Friday, May 13 was a beautiful sunny day, the first in a while for us Oregonians. Henry was at work, so the kids and I played and did chores outside all morning. When Charlotte was due for a nap, we all came in the house, and then the girl and I laid down on the bed. Charlotte expressed no interest in going to sleep, but I was tired from splitting firewood and cutting brush for goats that morning, so I proceeded to doze off. In my half-asleep subconscious, I started to hear a low hum. The hum got louder, and I remember thinking “hmmm…sounds like bees…a LOT of bees…THE BEES ARE SWARMING!”
I grabbed my camera and ran out the door. There were bees everywhere. The entire hive was out of the box and flying around seemingly randomly in about a fifty foot wide area. I snapped a bunch of blurry photos while the bees began to congregate. I was standing basically in the middle of the action with no protective clothing or gear. Swarms are loud, really loud, but they are generally pretty docile unless you’re actively messing with them.
I’ve seen three or four swarms in my day, but it’s such an amazing event to watch every time. Last year our one hive swarmed four or five times, and each time, the group flew off, and we weren’t able to catch any. The base hive did produce over three gallons of honey anyway, but we lost a lot of good bees in the process.
Prevailing wisdom suggests that bees swarm when they are feeling crowded, but our Carniolians (a race of feral bees) are know to swarm at any given opportunity. When they get a hankering to go, workers will build large, pendulous queen cells and feed the larvae “royal jelly” (a special mix of honey and pollen) to produce a replacement matriarch. Shortly before the new queen hatches, the old queen will depart the hive with half the population and a good portion of the stored honey in tow. Once they are out, it is extremely difficult (almost impossible) to put them back in the hive.
Most commercial beekeepers work with Italian bees, which are easier to manage but not as well adapted to local conditions as Carniolians.
I was anxiously watching to see where the bees would land or which direction they would head. Ideally they would form their classic bee ball somewhere close by where Henry could re-hive them, or they would fly off and take up residence in one of the pheromone-filled bee boxes placed strategically around the neighborhood.
After ten minutes or so, they started to congregate in a little thicket of poison oak and blackberries just 15 feet from the original hive. The queen’s flying muscles were out of shape because she hadn’t flown since her mating voyage last year, so she had stop to rest somewhere close to the hive before gaining strength to carry on. The group formed a mass the size of a volleyball around the queen. There were still bees in the air, scouting around for a perfect long-term location.
Henry had been out all day, shoeing horses and catching two other swarms, but when he came home a couple hours later with all his supplies and equipment, they were still hanging on in the same place. It wasn’t a coincidence that he encountered three swarms within a few hours because bees only swarm in nice-weather, so the rare sunshine that day was their first opportunity to get out in a while.
First he trimmed blackberry canes and poison oak twigs in order to make a stable place for the prepared box under the bee ball. He took out several frames to make room for the mass of bees.
He centered the box under the swarm to ensure that the queen would be captured, and then he shook and trimmed overhanging brush, so the majority of the swarm ended up in the box.
He squirted sugar syrup on bees to weigh them down, causing them to drop into the box instead of flying away. The bees later preened the syrup off each other with no trouble.
Bees moved into frames, allowing room to fill the box up with the remaining foundation sheets. Then he put the lid on and waited for several hours, letting them settle into their new home.
I get poison oak really badly, so being crouched among tender oily new growth a couple feet away from a swarm of bees with no protective clothing taking photos might not have been the best idea I ever had, but I managed to walk away without getting stung or getting a rash. Whew!
Bees need to move at least two miles away from the original hive after they have swarmed or else they will have trouble orienting. We brought these ones over to a friend’s house about three miles away from ours.
Henry took individual frames out to make sure the queen was present. If the swarm had no queen or the queen was killed or damaged, it would die.
I have a terrible time spotting queens among masses of worker bees. Henry was practically yelling at me and gesturing with his head to show me where she was, but I took this photo blindly, knowing only that she was on the frame somewhere.
Back at the old hive about a week later, this photo shows the cell from which the new queen emerged.
This is a frame of capped brood cells left behind in the old hive. The virgin queen won’t lay eggs for a couple weeks until after she’s taken her first flight to mate with multiple drones.
It’s not the best photo, but there’s the new queen.
After our bees swarmed, Henry removed two frames of brood and added them to a small swarm that he caught elsewhere that will need a population boost. He also made three “splits” by taking out two frames with multiple queen cells as well as three or four frames of live bees and capped brood and setting them up in their own boxes. After one queen per box hatched, he killed the other not-yet-emerged queens.
More info on swarms and general beekeeping @ Bush Farms Beekeeping Naturally
More photos @ my Flickr account