Friday, June 19, 2009

Swarm Catching for Dummies

swarm on branchWell into my fifth summer of beekeeping, here's the report: I have become the person about whom I used to scratch my head.
Back in 2005, soon after we finished the beginner's "short course," our club sponsored a field day at an orchard apiary in Burtonsville. Just as a coupla dozen students and maybe 6 experienced beekeepers closed up the last hive, a swarm from somewhere else began to settle in one of the trees under which we were standing.
OK, so this is one heck of a coincidence! It was also quite a show.
Before any beginner hive-minders could say, "Um, what?" middle-aged beekeepers sprang into action! Some ran for ladders, some ran for hive parts, one grabbed (I kid you not) a small saw, a 50 foot rope, and a bedsheet from out of his car (just happens to keep them around: don't you?) Another started dinging two pieces of metal together: an old wives' tale says you can get a swarm to settle if you bang pans.
A father of three soon sprang 20-feet-plus up the side of that tree, from which he sawed off a limb with a large swarm on it. Compatriots caught the branch in the sheet, and then set the hive entrance near the swarm. David, the tree climber, was down in a flash, and picked the queen out of that mess of bees and saw her inside. Swarm hived!
Four years and a bit later, I still cannot pick out the queen from a loose mass of bees, but I nonetheless hardly recognize myself. I've caught three swarms this Spring: one mine (*sigh*), one at the White House, and this one.
hand in swarmI actually object to the title for this post, but it is hard to find a better way to put it. Compared to the story above, the craziest thing about my adventure was a 20-mile trip across metro Washington at rush hour, though the decision was based merely on a non-expert's assessment that a whole lot of bees were hanging out in a convenient bunch right at eye level.
The thing about swarm-catching is that non-beekeepers always say the same few things:
  1. It's definitely bees;
  2. There are an enormous number; and
  3. The safety of the known universe is at stake

The usual case is that it is either yellowjackets, there are only a handful of bees, or they have disappeared by the time you arrive.
In spite of this track record, why did I drive to Reston on June 8 at 5 PM with two sets of bee catching gear (a nuc box for a small swarm, a deep hive body and all the trimmings in case the size was as-billed)? Three more things:
  1. Karen, the woman who called me, did not seem like the freaky sort, and she had gone to the trouble of calling over to Colvin Run Mill, where my Virginia bees live, to find a beekeeper just because she remembered the apiary there;
  2. Karen also asked her husband not to call an exterminator before she tried to find a beekeeper in order to give these critters a chance; and
  3. She swore that the swarm, whatever it's size, was hanging on the lower limb of a really young Maple tree in her front yard, so no ladders, drywall removal, or other shenanigans were required.

The picture of me, above, shows my ungloved hand, near my unveiled head, featuring an uncensored smile, next to a honking huge swarm of bees that somebody out there must sorely miss! I was able to pull my car up within 6 feet of the swarm, which would be considered "shoulder length" if we were all at the hair salon!
grabbing the swarmHere you can see the whole set up: there I am with my bed sheet on the ground, my clippers in hand, my hive body at the ready. Yes, I had most of the stuff in the car before Karen even made the call. I was hoping that, since it was after 6 PM by now, that most of the bees had returned from the field. I sat around for a while making sure that everyone was heading into my hive body, but it turns out that another couple thousand bees returned later, and I came back the next day to get them, too.
Because my two new Monastery hives are not doing well, I thought about bringing these bees all the way into the city, but I decided that they belonged out at Colvin Run Mill, all things considered. When I got them there, I peeked inside to be sure all was well, and the bees were already festooning all over the place, beginning to draw comb and make themselves at home. When I brought their laggard sisters the next day, I also brought another hive body and some feeders to help them along with all that wax production.
All in all, I would have done better to leave my capture hive out there that first night, returning back during early early rush hour the next day to ensure that I got more of the bees all at once. I feel sorry for the scouts that got left behind, and hope they managed to wrangle their way back into their home hive, or some other.
And the back of the car in the picture above still houses a small saw, pruners, a bed sheet, and a transportation strap. Just in case, you know?

1 comment:

Calvin and Cherry said...

great story and pics! a very good "here's how i handled a swarm" for us newbeeks reading your blog.

thx much,