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Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Return to the Scene of the Swarm…

two and half pounds, maybeThe onset of bee season this year has been a puzzling one. Because of the mild winter and early spring, colonies that wintered over are bursting at the seams and swarms are issuing in the month of April, much earlier than usual. Last week at The Beez Neez Apiary Supply I spent two days helping distribute five hundred packages of bees, the first of two shipments of spring bees at the bee supply. Among those coming in to pick up their packages, there was much talk about strong colonies and early swarms.

Last week I posted about one of those early swarms and my disappointment at having the cluster vanish before I had a chance to capture it (“I Did See a Swarm, Didn’t I?” 4/9/2015 )…a honey producing colony lost to the season. There one minute; gone the next, flown on down the road to somewhere beyond my grasp. So imagine my surprise when a week later nurseryman Gary pulled into my driveway to deliver news that one of his crew had discovered another swarm. “Hop in,” Gary said, “I’ll show you where it is.” Déjà vu. This recent swarm dangled in the very same cherry tree, clustered on the exact same branches as its predecessor. I knew immediately the swarm was not the one I lost. This cluster was smaller—by a pound and a half, I’d judge—yet worth the taking. This time around, after assessing the swarm’s location, I decided not to waste time gathering up equipment as before and instead use my bee sock to capture the swarm.

Bee sock? Yes, you didn’t misread. Years ago I came by a nylon mailbag the U.S. Postal Service used to collect air mail. The mesh bag is like a big sock, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy during swarm season. bee pouch Many swarms configure themselves in the shape of a lumberjack’s beard: broader at the top, pointy at the bottom. Those that dangle from a solitary branch and a few side twigs are prime candidates for sock retrieval if there’s minimum ladder work involved (helpful if both hands are free). The mouth of the sock is eighteen inches plus, the sock deep enough for the largest swarm. I gently work the tube up the length of the cluster, enclosing the hundreds of bees neatly within, then close off the neck of the pouch by gripping it around the branch, trapping the entire cluster. A pair of hand clippers, one snip, and there I am with my bagful of bees in hand ready to transport my bounty to the backyard where an empty hive awaits. (In October, several years ago I cut an established colony out of a section of wrapped raspberry canes, brought them home in the sock where they stayed undercover in the woodshed until a break in the weather allowed me to hive them.)

April 20

So sock in hand (and one on each foot), I returned to the swarm, snipped off as many obstacle twigs as I could, slipped the bag up and over the beard of bees. Because the dwarf ornamental cherry was pruned in the classic umbrella style, I tried to do a minimum amount of damage with my snipping. The main branch, nearly an inch in diameter, I decided to spare, so instead of lopping it above the swarm, I closed my fist around it, and gave the branch a hearty shake, plummeting the bees to the toe of the bag. I quickly slid the bag from the branch, tied off the mouth and with the bag of bees humming away (not all that contentedly, shaken as they were) in my grasp, I headed home to transfer them to an empty, awaiting hive.

Note: bees swarm when the hive becomes overpopulated: there’s no space for the queen to do her business—keep those eggs a’coming. Swarming allows the bees to perpetuate the species, a good thing (we humans need all the bees we can get, domesticated or native) evolutionarily speaking. At this point, however, the word “honeybee” warrants consideration on the part of the beekeeper: does a keeper of bees keep them because  “honey” is his goal, or is his endeavor directed at raising “bees?” If honey is the object, swarm prevention—keeping a strong field force of workers at the onset of honey flow—is of paramount importance. If he desires more bees, the less than diligent “bee-haver” allows them to swarm and then chases his bees about the countryside hoping to retrieve them.

My little sock full of bees? The fact there was a larger swarm the week before told me my smaller cluster was a secondary swarm, or “afterswarm,” a fact I confirmed the day after I shook the contents of my bee sock into a five frame “nuc” box (a “nucleus colony”). (Just the right size to house a swarm less than three pounds.) 5 frame nucI removed a bee-laden frame and almost immediately spotted a small, unmated queen shuffling about among her “staff.” Whereas “primary” swarms leave the hive with the mated Queen Regent, afterswarms issue from the parent colony with one or more “virgin” queens (there may be twenty or more queen cells in a swarm-ready colony). Two or three days of decent weather to allow a mating flight and that stocky little virgin will become, as my friend Jim Tunnell puts it, “an egg-laying slave” for the rest of her life.

Swarms in April, an uncommon occurrence here in our cool, swarm on the loosemaritime climate, but as I was hiving my two new packages of bees, a swarm swirled in from somewhere and quickly appropriated one of my “catcher hives.” Most likely a primary swarm, too, as it covered seven of the ten frames when settled. Suddenly my little two colony apiary of a week ago had burgeoned to six—and May, the month of swarms, is yet to come.

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  1. So if you leave an empty hive out it's possible a colony will come from somewhere and make it their new home?

    Are you on fb? Someone posted yesterday about a swarm in downtown Monroe. It wasn't in a tree though so capturing it looked like it could be a challenge. Not sure if anyone ever went to get it.

  2. We call them "catcher hives," Paula. Yes, I've come by numerous colonies that way. One year, five, I think. It helps to have an empty box with frames of drawn comb. Scout bees are attracted to the smell of the beeswax and before you know it, they've moved the entire family into the hive. There's also a lemon-scented oil one can apply to the inside of the c. hive as an attractant. Beez Neez has it.

    No, haven't become a FB subscriber...the family holdout, I guess. Beez Neez has a swarm list for beekeepers who want to capture swarms. Folks call BN if they have a swarm and Jim calls the list people until someone goes to retrieve it. By the way, you are in a prime location for swarms what with Higgens' bees just across the field. Hope you're ready for the packages. TMJ

  3. I had a few bees in my garage crawling around on the new foundation while painting and was wondering if they might be scouts. I have a nuc but no deep frames for it yet. boxes are all painted and frames all put together. We just need to level the area for the base. Will be ready when they arrive!

    I have some lemon essential oil. I wonder if that would work. Not that I need any more bees since I already ordered some. Maybe something to look into for next year. :)