We started keeping bees last year. We only have one little hive because we really do not have time to devote to the care of farm animals.
Bees are funny. They have an entire routine that beekeepers have been keeping track of for years. Here is how it goes. You have a queen bee, she mates and carries around thousands upon thousands of eggs. She deposits them into the comb and they grow into bees. The drones are male and do nothing. The females do all the work–that isn’t really news is it?–and are known as worker bees. Worker bees forage for nectar and pollen and bring it back to the hive to ferment into honey and protein. They take care of the eggs, they take care of the queen, they keep the hive clean, they defend the hive from invaders.
If you have a really strong hive, the queen just keeps producing and producing. The hive is getting mighty full with bees. Also, after a while the queen does weaken, she can’t live forever. When the bees sense that the equilibrium is off, they start working on producing another queen. In one case, with a weakening queen, they stick around and produce a new queen to replace the old one. In a very full hive, they produce queens for swarming so they can get out of the hive and on to a new life.
In beekeeping you are supposed to stop a swarm for two reasons, lost bees are valuable and you will lose honey production. But if you prevent swarming, you have to create more colonies and we just do not want a bunch of hives. Nor do we care that much about selling honey. In fact, we have no intention of selling honey. We just like watching the activity. It’s a hobby. We had always said if the bees swarm, it is natural and we did not really want to stop them. We had seen some queen cells being formed and it was either supercedure or swarming. We were not sure. We thought there was plenty of room in the hive. We were wrong.
The weather here has been absolutely miserable. Bees don’t like cold and rainy weather. If it is too cold, they stay inside huddled together. Rain makes them cranky. They love sun. Last Saturday, the sun came out briefly and there was enough impetus for the bees in our hive to swarm.
We were lucky to witness it.
I looked out the back door and all I could see were thousands of bees flying like mad. They flew in a cloud seemingly without a direction but they knew what they were doing. They all alighted onto a branch far up in the cypress tree. We had not expected them to stick around if they swarmed but there they were, hanging in a cluster with their queen, about 20 feet off the ground, maybe more. They were way up there.
So what do we do? We figured they would fly off soon enough and we went about our business. Bees don’t bother me so I was working in the yard while they hovered over my head. Honestly, a bee has no interest in you unless they think you want to hurt the hive or the queen. They might fly around you and even land on you. But stinging you will kill them so they really do not do that lightly. It has to be a defensive act.
The next day we went out and they were still there. Probably a little cold and tired since they survived an overnight storm and cold, pounding rain. It was chilly out. It occurred to me that when they are cold and wet, they are lethargic so maybe we could catch them. The question was, how do we get up there? The idea is to cut the branch and let it fall into a container. Then you can move them into a hive box. We pondered and considered and finally I had an aha moment. Let’s get the tree loppers and see if we can reach it. We have a Little Giant ladder, a pretty tall one even when it is in the inverted V position. The plan was that I would pull back branches while Matt went up the ladder and put the branch off with the lopper. The branch would fall into the hive box below.
We put the box on a table just to raise it up a little so the fall was not so far. I pulled and Matt lopped. The branch came down. But alas, the cluster broke in two and there was still a ball of bees in the tree.
Catching a swarm does not work if you do not get the queen. They follow her so you have to get her. If she was still in the tree, we were sunk. Well, yeah, the next day, the bees were all back in the tree. We did not get her.
So a few days later, the bees still hanging in the tree, we tried again. This time they were much lower. So I pulled out my trusty butterfly net that I use to capture frogs and snakes. I went up the ladder, carefully put the net around the swarm and Matt cut the branch. Bloody swarm split again. Half of it went into the net, half remained in the tree. Damn it! I put the net up again and tried to shake them into it. I got a lot more. We poured them into the hive and hoped for the best.
But yeah, it didn’t work. There were still bees in the tree regrouping. Unless we could get that queen, they would stay in there until they decide to fly off.
So we gave it one last try. This time I went up the ladder with a 32 gallon garbage can so I could catch the entire branch in a lump and put a lid on them immediately. It worked. Matt clipped and into the deep can they fell.
We closed it up and walked it over to the hive boxes.
We poured it in and mother of mercy, they all started marching in order right into the box. When they do that the queen is there.
That was just too cool. So we have a new hive.
But funny thing, our original hive swarmed again with another queen (we had a few cells). We found a very small swarm in the cherry tree. But it was so small it was almost not worth trying to catch. We might have acted differently had we known then what we know now– we do not think there is a queen in the original hive. With this terrible weather we have been having, queens have a hard time mating. Remember, they do not want to go out when the weather is bad. So we think maybe there is a virgin there that has not gotten out yet, or there is no queen left. This is a bad situation that we are trying to rectify.
You can buy queens. People raise them. But if we don’t get one in there pretty quickly we will have big trouble ahead. We are working on it. More later.