There are nuances about Brian’s artificial swarming method that escaped me, or perhaps I should say there were some small details I missed. Called swarm cells.
On Sunday morning at 11, I was trying to fix the washing machine when I heard shrieking downstairs. “Barbi! Barbi! Barbara! Barbara! Come now! Come now! You have to come!” So I went downstairs. It’s not like he never does this. I figured if he’s well enough to yell like that and I can tell from his voice that he’s moving, he’s not hurt; he’s panicking about something. I got down the stairs and found him on the deck, screaming, “Swarm!” and pointing at the pear trees.
If you’re a beekeeper and you read what I did last week, you were probably expecting this.
When I put the queen back after splitting a strong hive during swarm season, I should have spent more time looking for swarm cells. Sure, I only found open ones, but I didn’t spend nearly enough time closely examining every frame. I was planning to look again this weekend – I really was – but I got tied up with the broken washing machine.
The swarm was still collecting itself in the tree when I first saw it. Geoff had seen the cloud of bees around the tree and not understood what it was at first. Last summer’s swarm had already settled into the pear tree when he found it, so this was pretty cool (though not as cool as if we’d seen the whole thing swooping around in flight). Our next door neighbor was mowing his lawn incredibly closely to the tree, with no idea what was going on above his head. Even over the lawn-mower, we could hear the loud buzzing.
When I collected my swarm last summer, I had no appreciation for how easy it was. I just pulled the bees from the tree they had landed in, about 4 feet up. Since then, I had heard someone describe how they got a swarm out of a tall tree, so I was prepared with an idea when I saw the bees settling about 12 feet up in a pear tree.
What Mary and Jim did was tie off the branch above and below the hive, cut the branch off, and belay the branch carefully down to a box on the ground.
I wanted to use this method to bring the bees to the box, but Geoff was determined to bring the box to the bees by knocking them off the branch up high. He put together this monstrosity and tried to persuade me to try it, with a sheet slung inside to catch the bees. He called it “The Wright Brothers.” Please, click on the picture and look closely at this contraption, from top to bottom. Then click again for some close-ups.
I said no.
We couldn’t put a rope on the far end of this particular branch because there was nothing to swing it over, so we ran down to the hardware store to find a long something to hold it up from below. We bought an apple-picker with a telescoping pole, and cleared the branches below. Geoff went up the tree on a ladder from behind, from which he tied off the branch and then cut it. I stood below the swarm and supported the other end of the branch with the apple picker.
A lot of bittersweet kept the whole thing from coming down easily, but also kept it from falling suddenly. The bees were wrapped around more branches than the one we cut; so as we yanked against the bittersweet, we were pulling the swarm apart in (marginally) controlled jerks. There was some veil-banging activity and a fair amount of angry buzzing. When we got the branch to a level where I could reach the bees, I shook what I could and then pulled them off with my hands. This is not unusual with swarm-catching, and it’s kind of cool; you don’t often grab a handful of bees without having some concern to getting badly stung. They feel like warm, stringy little velcro balls.
The first few blobs of bees that I pulled down landed right in the box, but plenty more landed on the sheet. You use a white sheet below the box is so you can see the bees that miss the box. If you’re really lucky, you can see if one is the queen. I wasn’t that lucky. But with so many bees crawling around outside the box, I had a feeling the queen was there. Last summer, the swarm I caught did the same thing, and then started flying back to the tree they had been in. Two things I learned that time. The first is that if you put a frame of brood in the box where you’re collecting the swarm, you’ve got a better chance that they won’t just take off while you’re getting them in; they won’t abandon babies. The other is that you need a good tool for scooping bees up so you can get the queen in the box. The best thing is a piece of plastic embroidery screen; it is flexible enough that it won’t kill anyone and solid enough that you can control its shape. Last summer, I used a manilla folder, and bees kept getting trapped inside the fold.
I was on my hands and knees as I scooped bees into the box, and I might have put some weight on someone. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I got stung. There’s a myth that swarming bees can’t sting you. Yeah; no. They aren’t likely to, but if you lean enough on any bee, she can sting.
Well, so with a lot of help from Geoff, I caught my swarm. We left the people alone for a while, to settle into the box, and then I transferred them into a new hive. Mission accomplished!