A Swarm in May

One of the nice things about this time of year is that it’s pretty common to catch a wild swarm.  I leave bait hives – empty hives with a few drawn frames and a swarm lure that mimics a crucial pheromone – in a few of my bee yards.

In my newest yard, at Groton Family Farm in Groton, Conn., I have eight new colonies.  They were all started from packages two weeks ago and because of this they are unlikely to swarm, so there isn’t a bait hive nearby.  Although the colonies are new, I prepositioned the equipment I will eventually need by the farm’s large barn, about 300 feet away from my colonies.

I received a call from Warren Burrows, the owner, early this morning.  He said that there was a lot of honeybee activity near the hequipment I stored by the barn and that his helper was uncomfortable with so many honeybees around.  I assured Warren that it was just a little robbing, probably because my new colonies had found the stored equipment.  In spite of my assertions, Warren asked me to take a look.

I arrived at the farm at about 6 pm.  To a novice’s eye, there were many bees near the equipment.  At most, there were perhaps 50 honeybees hovering around.  To me, it looked normal.  Warren and his helper were waiting for me to arrive and I teased them for making me drive to Groton for nothing.  Nevertheless, I had decided to move the equipment away from the barn so they wouldn’t be uncomfortable.  I stacked the equipment on my truck and Warren began to help me.  He reached down and picked up the hive body on top of one stack.  I immediately told him to move away.  The next hive body was teeming with honeybees.  As soon as Warren lifted the topmost box, they began “boiling” in the box – climbing to the tops of the frames in large numbers.  As they came up, they spilled over the sides.  This wasn’t robbing behavior.  This was a swarm.  A very big swarm.

We carefully removed all the equipment that hadn’t been occupied by the honeybees.  We were left with five deep hive bodies, all partially filled with honeybees.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken any swarm catching equipment with me, nor any equipment to move bees.  I began by consolidating the bees.  I set the hive body with the most bees in it in the original location and removed any frames without honeybees.  I then took the frames with bees out of the remaining deeps and placed them in the hive body.  As each box was emptied, I shook the remaining bees off the sides and into the hive.

Consolidating the swarm into one hive body

Consolidating the swarm into one hive body

When I finished, the honeybees had been consolidated into the a single hive body.  I had checked each frame quickly, but had not seen the queen.  At the end of the process, most of the bees were in the hive body but perhaps a thousand were flying in the area in a classic swarm pattern.  A small cluster began to develop on the maple tree above me, and I assumed that the queen had taken flight after all the disruption I had caused.

A new cluster begins to form

A new cluster begins to form

As the new cluster formed, many of the bees in the hive began to line up along the edge of the hive, fanning their wings.  Clearly, they were spreading the queen’s scent to guide the other bees back to the hive.

Fanning behavior

Fanning behavior

Fanning behavior

Fanning behavior

The fanning made it apparent that the queen was in the hive.  In just a few minutes, the cluster disappeared, and the bees made their way back to the hive.  (I suspect that this was the original location of the cluster.)

The next challenge was getting them home.  I had no bottom board, no covers, no equipment at all with which I could transport the bees back to my Hanover bee yard.  In the end, I improvised.  I set the hive on a piece of scrap plywood, closing off the bottom.  There were no more scraps that could be used to close off the top, so I used an empty wood shavings bag, on which I placed an empty hive, thereby closing the top.

Bottom closed off with plywood, top closed off with a heavy paper bag.

Bottom closed off with plywood, top closed off with a heavy paper bag.

It wasn’t what I expected when I received the call this morning, but it was a nice surprise nontheless.  It’s a large swarm; I’d estimate that it contains at least four pounds of bees.  They’re now nicely hived in Hanover, sipping from a feeder.  Swarms are good comb builders and think they’ll build up quickly.  I have hopes that they’ll work out well, and I’m reminded of the old beekeeping proverb:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

It’s still May, at least for a few hours!

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