Thursday, May 28, 2009

Free Bees or Catching a Feral Swarm

Makeshift Hive of Bees

Me with Bee Cluster in the Background
Festooning Bees Forming a Cluster
Swarming Bees Finding a Spot to Cluster
This past week, I was in the midst of dealing with some paper work at home, when I noticed that the air outside was full of some summer bugs. It took me a few seconds for the image to register in my head...not bugs, but a swarm of feral bees! I walked outside the house, amazed at the sheer number of bees that swirled around me. My first thought was "OMG! my new bees from this spring were already swarming! So, I took off running over the bridge, and up the hill to where the bee yard is. It took only a few seconds to see that they were contentedly going about their business of comb building and nectar collecting. I caught my breath, and ran back to the garden by the house. The feral bees, not wild because the honey bee is an introduced species, were starting to settle and form a cluster of very excited bees under an old tray- style bird feeder. No bees landed on me, but the air was thick with them. I went into the house and made a mister bottle full of sugar water. When bees swarm, its a complex behavior triggered by over crowding,hormone stress from multiple virgin queens or several other factors. Usually, the old queen will leave with half the hive-after they have gorged on honey from the old hive. All this activity uses A LOT of energy, so spraying the clustered swarm with sugar water calms them down and keeps them occupied taking food as well as cleaning their sister bees ( and some drones). Spritzing the forming cluster did indeed calm them down. I had to work fast because I was going to be late for work. I didn't have a spare hive body to get a cluster in, so I improvised with a honey storage super waiting to be used with the established hives. I used some tomato stakes as trim pieces, and cut some plywood for a top and a bottom for the temporary hive. By this time, I'm sweating bullets-for the time frame as well as the heat of the day! The bees were still forming the cluster, so I kept spraying them to keep them occupied and calm. I gathered my supplies (veil, mister bottle with sugar water, bee handling gloves, bee brush, long sleeved shirt and pants and last but not least, the smoker. Smoke is used to calm down a normal hive by announcing your presence, and causes the bees to engorge on honey for a perceived forest fire-eat all you can if you have to relocate. I positioned the temporary hive on a cooler below the bird feeder and lit the smoker to give them a gentle puff of smoke...bad idea. I guess I didn't read the part in the books about swarming bees...they get more agitated than ever because they are already on high alert! The crescendo of buzzing got much louder and you could tell someone was going to pay! Uh, that would be me. Some of the bees started to land on my veil, looking for an entrance way to give me my punishment, but to no avail. I quickly changed tactics and put the smoker out! I sprayed them lightly again, then put my hand into the swarm. Bees keep a year round temperature of about 97 degrees, and you can feel this heat through your cool. (or hot!) The queen was walking on the outside of the cluster, the largest insect in the hive. Drones are large with larger eyes, but the queen stands out. They festoon together, using their wonderfully adapted feet, forming chains of bees hooked together. If left to their own devices, scout bees would locate a permanent new home to set up the colony, and dance this message to the throng, and off they would go. This could be a tree trunk, an natural cave or your attic. The one important thing to do is retrieve the queen,so the colony can build it's self up asap. I balanced the make-shift hive under the cluster, about the size of half a basket ball...maybe three thousand bees. I used my trusty bee brush to gently drop the glob into the waiting box. Not all the bees go so easily, and you need as many as you can get to be successful in establishing a new hive. When most of the bees were in the temporary hive, I put on the lid and set it down for any errant bees to find their way, and went off to work. When I got home that night, I called a friend in the local bee society and asked what to do. He said I should get the bees in a permanent home as fast as possible, because they would build comb almost immediately. Robert had an extra hive body and new frames he said I could use, and met me half way to the city to get it. I rushed back to the farm with my goods, and ran about getting it set up to take the baby colony. Finally, I took the bees to the bee yard and attempted to transfer them into a proper home. Here's the other thing about moving angry bees..they don't like to fly or be disturbed after dark..woops. By the time I got back and ready to go, it was almost nine o'clock at night. I opened the lid and was greeted with very mad bees. How did I know they were mad you asked? well, they sounded like mad flies on hot shit...erratic loud buzzing, and at least four stings through my gloves,so angry that I'm not sure they don't have some African blood in them...yes, the killer bees are in parts of Kansas, so I don't know. If they are least they're supposed to be excellent honey producers, just very "touchy".Hmmm. I tapped the angry throng into the box and took off!! yes some followed me all the way back to the house. The next night, I was doing garden tasks and didn't notice that there was still a small number of bees clustered on the corner of the ice chest I'd used for the transfer the day before. It was eight thirty, and I had a feeling I was going to get stung AGAIN. I walked the chest up to the bee yard, and opened the new hive. You got it, more angry nighttime bees! I tapped the small glob of bees into the hive and took off again..., only one sting this time. The new colony would need all the bees to set up shop, so it was necessary to go in the second time. I've been feeding the bees to help them get established, and they seem like they are doing well. Next time, I'll "bee" more equipped to handle a similar situation...It's amazing that it happened less than fifteen feet from my door! The amazing power of nature...


  1. Amazing! Thanks for your story!

  2. What an incredible story. It reads like a good thriller. Good luck with your new hive. Hope it was worth all the stings!

  3. What a great story. I can't wait to hear how they do.

  4. Brian, what an amazing post! How wonderful to have caught a new colony. And quick thinking on your part.

  5. Brian, what luck that you knew what to do - I'd be hooped! Plus the fact that I'm allergic to wasp stings (not sure about bees, but probably) so I'd be terrified of getting stung. From your other posts, it looks like they'll get plenty to forage from, what an amazing place you have!