On this steamy Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, we returned from Providence with our farmers’ market shopping to a very loud hum. It took me just a second to identify the sound—bees. Sure enough, I saw hundreds of them, filling the air, flying in circles under the maple tree near the kitchen.
It is an awe-inspiring sight, and a thrill to stand next to them; you feel the sound. Honeybees are especially docile when they swarm because they have no home to protect. A swarm is a healthy thing for a colony—in the wild it is how bees propagate. It can be a sign that they are overcrowded or otherwise dissatisfied with their home. (We had planned to add another empty super to the existing hive this week to give them more space, but apparently we were too late.) The bees prepare to swarm by making queen cells to hatch another queen. When they are ready, a large number leave with the old queen, usually waiting nearby in a tree while scouts look for a suitable new home. They often mass on a tree branch, protecting the queen.
A good number of our swarm had clustered on a branch. Cherisse looked through our beekeeping books to figure out what to do. We wanted to catch them, but didn’t know how long we’d have before the scouts looking for a new home would return and lead everyone away.
First we checked the newer hive—we were sure this was where they’d come from. A good number of bees were still inside, but we saw many queen cells. We removed these, only belatedly wondering if perhaps at this point we should have left them. Had a new queen hatched yet? Or had we just exterminated their future queen?
This quandary helped determine our course of action. Normally you capture a swarm and install it in a new hive, since the bees have already decided to leave their original home and aren’t likely to want to return. As we weren’t sure about the queen, we thought we’d try a different approach. We decided to reintroduce the bees into their old home by collecting them in another super, and then placing it on the original hive. To attract the bees, we swapped out two frames with uncapped honey from the original hive, and then placed these in the super containing only new frames with the initial beeswax comb. The honey and the beeswax would, hopefully, draw the bees in.
By now, the original clump in the tree had dropped to the ground. We weren’t sure why, perhaps the branch broke. There was a thick mass of bees coating a rock beneath the branch where they had been. A new cluster was rapidly forming on another branch, unfortunately much higher up. We placed the frame-filled box near the bees on the ground, and set a shingle as a ramp to facilitate entry. Our hope was that the bees would decide this seemed a good new home, and they would begin to follow each other in, eventually inspiring all to march inside. We would then cut down the clump hanging from the tree, and shake the bees off in front of the door.
The first part of the plan worked…slowly the bees started to enter, until finally the ramp was covered with bees filing in. I then donned the bee suit again and Cherisse got a pole saw to pull down the branch with the clump. I needed two hands for the loppers, so I grabbed above the branch they were on and then tried to cut it without dropping the large mass of bees. I partially succeeded—I held onto the branch, but whacked the bees into other leafy branches, and so dislodged most of them. I took the few that remained and shook them onto the ramp.
Shortly after, a passing thunderstorm brought heavy rains, and when we checked again the ramp was clear of bees (save two dead ones—perhaps pummeled by the rain, or trampled by their kin). The rest were still coating the rock. We hoped that by nightfall they would all migrate in. Tomorrow we will see if the bees I dropped off the branch are still there. They are important because we don’t know the whereabouts of the queen. Most likely she was in the clump in the tree (covered by her protective worker bees). If so, then hopefully she was in the remaining, diminished clump on the branch I clutched.
It’s been more than two years since we started beekeeping, and we still feel like we have no idea what we are doing. We learn bits by experience, and then we encounter entirely new situations and we are at sea, doing our best to combine book learning with intuition. Tomorrow we’ll see how well we did.