Monthly Archives: May 2013

Carl, my meadow mentor, and I were finishing a loop around the field having agreed not to mow this spring when we noticed the swarm. Unlike last week’s, this one was headed for the upper branches of a spruce tree behind the hives. Their queen must be freshly minted to swarm that high.

As the bees settled into their basketball-sized formation, Carl marveled — this was his first swarm — but I vacillated between relief that they had chosen a spot too high for a capture effort and dismay that again I had failed to provide space in the form of a deep super at the right time to keep the bees in residence. After last week’s debacle in which I killed more bees than I captured, I had no appetite for another woe-begotten interaction. This swarm would rest overnight in the spruce and then move on tomorrow to their new home.

Carl wanted to know what it would take to capture the swarm. Too high, I said. But we could climb the tree, he said. No box into which to knock them, I said. I took all my boxes to the dump last week and the agricultural cloth I had used last week had been a bad idea. The bees’ feet got caught in the mesh. But the more I explained methods for capture that admittedly have never played out in textbook fashion for me, the more Carl saw spruce branches as a ladder and recapture as a goal. He was up the tree and then down.

If it’s OK to saw off the limb they’re hanging from, I think we can get them down, he said.

He went home for a tree harness to attach him to the tree. I put together a hive with some foundation and space for the branch. We decided on a bee bonnet as the “box” into which to slip the portion of the limb with the swarm.

Carl put on the bee suit and climbed back up the tree. I lit the smoker, and more usefully played sous chef tying first the loppers and then the bee bonnet, wallpaper paste brush and back-up butterfly net to the pulley system we used to get supplies up the tree.

Do the bees seem suspicious? I asked from the safety of the ground sounding like Winnie the Pooh. They don’t seem to notice me, said Carl. Good. My sous chef tasks would not include Christopher Robin’s of walking under the tree carrying an umbrella, proclaiming the likely onset of rain.

Carl first cut the more distant part of the branch with the loppers that sadly needed an adjustment in order to bite correctly. Grrrr, he said. But then he gently sawed the near piece of the limb into a length that just fit in the bonnet. After some missteps because we’d tided the bonnet to the tree, he passed it down to me buzzing with unharmed bees. We had most of the bees from the swarm.

Day two, this morning, Carl stopped by. A subset of the swarm had regrouped on the trunk of the spruce, but most of the bees were in the new hive. I went in to remove the bonnet and fill out the hive with frames. I saw the queen.

Before the next swarm, which I feel is in the planning, the meager remains of last week’s swarm will have to join with another hive, maybe the newly captured one. I bought more equipment this afternoon. I hope Carl stops by again for the next swarm.

Dandelions in bloom mean a strong, crowded hive is planning to swarm. One of my hives seemed particularly strong. But the weather has been cool — too cool in my estimation — to open the hives for a sufficient inspection to determine that I need to add space/supers.

Three weeks ago I built 10 new frames and changed the foundation on another 10 in preparation. In a quick check of the hives then, I decided not to add more space.

I was wrong. Today the stronger hive swarmed thousands of beautiful, golden, small but healthy bees. They choose a rail in the veggie garden fence as a first landing spot. Their queen must be too old to take good flight to the top of a tree say. But the spot they chose was almost good for me. There were only two problems. First, I was on my way to swim when they swarmed. Second, the rail they choose had lots of crevices in which bees and the queen could hide. I swept as many bees as I could into an empty box above a hive with 10 new frames of foundation. I did not find the queen. Then I went swimming.

You can watch the swarm in the video. You will hear that the narrator cum beekeeper is depressed by her bad luck and ineptitude when it comes to recapturing swarms.

When I got home, the bees had left the hive I’d put them in and the fence rail for the metal pole supporting a bird nesting box that a pair of Tree swallows have been guarding. The swarm seemed substantially smaller. Lots of bees were in the grass. Did that mean the queen was also in the grass?

I still had two problems, just different ones. First, I did not want to disturb any eggs that the Tree swallows who were staying clear now that their house was covered with bees might have laid. Second, finding the queen if she was in the grass would be an even greater challenge than finding her at the center of the swarm. Capture the queen, and the bees likely will follow wherever you put her. Without the queen, it is well nigh impossible to collect a swarm.

A more experienced swarm catcher might have come up with a better plan. Shaking the bees into a box will not work when they line a pole and lodged in the grass. I made a tent out of agricultural cover material, swept as many bees as I could from the pole into the fabric using a wall papering brush while also smoking the bees out of the grass. Two more hands and another brain would have been helpful.

So here’s how things stood as evening fell. A lot of bees have died. I might have found the queen. One bee with a long abdomen and possibly a bad leg appeared on the tent. Another bee was attending to her leg as I picked her up by the wings. She did not exude royalty but she did look different. I put her as gently as the chaotic situation allowed into the hive. A few bees were still down in the grass. Some were flying around. One got in my bee suit headdress.

Bees on the pole

Bees on the pole

Bees in the tent

Bees in the tent

In the morning, they may well be gone. If they’re queenless, I don’t know where the surviving workers will be. The beekeeper is already depressed in anticipation.

Most of the meadow looks innocent these days. It’s short and green where the cool-season grasses are growing. It’s disorganized and brown in the warm-season areas where those grasses are just staring to grow. But that’s not the whole story.

Meadow in spring

Skunk cabbage greens up the bog. The blueberries have pink flower and fruit buds. The clethra bushes are not yet in leaf but they stand tall above the debris of last years’ Joe-Pye weed, asters and goldernrod that take over the boggy parts by mid summer.

But the invasives can’t resist corrupting the scene. Barberry bushes that resisted the douse of triclopyr have leaves. Bittersweet tentacles that hid in the grasses have buds. Leaves are open on Autumn olive branches where there were no plants six weeks ago. Tiny Japanese knotweed stems have pushed through the ground on the western slope. Black swallow wort — the last to appear — is above ground.

One of two wheel barrows of bittersweet roots

At the end of March, I pulled or clipped two wheelbarrow’s worth of bittersweet stems from the upper bog. Ten days ago I removed one more. Today I pulled bittersweet from the Bayberry heath and made a mental note of the places where I missed some colonies. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few more hours of pulling in before the period of innocence ends.