Swarm Saga, Pt. 1 (I Take A Notion)

This is the story of how not to hive a swarm of bees.

Last week, on the Summer Solstice, the bees from both Hive Orange and Green Hive took to the road. One swarm left without saying goodbye, but I was lucky enough to get to see the other swarm take to the skies with a collective roar before landing in a small sumac in the bee yard.
The sumac was a temporary home for the bees whilst scouts went out in search of a better home—a nice, hollow tree or some other suitable spot to set up shop.

Seeing the swarming process was a thrill. Once settled in the tree, the bees became so quiet you wouldn't even know they were there. An astonishingly powerful force of nature, yet so vulnerable and humble.

Initially, my intention was simply to let them go their way and lend their numbers to the feral honeybee population. Several factors, including the bees' relatively accessible location, soon shifted my thinking toward the idea of trying to capture the swarm. I'd already ordered an extra hive body from my top bar hive supplier, though it hadn't yet arrived. That wasn't ideal, but with the new hive winging its way through the US postal system, I expected it in a matter of days. The notion of catching and keeping the bees in a temporary setup seemed to take on a life of its own. "Why not try it?" my local beekeeper said when I called to ask his advice, sealing my fate.

Somehow, catching a swarm seemed the next logical step in the beekeeping adventure. Plus, it sounds so damn cool: catching a swarm. Let's face it, in spite of all my deep ecology philosophizing, I share that horrible human urge to tinker with natural processes better left to their own devices.

By later that evening, I'd begun to think it might be possible to make it work. My intrepid friend Karen was visiting for the weekend and seemed game for the adventure. She took the shots below.

First thing the next morning (4 a.m., actually), Amateur Hour Carpentry had re-opened for business and there was duct tape, screen mesh (for ventilation), and corrugated cardboard everywhere. We built a temporary holding box for the bees and prepared to capture them. (The advice I'd received was to temporarily house the bees in a cardboard box with a separate, fitted lid—like the kind office paper comes in. But I didn't have one of those boxes and didn't want the swarm to up and disappear, so we created this initial holding pen out of an old fax machine package. Why catch a swarm of bees in just one step, when you can do it in three?!)

The calm euphoria before the decidedly non-euphoric storm. As you can see, the cluster was very quiet and subdued—no problem getting close without protective gear...so long as you don't bother them.

Spraying the cluster with sugar water to calm them before seriously bothering them.
The open box was placed under the cluster, the branch on which they'd gathered was inelegantly shaken, and bees fell by the hundreds into the box—and on my suit, and on the ground. By this time, there were many bees flying around in a rage—or was it a feeling of fear and betrayal?
The box of bees was closed...

The bee-brush Samba—an attempt to remove some of the bees trying to sting me through my jeans. Who could blame them?

Back in the shed, my bee suit removed, I have a delayed reaction to the self-inflicted trauma of being surrounded by thousands of flipped-out bees and decide that there's a bee on my neck that wants to kill me. I freak, but Karen assures me it's just a bit of torn cloth from my bandanna. She takes this picture to prove it, but for an hour or so I have paranoid delusions of bees crawling on me.

We rush to Office Max and buy a ream of paper in order to acquire the proper type of box. A minor drama ensues regarding the location of the recycled office paper (why do they make it hard to find that?!). Another small drama ensues about the time it takes to check out (forever!), though we are the only people in the cavernous store in a ghost-town of a mall for which acres of pasture were paved (and people wonder why all the pollinators are disappearing).

Finally, we're out of there and back to Amateur Hour Carpentry so the box can be screened for ventilation and entrance holes drilled to allow the bees to come and go (and forage) while we wait for the real hive to appear.

The bees are transferred into the new box.

And the box is placed on the same stand where the real hive will be located. Bees have very sensitive navigation equipment and would have trouble making the transition to the real hive if the location was suddenly changed.

Mission accomplished, we're feeling pretty good. Karen gives the bees some sugar water to cool them off and rejuvenate them a bit. We're both relieved that, after two transfers, the bees are now set up and can relax in their temp home. We're Swarm Catchers, and we're feelin' mighty fine!

Except for this....

To be continued....

1 comment:

Karen Cook said...

I totally enjoyed reading this! At the heady beginning of this, G. offered me a chance to do a guest essay. I won't do that, but I will say it was extremely exciting--and felt like an honor and privilege--to witness beekeeping (and the learning curve) in action! I loved my suit. At first I felt a little unstable on my feet, since I didn't feel quite able to look down--and my head was in a bubble, so I felt like an astronaut or a deep sea-diver. I've never been either of these, but I did scuba dive once--and it was kind of like that, since I was surrounded by bees and it felt like looking through a mask into a school of fish. The air had become the bees' world, not mine...and the swarm was amazing! I have been lucky enough to see a sloth in my life, and the bees as a group kind of reminded me one--this sense of deep stillness, even lethargy....(now the deer mentioned in the earlier post has come out into the middle of the lawn--and jumped back into the woods again, exhaling, apparently for fun)...which was remarkable, the stillness of tens of thousands of bees, since every word used in connection with them connotes so much activity (which is true, too, I know)...I am continually struck by the bravery I sense in nature--those ducks sitting so unprotected and unmoving in their nests, the bees on a low tree, waiting patiently for the scouts (I may be anthropomorphizing here...)...and I got to see G. being pretty intrepid, too! Trying to proceed with a mixture of knowledge and advice and improvisation...the bees really were pretty good when she shook that branch, but I think we both felt so much adrenalin, probably some mix of flying bees, half awareness that some were actually going into the box as planned, half awareness that many others were not, a respect for their power mingled with fear that we could hurt them....anyway, it was an adrenalin WHOOSH! Hence those giddy smiles...anyhow. thanks, G.! Thanks, bees! -k