Jul 072013

So here’s a question for you problem solvers out there: What do you do if your bees swarm and decide to land on a branch twenty feet above the ground?

I picked up the phone and called Mike M. On the island Mike gets lots of weird calls. “Could Mike come over with the bucket truck and help me catch some bees that are way up in a tree?” I asked. Pretty soon I got a call back. “Mike wants to know if he has to go up in the bucket and get the bees.”

I don’t blame him for not wanting to. Most people are wary of bees as bee stings do hurt a lot as both Mike and I can attest to after our adventure today. Of course, I didn’t want him to go up and get the bees. I wanted to do that. Catching a swarm is a real thrill for most beekeepers. It’s hard to explain why. You can stop swarms from hiving but I don’t want to do that. You can get more production if you stop the swarm but I’m not into production; just into having pollinators around and making a home for the endangered honey bees. I use top bar hives and don’t really do much in the way of animal husbandry. We just watch them and enjoy having them in the yard and garden.

I’ve not had very good luck as a beekeeper to date and am now in year three. The first package of bees didn’t survive the winter. Last spring I bought two packages and changed to a Carnolian queen. Carnolians bees do better in colder weather and as the worker bees only live four to five weeks, after a very short time your hive is full of hybrid bees who are more adapted to our climate. Last July those two packages swarmed a few days apart. The first swarm landed on the tip top of a forty foot cedar trees. No chance to get them. The second hive wrapped themselves around a vine maple low enough that I could reach them with a 16′ extension ladder.

When a hive swarms the old queen takes about half the bees and skedaddles. The swarm makes its way into a ball around the queen and scouts go out to look for new real estate. They come back from their missions to report what they’ve found doing special bee dances that tell the hive the location, size, etc. Over a two or three day period the hive reaches a consensus on the best location, location, location and takes off for their new digs. So, the beekeeper doesn’t have to be in a hurry to grab them. But, who wants to wait?

Thus, last summer I ended up with three hives. The remainder group of the hives one and two and the swarm that I scraped off the vine maple. One of the remainder hives failed to make a new queen. It died out. The other two made it through the winter but this spring, hive number one discovered that hive number two was weak and robbed their honey, causing them to starve. It is a cruel world.

(Click here for some swarm music)

I was very anxious to catch my swarm, elated when I was around to hear the swarm music (they make a tremendous noise) and very annoyed when they landed twenty feet up. It would be nice to capture a swarm with my feet on the ground. Not to bee.

Mike showed up with the bucket truck. I showed him the bee ball up in the tree and explained that I wanted to lop off all the branches around the ball, then cut the branch loose and put the bee branch in a cardboard box. Mike was going to maneuver the bucket from the ground. My first surprise was how deep and narrow that bucket was. I managed to get both legs into it and my loppers, hand pruners and pruning saw but had to balance the box on the edge of it.

Mike raised the bucket toward the branch and I tried to give hand signals because we couldn’t hear each other but it’s hard to signal well when you are holding a large cardboard box in one hand and loppers in the other. He got me within lopper range and I cut off a bunch of branches. But then I discovered that the ball of bees weren’t wrapped as tightly around the branch as I thought and the ball was drooping down and a big wad of bees dropped off. I had to change my plan which meant holding the box under the bees and using my gloved hand to scrape them into the box. This was hard to do from the bucket and I was working too fast. I was sloppy and cloddish and clumsy and the bees were getting really pissed off and swarming all over the place. I heard Mike tell Linda, who was taking pictures to back off, that he’d been stung. I looked down to see a pile of bees in the bottom of the bucketĀ  and covering my shoes and worse, could feel them crawling up my legs under my pants (I had neglected to tuck my pant legs into my socks). Getting stung now was inevitable but also didn’t matter. I scraped more bees into the box and motioned for Mike to take me down. Dude was still there. He doesn’t run.

It was hard to get out of the bucket as there were bees all over the edge of it but I brushed some out of the way and hopped out. I figured bending my legs would trap the ones in my pant and sure enough the stings started as I climbed off the truck and headed toward Mike and Linda who had finally backed away. I gave into to sting panic and began to smash the girls who hadn’t stung me yet.

Mike had been stung on the ear and I felt badly about that. If you are going to get stung, the face is my least favorite. On the legs it’s not so bad although it always hurts.

“Sorry,” I said. “That didn’t go as planned. What do I owe you for a lift and a bee sting?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mike said. “I’ll get even with you.” Can’t wait for that.

He took the bucket truck and went home. I looked up the tree where it appeared there was still a good sized ball of bees. What you do after you get the swarm in the box is to put the box under the tree, hoping the queen is in the box. If she is then over time the rest of the bees will fly to the box to join their queen and then when you have most of the bees you can hive them. Last year I saw the queen in the box and knew I had her. But today I couldn’t spot the queen and there were lots of bees in the air. Maybe she was still in that ball in the tree. Three hours later the ball of bees was still in the tree but there were way more bees in the box. I decided I might have her and suited up to hive them. At dark they settle down and are much less active, just working to keep the queen at the proper temperature. I had prepared one of my old hives and even left some comb in there to give them a head start.

Box of bees

I picked up the box which felt like it weighed at least five pounds, walked fifty yards, tipped the box and dumped the bees into the hive. Suddenly, bees were everywhere but most were in the hive. I closed it up and called it a day.

The big event for bees is the blackberry bloom which is about over so both hives have their work cut out for them having swarmed so late. They will need to lay lots of eggs and make lots of honey before winter sets in. The bees that are left in the original hive will await the maturing of a new queen. Preparing for the swarm the bees have created several swarm (queen) cells. The first one of these to hatch will kill the other unborn queens then go on a mating flight and then begin laying eggs to keep the population growing.

In a perfect world I will end up with two healthy hives that will survive winter and swarm again next summer giving me four hives and so on. That’s in a perfect world. It probably won’t go that smoothly. It hasn’t so far.

Pray for the bees. Thanks be to Mike.