Catching a Swarm

My good friend Brittney is moving to a new home in the country soon, and she’s been peppering me with fun questions about homesteading. We started talking about bees, and I realized I hadn’t shared anything here about the swarm we caught two summers ago. How could I forget??

Picture it: Sicily, 1928. Wait, sorry . . . May 2017, the beginning of a muggy Michigan summer. We had lost one of our two hives (RiverHive) to a wax moth infestation over the winter.

In case you don’t know (and who would?) wax moths are naaasty. They destroyed the entire hive, leaving behind a soupy, webby mess. I’d say this is the most depressing way to lose a hive.

HillHive was doing great, though. It was doing so well, in fact, that it threw off a swarm. This is a beehive’s natural way of expanding, or more accurately, of reproducing itself.

What exactly is a swarm?

When a colony of bees is doing well, it populates the hive to full capacity and eventually needs room to grow. The bees can tell when this threshold is getting close, and they begin to raise a few new queens in preparation for a split. Once a new queen is reared, the old queen will take half of the colony and head out to make a new hive, leaving the new queen in charge of the existing hive. [Note: the old queen has requested that I stop referring to her as “the old queen.” She says I’m being ageist and also a hag. Meee-ow.] The first new queen to hatch wins: she’ll be ruler of the old hive, and she will kill all the other new queens before they even have a chance to emerge from their cells. Cutthroat.

Why do the workers raise several new queens if they only need one? My guess is that it’s insurance. Maybe one of the baby queens won’t mature properly, or maybe the mean old beekeeper will come around and scrape some of the queen cups off the comb (sometimes we do this to prevent the hive from swarming). I’m not really sure what the real reason is. Feel free to weigh in under the comments if you know the answer.

Once the old queen and her minions make their grand exit from the hive, this satellite colony will find a comfy place to hang tight for a while. This isn’t their new home; it’s just a temporary landing place for them to wait while the scout bees peruse the local real estate listings. They’ll be looking for a nice roomy hollow in a tree, a quiet chimney, or the spacious interior of your neighbor’s drywall.

Here are two important things to know about a swarm, if you happen upon one:

  • The bees are at their most gentle* in this state. They have no brood (babies) to protect and no honey to defend. They’re just chillin’ waiting for the scouts to get back with a report that they’ve found a good home to move into. If you leave them alone, you will definitely not be engulfed in 10,000 stingers of death.
  • That asterisk. So really, the bees might get aggressive if you get too close or bother them because—after all—their precious queen is in the middle of that pulsating bundle of bees, and protecting her is their prime directive at the moment.

So in general if you see a swarm, do not panic. But also, keep your distance just to be safe.

The Catch

Because the swarm in our yard was from our own hive (we think), it was nearby and in an easily accessible place. Picture a buzzing knot the size of a football hanging off the branch of a redbud sapling we had planted the year before. All conditions were favorable for me to enact my lifelong fantasy of capturing a swarm of bees by flinging myself at them like the Steve Irwin of flying insects.

swarm 2
Aren’t they pretty?

The whole event was fairly uneventful, which is just what you want when capturing a swarm of bees, I guess. I donned my veil and gloves and gently took a pair of garden shears to the bee-laden branch. Michael let me do everything, probably because he knew that if he stepped in and tried to take any of my swarm-catching glory, I would thrash him like a rabid dog.

swarm 3

Once I had the branch in hand, I walked it over to RiverHive. The lid was off, and the frames of the brood box were exposed. I carefully shook a few of the bees into the box, but Michael suggested it would be easier to rest the branch on top of the frames and let the bees climb down into the box on their own. So that’s what we did. We left the branch there and replaced the lid. The next day, we came back and removed the empty branch. Easy peasy.

swarm 1

This summer (2019) we unfortunately have no active hives. We lost both HillHive and RiverHive last year due to pesticides. I do plenty to goof up our hobby farm projects on my own, but in this case I don’t think we did anything wrong. It’s impossible to keep the bees away from neighboring yards that may be using weedkiller and other pesticides. As long as people continue to spray Roundup indiscriminately in their yards, this is a hazard we can’t avoid. In the meantime, I’m practicing my stealth pounce and keeping my eyes out for a low-hanging swarm.

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