Debbie’s Bee Swarm
Last Saturday, my friend Debbie and I were taking a bee workshop called “Overwintering Nucs”. In the middle of drilling together a specialized bottom board for the nucs, Debbie gets a text message on her phone from her husband as he was walking out the door for an overnight trip. “Your bees just swarmed, is that normal?” She responded “No. Where did they go. ” Her husband (who is not a beekeeper) replied “I’m not stupid enough to follow them.” and that was that. She sadly said goodbye to her bees and continued on at the workshop putting together equipment.
Several hours later, Debbie returned home where she found her bees sitting in a tree high above her hive. She didn’t have any hope of getting them back, but Brian’s baseball arm was itching for a swarm catching workout.
Brian and I loaded the kids in the car and rushed over to her house to help her try to get the bees back. It was around 5:30 when we got there and we were quickly running out of time to help her catch the bee swarm.
This is what we walked into – a swarm 40 feet high in the air. Although Brian had a chainsaw and a pole saw we did not have access to a ladder to get up to the bees. What we did have was Cat 5 cable and orange string. Debbie supplied the duct tape and Brian tried his previously successful method of swarm catching using Duct Tape, A Rock and A String to get them back. Did I tell you when I met Brian he was known as the man who could fix anything with duct tape? You can see he hasn’t changed much. Debbie and I gathered some rocks, Brian tied a string around them and used Debbie’s flame duct tape to secure the rock to the string.
Then relying on his baseball arm, Brian threw the rock and the string high into the air and looped it around the branch holding the swarm. We were in business now!
The next step was attaching the Cat 5 cable to the string. The string is easy to throw but not strong enough for lifting a frame or a box so the cable was needed for that.
Brian used the string to pull the Cat 5 cable over the branch. While I was standing there holding the string for him, out of nowhere – BAM! I got viciously attacked by Debbie’s bees and stung on my arm (yes I was not wearing a bee suit – silly me). Ouch, did it hurt! A bee sting is so much different when the bee actually means to sting you!
Debbie’s swarm came from a hive that was queenless and we suspect it was a virgin swarm. The swarm was calm and gentle now that they were gone but the hive was really angry. A queenless hive is usually aggressive and cranky and not a hive you want to mess around with. In fact, this temperament change is one way you can tell if your hive is not queen right without even opening it.
Brian pulled on the branch with the Cat 5 cable, seeing if it would budge. The branch was not flexible and too thick to break off near the swarm. Cutting the whole branch down was not an option due to its size and weight.
Our plan was to either shake the bees into a box or to coax the bees to come down off the branch using a frame of open brood. We decided to throw another line over the limb closer to the swarm to attach a cardboard box onto. Perhaps we could shake the branch enough to get them inside.
Now that the cables were in place, Brian attached a cardboard box to the cable with you guessed it – duct tape. We debated about sending a frame up to the swarm alone but unfortunately we did not have a frame of uncapped brood to use at the time. We tried using what we had, which was only a sheet of beeswax foundation and decided to place it inside the box, all the while doubting it would work. This way we only had to raise the box up into the swarm once to try both methods.
Brian raised the box and the frame up underneath the swarm using the cable.
We were able to position the box underneath the swarm. Unfortunately this branch was not flexible enough to shake the bees off and into the box. But we tried anyway. Using all the force we could muster, we shook that branch hard. The bees fell, raining down upon us, but not all the way to the ground. Then they flew back to the branch and regrouped. Further shaking of the branch only made a few of them fly away and regroup. They were holding on tightly now.
We decided to leave the box there for a while and see if the bees would be attracted to the beeswax frame. We watched and waited and detected movement on the swarm. We waited some more. After it was apparent the swarm stopped moving around we lowered the box down. Surprisingly, a few bees did go onto the frame and were fanning telling the others to come inside the box. We looked through the box to find the queen but she was not in there. Despite the fanning bees enticing the other bees to come on the frame with them, the rest of the bee swarm was not moving.
Next we tried dousing the box with some lemon grass oil Debbie had. This is used as is a swarm lure to attract bees to swarm traps. We put some on the box, and on a paper towel inside the box, then sent the box and the frame back up under the swarm.
This time there was much more interest and we watched as the swarm changed shape and then again stopped moving. It was getting dark now and was past the kids bedtime, so we decided to call it a night. We left the box and frame and lemongrass oil up there. If the swarm was still there in the morning the plan was for Debbie to get a frame of unsealed brood, attach it to the cable and raise it up into the swarm. The next morning rolled around and luckily the bees were still there and Debbie had secured a frame of uncapped brood. She sent it up into the tree inside the box and tried to position it near the swarm but without help she could not get it into the center of the swarm. Amazingly still about 1/3 of the swarm of bees began to march into the box and onto the frame. It was working! Now she waited and waited and waited. After a few hours of waiting and realizing no more bees were going into the box, Debbie decided to see if she could send the frame up on the cable alone to position it closer to the swarm.
As she lowered the box down and away from the bees, an unmistakable buzzing sound begin to fill the air. Little black and yellow bee bodies flew in a big swirling mass around Debbie as she stood there. Then just like that the humming black ball of swarm took off. Debbie was in awe standing in the center of the bee swarm and speechless (which if you know her is truly an amazing feat). As Debbie said “They had already found a new home which is why they would not be taken in by my trickery of a frame. I wish them well in their new home. Adios Bees!” Better luck next time.