The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Our first swarm

Honeybee swarmI was weeding the mule garden about 15 feet away from the hive when the bees decided to swarm, but I missed the mass flight.  I had walked off to the barn to get another tool, and when I returned I heard a great buzzing overhead and to my left.  By the time I got my eyes turned around, the bees were out of sight.

Luckily, they hadn't flown far.  In fact, they'd settled into the honeysuckle on the exact same sassafras last year's absconded package settled on before flying away.  That means the bees would have been right beside our top-bar-hive-turned-swarm-trap...but I had talked Mark into helping me move that structure behind the barn the day before.  Oops.

We were woefully unprepared for a swarm, despite the fact that I've been blogging about little else all week.  I really should have known it was coming, not just because this is the swarming time of year, but also because the Warre hive's three boxes were getting pretty congested.

Inside hive before and after swarm

I took the top two photos up through the screened bottom the morning before the swarm left, catching the back (left) and front (right) of the hive, and it was evident that the cluster of bees was humongous at that time.  That's why the second photo is out of focus --- the bees were hanging all the way down to the floor.  The hive had been a bit like this (although not quite so extremely crowded) for a couple of weeks, and if I'd wanted to slow down swarming behavior, that would have been a good time to nadir a fourth body into my hive. 

However, I didn't have the spare equipment on hand because the place I ordered from is swamped and hadn't mailed my hive bodies two weeks after I paid for them.  (I haven't figured out how to make top bars yet, so I couldn't just make my own homemade hives.)  We do have a fourth hive body, but I'd been saving that box in case the package shows up before the new hive parts do.  Which is all a long explanation for why I let the bees get so congested that they swarmed before they need to have.  All of that said, Warre theory is that you want your bees to swarm to break the pest and disease cycle, so all I would have been doing with management is slowing down the swarm, not preventing it.

(As a side note, it's interesting to compare the inside of the original hive the morning before (top photos) and the afternoon after the swarm (bottom photos).  The comparison gives you an idea of how much of the hive's population leaves with the swarm and how much stays home to tend the worker brood and baby queens.  Generally, about 10,000 workers and drones (two-thirds of the population) leave, but they're soon replaced by workers hatching out in the old hive.)

Bee swarm closeup

Anyhow, mea culpa's aside, I had a swarm on my hands and I didn't want to lose it.  My first hope was that the bees would find my swarm trap even though the structure was now a couple of hundred feet away, but I soon discovered that the bees were considering another site instead.  How could I tell?  Well, I've spent the last week reading Honeybee Democracy (which I'll review here after finishing the last couple of chapters), and thus had discovered a lot about the behavior of bees in swarms.

It turns out that after a swarm leaves the hive, they always settle just like mine did, not far from the parent hive.  At that point, an astonishing exercise in consensus decision-making occurs.  Most of the bees hang out around the queen, but 300 to 500 workers peel off to survey the surrounding 30 square miles in search of nest sites.  If a worker finds a potential home, she returns to the swarm and performs a waggle dance (shown below) to inform her cohorts of the location.  Other bees go and check it out, dancing about the site if they like it or ignoring it if they don't, and eventually enough bees have settled on one location that the swarm figures they've found what they're looking for.  At that point, they all take off and relocate to their new home.

Waggle danceThis all sounds a bit esoteric, but the truth is that once you have a swarm in front of you, waggle dances are extremely obvious and easy to decipher.  After only a few seconds of observation, I was able to find two workers dancing about the same location, which I videoed above.  The dance's angle away from vertical shows the angle the actual location is away from the sun, and the length of time the bee wiggles her butt shows how far away the site is.  Using this data, I was able to tell that our bees had only found one good site so far, and that it was two miles away to the southwest --- definitely not my swarm trap.
Swarm boss
My first thought was to set up a potential hive on the other side of the yard, smear it with lemon balm, and hope my bees would find the site.  Then I changed my mind and figured I'd set up the potential hive much closer to the swarm tree to ensure the bees found it.  But half an hour of observation showed that only one worker checked out the empty hive, and she didn't even think it was worth crawling inside.  (Scouts looking for potential house sites go inside and measure the cavity volume to ensure the hive is what they're looking for.  When visiting a good site, they'll spend over half an hour buzzing around to check out the cavity from all directions.)

If we were going to lose the swarm otherwise, it seemed worthwhile to try to catch it.  Huckleberry told me to lay out a white sheet underneath the swarm and then cut down the tree to drive the swarm into a box (although I think our spoiled cat might have mostly been thinking about napping in the shade), but I got scared and called my beekeeping mentor (aka our movie-star neighbor).  More on the ensuing action in tomorrow's post....

Our chicken waterer kept our 38 chickens happy so I could focus on the bees.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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My beekeeping group was set up at a festival and someone noticed a swarm in a tree behind our table. One person grabbed a bucket and long pole and duct taped the two together. I had the pleasure of raising the bucket to the swarm and jolting the tree so the bees filled the bucket. Then we covered the bucket with a piece of cardboard and one person took it home at the end of the day to re-hive it.
Comment by Errol Thu May 16 07:39:00 2013

It blows my mind that 1. You were able to decipher the bee dances to see that they did not seem interested in your swarm trap hive 2. You were able to explain it to us what the wiggle dances mean and how to decipher them

Honestly, I am gob-smacked in a very pleasant way. Thanks!

Comment by Karen Thu May 16 08:19:10 2013
Don't give yourself a hard time even if it means you lost your hive, if I am reading correctly. I hope you find it and believe you probably still can because of your incredible built in GPS, scinetific genius, and the fact you can talk to cats. Be well.
Comment by Maggie Thu May 16 09:10:50 2013
I'll be interested to see if Ken ad Frankie agree: Ken says he used a mirror to guide them down so they wouldn't light in a tree. Also used banging on pots and pans, which seems to force them to just look for shelter within the swarm. You can iuse a smoker, tho a swarm is gentle,k usually. Shake into a box, when you've gotten them close enough. You can do this, too, at night....maybe should have last night??
Comment by Maggie Thu May 16 09:16:26 2013
We have experienced several swarms and each one stopped initially in the same spot on the same tree. This behavior is not unusual and actually gives you a good opportunity to catch your bees before they leave home for good.. We caught 2 swarms from our "bee tree". I can't wait to hear more about your adventure with this swarm!
Comment by tee Thu May 16 09:57:09 2013
Bees are fuckin' awesome. :^) I really liked Clan Apis, which I think we don't own but just borrowed from the library.
Comment by irilyth [] Thu May 16 13:10:21 2013

When a hive swarms, I thought it was because of multiple queens. Do you still have a queen in the original hive?

Is there any kind of pheromone attractant that you could place in the swarm catcher?

Comment by Gerry Thu May 16 18:01:02 2013

Gerry --- There are two times when a hive will swarm. After they decide they want to swarm, the hive produces a lot of queen cells (which are full of baby queens), and as soon as those are mature enough that they get capped (a week before the baby queens emerge), the old queen leaves with a lot of the workers. If you want to get technical, that's the prime swarm, which is what we have.

A week later, the queens start popping out. If the hive is only moderately strong, the first queen will kill all the others and you won't get more swarms. But if the hive still has lots of workers and honey, the first queen to emerge will leave with yet more workers, in what's called the bull swarm. The next queen to emerge again assesses the state of the hive (or, rather, the remaining workers do), and she might leave too with a much smaller swarm. Eventually, one of these new queens is the keeper, and kills her remaining siblings. These later swarms (which we could see next week) are smaller and not as likely to build up enough to survive the winter, although they might.

So, to answer your question, I have multiple queens in the old hive, but none of them are running around yet.

We have ordered lemongrass oil, which mimics the pheremone workers use when they find a new house site, for our swarm traps, but it hasn't arrived yet.... You can also order more expensive chemicals that are the actual pheremones, but reports say they don't work any better than the cheaper lemongrass oil.

Comment by anna Thu May 16 18:08:47 2013
Thank you very much for the information. The things you know! The things you need to know to do what you are doing.
Comment by Gerry Thu May 16 20:11:11 2013

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