A gentleman stopped Ugo (my husband) and I while walking through town. “Excuse me, Doctor, do you have bees?” he asked, and went on to explain that two swarms were hanging out in town — one attached to the cornice over his balcony and another on the wall of the local parsonage — and asked if could we do something about them. Talk about providence; just the day before I’d thought I’d like to replace the hives that died two years ago, and here were two swarms just waiting to be rescued, or not.
We began beekeeping in 2005 when a swarm was given to us by a beekeeper after we expressed interest in becoming beekeepers, and we learned to capture swarms in the spring of 2006. Now, armed with swarm boxes, smoker, brushes, and our beekeeper suits, we returned to the swarm sites before sunset the same day the gentleman asked for our help. We went to the parsonage first. The swarm had settled on a climbing rose about eye-level from the ground. With the swarm box positioned under the swarm, we puffed intoxicating smoke on the bees then gently pulled the branch from the wall and gave it a decisive snap, which dropped a large clump of the swarm into the box.
The bees that didn’t fall in began flying around or remained attached to the wall. Using a brush similar to that used to brush away eraser bits from an architect’s drawing, we encouraged the stragglers into the box and then walked away for a few minutes to see whether the bees would enter on their own, meaning the queen was inside, or climb back up to their original spot, meaning the queen had remained attached to the wall. After a few minutes, we saw many bees exiting the box and going back to their original position, clearly the queen had not dropped into her new home. We held the swarm box close to the newly formed clump on the wall and brushed all the bees inside, then positioned the swarm box on the ground with the lid almost closed. The bees that were flying around seemed to be entering this time so we left that one and went on to the second swarm.
This second swarm was more of a challenge. It hung on a cornice about ten feet above the floor of the four-foot wide balcony. Ugo climbed the ladder we’d positioned next to the swarm and I held the swarm box as best I could centered under the swarm. He slid a piece of cardboard between the cornice and the swarm to detach it, making it fall into the box. Rather than fall as one clump, about half of them fell into the box and the rest on the floor around it. I dared not move my feet for fear of stepping on them and tried to gather them with another piece of cardboard and transfer them to the box. We could see they had already begun to construct wax comb sheaves, which is probably why they didn’t fall in one nice clump and why they flew back up almost immediately. Ugo broke off the comb and placed it in the swarm box, hoping it would entice them. We brushed as many as we could back in the box and left it as we’d done with the first one; if the queen was in the box, the bees would enter.
Meanwhile, we returned to the first swarm box. The queen and her court had entered, so we sealed the box, put a screen over the entrance, and put it in the car to bring home. We decided to return the next morning to check the second swarm. The next morning, Ugo went to look at the second hive, and it had, indeed, returned to its original position. We returned at sunset to try again but were told the swarm had flown away around one o’clock that day.
I was ecstatic to have at least one hive and begin beekeeping again. We positioned the swarm box where our prior hives had been, and as soon as we removed the screen from the entrance the workers took flight in search of pollen and nectar.
We left the swarm in the swarm box for two weeks to build up comb on four frames and yesterday, transferred the swarm to its final home in a full-size hive. The bees buzzed softly, and we were able to work calmly. Although we didn’t spot the queen, we did see sealed brood cells, which tells us she’s had her mating flight and is laying eggs. The worker bees had built wax cells on all but the last side of the fourth frame so we’d arrived just in time to give them more frames to work on.
During the last visits to our previous hives, the bees were angry when we opened the lid, which was a sign that they were unwell. We tried the recommended treatments to no avail. This hive buzzed sweetly when we lifted the cover, and I was reminded of our first hive. Almost ten years had passed yet I felt the same fascination watching these small creatures go about their bees-ness, undisturbed by my observation, working together for the health and growth of the family.
I used to keep a notebook and write down the hive status after each visit, keeping track of any events or problems. Much as I love keeping handwritten notes, instead of starting a new notebook, I went to the App Store to look for a beekeeping app. Sure enough, I found more than one, but for now, I downloaded BeeKeeperLite, a free app that provides forms for taking notes and tracking the activity level, colony temper, queen info, and more. Photos of the hives can be added to the forms and it works with location settings to track the hive position, which would be helpful for nomadic beekeepers or those with multiple locations.
If you want to learn about different types of monofloral honey, an app called Honey Guide sells for $0.99. It focuses on Russian honeys but is written in English, and the descriptions apply to honey produced in other countries. And check back here for an upcoming blog about honey tasting.