and boy, they did not make it an easy one.
There’s another awesome advantage to having your hives right outside your front windows (I love having the hives so close to the house; it’s often not recommended, but there’s much to be said for the close connection):
When you glance outside, five minutes after seeing nothing unusual, and see that they’re swarming!
It was sensational. I knew right away, because I’d never seen anything like it, and I could hear them roaring, too, from inside. I ran out and took a couple pictures.I always imagined a bee swarm was like, a cloud of bees, grouped together, like a thing you could point to. No. They’re zooming around in straight lines in all directions, buzzing loud like they’re angry (they must really be excited), and they just fill all the air. They filled the visible sky. You’d have to zoom out quite far before the swarm entity would appear like a cloud.
Then the air full of bees started to move.
All I remembered was that I would have to follow them, so I quickly grabbed a roll of flagging tape. Because of course they headed out over the densest, awfullest brush around here. I flagged my way in, thrashing after them, though they were easy to follow by ear – so loud!!
Seriously, ten minutes from “no unusual bee behaviour here”, to gone. Now if I’m going to be retroactively honest with myself, I think maybe one of my hives has split-swarmed before to vistas unknown. because there were times it seemed like fewer bees than there should be in the box when I opened. If they can go that fast, entirely possible.
They didn’t go too far. I got under the epicentre of their sound, looking up at them. They seemed to be concentrating. Their thousands of bodies in flight made a distortion like heat shimmer. And then, sure enough, I saw a crowd of bees starting to form on the trunk of the big maple I was under. That’s where they were choosing to stay. Ok.
Time to go home and google! (yes, first I pulled a couple physical books). I found out some things . Things like that they don’t initially go too far, they just make a temporary stop and send out scouts from there to find a new home. A little like committing to move by selling your home and moving all your stuff out before thinking about where you might go next, or calling any real estate agents. So the cluster of bees in this current temporary location could stay there a few days while deciding where to live henceforward (settling arguments comparing the great view in option A to the third bathroom in option B), or… maybe just an hour. Act fast. Don’t smoke them, do mist them with water (this was so clutch!). They’re full of honey, and docile.
I went back to the tree. The silence was striking, like the bees had turned off. They had all landed, and were quiet. I’d have never found them, visually, if I hadn’t followed them when they were noisy. They were way up on the maple, wrapped all around the trunk in a two foot band, like you might collar a tree to keep squirrels out of it. A band of bees instead of metal would be very effective against squirrels.
I got my long ladder, and climbed it, and learned that I needed another ten feet (twelve actually- I measured later, and the bees were 27+ feet up). Then I made at least six phone calls, to everyone I knew who might have an extension ladder, and a marginal interest in bees. No one answered.
Ok, time to work with what I got. I took apart my 3-way ladder and dragged a section of it up the first ladder, and lashed it to the tree for a second flight.
Just as I started rigging that, I heard a distant clap of thunder. Are you joking? Are you f#$%ing joking!!? (I was answered by another thunderclap, just in case I hadn’t heard correctly). And Really, bees? You picked a rain day? We’ve had a series of thunderstorm squalls the last week, and they move in fast, and dump sudden torrential amounts of rain. Because my heart wasn’t already pounding.
Then I gathered my stuff. Bee brush, string, squirt bottle. A bucket? I went with a nuc box. (spoiler- should have used the bucket- it would have been easier to tie to the tree and to carry down on my arm, or lower down).
Last, I made one more call, to leave “the message”: Umm, if I don’t call again by 4:30, the place to look is at the bottom of a tree, follow the flag line from the beehives. But this time someone answered the phone, and ground support was mobilized:)
Up in the tree, at the top of my ladders, I was quite comfortable. Nice view. I dragged up all my stuff in a couple of trips and stationed it in the branches. I tied the cardboard nuc box securely to the trunk of the tree below the cluster, and started scooping bees and dropping them into the box.
So, this is the good part, and there are no pictures, because trust me, none of this situation screams “Selfie time!” I had lots of things on my mind and God I wish I could take pictures of this! only passed through fleetingly. I really wish – but it was out of the question.
Standing on the top rung I could just reach the bees with my bee brush. Although they were thickly wrapped all the way around, the heaviest mass of them was on the far side of the trunk from me, so I was reaching around and trying to shake chunks of them loose and quickly scoop them into the box.
Bees hate the bee brush (but I couldn’t reach without it – later when they were lower I could just use my hands). They hate it with a fiery passionate fury that supersedes their much touted docility when swarming. I don’t know why they hate the bee brush so much; maybe it tickles. Or pokes. But it incites them to wild rage. It’s actually funny to watch them attack the brush so viciously, seething with hate, uselessly stinging the brush hairs with all their might. But I was attached to the brush – guilt by association, and I took a few stings. The squirt bottle was amazing. I’d feverishly mist around my head when I got a cloud of buzzers mad at the brush, and they’d go placid like they forgot all about it, and settle back down.
After I got a few stings, I went down and got out of tree-climbing-appropriate wear, into my bee suit. Because limited visibility and loose snaggable fabric will be just the ticket! Back up in the cloud scooping bees, my friend arrived at the foot of the tree. I could hardly hear him for the bees humming at my head, like standing next to a big diesel. The ground support was really helpful, though, because he could see the other side of the trunk that I couldn’t, and report if I was making headway (“What?”) , and “Up! Down”, (“What!?”) to get remaining clumps.
It seemed to go pretty well. I was getting bees into the box. Only thing, they seemed to want to come out of the box. It was like a really slow boil over. I’d dump bees in, they’d flow back over the top of the box. I’d scoop them back in with my hands. The upper trunk was mostly cleared – blessedly, they did not move away upwards. They were teeming out of the box and wrapping the tree again lower down.
I went down tree for a break, and because I needed snips. I was shaking, dripping with sweat, suit soaked, feet sore from the ladder rungs, but exhilarated. Seems I was exerting myself to balance and cling to the tree and work.
Back up, now the air smells like rain, the wind is coming up (still thundering), there’re more bees out of the box than in, and I’m getting reports from the ground that masses of them are clumping on the back/trunk side of the box (that I can’t see). I figure the queen must be in the vicinity now, no longer up on the original spot (good!), and I decide I have to untie the box from the trunk and move it down, so that I can sweep bees into the box again.
I have to interject for a moment how awesome this all was (while also being risky and sketchy). All these bees! Individuals, but together, a fluid mass. You never get to experience the hive as an undiluted entity. Unlike when you handle a frame covered with bees, now, the “thing” is the bees. You can hold a handful, a baseball sized chunk, of bees! They’re hot! And vibrating. There is a penumbra of potential energy around them, a considerable power, humming, vibrating my arm. Amazing!
I had to get a grip on the box now, and untie the strings I’d lashed it to the tree with, using knots that I’d tied without the untying in mind. It was all neater than this in my imagination of how it would go. But the box is covered, inches deep in bees, as are the strings, and there are multiple random little maple branches dipped into the box that are now one with the bees- I had to snip those off. I had to reach into the bees to hold the box, and again to expose my knots, and untie with one hand, while supporting the box. The bees are heavy!
I lowered the box a couple feet, and then I had to tie it on again, because I had to hold myself on the tree with one hand and use the other to scoop bees. I never had two hands free. My second tying, one handed, tree swaying now, was much less secure than the first, and I worried the string would give suddenly, and the box drop. I swept the bees in. I was seriously tired now. Almost two hours in, and the soles of my feet were asleep, I was shaking like hard shivers, it was imminently going to rain, and it had just occurred to me that I had NO IDEA how I was going to bring this box down a ladder that I absolutely needed two hands to climb, as it was straight vertical. Not a clue. And I’m watching my string around the box slip further with every movement of the tree.
I was definitely making an effort to keep my priorities straight:
- Don’t fall out of the tree
- Don’t drop the box of bees
- Don’t hurt any bees. In that order! (it’s easy to flinch from a sting or to avoid crushing a bee, and flinches can become slips).
I was hugging the tree and box together, it started to rain, and wanting to cover the box, I realized the lid was out of my reach! I’d moved down, and it was still lodged in the branches above us. I could just touch it using my bee brush. As I was frantically whacking at that, trying to dislodge it, the rain started to pound down in big thumping thunderstorm drops. I realized I had a very limited window left, and I had to get down, with the bees, now. With the combination of desperation, fatigue, and the bee magic vibrating through my upper body as I hugged the box, I kinda blacked out a bit and don’t remember any thoughts or “hows” until it was over, but the lid came loose, I set it on the boiling-over bees, balanced the box on my shoulder and upper arm using my head (cheek and ear to this magical radiating box), and got down. At some point the lid was knocked off and went down on its own.
The rain didn’t last long. The remaining clumps of bees in the tree came into the air, confirming that the queen must be in the box, as the bees appeared to have changed their minds and direction, and were now headed into the box. Yes! When I came back after the squall, they were almost all in.
Doesn’t look like it’s all that dramatic, does it? The bucket is for the rain- there’s a big screen window in the top of these boxes.
WOW! So exciting!
On the bright side, swarm catching will probably be easier from here on out. I’m sure swarm catching events can be much harder than that, but really, I think they are often much easier. Location, location, location! So this was one heck of a beekeeper threshold experience. Next thresholds: being called to collect a swarm from somewhere else, and having a swarm voluntarily arrive. Heard this is a nice place with vacancies.
The story’s not over yet. They still have to get into a hive at dusk, but, that will be part two. I manage that just about as elegantly.
The bee swarm managed to eclipse not only Cotton and chicks first going out on the grass today (old hat for Daisy) and Foxy’s fourth chick (it’s a mom-sitter), but also the arrival of NEW BABIES- GUINEA KEETS! Galahad will be so excited; he hasn’t seen them yet as it was almost dark and they stayed in their box.
It was a huge day! To think it started out with me thinking “I think I’ll call this a day off. Just do what I feel like, maybe get in a nap. ” Ha ha. Ha.