Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Busy Summer Part 2 - Swarms!

This is the continuation of my Summer of Fun post...

Honey bee swarms are a colony's way of reproducing and perpetuating their genetics. While there are multiple possible triggers for the swarming instinct, one of the major causes of swarming is overcrowded conditions in a hive. Preparations for swarming begin several weeks before the swarm actually happens.  Because the current queen of the colony will leave with the swarm, the workers must make a new queen in order to replace the queen that leaves. The workers will produce multiple queen cells and they will prohibit the current queen from killing off the developing queens in those cells. Additionally, the workers will stop feeding the current queen in order to get her to slim down for her flight with the swarm (she hasn't flown since her mating flight which may have been a year or more ago). The entire process of swarming is a finely tuned dance that shows us the incredible decision-making process that honey bees are capable of.

Around the time when the new queens hatch, the old queen and 50-65% of the workers leave the hive in a massive cloud of bees - they are leaving the parent colony behind and will search for a new home. They gorge on honey so that they have energy for the next few days, when they will not have access to food like they would in their old home. After leaving the hive, they gather in a large cluster on a tree limb or fencepost or some other convenient spot not too far from the original hive. While they are stationed at this temporary "home", they will send out scout bees to look for the best possible cavity to make their new home in. The decision of where to make their new home is another amazing example of democratic decision-making (Honeybee Democracy is a book about this process). Once they have decided on the place, the entire cluster will fly to the new spot and begin to make their new home. Now, if the beekeeper can get to the swarm while they are clustered at their temporary home (they may stay clustered like this for a few days), it is relatively easy to catch the entire swarm, queen and all, and place them in a hive. Because they don't really have a home to defend and they are honey-drunk, swarm bees are generally very docile (see this video here).

Meanwhile, back at the parent colony, the new queens are hatching and killing each other, its survival of the fittest. The most bad-ass queen wins! (Although sometimes a hive will "throw multiple swarms" and a few bad-ass queens can win.)

In general, if a swarm leaves from one of your hives and you don't catch it, you are a sad beekeeper - you just lost a bunch of bees and a lot of honey! But, if you catch a swarm from a wild hive or someone else's hive - FREE BEES!

Alright alright, on to the story of my swarm captures this summer...

The Bleacher Swarm
I got a call one afternoon about a swarm near a church on Cheltenham Avenue not too far off of Route 611. I packed my car, hopped in and drove to the scene. I arrived to see this, pretty freakin' cool...

Just hanging out!
View from below

I brought the bee-vac setup (without the vacuum) because its a good way to transport bees, it offers good ventilation and an easy setup once you get the bees to the apiary. It worked out really well. I basically put the box under the cluster and gently dislodged the cluster, they fell into the box.

Stragglers making their way into the box to be with queenie

A few bees with their butts sticking up in the air, spreading pheromones to let the others know the queen is in the house
This capture went super smoothly, very easy. I closed up the box and drove them home. I set this swarm up in a hive on my roof. They are doing great.

The Honda Swarm
This swarm call didn't go so smoothly because I was unprepared and rushed. I will let the pictures get the story rolling...

Swarm is near the ground under this bush
I clipped off the branch into this nuc box, about half of the bees went into the box
My first mistake was closing this box. You can see the bees gathering on it because the queen is inside with the other half of the bees. I closed it because I was in a rush and I didn't want the bees inside to fly away. I also think it was a mistake to use this box because it is screened, and therefore open to the light, on the top and the bottom. At this point I figured well OK, I will place this entire box into my large Rubbermaid container and I'll put it all in my trunk and drive home. Problem was that the nuc box didn't fit into my other container (and the Rubbermaid didn't fit into the trunk!). So I decided, my second mistake, to place this box on my passenger seat and drive home this way. The worst that could happen is that the bees on the outside of the box would fly around a bit, but at least I had the queen locked up in the box. Besides, I had to get back to work!

Well, you can see that the bees didn't stay in place!

Flying all over the place! I kept my protective gear on while driving

Rear window
What a sight I must have been! Driving down Kelly Drive with my veil on and 20,000 bees flying around my car! As I was driving I reminded myself that at least the queen was in the box and when I got to the apiary I could set her up in a hive and all of these loose bees will find her and move into the box with her and the rest of the bees. Don't know if you have guessed by now, but I was wrong again! It turns out the the nuc box wasn't closed tightly and the bees that had been in there were also out, the entire swarm was flying free in my car!! I didn't figure out that ALL of the bees were free until I got to my apiary.

I pulled my car into this little alley near my Francisville beeyard and proceeded to discover that the nuc box was now pretty much empty of bees. After a failed attempt at finding the queen and also trying to lure her into another box, I left my car parked in that alley with the doors open and all of the bees flying around and in my car. I had to go to work for a few hours and I figured I would come back and deal with it later. I came back with a vacuum to suck up the bees and I returned to my car and found a surprise! After vacuuming up a bunch of bees, something caught my eye...

Can you see the little beady bee eyes peaking out from behind my door handle?
Now you can see them! They moved INTO MY DOOR!

Another view

Yep, inside the speaker too!!
As an aside, while I was home gathering my vacuum and equipment there's a knock on my front door. Its a policeman -
Cop: "Are you Adam Schreiber?"
Me: "Yes, that's me."
Cop: "Do you know your car is sitting on Field St with its doors open?"
Me: "Yep, I know, with a bunch of bees flying around in it!"
Cop: "Oh, OK, we just wanted to make sure it wasn't stolen or something."
He didn't really care about the bees! I was impressed with how quickly they responded to the "problem". Actually this wasn't the only police involvement in the story, but I'll get to that in a minute.

So anyway, I vacuumed what I thought was the majority of the bees and drove the car back to my street so I could deal with the rest the next day. I left the bees in the car overnight, put a box in the car with honey, thinking they might migrate into the box. No such luck - in the morning I saw that none of the bees had taken the honey bait, they were still all in the door peering out at me! I would vacuum them in dribs and drabs as they would come out to investigate. It was a slow process. I tried banging on the door to get them to come out, which only helped a bit. At this point I am thinking that I might have to remove my entire door panel to get to them.

Then Eureka! - for once in this whole ordeal, I had a good idea! I lit a smoker and proceeded to puff smoke into the door through whatever tiny holes I could find. Aside from having my car smell like a campfire for weeks, this worked well, the bees came pouring out to escape the smoke. As they left the safety of the door, I'd suck them into the vacuum. I even saw the queen pop out a few times and I tried to grab her, unsuccessfully. Here's a good view of how things looked...

No big deal, so there are some bees in our car.
Daddy is crazy!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot police involvement #2. I am in front of the house sucking up bees - wearing a veil, vacuum screaming, smoker smoking - when a cop comes up to me. Obviously he can see I am dealing with a "situation", but he is nonplussed. He has come to tell me that I need to move my car forward because it is impinging upon the handicapped space next to my house! I swear, the car was no more than 2 feet into the spot, which is more than big enough to fit a car anyway. My neighbor called the cops on me and this officer didn't care what I was dealing with, he said, with bees buzzing around his noggin, "Just move the car up." So of course, being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I moved it and then renewed my efforts at extracting the rest of the bees.

Once I finally had removed all of the bees, I saw that they had started building honeycomb inside my door! Incredible! Somehow they thought they were going to set up house in my car! Anyway, a significant number of bees died throughout this whole fiasco, but within a month's time, this hive was back on track and they have done nicely at their new home in Fairmount Park.

I don't have any pictures from my third swarm, but suffice it to say that with the timely help of fellow beekeeper Daniel Duffy and a maintenance man with a big ladder, things went very well. That third swarm has also built up nicely this summer. Even though one never knows where swarms come from, it is great fun to catch them and also nice to add genetic diversity to your beeyards. There is always a chance that the bees are from feral, survivor stock and this is something that every beekeeper wants. Some beekeepers worry about picking up diseases from swarms but I ain't worried and besides, if I didn't capture swarms I wouldn't have such great stories to tell!


  1. Oh wow! You have the most wonderful adventures Adam! Thanks for the laugh =)

  2. i don't know how you drove with all those bees in your car. i agree with your kids

  3. this is the best bee story ever! man, I cannot stop laughing...or applauding! you, sir, are indeed a bee steward!

    what an awesome story!