It's SWARM Season!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hello Kitty Hive Back in Action
Hey Baby? Wanna get stung?

Gentlemen -- it's not the kind of pickup line that is going to win many style points -- if you get my drift. While some ladies might be up to the challenge, a line like this is likely to result in another type of sting, in the form of hand against cheek. That's her hand -- your cheek. So do be careful.

After many fits and starts -- SWARM season is finally underway in Northern California. The queens in wild colonies of bees that span many of our wild areas, including the Sacramento and American Rivers, have spent all winter building up brood populations. And once these numbers get to a certain point, the hive splits. A new queen emerges -- and the old queen leaves -- usually taking about half of the colony with her.

A Wild Swarm for our Neon Pink Hive
This is nature at its finest. This is how many backyard beekeeper hobbyists like myself, acquire new hives. The bees that you see flying about our neon pink Hello Kitty hive pictured above right and to the left are the result of a wild swarm. This was my very first swarm call. It was my very first attempt at capturing a boatload of bees, and bringing them home to the backyard, Hello Kitty Hive.

Whaddya know? It worked!

There are two ways to bring a colony of bees into your backyard: wild swarms and packaged bees. I must admit, I'm a fan of wild swarms over the packaged bees for reasons that I will get into a bit later. But first -- I need to thank someone. Her name is Lauren Scott. Thanks to Lauren, I have a wild swarm that is so large, so healthy and so active, that it will probably produce honey this year rather than next.

That's a nice advantage.

Swarm Catcher on the Loose!
If you're going to get into the swarm catching business, the number one rule of thumb is: BE PREPARED. Bees don't operate by the clock. They generally don't swarm at night, but can swarm in the morning, mid-afternoon or even late afternoon. There is a very short window of time for capturing a swarm like the one pictured above.

To put it short and sweet? There is no time to drive home, get dressed up in swarm catching duds, then return to the scene of the swarm. By that time it could be LONG gone, and you will have missed a golden opportunity. This is why I keep my beekeeping equipment in the back of my truck. Every tool a beekeeper needs to hive a wild swarm is right at my fingertips. You'll never know when a swarm call will happen. But, during the spring months, it will happen.

In the case of Lauren Scott? She noticed the buzzing activity outside her downtown Sacramento home about two weeks ago. Most swarms can be kind of scary to the uninitiated. They're loud. They make quite the racket. Bees will whiz and buzz right by your ears in a frenzied, excited, agitated state. If you have a fear of getting stung, getting caught near a wild swarm is not a nice place to be.

Lauren's Swarm-A FAT ONE!
However, this is often the safest way to approach a colony of bees. They are in an excited state because a queen has left the hive. Remember that bees are insects and react instinctively. The overriding instinct during a swarm is: protect the queen from harm. If you see a large mass of bees -- a swarm -- that has come to rest on a tree branch or a fence -- understand that there is a queen in the center of that mass. The worker bees and drones have come to rest around her.

Bees will react with a stinging party for two reasons: The first reason you may have learned as a child. If you step on a bee, and you're barefoot as I was all those years ago, you're going to feel a nice little jolt at the bottom of your foot. It is not pleasant. The second reason that bees will sting is an instinctual response to "protect the hive." If bees feel threatened by your presence around a hive, believe me, they will let you know it.

Swarm Collection Underway
But in the case of the wild swarm that Lauren spotted -- there is no hive to protect. Therefore, there is no reason for bees to sting. Indeed, bees are in their most docile state right after they've swarmed. Now, this doesn't mean that you should approach a swarm without protection. There are no guarantees in the world of beekeeping. And I'm not guaranteeing that you won't get stung once or twice if you get too close to a particular, agitated swarm. In the world of beekeeping, the number one rule of thumb is: Never Say Never. Capice?

I had spent the entire winter preparing for this swarm call. I'm still not comfortable enough around bees to approach a hive without protection. There are some beekeepers who will do this job in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. This is not my approach. This is not for Bill Bird. Bill Bird is a chicken. Bill Bird opts for protection. And protection means a thick suit, gloves, veil, smoker, water bottle and more.

One more thing? The beekeeping community does not produce bee suits in Bill Bird type proportions. They probably do, but it would have to be a special order. I hate special orders. Special orders cost $$$. And if the "special order" suit is two sizes too small once it arrives? Tough luck beekeeper. Time to put on some shorts and sandals.

Preparing for Swarm Collection
So -- in my case? I improvised with a pair of common overalls from Dickies Mens Wear. While I would prefer these overalls to be in a white or light color, Dickies doesn't make anything that large in a white or light color. So -- you purchase the dark blue option and live with it. Working in dark colors around a hive isn't always the smartest option. In my bee suit I resemble a big blue bear. Bees and bears do not mix well. Bees don't like bears for the havoc they often bring when breaking into a hive for honey. A colony of bees can and will react with a stinging party if they are bothered by a particular dark color.

But in my case? I had no choice. It was either dark blue or shorts and sandals.

Swarm Below
The particular colony that Lauren spotted had come to rest against a fence post in a side yard of her downtown Sacramento home. I was lucky. That swarm could have landed on a tree branch 20 feet out of my reach. It could have landed on top of a home. It could have landed on a second story windowsill.

But, instead, this queen chose the temporary perch of a fence post that was about five feet off the ground. The workers settled around her. It was a mass of bees. Early swarms are large swarms. And this was one large swarm that would eventually cover five full frames. For beekeepers? This is like winning the lottery.

As I approached this mass of bees for the first time, I remembered the swarm catching lessons that I had learned from other beekeepers. The number one rule of advice? Stay calm. Stay focused. Bees can smell fear. After placing my swarm catching box on a waste can directly below the mass of bees, I sprayed them with smoke and then started squirting them with a water bottle.

Why I Keep Bees: Honeybee Pollinates Cherry Tree
Why the smoke? There's something about smoke that serves as a calming influence. It also reduces the numbers of bees that will attempt to fly away. The water acts as the same deterrent. Bees can't fly with wet wings. And the weight of the water will eventually cause this mass of bees to fall. This is exactly what I wanted, as I had strategically placed the swarm catching box just below them.

It is a magical sight when large swarms like this fall into a swarm catching box. It looks much like running water as streams of bees gently fall into the box below. Once the stream stops -- it's time to bring out the water bottle for more water treatment on the bees that remain firmly on the fence post. Your goal as a beekeeper is to ensure that the queen gets inside that box. Once she's there, the worker bees and drones will follow, almost like a small army.

The collection effort worked better than I ever could have imagined. When most of the bees had fallen into the box, I gently placed frames inside and closed up the top. I then proceeded to remove a small plug at the side of this swarm collection box. This was the real test of my efforts. If I had captured the queen? Bees would march right through that opening and into the box. If I hadn't captured the queen? There would have been a mad rush to escape.

Imagine the satisfaction that washed over me as I watched the bees march, two-by-two, side-by-side, through that small, dark opening and into the darkened swarm collection box. I had captured the queen. This swarm collection was a success.

Hello Kitty Hive
Despite this successful collection, I wasn't out the woods just yet. The next step was to transport the colony home and then "hive it" into the waiting Hello Kitty hive. Neither step is easy. Bees don't like long car trips. Have you ever taken a cat to the Veterinarian? Bees react in much the same matter. There's always that chance they'll come swarming up out of the swarm collection box and right into your face once the cover to the swarm collection box has been removed.

That's no fun. Trust me.

Luck, however, would once again prevail. The colony was calm. Most of the bees had settled onto the five frames inside the swarm collection box and showed no intention of leaving. The next step was to place each frame inside the Hello Kitty Hive -- shake the remaining bees out of the box and into the hive -- cover it and step away.

Once again -- Lady Luck was with me. As I stepped away from the hive and started to pull off my bee catching gear -- it suddenly struck me how easy this process was. I didn't notice that stray bee on my neck as I was congratulating myself on a job well done. I realized -- proudly -- that I hadn't been stung once during the entire process.

That is until that stray bee flew into my ear and proceeded to insert a well-placed DAGGER.

The joys of beekeeping.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your capture. Sounds like they picked a very conventient location for you.

I'm also on the look-out for a swarm this spring to fill a second Topbar hive I keep. We harvested 5 quarts of honey last week from our first Topbar colony installed last spring. Would love to have more. Good stuff.

Anthony of

Bill Bird said...

Anthony, email me your phone number. It's swarm season. Beekeepers look out for other beekeepers. I will get my next swarm soon enough, but it won't be the last. I may not need it, but others might.

Anonymous said...

There was a huge swarm today on 33rd St and Folsom that rested in a tree. Scared the hell out of those of us that knew nothing about bees and their instinctive behaviors! Thanks to your write up, my husband and I have closure to the day.

Brown Thumb Mama said...

Bill! You are a Jedi Master. Great job and great description of the process. Have you considered bleaching your outfit so you don't resemble a giant bear?

Bill Bird said...

Why Mrs. Farley! That is a BRILLIANT idea. Never would have thunk it. You have the mind of an engineer. You're always taking that next step. That's for the advice -- good advice at that I might add.

Brown Thumb Mama said...

Why thank ya kindly, sir. Every now and then the two brain cells rub together. ;o)

George said...

Fascinating story. My wife and I are about to buy a Warre Hive to be ready to (hopefully!) get a swarm this year as well. We're in Oregon though, so it'll be a few more weeks before it gets warm enough. Learned a lot from reading your post, thanks!!

Mark Kidwell said...

Need swarm for my first topbar hive. New to beekeeping. Any help appreciated. Fair Oaks location. Mark Kidwell text/call 916-833-8537.