by Dennis Friedel
Every beekeeper has a good swarm story and now that April and May are upon us, the stories get more and more numerous and, no doubt, more prolific.
Of course, as beekeepers, we‘re supposed to practice swarm prevention through management techniques that will hamper swarming. But, despite our best efforts, things don‘t always turn out the way we want them to.
For instance, our State Apiarist Bob Mitchell dropped by a couple of weeks ago for his annual inspection. We started at one end of the apiary and worked our way down the rows of hives, pulling each one apart very carefully, checking for problems in the brood nests and taking note of any swarm cells whose frames we divided out to some nucs I had on hand. Mind you, I had already checked four weeks earlier and made a few splits and rearranged boxes and frames to make sure the queen had ample room to lay.
Apparently, that wasn‘t enough. To bees, a few weeks are like years to humans and a lot can take place within the hive in that time period. Just a week earlier, I had captured two swarms which had issued the same day. That was on a Friday, the day Dottie and I usually visit Linda‘s flea market in Greenwood. We were getting ready to leave, pulled out from the back driveway facing the apiary and, sure enough, there was a swarm issuing from a hive right in front of the van.
"We‘re not going anywhere right now," I told Dottie, pointing out the cranberry colored hive that had thousands of bees pouring out of it and circling overhead. "You get the gear and I‘ll get a hive," I said. Luckily, they clustered on a low hanging butterfly bush and it was just a matter of shoving a baited hive box under the branch, spraying them down with some sugar water and shaking them in. Thirty minutes later, most were hived up with the remainder marching in like obedient little soldiers. We were off to Linda‘s.
An hour and a half later, we pulled in the driveway, only to find another swarm hanging from a wicker basket that we keep clothes pins in. The basket hangs from the crossbar on the clothes line pole and it was a simple matter of shaking the cluster (and pouring some) into another hive box which I had ready for just such an occasion. So far, the score was Denny 2; Bees 0. Both were moved out to our other bee yard later that evening.
Bob‘s visit was the following Friday and I recall we opened a box at the end of the row and noticed one of last year‘s marked queens had, for lack of a better word, "shrunk." That, Bob said, was an indication she was ready to swarm. "They stop feeding her so she losses weight and can fly," he told me. She was barely longer than a worker and had it not been for the red dot on her thorax, I might have missed spotting her so readily. About that time, Bob walked back to his truck to take a phone call while I found the swarm cells and divided them out into another box with some pollen and honey frames.
"By the way, what‘ta ya‘ gonna do about that swarm?" Bob asked on his way back, pointing to a butterfly bush at the corner of the house where a football-sized cluster had formed, apparently escaping our attention when we were working at the other end of the apiary. Dottie was quick to get another box and she hived that one while we finished inspecting the remainder of the colonies. After he left, we were off to Linda‘s again for our Friday bargain hunt. An hour and a half later, we returned very suspicious of any more activity but couldn‘t find any clusters in the nearby trees or bushes — that is, until I walked to the back of the lot and peered up into a towering pine tree and sure enough, about 60 feet in the air there was another cluster of bees hanging on to a branch near the top. My luck had suddenly turned for the worse. I knew I couldn‘t, nor would I even attempt, to climb that high to get this swarm. Forget it.
Score: D&D 3; Bees 1.
Those bees clung on to that tree for three days in the wind and rain before I noticed they were gone. Later that afternoon, when the wind died down and it started to look like spring again, I was lounging in the Zen garden when I noticed a buzzing sound — that distinct noise a colony makes when they‘re clustered in a swarm. I followed my ear to the same pine tree and there on a lower limb about eight feet off the ground was a swarm the same size as the one which I thought had taken off in the top of the tree.
"Yup, come to Daddy," I thought. I‘m pretty sure it was the same swarm, considering the size, location and the windy weather at the time. They had just decided to move down, where the effect of the wind wasn‘t so pronounced. Of course, we hived ‗em and moved ‗em only to find that the swarm Bob had discovered a few days earlier had absconded from its hive at the other yard. But the score was still 3 to 1 and I felt I had at least made up for that loss.
And so Friday rolled around again and just before taking off for Linda‘s, guess what? There was a huge swarm forming in the top branches of the pine tree out front. I pointed out to Dottie that this swarm may be within reach. "That‘s only about 30 feet up," I said. She said something about my insurance not being in effect until May 1 so I pondered that and we took off for Linda‘s. Maybe I‘d find a long telescoping pole there, I thought.
Two hours later, we were back, the swarm in the tree was still there, nestled in a tight cone, hanging about two feet down from the branch. I was on my way to get the extension lad der and Dottie called out, "There‘s another one on the basket!" Sure enough, there in the wicker basket on the clothes line pole was another bucket full of bees looking for a home. We hived that one quickly and I returned with the ladder to go up that tree, despite her protests about "no insurance."
Dottie swears I‘m crazy and still can‘t believe I climbed that tree to retrieve that swarm. It took me three trips up the ladder — one to go up and make a plan; a second trip with my cordless Dewalt Sawsall and carve a path to the top; and the third to retrieve the swarm with a fishing net I had modified to telescope outward. I also attached a fine mesh laundry bag to the business end of the net to contain the bees. To satisfy Dottie‘s concerns about a mishap, I lashed myself to the tree trunk with a safety strap I found in the shop. A couple of good shakes, and those bees were mine again.
Score: Denny 5; Bees 1.
Another Friday is coming up as I write this and by now I‘m beginning to wonder if our bees at D&D Apiaries are conspiring to throw another Friday Swarm Party. Mind you, I‘m not encouraging this type of behavior or colony management but it seems like they have a mind of their own, despite our attempts to change it. Like Bob says, "When they make up their mind, the bees are gonna do what the bees are gonna do and there‘s not much you can do about it."
Score: Denny 5; Bees 1; Bob 1.
Last Friday passed without incident. When it warmed up Wednesday, despite the rain, the English Garden Hive swarmed. I netted ‗em 20 feet up a Tulip Poplar tree. I know I was a little late checking that one, considering five days earlier, I pulled a frame with three queen cells and introduced them to the observation hive, which yielded a new virgin queen May 2. After we hived that swarm (my insurance was in effect now — no complaints from D), we opened the Garden Hive, found a new virgin queen there and cut out seven capped queen cells before she could destroy them and put ‗em in a foam carrier. We literally walked 20 feet to a queenless split I‘d made when Dottie said something like, "Is this a queen?" pointing to a bee crawling on her hand. Sure enough, it was a new virgin queen, which had just hatched from a cell in the carrier.
Within seconds, we put the new queen in the split and Dottie noticed another one on her hand! We rushed that one to another split awaiting a queen and no sooner had she crawled down in the frames when a third cell in the carrier quivered. I shouted, "It‘s moving," and another queen emerged, crawling onto my hand! We introduced her to a third yet-to-be-queened split, put the top back on, stocked the remaining cells in a super, looked at each other and one of us said, "I can‘t believe that just happened." Three queens in five minutes, hatching in your hand? What are the chances of that?
Apparently, the queens are gonna do what they‘re gonna do, too.
Score? Everyone won this day.