Rules Don’t Apply to Bees – Part 1 (Late Summer Swarm)

Sunday, August 17, 2014 (10:30 AM)

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Beekeepers have lots of “rules of thumb” to keep us at least one step ahead of the little buggers. The bees, however, don’t know or care about our rules. The bees have their own rule. They do what they want to do, when they want to do it. That’s their rule.

The past month has been uneventful at BooBee Apiary. It’s been nice. Everyone minding their own beeswax, collecting nectar and pollen and working hard to make us honey while we gather and enjoy garden veggies and plan out our pending honey harvest.

The possibility of swarms hadn’t entered my mind since June. I thought we were done with swarms, at least til next spring. Supposedly, bees swarm for two reasons:

  • They run out of room, and/or
  • Bad ventilation.

I’ve been adding new boxes, ensuring they have space, and I’ve added vented spacers to help air circulation and provide more entrances.

We’re now in August – the bees should bee switching their focus from reproduction to gathering stores for winter. The girls kick the male bees (drones) out of the hives, the workers start packing comb with honey, and the rapid growth subsides. So swarming this late in the year is not so common.

What’s more, swarming of a first year hive is an even more rare occasion.  It’s those over-wintered, well-seasoned hives you have to worry about.

Think Again

I don’t do many full inspections unless outside activity indicates a problem. Pink Hive was crowded, and I’d just given them a fresh box with new foundation, just above the brood and below the stores. I closed them up and we went camping for four days.

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Sunday we returned, tired and smelling of campfire. I had just finished my shower when the hubster came up and said my bees had swarmed. “Say what???”.

It was Pink Hive – a June split from Blue Hive. The queen originated from a large swarm cell I had placed in with the split. I came outside just in time to see the flurry of activity that remained in front of the hive. I thought at first that the hubster was mistaking orientation flights for a swarm, until he pointed 30 feet up into the neighbor’s pine tree. There hung a massive cluster of bees, every bit as large as our first swarm back in June. Ugh.

The Failed Attempt

The hubster grabbed the step ladder and a bucket conduit contraption. He suited up and climbed the ladder. First time, the bees were too high and he couldn’t reach them. We added another piece of conduit and extended up just beneath them. He could barely reach, but still, he positioned the bucket as best he could beneath the cluster and gave the bucket an upward shove. Half the bees fell into the bucket, I pulled the lid on with the rope, and the hubster came flying down off the ladder yelling “GO, GO!!!”. The bucket remained in the tree, and the girls were not happy!

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I thought the lid only partially covered the bucket opening. We couldn’t see because the bucket was 30 feet up, but we thought the bees could easily fly out and back to their cluster. In the meantime, we hung a swarm trap, scented with lemongrass oil, then we headed out for Sunday errands.

Several hours later, the half cluster hung in the same location. The hubster pulled down the conduit, and before it even reached the ground, I could see a large mass of bees were still in the bucket. I yelled and we prepared to run, but nothing happened when it hit the ground. A mass of bees spilled out, limp on the ground with a few live bees still fluttering through the remains. The lid had closed tighter than we thought and the bees had asphyxiated and were wet with condensation. I felt sick. I didn’t look for a queen. Swarms can have multiple queens, and I assumed the large cluster above still had at a queen to cling to.

The cluster remained through the next morning and were gone when we returned from work that day. Another irretrievable swarm.

I had made some homemade swarm traps, so as a last stitch effort, I applied some lemongrass oil, inserted a frame of fresh foundation, and we lured it up into the tree, just a few feet beneath the swarm.  No luck, but worth the try.

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Another Valuable Lesson Learned

What can I say…another lesson of what not to do. I am convinced that a beekeeper’s best advantage is experience. Hands down, good beekeeping comes with experience. Our experience now includes 2 unsuccessful swarm retrievals, and more fatalities than I care to think about. Now we stand back and rethink our strategies, like keeping the swarm traps in place; fashioning a more sturdy conduit contraption; inspecting more often. Though our best lesson is this: if a swarm is unreachable, if they can’t be retrieved safely and assuredly, let them go. Better to do it right than muck it up.

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4 thoughts on “Rules Don’t Apply to Bees – Part 1 (Late Summer Swarm)

  1. And the only way to get that experience is to make mistakes. It’s OK.

    Even if you had caught them, it would have been really tough to get them to build enough comb and store enough syrup to survive winter here. First frost isn’t that far away…I’m starting in with 2:1 next week.

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