Swarm Crazy

It is swarm season again! Before I had bees, I watched swarm videos, took swarm catching classes, and read bee books about safely gathering swarming bees. Mostly, gathering a swarm is pretty simple. Except when it’s not. Let me share a bit of my last week with you, and you be the judge as to how easy or complex—or both—gathering a swarm of bees can be.

Nine days ago, on the first sunny day we have had for weeks, two of my hives—Wing, and Gobnait—swarmed. I was sitting with a friend in my yard, with my back to the bees when I heard it. I leaped to my feet shouting “Swarm!” before I even turned around to see them tumbling into the air. I have come to know that sound. That awesome sound that like no other kind that floods my heart in a rush of adrenaline.

Wing, my SunHive was in the air for a long time, swaying this way and that in the air, and finally settling inside a large bush in my neighbor’s yard. While the swarm was still gathering itself, I hurried to grab my swarm gear basket, called a bee friend who wanted to help, and rushed back to the yard with gathering buckets of various sizes, plus my skep that I planned to house them in…

Bee buddy Thea arrived and started suiting up, as she’s yet to be stung and has no idea how her body will react. I have been blessed to have near-no reaction to bee stings, so mostly, I go gearless when gathering swarms. My friend, Debbie, stood by taking videos and photos.

“How do you want to do this?” asked Thea. The bees were humming happily on a mishmash of small branches deep in the butterfly bush. It was not my shrub, or I’d have simply chopped out all the branches and lifted the swarm out. I didn’t have my neighbor’s work number, so we had to take another approach.

I decided I’d remove the bulk of them handful by handful. There was no way to shake them free without them all falling deep into the mulch and grass beneath the plants. Thea brought over a plastic bucket and set it as near to my hands as she could. Removing bees in this way is exhilarating and it can also be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.

I took a deep breath, sent my good thoughts to the bees, as well as my hope that they would like to come with me. Very slowly, and with a mere whisper of a touch, I placed my palm beneath the swarm and lifted very gently. The bees remained quiet, only a few fluttering their wings as they felt the tide of my hand. Their hum-song remained sweet, so I brought my other hand over to cup a large handful of the swarm bees.

Some bees are very airy-fairy: you touch them or brush them, and they float quickly skyward. Other bees are more like warm oatmeal, thick but still pourable, and generally sedentary. These gentle bees were, blessedly, oatmeal bees, clinging to my hands as I move them, then shook them softly into the bucket. Time passed as I passed handful after handful into the bucket. Halfway through the mass of bees, my eyes lifted off to the right.

“Oh my gosh! We sure missed that!” I exclaimed, pointing toward the right far end of the bush. “Go over there and take a long look.” Deep in the bush in the full shade of the greenery hung another large cluster of bees. The swarm had settled itself apart. This is not unusual. Sometimes a swarm will split off into half a dozen clusters, usually each attended by a different virgin queen.

Gobnait breathes easier now that she has fewer bees.

But this was the first swarm of the season, which would be carrying along the old queen from the parent hive, not a gaggle of virgins, who come a bit later in the season. Looking at the two clusters, I had no idea which one held the queen. I figured the bees would tell me, and—sure enough—they did. Moments after I removed the last clump of the first cluster with my hands, the bees who had seemed content enough in the bucket began a slow twirl up into the sky.

“I guess the queen is in the other clump,” said Thea, standing in a cloud of bees.

“I guess you’re right,” I replied as the bees began slowly hovering over the second cluster in the bush. We waited, watched, and moved our buckets and gear over to the second cluster. The bees began to settle onto their sisters in the shrub, but something didn’t feel right. I stopped a moment, feeling unsettled. My ears were ringing. My ears were ringing!

As the bees finished landing on their sisters in the shrub, the sound of swarming bees hadn’t diminished. I looked up to see a mass of bees floating out of my yard and over our heads. Quickly, I bolted for the fence, jumped up on a lawn chair, and peered over into my own yard. Gobnait was  pouring like a geyser into the air, filling the neighborhood with high-pitched hymn of joy.

We left Wing’s swarm and ran across the neighbor’s yard to follow Gobnait’s ladies. Luckily, they didn’t go far. They began settling slowing onto four rickety fence panels at the other end of my neighbor’s yard. The day was dancing by quickly, and we still had hours of work ahead of us…

There is no sound like a humming box of bees!

It was early evening by the time we gathered up our gear, leaving the two skeps in the neighbor’s yard so the scout bees could make it home at dark. In the previous hours, we had scooped bees with hands and feathers. We had  shaken bees off of plant stems. We had coached bees off the front and back of the fence panels and into bucket, which we then poured into the skep. We had hand-picked individual bees off the ground and set them in the skeps. We herded bees off of leaf litter, into the catching buckets. We crawled across the lawn, gathering tiny enclaves of swarmed bees in our hands. We try to be thorough.

“Faith” and “Charity,” the new colonies in their new skeps, we carried back to my yard in early evening, and they’ve been settling in since. Faith is on the mark, quickly consolidating at the top of the hive, and bringing in pollen on their second day in their new home. Charity, however, has been roaming around, filling up the eco-box, and the hive, festooning wildly. I’m not convinced they have their queen (who may have been lost in the swarm), but I’ll be waiting a few weeks before I tip up the hive to have a closer look.

Two days later, my RainTree hive swarmed, and across the Columbia River, Thea’s hive swarmed at the same time. Neither of these swarms was “business as usual.” Thea’s cluster settled around the the thick limb of a tree in her yard, about 15-20 feet up. Thea’s husband, Angel, climbed up to clip the branch they were hanging on, but the moment he came close to the bees and tapped the branch, the bees buzzed at Angel, and stung him in the face. He backed away, and promptly fell out of the tree, dangling upside down by one leg.

For the rest of the day, Thea and Angel tried to figure out how to remove the bees from the tree. Thea scooped handfuls into a bucket, but the agitated bees immediately flew out. She shook a group into the bucket, and again, they lifted back into the tree. She placed a bait hive that touched the side of the swarm. They were not interested.

All through the process, the bees remained not just “airy-fairy” but cranky, which is unusual for a swarm. Swarm bees are normally gentle, almost in a quiet, peaceful  trance. After hours of effort, Thea and Angel watched sadly as the swarm lifted up and away and headed off across Portland.

Meanwhile at my house, MillHaven, I was elated to see RainTree swarm into the bait hive I’d set up nearby. My bee buddy Jen came by to help me house the colony, and we slowly marched them into my last skep. The swarm was huge, and the skep is not that big. They all moved in, buzzed happily, and after Jen left, they all took right back into the air again, back to the bait hive.

I got my largest step back from a Garden Fair where it was on display, and as I got ready to offer this larger skep to the swarm, they lifted out of the tree and swarmed off. Then, they came back. My head was splitting. I was tired and utterly confused. The day was getting late, so I decided to leave them for the night and hive them in the morning. But, as I gathered up my tools for the day, the swarm lifted off and out of the bait box, and vanished over the horizon.

Next morning, when I checked the bait hive, I found that a small part of the huge swarm had remained—about the size of a grapefruit. I quickly placed them back into my smaller skep, which would now hold them easily. But…in two hours, they left and went back to the bait hive. Then, inexplicably, they flew off the bait hive and split up into three small groups. One went back to the skep, one flew back onto the bait hive, and one moved into an old Langstroth box on the side of the yard.

I made bait hives this year with recycled paper plant pots. Clearly, they are a great hit!

One way to describe these events is in terms of the hours they take. To watch, follow, plan, gather, and house a swarm easily takes hours. It also takes hours of experimenting when you are trying to find a way to get a swarm down from a high tree, out of building, or off of a car fender.

In these few swarm events in my yard, days were given over to the care and tending of the bees, and at the end of such days, I am utterly spent. Happy, if I managed to house the swarm, sad if they left for good, but totally pooped, nonetheless.

I’ve made a commitment to keeping smaller hives, because newest research is telling us smaller hives survive and thrive better. So am learning the full extent of this choice as my bees burst into this spring season full to popping at their seams. I am expecting cast swarms from all of my woven hives—smaller swarms that leave later with virgin queens.

But what I was not expecting is that swarms would leave without waiting for their new queens. Is this because they are so very full of bees they can wait no longer and fly off—queenless and thus sacrificial—to better serve their parent hive?

I have no answers yet, only more questions, but a couple of days ago, both Wing and Gobnait sent out large secondary swarms. I’d been listening to the hives for days, waiting to hear piping virgin queens, which had not yet begun singing or “quacking.” I watched both swarms fly out at the same time. Gobnait settled first in the top-most branch of a neighbor’s tall maple tree. About 10 minutes later, I watched in amazement as Wing settled down right on top of Gobnait’s cluster in the maple tree. There they remained for about two hours, before flying off to the north in one large cloud.

Was it possible that both hives had come through the winter with two queens? And those second queens had left with the second swarm?

Faith hums with new life.

But why would the swarms commingle then? Did one of them have a queen, and the other decide to throw in with them? Or might it be possible that bees intentionally swarm out with no queen and a much different goal, perhaps to find a small hive with a queen that could use a few more good bees? Or even to begin a colony somewhere, all the while knowing that they have no future with no queen? Such bees would be making an enormous contribution to the swarms that would come after them, leaving behind precious stores of wax and honey to help a queenright swarm get a strong start.

Many of us have seen virgin queens simply fly off from a hive with no attendants. Where do they go? Do they perhaps seek out these queenless swarms?

This swarm season has been—from its very recent start—a humbling and mind-bending journey for me, and I suspect it will continue this way. I have so much to learn, and so much to ponder. There are few answers to queries like mine in the bee world. No one but another ‘deep bee-er’ asks such questions and considers all the possibilities. Those with large apiaries don’t have time for questions like this. It is not easy to wrangle a hundred or more hives.

But as a backyard bee tender, I have the time and the curiosity to ask. Now, will I have the patience to wait for answers to reveal themselves? Meanwhile, last night in the bee garden, I listened to the strong, urgent voices of virgin queens in both Gobnait and Wing. Their call is amazing, like whale song.

They tell me that more swarms from these two hives are coming, and very soon. And so I listen, bow my head, and wait.

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