My very own swarm of honey bees!
So I am sitting inside at the computer desk on Friday, paying bills and minding my own business, when Jasper comes tearing in the house.
"Mom! Mom! There's a million bees flying around!"
Me: "Oh? Uh huh, well, I'll come out and see in a minute. I'm kinda busy here."
Him: "NO! MOM! You gotta see this! Its like a black cloud over the roof!"
Me: "Huh? What the F#@$!? (as I am running out the house, through the garage, into the yard) OHMYGAWD! They are swarming! Hurry, get in the house! Where is the video camera! Get my phone! Holy Sh%#! What the hell is happening?!"
And then ever so slight panic ensues as I try to do a million things at once. Calling Rachel at Beez Neez, Calling Chad, taking video, taking pictures, uncontrollable shaking and giddiness, nausea, sweat, trying not to freak out Jasper, handling Dish Network guys showing up exactly then to put up new dish, frantic reading of the swarming chapter in Beekeeping for Idiots, or is it Dummies?, its Dummies! And I am marveling all the while....
Full of shock and awe!
(pictures ended up a little outta order)
What happened you might wonder? My bees decided to swarm and it was amazing to see. Its hard to describe but I will try. I am so thankful we didn't miss the drama of it and were here to see it so we knew where they went and that they were in fact our bees! Jasper knew right away that something wasn't right because there were tens of thousands of bees in the air, all at once, and they were moving somewhat together in a large mass. Kinda like a black cloud! They were landing everywhere and trying to figure out where to go. They were trying to follow their queen and find a temporary home while scout bees went out to look for a permanent home. They flew over my roof and into the back yard and toward the other end of the house. They were covering everything: the car, the dish network van, the house, Chad's drift boat, the windows, the trees and bushes, the BBQ, etc. I thought the dish guys looked pretty freaked out so I told them that obviously they would not want to be trying to get up on my roof right then and that we needed to reschedule. They didn't want to be out of their van so I explained to them that a swarm of bees are the gentlest bees you ever will meet. I informed them that when bees get ready to swarm, they gorge themselves on their honey because they do not know how long they will have to be without a home so they fill up. When they are full like that, they are docile and sweet, and will only sting if they are forced to. Granted, I myself would not be comfortable up on a roof, with thousands of bees flying around, hoping not to do something to make them sting. You see, I was also trying to convince myself that they were OK, that I was OK, that they weren't trying to attack us even though they were "invading" every nook, cranny, and crevice they could find.
The bees seemed confused and their uncertainty made me nervous. Were they going to congregate on the neighbors house or were they going to fly away and be gone for good? They were clustering up in several spots as they tried to figure out where their queen had landed. It took close to an hour for them to start really huddling together in the shape you see above. They cluster for protection and warmth.
Bees swarm for a few reasons. I am lucky that even though they did swarm, they did it early. The later bees swarm, the less time there is for the colony to recover and they likely won't produce or winter over well. Lots of beekeepers have had swarms already this year and its not even May yet. Tad bit unusual and may be due to our milder winter and robust colonies. Swarming is a natural and normal instinct for bees, especially older or crowed colonies. Congestion and poor ventilation are the two main reasons bees swarm. If I had more experience I may have noticed earlier on that there may have been queen swarm cells, which look like a peanut shell shape, hanging near the bottom of the frames. Swarm cells are the earliest evidence that bees are thinking of swarming. When I had last checked my bees I was following the 7/10 rule which dictates that when 7 of 10 frames are covered in bees, its time to add another deep hive body or honey supper, depending on your circumstances. At the time, I wasn't looking for swarm cells and the bees were not on more than 7 frames. Bees work from the middle out to the sides so each outside frame will be the last to get drawn out into comb.
Assessing the situation. Notice the full bee suit even though I am telling you they are the most gentle during a swarm. Even an experienced beekeeper should wear the veil but I use the whole shbang, including gloves!
When I texted the photos to some friends, several commented that it looked like a giant pine cone. It did! A massive wiggling, writhing pine cone! As they climbed over each other and tried to get closer to the queen they were surrounding, some would fall off and hit the ground. They would fly right back up and cling on somewhere else. Several scout bees were still coming and going but they too had filled up on honey and were little slow on the up take. I wonder where they would have ended up had I not been able to capture them? Yes, I was able to capture my first swarm!
Several thousand bees weighs more than you would think!
You can tell in the pictures that they are somewhat low to the ground and hanging on a branch. It is super duper amazing that they stayed in my yard AND that they converged in a spot that was SO EASY to get to. I did not have to perform acrobatic swarm collection! I simply had to step up on a ladder and snip the branch they were on so I could lower the whole mass into a box. Yes, a box folks. A cardboard moving box. Crazy, huh? Once they were in the box I just closed it up and waited to call Rachel back. Oh yeah, the plan was to go get one of Rachel's old hives and buy ten new frames with wax foundation to stick in there so the bees could have a new home and start to draw out comb in their new hive. In the course of that Friday afternoon I think I called Rachel at least three times. And the bee store, it just so happened, had just that day received a shipment of 200 boxes of bees so they were staying open late but were the busiest they ever are.
Some of the two hundred boxes of bees! They sell bees in 3 or 4 pound packages with a queen!
Poor sweet Rachel! She kept getting these frantic, panicked, stunted, random calls from me and she just kept saying don't worry, it will all be OK. She was so patient with me and even offered for me to get her old hive since she just got out the hospital again from her allergic reactions to another bee sting. She is giving up her hives now, and also she is moving to Portland, but her boyfriend is a new beekeeper so she will help him but try not to get stung! So she had a hive for me to take and the timing of all this, as weird as it was, was perfect since the apiary(bee) store was open unusually late, I had time to get out there Friday night, get the supplies I needed, go to Rachel's before dark, and get home with everything so I could hive the bees the next day.
Closing them in the box for the night!
A few left over stragglers. I put them near the box and they found their way in.
Jasper had a soccer game Saturday morning so I just left the bees in there box home for the night and pulled the box right up next to the house so they would be under the eave. It was raining so I didn't want them to get too wet. The next morning they were still in the box! Rachel had told me they will stay in a swarm for 2 minutes or two weeks, you just never know. So I was worried that they would take off again before I could give them a proper home to call their own. When bees swarm, about 50 percent of the colony packs up with the queen and takes flight. They leave half their family behind. So in my original hive I still had many thousands of bees but no queen and that is no good. We talked about me getting a new queen for that hive but you have to have several days of nice weather to bring a new queen home so that she can take here nuptial flight, mate with drones, and return to the hive to begin laying eggs, unhindered by rain, wind, and bad weather. She is expensive and important and you don't want to chance her not having a good start with bad weather.
Close up of bees in a package, awaiting pick up to go the their new hive.
Also, there are many reasons for buying a queen from a reputable supplier vs. letting nature take its course. To let the colony create a new queen, it must have occupied queen cells or cells with eggs. If eggs are available, the worker bees will take some of them and start the incredible process of raising a new queen. This can take a month and that is precious time during honey season. Buying a vigorous mated queen is a fast solution, she is certain to be fertile, and queens left to mate in the wild can produce bees with undesirable characteristics, such as bad temper. So for now I have their original hive with many bees but no queen and I have some options about what to do with it.
Now that I have this new hive started (more on this next), I can either still re-queen the original hive and have two fully running hives or I can combine them in a couple weeks and have one mega hive. Its a tough call for me! There are pros and cons to each choice. If I keep the two hives separate then each one of them is starting from scratch and will most likely not have the time to produce any surplus of honey for me to take at the end of summer. Remember, bees need about 90 pounds of their own honey to get through the coming winter so I can only take what is above and beyond that. That's a lot of honey!
Also, I had originally planned to start a second hive this spring but time got away from me and I didn't order my supplies in time. So here I am with two hives anyhow but the original one is not a second year hive, technically, now that it swarmed. It has no queen to keep making baby bees, to collect nectar, and make more honey. But, two hives is twice the work. The bees do need to be feed in the early spring and late fall here. Its a lot of sugar syrup and suiting up and filling sticky jars and not letting them run out, etc. I enjoy the chores of beekeeping but it does take time and commitment and remembering to do it! It would be easier and cheaper and less time to service one hive, but if I am already doing it for one, I might as well do it for two, right?
Honey Bee by August Williams
Well, I do have the option of combining these two hives in a couple weeks or so. It would practically ensure a MOTHERLOAD of honey for me. But then I would only have one hive and not two like I had hoped I would of. But one hive is less time, attention, and stickiness! How bad do I want honey? I don't feel too greedy about it. I want to do right by the sweet honey bees. But I do also want to make my mead this year, with my own bees honey surplus. And I use all honey to make my preserves each summer so it sure would be nice to have honey for that. Regardless, I think combining the hives might be the right thing to do this time.
I still have a week or so to figure this out. I need to go back to Beez Neez and ask more questions. Jim and Rachel are so helpful there. I take lots of notes so I can try to keep all the info sorted out. Its a lot to take in and file away and get right when the time comes to implement what you think you know! Thankfully Jim and Rachel are only a phone call away and they hear from me often and are always gracious, kind and encouraging!
Well, I want to get this posted now even though I feel like I am leaving some things out. I didn't get pictures of hiving them on Saturday because it was a crazy day with the Dish guy coming back and the bees still flying all over since it was nice out and they could smell where their queen had been near the back door. Many of them stayed in the tree and on the backdoor near where the box had been overnight, until they figured out that their queen was in a new hive down in the yard. I will take pictures of the new hive next time I feed them and do a follow up post in the next few weeks. Ask away if you have any questions. Or comment too if you want! I hope I have some honey to share with y'all in the future. Here's to the wonder of bees!