It’s Swarm Season

I was determined to have a very productive bee day yesterday. I was going to participate in a honey bee virtual zoom conference, polish off a lecture I’m giving next week on honey bee biology, get through a mountain of emails (that only ever seems to grow bigger!) and a bunch of other tasks on my never ending to-do-list. And then my phone pinged and it was text from a friend that lives a few streets over asking if I needed, or wanted, any more bees. She said there were a bunch of bees in her backyard and I could come and get them if I wanted. I clarified if she meant a bunch of bees flying around and visiting flowers or one giant clump of bees hanging out in one spot. She said the later, at the base of a lilac bush. So I texted “be right over” and quickly packed an empty file box, old sheet, pruning sheers, my epi-pen, and my bee suit into my bike trail and headed off for this new adventure.

A beautiful swarm!

Sure enough there was a beautiful clump of bees just as she described – a swarm. I have talked before about how honey bees are a superorganism (which you can read about here: Honeybees are a superorganism) which means that the colony of bees – containing workers, drones and the queen – can be analogous to an animal with the individual bees being more like the cells that make up said animal. And one of the coolest things about being a superorganism is that they can reproduce on both the individual level – when the queen bee lays eggs – and on the colony level – which is what a swarm is. Swarms typically happen in the spring, when the population is going through a massive expansion and suddenly space in the brood box begins to get tight. When this congestion happens the bees seem to come to a consensus that it is time to divide into two colonies and with this decision made the workers start to raise a new queen. In actuality they raise a number of new queens, but the first to emerge will go and kill the other queens in their queen cells. But I digress. When the new queen emerges, the old queen and about half of the bees will all leave the colony at the same time and fly a short distance to a little rest stop where they all cluster close together in a big clump of bees. The queen will be well protected within this clump and scout bees will begin to fly off in search of new digs. The scouts will come back and do a little waggle dance to relay information to the group about the quality, location and distance of the potential homes they have found. Notes will be compared and a decision will be made over which home is best and then the entire swarm of bees will fly together to the place they have picked. Oftentimes, without human intervention, they will pick places that we do not consider as desirable as the bees do. They often relocate to inside the walls of peoples homes and other human-built structures. And so if you ever find a swarm of bees it is important to find a beekeeper that will come and collect them. We do not want to end up with feral populations, which can be a source of pests and diseases for both our managed honey bees and our native bees, in undesirable locations. Back at the old homestead the new queen that emerged will go out on her mating flights and then take over the egg-laying operation of the OG colony so that life can go on.

About half of the swarm has been brushed into the box at this point.

And so I found myself face-to-face with my first swarm of bees. Lucky for me they were very low to the ground and easily within arms reach. Sometimes the bees will choose to swarm high up on a tree branch, making collecting them a bit more perilous. So I donned by bee suit, spread the old bed sheet out on the grass and put the file box underneath the swarm. I was able to carefully brush them right into the box. I was pretty confident I got the queen, even though I could not see her because they started to clump together in the box and a number of them were pointing their bee butts in the air and fanning their wings to release the nasonov phermone – a sort of homing device to indicate the location of the colony. I carefully put the lid on and sat and waited for the remaining flying bees to enter the box through the handle holes. After 20 minutes or so, when the activity had significantly slowed down, I carefully bundled the closed box with the old bed sheet, tucked it carefully into my bike trailer with my bee suit on top to prevent the lid from coming off and biked the kilometre back home.

There are a few thousand bees in there!

Once home I was struck with ok, now what??? I don’t just have beehives stashed around waiting for bees and I hadn’t given any thought on where to place a hive. I don’t want them to go where my other beehives are 1) because I really don’t want to overstay my welcome by introducing thousands of more bees for the gracious and outstanding homeowners to share their backyard with and 2) I have no idea what the history on this swarm is and if they are carrying any pests or diseases that could infect my other colonies. Looking around I decided the best place for now would be just off the driveway, between the fence and my apple tree. It is the place with the least amount of human and dog traffic and I could orient the front entrance to have a sunny western exposure. So I dragged an old beat up skid out of the “meadow” next door, cut down some plywood to make a bottom board and a lid, and found an empty hive box with 8 frames and a sugar feeder frame and set to work setting up the new “hive”. I then opened the file box and shook the bees into the new setup. With the feeder frame filled with a fresh batch of simple 1:1 sugar water I was hopeful this would be a tempting enough place to convince the bees they were home. It took a bit of fiddling and experimenting to get the plywood lid sitting off the top bars enough so I wouldn’t crush the bees, but I finally got it “good enough” and then promptly went in and ordered all the components I would need for a permanent hive!

The first thing I did this morning at 6:30 am was run outside to check that they were still there. Happily I could hear the buzzing from within! Throughout the day I have been checking on them – just observing the hive, I won’t open it again for a week as I do not want to disturb them before they really commit to their new home. There has been a fair amount of activity, but the bees don’t seem to be coming and going as I normally see when watching a hive. Instead they are hovering around the entrance and doing short little laps around before going back in. I can’t be certain but my guess is they are orientating themselves to this new location, which I take as a good sign they are willing to stay. Fingers crossed I am right….now I just need to figure out a more permanent bee yard for them! And I have to try to find some time today to get ALL THE THINGS done that stayed untouched yesterday. But I am so thankful for all these great experiences I get to have as I continue on my journey learning about the bees.

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