swarm. Once those have been laid and a nice day comes along, tens of thousands of bees (up to 60 percent of the hive) take to the air. Because the queen is not used to flying, she is weak and can’t go far, usually landing in a tree branch very close to the hive. The rest of the hive will gather around her forming a clump while special “scout” bees go out looking for a suitable new home.
Trust me, it’s a startling sight, but not one that you should necessarily be afraid of. When bees first swarm they fill up on nectar in preparation for their time spent setting up a new hive, which can take anywhere from 3 hours to 3 days. Usually, if you see a swarm in the first day or so, the bees’ abdomens are so full of honey, they can’t bend them to sting. In addition, bees are generally aggressive only when they are protecting a hive. With no honey to stand guard over, the swarm is often more docile. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proceed with caution: if a swarm has been out of the hive for a while, they most likely have used up their food stores and are cranky — just like me when I’m hungry.
You can recapture a swarm if you’re lucky and the bees are accessible. Beekeepers are actually eager to find swarms; it’s a cheap and easy way to expand their operations and create new hives for themselves. (If you ever find a swarm and know any beekeepers, call them!)
It was late and the sun was setting so if I was going to get these guys I had to move fast. I chugged my cocktail (Coor’s Light), did some quick Googling, threw on my bee suit and got to work.
It wasn’t easy — the swarm was about 20 feet off the ground on a young branch that couldn’t support me (or a ladder). You can literally scoop swarmed bees right into a box and, as long as you get the queen, they will usually be content to start a new hive once you get them into an empty brood box with frames.
I got an eight-foot folding ladder and put it directly under the hive. I had an empty brood box that I sealed at the bottom with a piece of wood and put that on top of the ladder. This was as close as I could get and it was just going to have to do. Improvising with what I had on hand, I got my roof rake out and, as gently as I could, I scooped the bees off the branch and they fell into the box below. Immediately, I knew that I hadn’t captured the queen because the bees almost instantly started congregating on the branch again — a sure sign that she was still at large. After a few more tries, I was fairly confident that I had gotten her. I set up a new hive inside my electric fencing, got the bees in and called it a night.
In the morning, all of the bees from the swarm were gone. I must have missed the queen and the scouts had come back in the night having found some better real estate — probably something with lake views, plenty of road frontage and high-speed internet access.
I tried. And I do still have the other half of my original hive left. Hopefully that new queen will come along and build up the hive enough to get through the winter, which is the real danger with a swarm at this time of the year. If the hive can’t get big enough to produce enough food and warmth for winter, they don’t stand much of a chance. It was a really big swarm and I am worried about the new queen but, regardless, I’m trying to bee optimistic.