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Thursday, April 9, 2015

I Did See a Swarm…Didn’t I?

A swarm in AugustJust before noon yesterday one of the men from the nursery next door pulled into the driveway. “Just the man I want to see,” he said as he stepped out of his truck. “There’s a swarm of bees hanging in a tree over at Bob’s place.” Little more than the first week of April, I thought, quite early in the spring for a swarm to issue. “A swarm of bees?” I asked. “Are you sure?” Yes, he’d seen it and was certain the cluster was not a wasp nest. “Bob thought it was wasps and he was about to spray ‘em.” Glad Bob got a second opinion, I told him.

Folks’ ignorance about honeybees and their hymenoptera cousins (solitary bees, bumblebees, wasps, hornets) has long been a pet peeve of mine: I’ve frequently crusaded for honeybees in The Ripple and face-to-face. If it has wings and invades the airspace around one’s head—especially the face—the winged varmint is most certainly a “bee.” And to have a nurseryman mistake a healthy cluster of honeybees for a wasp nest…well, it’s beyond my understanding…. In my opinion, extreme though it may be, anyone who applies pesticide to honeybees should be charged with a capital offense.

The nurseryman—Gary, his name, by the way—led me to the swarm. Sure enough, honeybees they were,  a nice cluster, too,  four to five pounds, by my estimate (sixteen to twenty thousand hard working little ladies). They had clustered in a dwarf ornamental cherry tree, the kind that blossoms come spring into a pink umbrella. April 8, I thought, I can’t remember a swarm that early, and they most likely may have issued the day before.

I have been keeping bees since I was fourteen and have hived countless swarms, but I can’t recall a swarm this early in April (4/8). With our mild winter and milder spring Mother Nature seems to have rushed the season. That swarm was a living testament to an early spring.

When a beekeeper learns of a swarm, he first considers the logistics of hiving it: where does it hang, height, obstructions, accessibility, and proceeds from there. I’ve hived swarms from apple boxes, sides of buildings, fence posts, chimneys, trees, shrubs, and raspberry canes. These days if retrieving a swarm requires a ladder, count me out. Been there, done that, as they say. If the swarm settles higher than a stepladder, call some other beekeeper.

Gary’s swarm? A piece of cake: five feet high at the top of the cluster. I upended an empty stock trough under the swarm. One hive body atop that would neatly position the capture box at the nether tip of the swarm. Clip away a few branches, give a good shake, and I’ve captured myself a new colony for the summer’s honey flow. Gary and I returned to my driveway where I said thanks, good-bye, and gathered together my swarm collecting paraphernalia.

A half hour later—no more—I returned to the site. Bob’s house was there; the cherry tree was there; the branches to be pruned away were there. Everything was there but the swarm. Where it had hung pendulous with promise, only branches dangled down. I stared in disbelief…five pounds of bees gone, evaporated into thin air, and me with a new home begging for a lodger in the bed of the pickup

Those of us who keep bees are familiar with the old adage: “A swarm in May is worth a ton of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; a swarm in July is NOT WORTH A FLY.”  Perhaps it’s best that that early April swarm left for parts unknown. I’ve tried to think up a bee-appropriate rhyme for April but so far have come up empty.Healthy swarm

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  1. Sweet, free bees! I was going to ask you next time I saw you if you ever do beekeeper mentoring. I've got boxes ready to pick up from Bob Combs and have taken several classes with Seattle Tilth and also took a class and passed the test for beekeeping apprentice with Bob earlier this year. We had planned to spend the rest of this year learning more in preparation for getting bees next Spring. We plan on putting two hives on my property. I'm sure they will enjoy the berry farm next door. :)

  2. Paula, where were you in the wee hours of the morn when a semi loaded with bee "crates" containing millions of bees overturned on the I-5/ 405 N. interchange? Plenty of bees there for the taking. A sad demise for so many honeybees, irreplaceable bees that were destined to pollinate crops to feed countless of us humans. Regarding the swarm I lost: bees are just a few wingbeats away from "bee"ing feral, undomesticated insects.The evaporation of this swarm was not my first experience with vanishing bees but no less, it was a disappointment. I applaud your interest in becoming a keeper of bees; given the formidable threats to bees these days, A. melifera needs all the advocates it can get--or deserve. Again, The Ripple thanks you for reading. TMJ