hiving a swarm

Thursday, June 13:

   We are very poor beekeepers.  We lack method and discipline.   We are inconsistent and dilatory.  Yet every year, a few very poor years excepted, we collect enough honey to provide for our family’s use with enough over for barter and gifts.  The bees are benevolent.

   The hive on stand number three threw another swarm this morning, the second from that hive.  The first swarm rose on a sunny, hot day last week, coalescing in front of the line of white boxes in the bee yard into a spiraling column of bees twenty feet high.  Shawn was in the lane cutting curly dock and pokeweed along the garden fence, and the buzz of his Stihl kept him from hearing the aggressive, dynamo buzz of the excited insects.  The first we knew of their planned exodus was the innocent question of a visitor: “– are those bees?”

   Spring is the usual time for bee colonies to reproduce.  The reproduction of individual bees goes on all year, individual bees being but a cell in a larger organism, incapable of independent life.  It is in the form of the colony that honey bees have their real existence.  When an abundance of flowering plants are available for honey making, a bee colony may find its living quarters growing cramped, every available cell being filled with honey or brood.  The worker bees take action.  One or more very large cells are built, usually along the bottom of a comb or frame.  Eggs nurtured in these cells are fed a different diet from that of the worker bee or drone, and the emergent insect will be a queen bee.  She is the nucleus of a new bee colony.

   Before she, or they, the new queens, hatch, the old queen gathers a faithful contingency around her and sends out scout bees to look for a likely location for establishing a new hive.  She sallies forth with her army, to be out of the way before the new young queens arrive to dispute her throne.  At first she won’t go far.  Flying out from the parent hive she settles on some nearby surface, where the hundreds of bees who are making the move with her settle on and around her and one another, forming a cluster which may be the size of a football, even a basketball.  There they wait for some returning scout to bring news of good lodgings to be had.

   This is the time for collecting the swarm, if you can.  We usually hive from three to ten swarms a spring, a few from our own bee yard, more in the surrounding community.  The village police have our number and when some anxious citizen calls with news of a swarm — in his back yard, or on the eaves of his house, or, once, on the signal box of a railroad crossing — the gendarmerie notify us.  We usually have one or two hive bodies – the larger boxes used for a colony’s living quarters – set up and ready for the hiving of swarms.  We put this, and the box containing our bee veils, gloves, smokers, pruning shears, bee brushes, etc., in the back of the pickup and head out to see if we can add a colony to our bee yard.

   The first swarm of the year, the one spotted by our visitor, had the bad karma to disappear into the woods.  We walked among the fourty- to sixty-foot oaks, maples, beeches and elms listening for the dynamo buzz of a swarm cluster, but could hear nothing except bird calls, and the wind in the leaves; we could see no characteristic brown clump pendant from a tree branch or humped up on a rock.  Other farm business called us away, and that swarm was lost to us.

   Today’s swarm was kinder.  The swirling cloud of bees quickly gathered in a slender elm sapling less than twenty yards from the parent hive and only about twenty feet up.  We debated then whether to send up a climber whose weight would bow the tree over until the upper branches were within reach of the ground.  Then we would be able to clip the branch on which the swarm was clustered and drop it gently into a hive box.  With the hive entrance stuffed with green grass to prevent the bees’ immediate egress, this hive box could be placed on a stand in the bee yard with a reasonable hope that the insects would find it an acceptable new home.  In a few days we would put a second hive box on top of the first and a new colony would be added to our apiary.

   Bending the tree over by the weight of a climber would, we thought, be the least disturbing to the agitated bees, much less than the vibrations of a chainsaw.  We have used the method once or twice before.  But the lower trunk of our elm was stout, and the tree somewhat shorter and stockier than ideal for the bending process, and in the end we used the power tool.  The bee yard is on a narrow shelf on the side of a steep hill – most of the farm is on a steep hill – and two of us perched precariously, booted toes dug into the soft earth of the hillside and hive box and pruners at the ready, while three more carefully back-cut the elm stem close to the ground, bracing it as high as they could reach, and then slowly dropped the tree top until it was within reach of the veiled and gloved collectors.

   Several quick and careful cuts removed the portion of the branch beyond the swarm cluster, then with the cluster almost entirely within the box we cut off about ten inches of elm branch and dropped it into the hive.  Inner and outer hive cover were set in place, and the hive was placed on an empty stand.  A few bees visible in the hive entrance showed by their rapt attention turned to the interior of the hive and whirring wings that the queen was, as she almost had to be, among the bees we had collected.

   Hiving a swarm is always an unplanned interval in the work scheduled for the day, and bee equipment is hot to wear; we get it over quickly and go back to unfinished chores.

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