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Ross’s Bee Journal, #6: Caught Our First Swarm

June 7, 2006

We’ve had a busy year so far. In January we ran into the publisher of the local alt.weekly, The Rock River Times, and he asked us to write a series of short articles on beekeeping for the paper. Janice took the lead, outlining the series and doing pretty much all of the writing. I did some light editing and scrounged up some photos. You can read them by following the links at the end of this journal entry.

The response we received from readers of "Homegrown Honey from Backyard Bees, Parts 1-3" caused us to ramp up our plans for this year. We had intended to start two hives, but added a third package to our order after someone asked about buying 5 gallons of honey. That’s 60 pounds! The packages arrived unexpectedly early. You may recall that last year’s package was late, arriving on April 15. This year we got the call on Saturday, April 1 and picked them up the next day.

We were mostly ready for them, but I had to scramble to build new hive stands and we borrowed a couple of inner and outer covers and a bottom board from Jeff. We picked up the bees Sunday midday and brought them back to the barn where we left them in the dark for a while. I assembled the hive stands and Janice filled three hive bodies with frames of drawn comb, some full of honey from last year’s bees. Then we set them up in the apiary.

Installing the bees went about as smoothly as we could want. One, two, three. The workers were mostly Italians, while the queens were all black. We later found out they are Kona queens; Carniolans raised in the still pristine bee yards of Hawaii. The beekeepers there have managed to keep mites and other pests from reaching the islands, so the breeding stock is strong. The queens were mated with Italians, so they should produce an interesting mix.

This year I remembered to take the queen cage out of each package before shaking the bees into the hive. Peeled back the screen of each queen cage and watched the first two queens go right down into the frames. Queen number three tried to fly. I gently pushed her down with a flat hand. Never saw her again. We could only hope that she went down inside where we want her.

When we go in for our first inspection 16 days later, we find each queen, and in each hive we see good egg, larvae, and capped brood patterns. The buildup has begun. The workers are bringing lots of spring pollen in, and some nectar as well. It’s dandelion season, after all, and we have a bumper crop. It pains me when I finally have to mow the grass for the first time this season, as it fells the dandelions, too.

Spring takes its usual nasty turn on April 25, as morning rain turns to sleet and then snow, in large clumps. Nothing sticks of course, but the temperature drops into the low 30s overnight. Hang in there, bees! Those poor Kona queens. The very next day is beautiful again and we go into the hives to move some frames around. All of the bees are thriving; plenty of larvae and capped brood. New bees have already emerged from the cells our queens laid their first eggs in.

In early May, we add a honey super to each colony to give the bees more room. I want to give them each another deep hive body, but the used equipment we’ve planned to buy from the widow of a recently deceased beekeeper is not in our hands yet. A few days later a friend and I go pick up everything, including a live hive of bees for him. We strap it and seal the openings with screen and load it into the back of his Jeep, while the rest of the hive parts go in an open trailer. The widow is startled to find we’ve put the live bees inside the car with us, but really it’s the only choice to make. The 2-hour drive home is uneventful, and the dog doesn’t complain once about the buzzing behind her head.

We now have two deep hive bodies for each of the three colonies, and enough supers to put five on each hive. I order wax foundation for the supers, and a kit that will yield 128 eight-ounce packages of comb honey. Finally feeling ready; all the equipment is in place.

May is swarm season. This is the month when colonies of bees that have wintered over are starting to feel crowded from the spring buildup. We’ve been keeping an eye on the wild bees that live in a tree behind the house (incorrectly identified in earlier journal entries as a hackberry; I just found out it’s a wild cherry, a big fat one). They have made it through two winters that we know of, perhaps more. In late May we start to see large numbers of bees clumping around the 3-inch diameter hole in the trunk of the tree that is the entrance to their colony.

On each occasion of this, I take frequent walks around the area looking for the football-sized clump of bees I hope to see on the branch of a nearby tree. But each time I am disappointed. This morning we again checked the hole in the tree for signs, but saw just a few bees coming and going, no unusual activity. So it is with great surprise (and a bit of luck that we happened to still be standing out near the tree) that not fifteen minutes later I glance over and see a huge cloud of bees issuing from the tree.

We watch as the bees fly in circles, loops, figure-eights; they’re zooming around in about twenty cubic feet of airspace. Gradually the cloud of bees moves away from the tree and begins to dissipate. The bees seem to be flying more and more around a pile of cut logs and old wooden fenceposts that have become overgrown with elderberry bushes and wild grapevines. I move in for a closer look, and there it is! A fist-sized clump has begun to form under the upthrust end of a post leaned against the pile. It’s very much like the branch of a tree to the bees.

We suit up and hastily assemble a colony from three honey supers, filled with frames of drawn comb. We take it to the apiary and set it next to our new hives. We steal a couple frames of honey that the bees in #2 had started capping a few days ago and put them in the new colony. Then we take a small cardboard box over to the swarm cluster, now the size of a football. We manage to brush most of the cluster into the box with the first attempt, but a few hundred bees take flight and begin to buzz around us. A few more swipes with the bee brush, then we close the flaps and drive the noisy box over to the apiary.

It’s much like installing a package of bees, only messier. And we don’t really know if we got the queen. She should have been in the middle of the cluster, but there isn’t any time to look for her. We just dump the box of bees into the new colony, then slap the cover on quickly. We go back to the swarm site and brush a few more bees into the box. They haven’t re-formed the cluster, they’re just clumping here and there on the woodpile. That’s a pretty good sign that we got the queen. The remaining bees will return to the tree colony once they are convinced the queen is no longer with them.

Now we have four colonies, and suddenly we’re short on equipment again.

Ross Thompson

Homegrown Honey from Backyard Bees, in Rock River Times
Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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