Yesterday about 9:30, after chores, something told me that what I had to do next was weed the onions. The list of activities for a clear, calm June day grows longer as the day progresses and, while not the highest priority activity, weeding offered the quick fix of accomplishment that would buoy me to face other more complicated tasks. The garden plot sits between the house and four hives, the home of my bees.
Three of the hives and one in particular made it through this long, cold winter strong. The thought of a swarm had been on my mind since I opened the hives on one of the rare warmish days in early April. Quickly I had done what I could to discourage them from swarming, swapping the places of the empty low super for the fuller high one and making sure they had lots of room for new brood and food storage. The deep, or big, supers make up the brood chamber where the bees live, while the shallow ones provide the place where the bees put the honey that we take. I run three deep supers thinking that it gives my bees more room and perhaps discourages them from swarming. But I am no expert on bee psychology and for the most part, I leave the bees alone to do what they need to do.
Swarming doesn’t upset me, it seems the natural course of events for bees. I’m not sure how many swarms I have had and not known, but I have captured three swarms over the years. These swarms have kept my hive population steady despite the loss of the occasional weak hive. In five years, I have lost only two hives to abandonment or collapse or mites – a pretty acceptable loss rate for a laissez faire beekeeper.
I had only just bent down to weed when the humming that filled the air registered in my head. I noticed the noise, but didn’t immediately look to see what the cause might be. I knew it was bees, but this was loud and coming from the direction of the blueberry bushes. I looked toward the hives and followed the flight of bees coming to and from before I noticed that the air west of the hives was filled with bees. The cloud pulsed and surged, with thousands of bees pointing west and hanging eight to 10 feet above the ground. A few bees circled and darted through the cloud, but the majority of bees focused on the blueberry bushes as if waiting for a signal.
I walked into the edge of the cloud to inspect the gathering ball of bees in the bush. Swarming bees are docile; the hormone that controls their swarming behavior must focus their minds on what they are doing to the exclusion of all else. It would make sense, packing up the queen and taking off into the unknown without anything more than the honey in your belly would probably make me concentrate too. I watched the bees queue up and then drop softly onto the surface of the ball. In fifteen minutes all was once again quiet, as the bees, in a clump the size of a basketball, rested and waited for their next move.
I hustled off to pull together a makeshift hive. A bottom board, a screen board, a deep with empty comb, filled honey comb scratched to cause some honey to run (bees hate runny honey, they feel compelled to clean it up and repair the damage), an excluder, a shallow super and a cover, all rolled out on my garden cart.
Capturing a swarm is anticlimactic really. I rolled the cart under the swarm, opened the lid, and scooped and shook the swarm off the branch and into the empty hive. The only thing you need to be sure about when capturing a swarm, is that the queen ends up in the box.
Almost immediately some of the bees took up positions at the entrance of the hive box, lifting their abdomens and exposing the gland that sends the signal that says, “Hey, we’re here now, come on in”. A good sign.
I’m heading out now, the next morning, to make sure they are still there. I’ll need to add another deep super to the hive to give them more room. And then begins the slow march over to the stand that I set up for them next to the other hives. I can only move them a few feet each day, otherwise they get lost and will all land where the hive was the day before.
It wasn’t on the list, but like I said, a nice June day grows lists like weeds. And sometimes the addition is a happy one, like catching a swarm.
P.S. I remember a saying that I heard…
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June, a silver spoon; but a swarm in July ain’t worth a fly!
I guess hay is still worth more than a silver spoon… surely in my world anyway!