The one that (almost) got away

I caught my very first swarm today – twice.  And it was a ridiculously easy process – the first time.  Here’s how it went down.

I had just gotten home from my usual late-morning walk with the husband, dog, and toddler, and went to go hang some laundry outside when I noticed a TON of bees – more than the usual number of bees in my yard, especially this time of year – buzzing around in the yard, maybe twenty or thirty feet in the air.  A swarm! I thought.  How exciting!  I’ve seen swarms a few times before, and they’re always quite a sight to behold: hundreds of bees flying in large, looping circles together, with the circles gradually getting tighter and tighter until eventually they settle on some nearby branch, eave, etc.

The last swarm I witnessed was early last summer, and the bees settled high in a tree in my yard, probably 50 feet up or so, far too high for me to attempt to capture.  But this swarm, strangely enough, settled on the warm steel lid of one of my existing hives, only about five feet off the ground.  It was a very small swarm (as late-summer swarms usually are), about softball-sized or maybe a little larger.

The swarm clustered atop one of my existing hives.

The swarm clustered atop one of my existing hives.

Now this was a swarm I could catch!  I knew it was a pretty simple process – pretty much just scoop the bees into a box – but I called my friend Karla to talk me through it, just in case.

Since it is so late in the year for a swarm (there is not much blooming for them to feed off of;   the nights are dipping down into the low 40s/upper 30s, and bees need to build up a large enough population to be able to keep themselves warm through the winter; and late-summer/early fall swarms tend to be small in the first place), Karla said I needed to take a honey- and pollen-filled frame of comb from one of my existing hives to give to the swarm.  She also said that I could actually just place the frame next to the swarm, and they would walk right over to it, so I wouldn’t even need to brush them into a box – just allow them to climb onto the frame, and then set the frame into the box.  Sure enough, when I placed the frame (pulled from my strongest hive, which incidentally is the one that almost died out earlier this year) near the swarm they immediately started climbing onto it.  Super quick and simple!

Now, here’s where I went wrong.  I wanted to head over to Mountain Feed to pic up a nuc (pronounced “nuke,” short for nucleus colony, basically a small-sized beehive intended to house a swarm or a small split of bees while they build up their colony size) in which to place the bees, since they obviously couldn’t live all winter in the cardboard box I was going to put them in.  It was getting close to the toddler’s naptime, and I was getting impatient, so I placed the frame of honey (now covered with about half of the bees from the swarm) in the box and sat the box (which had a small bee entrance cut in one side) next to the rest of the hive.  Bees are incredibly smart creatures, and I was sure they’d figure it out, and that the rest of the swarm would be safely housed inside the box when I returned from the feed store with the nuc.

So I buckled the kid into his car seat, headed over to the feed store, and picked up my nuc.  When I got back, I noticed bees swarming near the cherry tree in my neighbor’s yard, just on the other side of the fence!  I peeked inside the cardboard box that I’d set the bees up in, and sure enough, only a few bees remained on the comb.  Grrr.

I headed next door to assess the situation.  This time, the swarm had clustered on a branch of the cherry tree about twelve feet up, under a clump of dead sycamore leaves (clever bees even found shelter!).

The swarm in my neighbor's cherry tree, below some dry sycamore leaves that had fallen and caught in the tree.

The swarm in my neighbor’s cherry tree, below some dry sycamore leaves that had fallen and caught in the tree.

Luckily, they weren’t too high to access, so I (toddler in tow) lugged over an eight foot ladder, the nuc, and some pruners, loppers, and a pruning saw in case I needed to cut the branch.  Oh yeah, and the husband (who was supposed to be working), to keep the toddler from climbing the ladder while I was working with the swarm.

The nuc atop a ladder in my neighbor's yard.  If you look closely, you can see the swarm above the ladder (hiding below some large dry leaves).

The nuc atop a ladder in my neighbor’s yard. If you look closely, you can see the swarm above the ladder.

I set up the ladder beneath the cluster of bees, and placed the nuc on top of the ladder.  Theoretically, I should have been able to just give the cluster a good shake, and they would have dropped neatly into the nuc.  However, the opening of the nuc being so small and the cluster being a few feet above it, I thought it would be a better idea to cut the branch and place the cluster inside the nuc.  I started to clip away small twigs that were in the way, and with one of my cuts the branch bounced quite hard, causing a large portion of the cluster to fall off the branch and mostly into the nuc – so maybe I should have done it that way in the first place!  Unfortunately, some of the cluster missed the nuc, and I have no way of knowing (short of spending more time poking around at the swarm, while my nap-needing toddler meanwhile got more and more tired) if the queen made it into the nuc, or was shaken onto the ground (in which case, she will probably never make it into the nuc, and the swarm will definitely not survive), or was part of the cluster that remained on the branch.  I closed up the nuc, cut the part of the branch that held the rest of the cluster, and placed it on the lid of the nuc, figuring that the remaining bees would find their way to the hive entrance and go in.  I was just about to leave, when I noticed there was no hive entrance – I’d placed the hive body on top of the bottom board, but the bottom board was upside down, leaving no place for the bees to get in!  So I had to carefully remove the hive body (now containing most of the swarm), flip the bottom over, and replace the hive body, all at the top of an eight-foot ladder.  I left the nuc atop the ladder in the neighbor’s yard, to allow as many of the bees as possible to enter it before returning it to my yard in the evening.

So.  What should have taken maybe half an hour, tops, took nearly three hours (including driving to the feed store to purchase the nuc, which I clearly should have done before attempting to capture the swarm the first time).  Hopefully I didn’t botch it too badly, and hopefully the queen made it into the nuc safe and sound, and hopefully they are able to survive the winter and grow into a thriving colony next spring.  In any case, I learned a lot about what is involved (and what not to do!) in catching a swarm.

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2 Responses to The one that (almost) got away

  1. Tim says:

    nice catch ETA! I loved the videos, however, I was truly hoping for some video of you in your beekeeper suit running around with a butterfly net. Maybe next time?

    • Emilie says:

      Hahaha, a butterfly net might be a good option! It’s pretty challenging to try to film as I’m dealing with the swarm, let alone try to film myself! Maybe next time.

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