Bee Swarm on a Sunny Spring Day

bee swarm on grape leaves

It has been a busy few weeks in the bee yard. We went from two colonies to four because of splits and swarms and I was scrambling for boxes and equipment. As a second year beekeeper, I am feeling both excited and like I still know nothing! We’ll see how all the hives are doing at the end of the summer and that will be a better indication of how things are going. At the moment I am a little nervous about the state of the Queens in three hives. We’ll see!

Last summer: the bees arrive!

Last summer: the bees arrive!

One of the things that happened is that a hive swarmed! The swarm behavior was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen!

Swarming is when a bee colony, for various reasons, decides to split into two colonies. The hive prepares by starting to create new queens, then, before they hatch the old queen changes her pheromones and flies away with around two-thirds of the bees to start a new hive. All the bees stock up on honey before they fly off. This can leave the “old” hive weak and the “new” hive starting from scratch as far as building comb goes. When the queen is ready she flies to a spot outside of the hive—in this case the pear tree nearby—and all her followers ball up around her. Then scout bees head off in search of a new home. They scout for between a couple of hours and a couple of days. Eventually the colony decides to go to a new spot and the whole swarm flies there to begin building comb. That is the short and sweet lay person’s description. There are many more detailed and scientific websites out there if you want to geek about honeybees (and you should, they are amazing!!!).

On the morning of the 17th I noticed the bees on the landing board of one hive acting a little bit different than they usually do. There were maybe twenty bees that seemed to be sitting on the landing pad instead of foraging in and out. It was very subtle and I couldn’t pinpoint what was going on so I didn’t do anything—I thought maybe I was imagining things.

Later in the day I was working in the office and Kevin had been out at the Forest Classroom for our Wilderness Water Collecting and Purifying Class that took place mid-day. As he came back he noticed a lot of bees flying around the Bradford Pear tree about 75 feet from the hives. He came and told me, “There is something weird going on with your bees!” He was right, they were swarming onto a branch about 10 feet off the ground. Kevin noticed them when they were still gathering and landing on the branch but after the main swarm had flown from the hive. I spent the next few minutes gathering equipment and reading up on swarms and in that time there were less and less bees flying and more and more balled up on the branch.

The bee swarm on the tree branch--all of the worker bees balled around the queen.

The bee swarm on the tree branch–all of the worker bees balled around the queen.

One of the amazing things about bee swarms is that they are very docile. While they are swarming they don’t have a “territory” or honey to protect and they are very focused on the task at hand—balling up around the queen. I didn’t wear any protective equipment during this process and I didn’t get stung. No guarantees though, so if you are doing this you have to decide what is comfortable for you.

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The dark spot in front of my hand is the swarm.

We decided to pull the farm truck up underneath the branch so we had something stable to stand on as we “captured the swarm.” We climbed up with pruning shears, a medium hive box with frames of foundation, an empty medium, and a bottom board (mediums were all I had, I would have preferred a deep hive box). We made a plan: My fearless helper Kevin would snip the branch and I would hold it steady and then move the swarm over the box and shake the bees into it. Snip! Ahhh! The shock wave of cutting the branch knocked a third of the bees off of the swarm right onto Kevin’s lap. Poor guy, I don’t think I had properly explained how docile they were or what to do if they did start stinging or anything really, but he was very stoic. He didn’t get stung and stayed very calm as hundreds of bees crawled off of him. I moved the branch over the hive body and eventually gave it a couple of shakes and most of the bees fell off into the box.

Then, the most amazing part of this very amazing process: Once the queen (who was in the center of the ball) was in the hive box, the rest of the bees started to change their behavior. Starting with the bees closest to the hive they turned their heads so they were facing the hive, stuck their rear ends in the air, and started fanning. It was like a wave that passed through the masses. Farther and farther away from the hive the bees assumed this position—which I later read has to do with scent glands—until they were all aimed at the queen. Once the majority were oriented, they started flowing into the hive. It was so beautiful. Over the course of just a few minutes most of the bees made it into the hive. I have never seen anything like it. It reminded me of the way big schools of fish move.

We left them alone for a while as they regrouped. I eventually put a lid on the hive box (and removed the extra empty medium hive box so they were left with one medium hive box with 10 frames of foundation) and that evening we moved the hive back to the bee yard. I put a feeder on top and crossed my fingers that they would like their new home. A few days later I saw foragers coming in with pollen which means they decided to stay!

This isn’t a very technical description of this process but hopefully it conveys some of the excitement and beauty. It was truly a fantastical experience and I was getting a bit teary at one point just amazed at the beauty of the hive mind. Honey bees are really special! I encourage people to learn more about them or even get involved in keeping bees. It can be done in all sorts of setting, even urban areas. There are many, many resources out there to help. I recommend taking a beginning beekeeper class and joining a local beekeeping club or association.

I really like this website: http://scientificbeekeeping.com/

and also Ross Conrad’s book, Natural Beekeeping.

Aren't they beautiful?

Aren’t they beautiful?

4 comments

  • Beautifully written…brought a tear to me eye. Lovely! Amber was once able to watch Marbry place a paper grocery bag around a swarm. They then walked it to a hive and literally “poured” the bees into it. What beautiful strong creatures. Community builders!

    Thanks so much for sharing. Written a special way, causing me to want to check into becoming a bee keeper.

    Let me know if you end up with 4 hives.

  • Nature is an amazing and beautiful thing. Thank you for sharing with us.

  • I’ve been practicing bio-dynamic beekeeping in the Shenandoah valley since 2011, keeping bees in “like feral” conditions, no chemical treatments, no invasive hive manipulations, minimal honey snatching and I’ve never seen such healthy colonies. Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you Dean! I am still learning a lot about bee keeping and trying keep it natural as I can. Sounds like you are doing well with your colonies. Thank you for sharing.

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