You’re never going to believe this. I hardly believe it, and it happened to us!
In a recent post about bee boxes, I mentioned that we planned to capture wild swarms to start our hives. We’ve since finished the boxes. Unfortunately, the weather this year has put a pretty serious damper on our chances of finding a swarm. It’s been cold and rainy, and bees eat more when it’s cold and can’t fly when it’s rainy. That’s a recipe for killing a lot of wild hives. (On a side note, the ones that survive should have really strong genetics.) We were also counting on catching at least one swarm from Robin’s uncle. He has two hives that live in the exterior walls of his house (he’s something of an eccentric fellow), and they throw several swarms each year. Sadly, one of those hives has now died as well (starved).
So, given this backdrop of bee-gloom, I stepped out onto the back porch of our house during my lunch break yesterday and heard a loud buzzing sound. About 50 feet away, a huge column of bees was swirling near an oak tree in our backyard.
My first thought was “Yellow Jackets!” because they were so loud and there weren’t that many in the air. I got the camera anyway, and while I was taking pictures (and noticing that none of them were trying to kill me) I realized there was a huge phone-book sized mass of bees clustered on a branch of the oak tree:
A honey bee swarm! In our backyard!!
Bees swarm to reproduce. If you think of a complete hive as a living organism, then swarming is a lot like cell division. The existing hive has got too crowded, so the current queen and about half the workers gorge themselves on honey (which puts them in a really good mood) and fly a short distance away (a few hundred yards at most). The queen lands on something and the rest of the bees cluster around her. I happened to walk out the door just as the cluster was landing. They quickly calmed down until only a few bees were flying around. Once clustered, a small number of scout bees begin flying out from the cluster site looking for suitable hive locations. The swarm will remain at its initial landing site until a collective decision is made regarding the most suitable site reported by scouts. This can take from a few hours to several days. The swarm will then fly as a group to their new home (up to a kilometer away). When swarming, bees are quite gentle as they have no hive to defend and their stomachs are full of honey. The procedure for capturing a swarm is to knock them off the branch they have clustered on into a box, and then dump the box into a waiting hive box. If you get the queen in the process, and she likes the hive, the rest of the colony will follow. (The stragglers will find their way into the hive by scent.)
So anyway, back to the problem at hand. Honey bee swarm! No place to put the hive. Ahhhhh. We hadn’t selected an apiary (beehive yard) site yet, so I dragged Robin outside and we talked out a location. We picked a spot in the field by the garden. I then started running around like a crazy person, trying to quickly build a hive stand using some concrete pier blocks and scrap treated 4×4 we had on hand, and leveling the stand with cedar shims and tacking it together with a few sinker nails.
We carried the hive base, box, frames, and feeder outside and set them up with an impromptu lid.
We were all ready to capture the swarm, but at this point a little thing called “my day job” got in the way. My lunch hour was over, and I had already taken too many days off because of the flu to take off another afternoon for bees. So, I checked on the bees one more time (still quietly massing on the tree limb) and went inside. A few hours to a few days right? We have lots of time.
Wrong. An hour later Robin went outside to check on the swarm, and they were again buzzing and flying about wildly. Suddenly, the whole swarm lifted up off the limb and began moving as a cloud about 8 feet off the ground. She chased it across our field into the hazelnut thicket, whereupon she lost track of it.
Darn bees! Where’s the indecisive bees when you need them? Two hours? Really? Did you have to make a decision so quickly? Going for some kind of record are we? Never read the book? Could you guys not have at least waited until evening, so I could put you in a box? It would have been a great home, I promise!!
So, that’s the story. A honey bee swarm literally landed in our backyard, but flew off before we could capture them. Robin and I retraced their path later in the evening, and assuming they flew in a straight line we think it’s unlikely they stayed on our property or the next. More likely they crossed the road, as the neighbors across the way have old orchards and some dead fir trees that probably have lots of large cavities for nesting sites. Here’s hoping they picked a good home. The only thing worse than them flying off is if they were promptly killed by some idiot with a can of bug spray.