Those of you who are signed up for our weekly newsletter already know the circumstances that lead to me learning some of my bees swarmed. Those of you who aren’t on our weekly newsletter… Well, let’s just say, join here. Now that we’re all in the know, I’d love to share this amazing first-time experience with you. Partly because it was awesome for me. But also because as I stumbled along making mistakes, I learned. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share a little something that will help you not make the same mistakes I did.
A Little Background
The center of activity was around the hive I lovingly call (and keep a record of as) “P4”. That’s the hive that came from package 4, last year, headed by Annamaria the Kind. Her daughters are super gentle, and she’s what I call prolific. Just a few weeks earlier, I had split her hive, bringing in a new queen from Lauri Miller’s Miller Compound Beekeeping and Agriculture. I originally wanted to keep her genetics for the new hive, but I botched the split, hence the imported bride.
Almost immediately after the split, I had to add a second brood box. Shortly after, she filled THAT too, so I threw on a honey super and counted myself lucky. But she never filled the super. In fact, her girls barely touched the darned thing. I was really confused and disappointed. With how fast they were spreading in the second deep, I was SURE I could convince her to give a honey crop, too. Now I know WHY.
Now, on with the story.
Recognizing My Bees Swarmed
I have read a fair bit about bee swarms. I did my due diligence during the first two seasons of bee-having – I didn’t consider myself a bee-KEEPER until this year after two hives made it through the winter. Obviously, the threat of your bees up and flying away is pretty worrying. However, I had never seen a swarm in person, and although I’m a tech savvy person, for one reason or another I don’t like watching YouTube videos. I guess I’m old. I DO have 7 grandchildren…
So when I happened to walk outside to get a picture for last week’s post on beekeeping record keeping I didn’t really know what I was looking at.
There was a ton of activity outside P4. In fact, there were enough bees on the ground in front of the hive that it made the grass look like it was dying. The green was just so covered in honeybee brown!
Likewise, the sky was getting more and more full of bees. I had never seen so many of them flying in one place. Having visited a place with probably a hundred or more hives, that’s saying something. It occurred to me that it ‘could’ be a swarm. But I just didn’t know what I was looking for.
Then I spotted this. In my neighbor’s tree.
That pretty much sealed the deal.
Oh No! My Bees Swarmed!
That was pretty much my first reaction. This was my favorite hive! Annamaria had made it through the winter. Had NOT been responsible for my occasional bee stings. Her hive was going strong. Why did she have to swarm! My second reaction was more like this: “Wait a minute… My bees swarmed… I can put them in another hive…”
Handyman, Lala, and even Grouchy, all came out to help in Operation Bring Anna Back. Handyman went to our neighbor to ask for permission to be on the property. He told her our bees swarmed into her tree and she was all sorts of ok with us getting the bees. She thought at first he wanted to ask permission to kill them! I think, from her worried look later that day when I talked to her, that she would have been happier with killing them. I think I owe her a jar of honey.
Lala and Grouchy made trips back and forth to the house with different things I forgot (or didn’t know) I needed, and Lala took photos of the recovery process.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that putting a long ladder on top of a truck and up against a somewhat creaky old branch is NOT a good idea. I’m not saying I didn’t do it anyway, but I WAS keenly aware that I was kind of dumb for doing so. I really wanted Anna back.
By the time I had gathered everything, and we moved the truck into position, the bees had settled into position, waiting for the scouts to find their new home.
Operation Bring Anna Back
First, I’m going to share on my very rinky-dink operation to recover Queen Annamaria. Next time – yes, I’m sure there’ll be a next time – I will do things differently. So, after you get to giggle at my own efforts, I’ll get serious about useful equipment.
As mentioned, we raised a ladder to reach the creaky old branch. Since the ladder didn’t reach from the ground, we placed it on the roof of the truck cab. We put down a doormat underneath it (Handyman’s idea) to keep it from slipping. Given that I was the one up the ladder, I’m rather grateful for that idea. Then I slowly climbed up the ladder and held an empty cardboard box under the swarm. I brushed the bees down into the box with a bee brush.
Bees are pretty gentle when they’re swarming. I’ve been told it is when they’re at their most gentle. Despite being brushed off a branch down into a cardboard box, I was not ‘bumped’ by a single defensive bee. Admittedly, I was in a full suit just in case, but I’m fairly convinced the job could be done bare handed. I swell up like a balloon when stung, though, so I’ll stick with my suit.
Bees are heavier than you’d think. When swarming, bees gorge first on honey and fill themselves up for the trip. Kind of like when you pack to go camping. You’re only going overnight, but you bring food for a week. If you’re like me, you might eat all that, too…
When the first clump of bees dropped from the branch into the cardboard box I was holding, the box ripped. I’ll admit, I was pretty panicky at that point. Fortunately, it ripped slowly enough that I was able to scramble and get a better handhold. Distributing the weight was very important.
Back To Beesness
I warned you beekeeper puns were required.
I brought the box down and closed it up somewhat, to give them somewhere to hide. Immediately, bees alighted on the outer edge of the box, stuck their tails in the air and started fanning their wings. From all I’ve read, this is a great sign. It means you’ve caught the queen, and the bees are trying to let everyone else know where she went. Meanwhile, heaps of bees were still forming on the branch up ahead, so I went back, this time with a 5-gallon bucket. Let’s see the bees rip THAT.
Eventually, I managed to get the majority of the bees down. I’m not honestly sure if it was required that I go up after I caught the queen. This was my first capture, and I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. Literature suggests that the rest of the bees would have followed her smell down to the cardboard home I had provided. Sometimes literature can be believed. I wasn’t taking any chances.With all that done, I put a plastic queen excluder over my box and weighted it down, just because I was really nervous she might still be in ‘swarm mode’ and decide to take off. I figured this way I was pretty much guaranteed to keep her.
With all that done, I put a plastic queen excluder over my box and weighted it down, just because I was really nervous she might still be in ‘swarm mode’ and decide to take off. I figured this way I was pretty much guaranteed to keep her.
Waiting After the Bees Swarmed
This might have actually been the hardest part of the whole affair. Once you have captured the majority of a swarm of bees, apparently you’re supposed to place the box as close to the swarm perch as possible and wait till nightfall.
Naturally, I took the opportunity to get a few extra pictures…
Finally, Waiting Over
With the waiting over, and night imminent, it was time to put all the girls to bed. In their new home! During the interim, I had put together a hive with several drawn frames and a few frames with foundation. I left one frame absent from the 10 frame box I intended to establish the girls in. As an added incentive for the girls, I dabbed a little lemongrass essential oil on a few frames. It’s like catnip for bees! I also placed a queen excluder below the hive, between the body and the entrance.
A note of caution:
Do not leave the queen excluder in place for long. Drones cannot get through it, for one thing. I only used it to ensure she spent at least a full day in the hive I had given her so she and her daughters would ‘imprint’ on it somewhat.
Next, immediately prior to retrieving the box-o-swarm, I pulled a frame of young brood from one of my other hives. The bees weren’t terribly happy about it. Did I mention I love my suit? Once I had brushed all the bees off into their home and closed up, I put the brood in place, leaving a number of frames out to provide room and hurried to get the bees in so they could be look after the babies.
Retrieving The Box-o-Swarm
I used a lightweight sheet to cover the box-o-swarm and keep all the girls inside the excluder as Lala and I transported them to their new home. This was a stroke of pure genius/luck. We had originally grabbed the sheet thinking we might have to ‘drop’ the bees from far up. Covering them with the light sheet sent them all scurrying inside the box without harming a soul. At the new home, I removed the sheet, and dumped them inside. A few sharp whacks on the bottom of the box were necessary to break everyone’s hold. Watching all those bees tumble out into the new hive was an awe-inspiring experience. I never expected that my bees swarming would be so incredible.
I closed the new hive up, and the rest is, while not history, at least present day! I’m sure I’ll mention how Annamaria the Kind of “The Swarm” is doing in posts to come.
Next Time I Find My Bees Swarmed
As I mentioned, I’m fairly sure I’ll discover that my bees swarmed again someday. From all I have read, it happens to even the best beekeepers. Since I’m far from the best, perhaps it will happen to me more often than to others. Nevertheless, there are a few things I will do differently next time I have to catch a swarm.
Bring a hive
I really wish I had thought to bring a hive instead of a cardboard box. If the bees had been safely stored inside the home I was intending to house them in, I wouldn’t have had to do the late-night dumping routine. From what I understand, it would also give the bees a greater chance to imprint on the new home.
Bring the bucket
The home depot bucket was WAY better than the cardboard box. I’d still bring it along with me since I can hardly hold up a hive in one hand to catch the initial drop of the swarm.
Have a Swarm Kit Ready
I was really blessed. I discovered that my bees swarmed during their first exit from the hive. A swarm of bees, once it settles on a perch to wait for the scouts, can remain there for an hour, or a day, or anywhere in between. It took my family roughly an hour to gather everything and get in position to capture the swarm. There’s a chance they could haveflown off, and that’s without any drive-time or lost time between the swarming and the discovering. Having a kit together is one of my next to-do tasks. Maybe I’ll keep it in the bucket…
Get someone else to suit up immediately
I am blessed to have helpers. You may, or may not, also. They made my life a lot easier but would have been even more helpful if I’d gotten them into a suit immediately. Having a spare suit helps those who aren’t as confident around bees to feel safe and protected. When they feel safe, they are much more able to assist.
P.S.The TL;DR Version
In case that was too long. Or, perhaps, you just really want a concise list of steps to take when you find your bees swarmed. Here you go!
Tools you Need
- A home for the bees.
- A box, bucket, or other means of temporarily holding the bees.
- Heavy duty pruning shears.
- A bee brush.
- A queen excluder.
- A lightweight breathable bed sheet.
- A ladder. The longer the better.
What To Do
If it is on a branch thick enough to cut, use the pruning shears to separate the branch the bees are holding on to, and place it in your temporary receptacle. Leave them on the branch until you can get them to their new home if you can get away with it.
If the branch is too thick, or the swarm landed on something you can’t cut, you will have to resort to brushing the bees gently into your bucket or box with the bee brush.
Cover the container with the queen excluder and leave as close to the original site the swarm chose as possible. If you brought their new hive with you transfer them into the hive first before doing this.
Wait until dusk, then move the bees to their new location. If they’re in the box/bucket, cover them with the lightweight sheet. In the hive? Seal the entrance.
If you have them in temporary housing, open your new hive and remove the center 4 frames and dump the bees in. Gently place the removed frames back in place and let them slowly sink in place as the bees shift out of the way. If you have moved them less than 2 miles, gently stuff the entrance of their home with loose grass. If they have to work to get the door open, they will generally recognize the need to reorient themselves to their new location.
Sit back and admire your handiwork!
That’s it, folks. If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading! I hope you have the blessing of being just in the nick of time one day to discover that YOUR bees swarmed and that you get to catch them back. I can’t explain how excited remembering the experience makes me feel. I’m looking forward to the next time, though I’ll also be doing all I can to reduce the chances of it happening! Beekeeping is like that.