May 26, 2011 · 17 comments

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.

A slightly blurry photo of swarming bees everywhere.

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.

There she is.

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




{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda May 26, 2011 at 10:24 am

Honestly Camille, your days are so much more interesting than those of the typical working stiff (like me). Glad you caught some photos of the swarming process – very interesting, indeed! Your recent posts have me craving chevre with honey…


ellie May 26, 2011 at 11:25 am

so will the bees that you moved stay at your friends’ house now, or will you bring them back at some point?


Camille May 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm

They’ll probably stay there for a few months, and then we’ll bring them home in the fall when they need more regular feeding and attention.


Henry May 27, 2011 at 7:16 am

I made 3 splits and there is the swarm. You want to move splits a good distance away and get the bees to reorient, otherwise they will “drift” back to the original hive, you will loose all your field bees, and the split will fail. The swarm is at uncle T-bone’s, one split at Pa’s, one at Stu’s and one at Greasy creek. My goal is to fill two brood chambers this summer on the swarms and splits, maybe throw a small honey super on if we have a late nectar flow.


ellie May 29, 2011 at 1:15 pm

omg henry that was a lot of fancy terminology i had to look up.. but i think it all makes sense now. interesting stuff. so, the goal is to bring them back to your place after the summer, and then you’ll have three hives or so over the winter, and to start off next year?

do you guys get enough honey to sell at farmers markets or something? or do you mostly just do this for yourselves right now — and perhaps for the kind folks temporarily hosting your bees over the summer?


Camille May 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Last year was the first time that we ever had enough honey to take some for ourselves. We’ve made a valiant effort to eat as much as possible, but we still have quite a bit left. If we get the same amount this year, we’re going to have to give some away. It’s kinda one of those things that’s SO much work that it sucks to put a price on it. I think I’d rather just share with friends and family, although we could definitely sell some at the farmers’ market.


Henry May 30, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Our original hive got divided into a total of five (including the original hive body with a new queen at our house) I have two swarms that I caught elsewhere, and Stu has another two of his own at his house. That puts us up to a total of nine. I think there is more money selling bees than there is selling honey, and splits are easy to do. I am going to focus on increasing bees and possibly selling them to townies.

Our main nectar flow is the Armenian(Himalayan) blackberry, so it is nice to get hives spread out to take full advantage of blackberry patches. After the blackberries are done the idea is to get bees somewhere close to town where there are more irrigated gardens. Then after the first hard frost I will bring them all home. The air drainage and southwest aspect seem to make wintering easier on the bees.


Alicia June 1, 2011 at 9:54 am

Speaking of townies: Tucker’s really wanted to get a hive going in our backyard. It’s small, but the neighborhood should offer plenty of flowers for foraging. We should talk to you sometime about bees – and see if its something he wants to do soon… you may have a potential sale someday…

Cammie May 26, 2011 at 10:27 pm

So interesting, what would happen if he didn’t kill the not yet emerged other queens? Confusion, jealousy, bee cat fights??? Loved the blog!


Henry May 27, 2011 at 7:11 am

there is the slight chance that the split would swarm with the virgin queen, if they think they have enough bees. There is also a chance that the queens hatch at the same time and can sting each other. This would leave the hive queenless with no uncapped brood to make new queen cells :(


cynthia May 27, 2011 at 5:47 am

wow! i just loved this! i was captivated from beginning to end, camille.


Baby Aunt Sue May 27, 2011 at 6:14 am

I have to contain myself from bugging you with questions in the time period between your flickr posts and your blog posts….but always worth the wait…and you manage to answer all my questions without me bugging you!


catie May 30, 2011 at 9:54 am

i loved this!
your brave photos & bee expertise!
and it’s the poison oak i would have been most worried about ~ yikes, have i ever suffered from that plant.
now, i need to go make a piece of toast with honey & digest all of this new bee information.


Camille May 30, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Poison oak really is my arch enemy. I hate that stuff.


Amanda R. May 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm

I have to agree with the “other” Amanda, you both lead such an interesting life with nature…I am reading through your posts with great enthusiasm and joy!
I keep telling my husband that our next home will be out more and much more self-sustaining. I like the idea of living off-the-grid, or at least trying to get off the grid as much as possible.
Please keep the posts coming…even of your everyday activities…it is inspiring for those of us who dream about a simpler life as we wile away the hours in an office.
BTW, cannot wait to try your grill bread!
Blessed be!


Camille May 30, 2011 at 8:49 pm

This blog is constrained only by my lack of time and/or energy but certainly not by content. I have about a million ideas for topics and folks I’d like to interview, but there’s a limit to what I can produce. Stay tuned!


Amanda R. June 2, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Can’t wait! =0)


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