It’s January 1st and we had a hard frost last night. The tree branches are all bare and it’s cold, barely 40 degrees if that. Yet it’s sunny out and the bees who live in the north wall of our house are busy flying in and out.
It’s spring, it’s honeybee swarming time. This is when hives of bees seek to expand by splitting the original hive in half and making an entire new hive.
If you are one of the rare people who has seen a swarm, count your blessings. You’re seeing a miracle of nature.
Swarms are nature’s way of increasing hives. Bees create more hives by splitting and moving. When they have everything perfect in the hive — plenty of brood eggs laid, pollen and honey stored in the comb, the hive neat and busy — word goes out it’s time to move on. Look at this lovely swarm in our upper field.
The departing hive leaves behind food, brood, nurse bees to care for the hatchlings and a few nascent queen eggs, one who will become the new queen of the hive.
About 70% of the hive, including the old queen, leaves in search of a new home. Before they depart, each bee fills her belly with a few days’ worth of honey. Swarming bees are at their wooziest, nearly drunk with honey. An elder beekeeper once told me, “They’re so full of honey they couldn’t bend their fat little bellies to sting if they wanted to.”
True. I’ve scooped up swarmed bees in my bare hands with nary a cautionary buzz and placed them into a hive box. Once I got the queen inside, the rest of the bees marched in on their own and immediately began creating wax and building comb for tomorrow’s nectar.
If you see a swarm clustered somewhere, leave them alone. Everything’s fine. The scout bees are looking and the rest of the bees are simply waiting for them to return and tell them where the new home is. It may take a day or two, even three sometimes, but they’ll move on soon as the scouts approve the new location.
Give them wide berth and don’t bother them. They only have enough food to last a short while and it’s important they don’t waste their energy. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to see them lift up in a cloud and fly off. When we find them, people like me bring wild swarms home and offer them a new hive which we then take care of organically — no chemicals for our bees!
Given the rarity of bees these days, you may want to call your friends over to see the swarm before they leave. Who knows how much longer we’ll be able to do that?
Have a look at this little honeybee doing her waggle dance for everyone. We took this when we were moving a swarm of bees into a new hive. About 15 minutes into the move, she was so pleased she had to share with everyone that something nearby was making her very happy.
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.
Every summer at our county fair I put in a few hours at the bee house. We bee folk have our own little house set away from the rest of the fair. You have to walk a ways to find us but we always get a good crowd who come to see the bees.
The house is divided into two rooms: One has bee info, displays, blue ribbon honey and empty hives from different bee-ish beings. The other room is a wire enclosed 10×10 area with a live hive of bees flying about.
Every hour a volunteer goes over and gives a talk about bees while standing in the bee cage. Most volunteers wear the bee suit but because I want people to know how gentle bees are, I do my talk without protection. Inevitably someone asks how that is possible. I explain that bees have little desire to harm anyone, that they only sting when they fear they or the hive are about to be hurt. I also tell them I have only been stung three times in my life, each an accidental sting when a worker bee got tangled in my hair or clothing and, thinking she was trapped, stung me. No harm meant, just a scared little bee.
The first year I did the demos I noticed dozens of scout bees on the screen trying to get to the clover field across the street. It was early August and though they were only a whiff away from a field of nectar-filled blossoms, they couldn’t get out to collect anything.
I felt their frustration so I walked down to the flower show and asked what flowers were being tossed that day. I came back with armloads of bouquets in jars which I put inside the cage. I immediately felt the bees relax. Bees need to be around flowers! After that every demo was delightful. Happy bees buzzing flower to flower, showing onlookers how we all get along.
The next year I worked the fair I got paired with an outspoken old guy who is my direct opposite politically. While the bee booth is not, in my opinion, the right place to spout one’s pro-war opinions, that’s what he spent his time doing. So I was a teensy bit on edge (understatement). I brought this up a few times but he was oblivious and went on blathering about his political views. (With no good intentions I made a small note to self: “Do not tell him his fly is unzipped,” and stuck to that.)
True bee work requires a kind, loving heartspace. I love bees and this place of ‘bee-ing’ is totally natural to me. When I approach bees in this space, it becomes obvious how life-affirming, generous and fulfilling the bee community is.
When it was my turn to go into the bee cage for the demo, I was not in a heartspace, not even close. I opened up the airlock to the bee cage and WHAM! I got stung right on the top of my head.
I stepped back out of the airlock, untangled the little bee from my hair. I had already pumped a bit of snittiness into my system before I got stung and I was surprised at the adrenaline the sting evoked in me.
I shook it off, took a deep breath, walked back in. WHAM! again, stung on the very tip top of my head, on the exact same place, my crown chakra, the side of me that points to the heavens although I certainly did not have heavenly thoughts emanating from within.
I stepped out of the cage again and this time one bee came outside to have a talk with me. She assertively buzzed me and in no uncertain terms told me not to set foot in their home until I worked out my “stuff” and bettered my attitude.
Okay, I can take a hint.
Receiving not one but TWO stings in the exact same spot was not lost on me. I admit I had very little cosmic consciousness going on when I reached for the door to go inside the hive room. I was still re-playing, “I should have said …” and quite focused on how wrong this guy was in every way.
Luckily my shift was nearly up. Proving I am not yet an enlightened being, I still had dialogue going around in my head as I drove home and I was none too pleased about getting stung twice. Once home I changed my clothes and decided it would be a good idea to visit with MY bees and calm everything down.
I walked barefoot through the field toward a hive and WHAM! I stepped on a little bee who stung me in the very center of my foot, on Kidney1 point (Bubbling Spring), the very first acupuncture point that forms in the fetus and the one that helps you ground, connect with the earth, the one that roots energy downward.
I sat down on the ground and scraped the stinger out, apologized to the honey bee for stepping on her (and felt terrible that I’d done that). I told her her gift wasn’t in vain, that I’d sit right there and go over my day and let go of whatever crap I was carrying around that was making me bad bee company.
Three stings in one day doubled my entire life sting count at once. Getting stung on the very top and bottom of my body was none too subtle. I had throbbing focus points showing me precisely where my energy connects with the heavens and the earth.
So I sat there and apologized to everyone I’d labeled harshly, had miserly thoughts about, or offended (including my higher self) by being such a knucklehead. And when I felt I could be a better person I got up and went on with my day.
I did notice that as a result of having all that bee sting formic acid into me, I felt ‘buzzed’ and very aware of ALL of my body, like breathing through my skin instead of just my nose. Having a front row seat to an important lesson in selflessness taught by bees caught my attention and I flitted around in a buzzingly happy state for quite some time.
Little bees, bridging the union of heaven and earth.
If you’d like to attend one of our bee classes and learn organic and biodynamic approaches to bees, visit our classes page:
Friendly Haven Rise Farm
* FARM ANIMALS
Let’s start with the TURKEYS …
Last year we again raised a dozen heirloom turkeys, which shows we’re no smarter than the turkeys. They’re a handful and we decided after two years in a row with them that we’d raise them every OTHER year. Sweet as they are personality wise, they’re really not that bright. One out of three evenings they’d forget where the coop was. If we weren’t home at dusk we’d have to climb trees to get them down in the dark. Or, since it was fall and the start of our rainy season, we climbed trees in the DARK and in the RAIN. Now really, how dumb are we?
Joseph would hold the ladder steady while I climbed up into the tree with a flashlight to shake a turkey down, then Joseph would run to catch the 20 lb. pile of wet fluff and feather that fell out of the branches and carry him AROUND THE CORNER OF THE BUILDING and put him in the coop. I’m not kidding. Around the corner.
When we’d see them lost as dusk neared, we’d go down to help them find the coop. First you should know, a turkey will follow you anywhere. It must be a feature in their little brains that says if nobody else can figure out how to lead, then follow the one that does. That would be one of us.
So we’d go inside their pen in the apple orchard and call them. Our turkeys had a two word vocabulary. If something good was happening, they’d trill three ascending notes, beep-beep-beep. If we beeped, they followed.
If they felt lost or confused (I can’t tell you how many times a day THAT happened), they’d do three descendiing notes, boop-boop-boop. Try whining that as sadly as you possibly can. Like on the verge of tears.
Even if we were in the house we could hear that mournful little boop-boop-boop and we’d always go out to see.
And what we found was always sad.
To protect our small orchard trees from deer and bunnies in winter, we put a circle of wire fencing around the trees about two feet out from the trunk. Since it wasn’t winter and the trees weren’t in danger, we had opened the wire cages so we could prune or apply compost.
More than once we’d hear the sad boop and go down to their pen and see that one or more of the turkeys had managed to get inside the OPEN cage near the tree and couldn’t figure out how to get out. They would keep walking forward and bumping into the wire as they tried to rejoin the flock on the other side of the fence. Stuck. Could not figure out that all they had to do to escape was TURN AROUND AND WALK OUT THE OPEN SIDE OF THE FENCE.
Excuse my caps on these letters but I must have tried to explain this to the turkeys forty times at least. I’d even go in myself and show them. Bump up against the fence, no go. Turn around and walk out in ANY direction behind you and you’re free.
I swear if you ever wanted to hunt a domestic turkey, all you’d have to do is put up one short wall of a fence, no sides, no corners, and just wait for one to get stuck up against it. Done. Thanksgiving dinner on the table.
So every third night we’d go down at dusk in answer to the chorus of nearly weepy boops and call the turkeys to fall in behiind us as we walked twenty feet south, took a right and … the whole flock would suddenly leap into a run-fly, beeping all the way. We’ve found our way home! Here it is!
So that’s why we decided to take a year off and raise them every other year and this isn’t one of them.
To give credit to Ben Franklin who wanted the wild turkey to be our national emblem, I’ve heard that wild turkeys are really smart. Ours were not. We raised a few commercial breeds (a gift from a friend) the first year, then tried four different breeds of heirloom turkeys the second year. Hardly a cipher’s worth of difference smarts-wise.
Our Jersey-Swiss cow, Miss Amelia, calved in January presenting us with an adorable half-Angus boy, Possum. We learned how to milk her by watching a video on YouTube of an old Slavic woman doing it.
We just did what she did and it worked. We milked every day up until a few weeks ago when she went dry. Now she’s pregnant and we’re waiting for the next calf to start over again. In May we also added two Simmenthals: Delilah is a big black monolith who’s due to calve in the next week or two; and Maurice (“the gangster of love”), her nephew, is our beef cow this year. I’ve watched him in the orchard and I bet he can eat his weight in apples in a day. With Amelia’s delicious creamy milk we made a lot of cheese, butter and ice cream this year.
Our chickens had the entire farm to range on last year but this spring they were monsters in my flower gardens so we caged them into four big half-acre pens that we rotate them through. They don’t seem to have noticed they’re behind a fence.
New additions are six chicks, some born this week. Nothing’s cuter than a baby chick. We can easily spend a half hour cooing and ahing over them which we do at least three times a day.
We’ve got a lot of bees in the non-commercial top bar hives (TBH) we made. TBHs are more bee-centric than production oriented. I don’t do a big honey production although we always get some. They’re more for pollination and simply because I love bees. They give me extra reason to grow flowers, herbs and clover and to let the weeds go to flower and then seed without feeling I should have pulled them up when they were small.
GARDENS and ORCHARDS
You’d laugh if you saw the gardens right now. Because of the joyful activity of the bees, I let most everything go to bloom rather than pulling it out once the vegetables go by. We have plenty of five foot tall blue flowering lettuces and taller-than-me purple flowered radishes and truly enormous yellow mustards. The beds are full of red and white clovers and purple vetch. When I go to pull something out, I look on top and if there are a few bees there I let it go longer. It makes seed saving easier anyway.
Our tomatoes and basil are delicious. The beans have climbed higher than our corn already but the corn is short so that wasn’t hard. Not sure yet how to grow tall corn but even on short stalks we get ears. Maybe next year we’ll figure that out.
Beds have chard, onions, lettuce, cabbage, eggplant, blueberries, currants, jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, sunflowers, lavender, rosemary, thyme, mints and celery. And anything else that volunteers like borage and tomatillos.
We just hayed eight acres of our neighbor’s field where we’re pasturing the cows so we ought to have enough to get through winter without buying more. The cost difference is immense. Non-organic hay is about $6 bale, organic much higher. When we hay by ourselves — despite the challenge of hot, sweaty, hard labor — a bale is about 15 cents direct cost. Don’t remind me of the cost of the mortgage for the land because when I look at 15 cents, it sounds like a win.
Orchards are growing. We’ve got about 150 fruit and nut trees so far, many still young. Our old timer trees are laden with fruit. Again, a banner year for apples. Grapes still green, many bunches. Just planted a dozen more varieties of seedless grapes so we can add raisin-making to our fall chores.
HOW DO WE DO IT?
We earn our income teaching garden, farm and animal-related classes here. Take a look at our class schedule.
We also host farm volunteers through the year and they are a big help. We had three helpers this summer, Kat from New York, Jean-Paul from Italy and Andrea from Switzerland. Great helpers!
Everything else we do (like writing this blog) happens alongside the farm chores. I just finished two hours of shoveling in a new compost pile while Joseph installed pipes to hook up a bathtub in the cottage. Our days are always full. Hard work. Love it.
Our volunteers live on the farm with us and help out in exchange for room/board and learning farm skills. Tasks vary. Obviously gardening and animal care is a big part but also carpentry, irrigation, dismantling and rebuilding outbuildings, stonewalls, laying brick paths, fencing, haying … the list goes on.
We did a few farmers markets this year and realized we’re not really cut out for that. It’s a tremendous amount of work and doesn’t always pencil out as profitable. Makes me admire even more the farmers we see week after week hitting all the markets around. I grow stuff yet, for the same reason I overtip waitresses, I still buy whatever I can from local farmers because I know how hard a job it is.
So that’s what we’re up to right now. Our days are full, animals are thriving, apple trees are so lush we had to put ladders under the branches to hold the branches up. We made our first cider a few days ago and already have a few gallons in the freezers. If you come by we’ll break out a bottle.
Life is good. Be well.
Friendly Haven Rise Farm