The swarm that got away

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.

Darn bees!

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11 Responses to The swarm that got away

  1. Ron says:

    Argh!!! So exciting and so frustrating!

    You’ve got me quite curious as to where all the bees around here come from. One of these day, I need to find out. And maybe get into beekeeping! Esp. if one can do it without dropping big bucks on the venture.


  2. Benita says:

    What a close call! But if there is one swarm, there should be more – just keep your eyes peeled. Now that you have your hive built and in place, maybe the next batch can be boxed as soon as you see them.

  3. Lynn says:

    Oh, such excitement!!! The bees came to you! Can you ask your neighbors if you can go look around their properties for bees? Once the bees select a home, can you move them? Obviously the bees don’t belong to anyone, you neighbors probably wouldn’t care, would they???

    I don’t think we have many honeybees around our neighborhood. I always look for them on flowers and clovers in the yard. I see alot of bumblebees and wasps, but not honeybees. I think we need to get us some honeybees, too! Especially if, like Ron said, it wont cost us big bucks!

    Good luck finding your swarm!

  4. Leigh says:

    What a heartbreak! But it makes for an exciting blog post. 😛 I think I’ve only seen one swarm in my life, but hopefully you’ll have another coming your way soon.

  5. Jessica says:

    Don’t despair, Forsty said he thinks his remaining hive is about ready to split again. Maybe you’ll catch that one.

  6. lee says:

    Ron – Yeah, that swarm in the tree really made me feel like I had the beekeeping bug, so to speak. 🙂 Costs vary pretty widely depending on what you decide to do. The cheapest way to get started is to buy a suit ($60), smoker ($20), and hive tool ($5). You can then build a kenyan top bar hive using free plans and scrap wood, and capture a wild swarm. I considered this, but the regular maintenance required by top bar hives to prevent swarming kind of scared me off. I decided to go with standard Langstroth equipment, mostly following the low-impact beekeeping advice here. For that you need a base ($20), at least three medium boxes ($30 total) and thirty frames ($45). I’m building my own lid. I might build my base and boxes in the future too, but the frames probably aren’t worth the trouble. I also bought one hive-top feeder that I’ll move around if a hive needs it ($15). So, I guess I’m out about $200 right now, and setting up for an additional hive would cost $75.

    It gets much more expensive the more you head toward “modern” beekeeping. For my one hive, this would include adding wax or plastic comb foundation ($45), purchasing bees to put in the hive ($90), and a variety of medications, applicators, supplements, feeders, boxes of different size, etc.

    I know you can save a lot of money by catching a deal on used equipment. The only concern if you go this route is to make sure there weren’t any problems with diseases. Foulbrood can stay in the hive bodies and frames and infect the next colony. The only solution is to burn it.

    Benita – I know, it was super disappointing. I’m actually not sure I would have noticed the swarm if I hadn’t come out just as they were landing. Within 20 minutes they were just a quiet mass of bees hanging up in the tree.

    Lynn – Left to their own devices, bees will usually pick hive locations that are up off the ground pretty far. If they are in a tree, then there’s no easy way to capture the hive. If they moved into the wall of a house then you have to tear the siding off and cut out the comb, all while being mobbed by some really angry bees. All of the above is beyond my present experience level (nil), so I’m saying a swarm lost is a swarm lost. Yes, costs in this enterprise were important to us as well. I spent a lot of time considering my options on that front, and I have plans to further simplify our future hives.

    Leigh – That was my first swarm too. Very exciting! I suppose it gets pretty ho-hum after you raise bees for a while. Then your own hives are throwing out swarms too, so it’s a regular event in spring.

    Jessica – Good to hear. I hope he is right. Robin and I need to re-consider that apiary site or it will be there for sure once the first hive is set up. I’m not looking forward to the drive home with a swarm of bees in the car. It will test the power of duct tape. 🙂

  7. Lynn says:

    Lol – a drive home with a swarm of bees in the car! Now that really sounds funny!

  8. JohnG says:

    So…I always run away when there’s bees…really fast if there’s a whole swarm

  9. Charity says:

    I think I would be the one with the can of bee spray!!!

  10. Rachael says:

    Wow, at least you got to see the bees swarming. I’ve only seen in on a Nova documentary about bees. It was really cool. Just think of this one as a practice session. Next time, you’ll really be ready!

  11. lee says:

    JohnG – Hey John, it’s a little different with the Africanized bees of Arizona. They aren’t nearly as friendly. I know you can keep them for honey too, but it sounds painful. My one experience with a swarm of them in AZ was to run quickly in the other direction as well. Africanized bees can’t really come this far north. They don’t plan well for the winter–swarming just before it gets cold, maintaining too large a colony and too few stores–thus they starve themselves out over Northern winters. Incidentally, the Western Yellow Jacket is considered just as fierce as Africanized bees, but it doesn’t seem to make the news nearly as much.

    Charity – Booo! Well, I can understand why people do that, but when possible the better solution is to call your local beekeeping association or the county extension service. You can get swarms removed for free this way, and it both saves a colony and makes somebody happy.

    Rachael – Yes, it was very strange. Like something out of National Geographic. Perhaps the thrill wears off after you’ve done it a few times, but I was excited.

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