Marching the Bees

Joseph and I answer calls for swarms of bees. Swarming is what bees do to create a new hive. It’s how they create another bee family.

A hive will swarm when everything in their hive is perfect — plenty of honey, baby bee eggs laid, pollen ready to feed the larvae, and they’ve left a few new queens in eggs to hatch so there will be a bee-mama ready to start laying more bee eggs. The old hive leaves everything ready for the new hive to grow strong. Really, it’s remarkably generous of them, isn’t it?

When the hive swarms, about 2/3 of the bees and the old queen leave but before they do, each bee gorges herself on honey so she’ll have enough food in her to last the few days it may take to find a new home. A bee in a swarm is full of honey (drunk on honey is what we call it) and very peaceful.

Swarming bees are very unlikely to sting anyone, they’re at their very gentlest, because they 

1) have no home to protect, and 

2) are too drunk on honey to feel worried. 

We’ve collected swarms  by lifting clusters up with our bare hands. Sadly they are also at their most vulnerable and many get picked off by birds in air or are harmed by humans who think they are dangerous. 

Here’s what a swarm looks like hanging in a tree. They’re patiently waiting for the scouts to find them a home.

Last year I saw a 12 year old boy on the side of a road spraying a swarm in a bush with poison to kill them. There was no reason for this. The bees were no danger to anyone where they were, off on the side of a field. If he’d left them alone, they would have moved on as soon as they found a new home. Instead he killed them, a terrible loss to us all.

When the swarm is ready they take off from the hive and find a tree or bush where they can hang in a cluster. As soon as they’re settled the scout bees take off and look for a new home for them. Each time a scout returns to the swarm with a suggestion, she brings other scout bees with her to see what she thinks might make a fine new home. Good places are anywhere dry and protected, like in an old hollowed out tree or something that resembles that.

A swarm may sit in its temporary location for 20 minutes or they may be there for up to three days (though that’s more unusual). In the meantime the scouts are busy looking until they do. Once the scouts decide on a good location, news of the new home spreads instantly — the swarm lifts as one and flies to it. 

If a hive doesn’t find a new home within that time, they are in great danger because they are subject to weather, predators or scared humans finding them and killing them.

The more people who know what a swarm is doing — and that a SWARM IS NOT INTERESTED IN HARMING ANYONE — the better. The bees are, as most everyone knows, having a very difficult time right now and the salvation of the bees lies in saving these wild swarms so they can grow stronger.

If someone sees a swarm here’s what to do:

1. Leave it alone. The scouts will find a home soon enough and likely within a few hours the whole swarm will be gone.

2. Call your neighbors to come see this ever-more-rare occurence. Some worry that in just a few years, bees may die off and there will be no more swarms.

3. If the swarm needs to be moved, call a local beekeeping group (look up the county extension service, they’ll know who they are) and someone will come get them. I do this all the time in southwest Washington and the greater Portland Oregon area. (photo: Joseph helping catch the bees i’m taking off the branch.)

4. Please do NOT harm the bees.  I tell people to stay ten feet away and just watch. Or stand further away and use binoculars. It’s an amazing sight. If the hive is in any danger from people it’s a good idea to cordon off the area until they move off to their new home.

5. Keep anyone who wants to bother the bees away from them. I’ve rescued bees that have been sprayed or dowsed with water which did nothing except make the bees susceptible to getting cold.  There’s just no reason for that.

I teach a bee class here at the farm called “Bees: The OTHER Way.” When we get a swarm call, we bring our students along so they can learn how to move a swarm on their own. Once they know how, they can go get the next swarm for themselves, and while they do it, they bring along another student so the knowledge gets passed along. 
We got a call the afternoon before last and loaded up our equipment.

When we got there we found a nice size swarm gently hanging from a cedar tree branch about 6′ high. Easy! Joseph lifted up the box and I clipped a few short cedar branches the bees hung on. I placed each bee-laden branch in the box and nearly all of them settled right in.We put a lid on the top, opened the front door so they could go in and out, and then left until dusk. We leave them there until the sun sets for two reasons:

1. The little scouts who are out looking for a new home for the swarm all will have returned by then.
2. Everyone is inside and calmed down for a night’s rest so they’re easier to move.
We brought them home and left them (with their front door open for ventilation) on the greenhouse floor, snuggled up in their temporary box home. The next morning just after dawn, we setup a white tablecloth on the ground beneath the hive entrance so we could empty the box onto it and none of the bees would get lost in the tangled grass. We setup a wide walkway from the tablecloth up to the hive opening with a shingle and then gently dumped the bees out onto the cloth.
You’ll never guess what they do next. They see the opening in the hive and they march right up the plank and into their new home. Honest to God, that’s what they do. Wonder what that looks like? Click on the video …

This entry was posted on June 17, 2009, in Bees. Bookmark the permalink.