Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Week of the Swarms

Please remember, we are very new at this.  This is an account of what we're observing and doing, NOT a recommendation of what to do.  Only time will tell if we're on the right track.  So in the meantime, read along, look at the pictures and appreciate all the amazing skills that the BEES possess.

A couple weeks ago we had a crazy bee week.  Bee emotions were up, down and all around.  First off, let me say that in this post I am using the term "swarm" pretty loosely since the term can mean slightly different things- probably more than I know!

The typical definition of a swarm is when a colony of bees fills out their hive (runs out of room), raises a new queen and sends the old queen and a bunch of bees (sometimes more than half of them) out the door to find a new home.  If more than one new queen emerges, these extra new queens may leave, too, with some more bees (called an after swarm).  Sometimes, a colony is raising a queen to replace one that has died or was taken in a colony divide and when the virgin queen goes out on her mating flight, some bees go with her.  Why?  I'm not sure.

Anyway, when the most typical definition of swarming occurs, the bees tend to linger somewhere near the mother hive and then once they've determined where their new home is, they swarm to it.

"Swarm" Number One:

It was a mid-Monday morning.  The kids were outside playing and I was doing dishes.  Out my window, I saw Sadie point to something in the sky, so I dried my hands and went out to see what it was- she was really excited about it.  Right outside the back of our house, between the house and our large poplar tree, about 15-20 feet in the air was a swarm of bees hovering.  This was the first swarm of any kind I had ever seen.  At first, it didn't even occur to me that they were honey bees.  They hovered for about 20 more seconds and then made up their collective little mind(s) and headed across our yard, over our neighbor's house and out of sight.

The kids and I followed them through the neighbor's yard.  I figured if this swarm came from one of our hives and landed in a nearby tree, I wanted to know about it.  And then call Jamey and tell him to come home and put them back.  Instead it moved away so quickly that I wasn't even certain of it's direction.  I stood under our neighbor's trees craning my ears, hoping to hear a buzzing hum, but there was nothing.  And then my sweet neighbor came outside and of course asked why my children and I were standing in her yard listening to her trees.  She probably didn't ask that.  She probably just said hello, acting like us being in her yard listening to her trees was a completely commonplace occurrence.  You see, she knows me well enough to know that I do weird things sometimes.

The bees (whose ever they were) were gone.

I did call Jamey and told him (you know, in case the swarm flew by the pharmacy window).  He suggested I assemble the nuc (mini hive) he had just built and put it outside somewhere in case they came back.  Good idea.  I put some organic raw honey inside (about a tablespoon), put the bars in place, set it up in the kids' tree house and tried my hardest to forget about it and get back to work.

"Swarm" Number Two:

Late that very same afternoon, Jamey decided to walk over to another neighbor's house (beyond the neighbor who saw me listening to her trees) to see if the bees maybe landed in one of his trees.  Only a minute or two later, he came back, opened the back door just long enough to tell me to get outside and headed back out.  A quick peek out the window told me to grab my camera since he was pulling the nuc from the tree house.

Exciting, isn't it?  It was!

Here, right outside his workshop entrance, on the ground (!), was a pile of honey bees.  He never made it over to the neighbor's.

Once he spotted the bees, he took a stick and gently looked through the pile and sure enough, saw a queen.  And she appeared to be a virgin.  How can you tell?  Well, virgin queens are of similar length, but their abdomens are much thinner (they're not carrying around eggs yet).

getting the queen into the nuc via a yogurt container 

With a plastic container, he scooped her into the nuc and we placed the entrance right next to the pile of bees in the grass.  Soon, one found it's way in, came back to the entrance and started fanning her little bum off trying to spread the queen's scent so that the other bees would follow her inside.  Within a couple minutes, they were all inside.

fanning at the entrance to bring in the rest of the bees

We left one entrance open in case there were any lingering bees outside and tried to let them be.  We didn't understand why there were so few bees.  Was this an after swarm?  Was it the same one I saw earlier that day?  It did not occur to us at the time that we may have just caught one of our virgin queens (one we grafted) on her mating flight.  We just had no idea she would have so many bees with her (IF she was our queen, of course).

A possible blessing in disguise was that by the time we finished up dinner and went to collect the hive and put it where we wanted it to be, all the bees had left.  I immediately kicked myself when I remembered that a swarm is more likely to stay if they are given combs of brood.  I wished we had taken a couple of combs (from another hive, brushed free of bees) and given them to them.  Oh, well.  Like I've said before, we blunder along.

"Swarm" Number Three:

A few days later, while mowing, Jamey ran over a pile of bees.  He felt terrible, but goodness- he's lucky if he sees all the frisbees, plastic animals and walking sticks before running over them.  This pile of bees was even smaller than the last (the mower may have had something to do with that).

It was IN the bee yard- only a foot or two from where we set the empty nuc earlier in the week.  And, once again, there was a virgin queen.  Again, we didn't think of the fact that she might be on her mating flight, so we put her in the nuc, the bees followed and this time we gave them some brood combs.

workers following their queen inside

Jamey brushing off a brood comb for the nuc

Within a couple hours, robber bees descended upon the hive, robbed it of all the honey surrounding the brood and the little swarm (and the queen) were driven off.  The robbers seemed to be coming from the opposite direction of our hives.  And, soon after all that, ants found it.

burglary in progress (robber bees)

We hadn't been in the nuc or the hive that was supposed to be raising ONE queen and staying PUT since all of this to try to figure out what was going on.

Until this past Saturday. Pin It


  1. I think everyone assumes that bee keeping is easy, it isn't. Good luck - next year it will be better.

  2. All the goings ons and drama reminds me of a soap opera. Days of Our Hives.

    1. Ha! Yes. With one exception- in our soap opera there is clearly not enough mating going on.

  3. Oh my goodness!! I'm on the edge of my seat! What will happen next?!

  4. The suspense is killing me! What happened Saturday?????

  5. Sounds frustrating, but from what I've read, you're having the RIGHT kind of problems - at least you haven't had a hive croak!!!

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I can't have bees where I live (stupid laws, anyway, eh!?) but will be moving in the next few years and hope to be able to get a couple hives. I'm enjoying learning through your blog. Thank you!

  6. the drama and suspense! oh my word, maybe I could not handle raising bees. I think it's exciting enough when my seedlings pop out of the ground. good grief.


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