“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” William Jennings Bryan

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Honey bee swarms…

Late spring is swarm season. A swarm occurs when a hive gets too crowded. A new queen is raised and a swarm of bees, along with the older queen, leave the hive to find a new home. When the swarm leaves, it gathers somewhere, usually on a tree branch. Scout bees leave the swarm to search out a new home, and when one is found, they lead the swarm to it.

A swarm is both good and / or bad depending on how the beekeeper looks at it. If the beekeeper can catch the swarm and re hive it, it’s a free colony! On the other hand, the amount of bees in the original colony is reduced, so honey production goes down. For me, it doesn’t matter. It’s a wash.

The first swarm I saw was two weeks ago. It gathered about 15’ up in the maple tree and since it was pretty much impossible to get to, I let it go. The next day it was gone – the scouts found it a good home somewhere.

The 2nd a 4th swarms were easy. They occurred about ten days apart, and both gathered on the beach plum bush in the front yard. This bush has been a popular gathering place for years for unknown reasons, and I have caught about 5 swarms from it. #2 and #4 swarms gathered on the branches two feet off the ground so all I needed to do was put a hive box, or super, under the swarm, then shake the bees off the branch so that they fell into the super. For the most part, it was that simple.

Very easily I went from having four hives to six with a few shakes of a branch.

Swarm #4 in the Beach Plum

#3 swarm was a whole different story.

A week ago #3 swarm formed about 20 feet high up in the young elm tree that we had planted four years ago in the front pasture. Last year I re hived a swarm from the beach plum bush and set the hive more or less underneath it. I am pretty sure swarm #3 came from this hive.

Up there 20 feet, I decided, like I did for the one that had formed in the maple tree earlier in the spring, that it was too high for me to reach and I’d just have to let it go. That was Saturday. Sunday it was still there. When I got home from work on Monday it was still there. Same thing on Tuesday. Of all the swarms I have ever let pass, most left in a day – I had never seen one stay for this long without finding a new home. When I came home from work on Wednesday…

… it was still there, but not doing too well. For five days now the swarm was getting smaller as bees that were weak from the weather and lack of food were dropping off. Five days without food is a long time for a bee, and also having been exposed to three rainstorms and cold temperatures during these five days decreased this swarm’s chance of survival. I looked up and could hear bees dropping down through the leaves, too weak to hang on. The swarm was also beginning to split into separate clusters, and beneath the main swarm, a number of bees that had fallen from it clung together on a branch below. On leaves beneath that lower branch, there were a few more small clusters.

I figured that at this point, I would have to try to re hive it. Better to try than to let it starve.

I put together a plan – Allen could raise me up in the loader bucket as high as it could reach and then with my pole saw, I could reach higher and with it, hook the branch and pull or bend it close enough for me to reach. With the super on the bucket with me, I would then clip the branch and then shake the bees into it.

The plan worked great for the lower cluster.

The main warm was too high for me to balance every thing and stay steady enough to grab it. Kath stayed on the ground and used the pole to hook the branch, but at her angle it pulled it too far from me to reach. So Allen jumped on top the hood of the tractor and took over the pole duty. He reached it up over my head about 5 feet, hooked the leader and slowly pulled the swarm to me. I stretched out as far as I could and reached as far as I could, and grabbed the branch holding the swarm. I clipped the branch from the leader and …the leader, under so much tension, released, slipping off the pole saw, and whipped back

I didn’t really know what had happened. I remember that I was holding a small cluster of bees in my hand as another cloud of bees descended on me, then on Allen, and down to Kath who was standing in the pasture watching. I started taking stings, but holding the little cluster and up in this bucket I didn’t have much choice but to submit to the assault  and hope that it would be just a few bees. It wasn’t.

Kath took off, wiping bees off her as she ran off down the pasture. I was getting pummeled, and so was Allen. I somehow managed to get the small cluster that I was holding into the super, and jumped down out of the bucket onto the hood with Allen, who was still holding the pole. I almost knocked him off. We both jumped down and hurried away, with angry bees stabbing our skin and more in tow.

We all were stung up. When it was over, Kath had gotten quite a few stings, Allen more, and I even more than them. I couldn’t even estimate how many times I had been stung – my arms, neck, face, ears, and head were burning and I couldn’t separate the pain into each sting – I just burned all over. In  pain, a bit exhausted from the stings, we all just stood at the bottom of the pasture “licking our wounds”. This had never happened before.

Kath saw what had happened: the cluster was actually gathered around two branches – one we couldn’t see from where we were. When I cut the one branch, I was left with a cluster, but the other half, still clinging to the hidden branch, went flinging through the air when the leader released, and that got them very riled up.

So there we were. Out in the field the tractor was running, a super in the raised bucket, and a small cluster of bees now higher in the tree, but too riled up to go near. And the three of us so stung up it was hard to move or to think bout anything else but the pain.

But I couldn’t leave it at that.

A half hour later the bees had settled down and since I wasn’t sure if I had gotten the queen in the previous clusters, I decided to go back and finish off the job. Allen and Kath reluctantly helped. We set up again, and this time Kath on the ground got a better angle to pull the leader to me. I clipped the branch, dropped the cluster in the hive, and that was it. All calm. As easy as buttering bread.

I put the super in the yard and fed it sugar water, then went in for the night. A very uncomfortable night as the burning wasn’t going down.

To make a long story short, I ended up in the doctors office the next day as for the first time ever, rashes began rolling across my body and I felt very warm. I had never had a reaction to stings before, nor even multiple stings. Turns out it wasn’t really serious – but simply my body reacting to a bit more than it could handle. The doctor, who was fascinated by the story as he wants to keep bees sometime in the future, put me on a few meds to calm my body down. (Luckily, Kath and Allen didn’t get the reaction from the stings that I got)

When I got home from the doctors, I checked on the hive. The bees had left.

There they were, back in the elm tree. All that for nothing!

And now it is Sunday, eight days later and the bees are still there. Maybe a quarter of them are left, weak, but with enough sugar water to sustain them for a few more days. I hope.  

Remnants of swarm #3 in the elm tree.

I have decided that it is what it is. I won’t try to re hive this swarm again. I have done all  that I can, and have taken all I can from this swarm. Nature will need to care for this swarm now. It won’t let me. Good luck swarm #3. I wish you had chosen to gather on the beach plum bush….