Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Spring Swarms

Disclaimer: We are documenting our experiences here so we can keep track of what we've done and for others' curiosity.  We are NOT experienced beekeepers (yet).  Please be sure to watch and learn (over time) from our successes and failures!

9:15 am yesterday morning:  I was washing up some dishes when Sadie headed outside with the egg basket to collect eggs.  A minute later she came back without any eggs and told me, "I'm not going out there- there are bees everywhere!"

Now, before we started beekeeping I actually worried a little bit about this.  Would our property have bees everywhere?  Would we have to be careful where we step?  Would company notice our winged friends flying around and get nervous?  Well, none of this has been the case.  Unless you are 10-15 feet away from our hives (which are at the very back of our 1.5 acre lot) you won't notice any more bees than usual.  SO. Sadie's comment made me nervous- the only time you'd see a lot of bees out would be if they were swarming.  While horror movies have given swarms a bad name, real swarms could care less about people.  All their focus is on following their queen and finding a new home.  I grabbed my camera and headed outside.

Above our little orchard, the air was full of circling honeybees.  And there was a definite buzz in the air.  If you look carefully in the photo above you can see many little black dots in the blue sky- those are bees. They stayed above the orchard for awhile and I stayed put watching and snapping pictures for Jamey (and you). Slowly, they began to concentrate themselves above our sour cherry tree.

The queen had landed and everyone was following suit.

After about 10-15 minutes, they were all resting quietly on a branch, looking not unlike a large, buzzing, brown watermelon.

And once again all was quiet.  I headed inside and called Jamey at work.  He wouldn't be coming home until late and we knew there was a good chance the swarm would take off before he was able to catch it.  I emailed him some pictures and showed them to the kids (mini science lesson to start our school day which was already getting off to a late start).  Sam decided he wanted to head outside to see the swarm for himself and I started pulling out Math books.

10:00am  Sam came back inside and said, "Mom, there are a bunch of bees flying around between the hives and the swarm in the cherry tree!"  Again?!  I grabbed my camera and headed back outside. Sure enough- ANOTHER swarm had taken leave of our hives and was flying above the orchard.

This swarm's queen chose one of our peach trees to take a seat in and the bees that followed her did the same...

...until they were all quietly nestled onto their own branch. So for awhile, we had swarms in our fruit trees.

By 10:45am the first swarm had left and by 11:30am, the second swarm had gone on their way as well. Scout bees usually have a new home in mind for the swarm as it leaves the hive but sometimes they land somewhere else before getting there.  The scout bees encourage the swarm to move on to their eventual home and therefore don't stay put very long.

That was a lot of bees we lost.

So what happened?  Why did they swarm?  Some common reason bees swarm are if they are too crowded (they raise a new queen and send the old one out with some bees to make more room), if their hive has become uninhabitable or if there are multiple queens in the hive.

Here's our best guess for our recent situation. Most of the activity during these swarms was going on at hive #3.  While I didn't see either swarm actually leave that hive, it made me suspect that that is where they came from. A few weeks ago we divided our two hives and grafted eggs into five queen cells in our #3 hive.  What we think happened is that at least more than one (possibly all five) queen emerged. Sometimes, the first queen out will go around and sting all the other queens before they can come out, killing her competition. We grafted more than one queen to ensure one of them will emerge to carry on the hive, otherwise the whole colony could dwindle before we could purchase and introduce a new queen if our grafting didn't work. Evidently, more than a couple queens emerged or new queens knew more were coming and skedaddled.  When there are more than one queen, the extras are forced out and other bees go with them.  This is called "casting swarms".

We don't really know if this colony sent out any queens before or after these two.  Doing a hive inspection will ensure that we still have one queen in there to continue the colony.  We don't really want to do that until we've given her time to go on her mating flight(s), though, so it will be a little while yet until we can make sure there is indeed a queen in there.

On the bright side, we added a couple new bee colonies to our area.  They will hopefully find quiet logs or dead trees to make their homes and go on pollinating our surrounding gardens and fields.  

We wish them the best but we really are sorry that they had to leave.  But at least it's still May.

"A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.  
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon."
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  1. I really enjoy reading your bee story! It is so fascinating and educational! This post was helpful-- we experienced a swarm a couple years ago. We live in town and our neighbor has trees right a long the property line. We were working in our backyard and heard the buzzing first--then we saw the swarm of bees leaving the tree. I was holding our then baby and high tailed it inside! After reading your post I realize we weren't in any danger--they were just on their way to a new home. Ever since that happened I've wondered what that was all about because no one around us keeps bees and it has never happened since. Now I know!

  2. I remember when we lived in town, my mom and I were outside playing with the boys who were just little guys at the time. All of a sudden I felt what seemed like rain, and then I heard the bees buzzing...I quickly realized it was a swarm, so my mom and I each picked up a boy and ran inside! Wonder why there was so much moisture in the air? Do you know? It was really strange.

  3. Next year you may want to set up a bait hive to try and catch a swarm. My understanding of how a bait hive works is you set up an empty hive somewhere nearby your current hives and hope the scout bees find it and guide the swarm to it. We thought about doing that this year when we had a hive that was bursting with bees but decided to split the hive instead.


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