Thursday, April 08, 2010

Catching a Swarm of Wild Honeybees


It's spring in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the honeybees are swarming!

As I understand it, when a honeybee colony is thriving, it will divide itself, in order to increase its reproductive future. Either the existing queen will leave the colony, with some portion of the colony's populations, or the bees will rear new queens in special "swarm cells." Either way, these bees will fly away from the safety of their hive, and go in search of a new home.

I've been following the adventures of the California beekeepers, who are busy catching these healthy spring swarms. And I've been eating my heart out, because I dearly wanted to learn about this, in person.

Yesterday, I wrote a particularly pathetic plea on my local beekeepers' forum, asking to be invited along on a "swarm call." And today, I got that call. It's funny how wonderful things have been happening on my lunch breaks! First hand feeding wild birds, and now chasing bees!

I gathered up a car-load of gear from home, and drove up into the Oakland hills to meet Larry, who had been watching a local feral colony on his block, and who had already caught a swarm earlier this week. Apparently, there's a huge colony of bees who live in a hollow telephone pole near his home, and every spring they "throw off" swarms. Larry has been keen to catch a swarm, since last spring's swarm season.

When I arrived, Larry told me that the bees had formed a cluster in one of his neighbor's trees. We went to look, and incredibly, they had flown off. The street was buzzing with bees, so I suggested that we look around, in the hopes of figuring out where the bees were. We found them almost immediately, in a low bush. They were all clumped together in a solid mass of bees, which was dangling off of a skinny branch.

At this point, Kevin, another local beekeeper arrived, and we all put our heads together, to decide how to proceed. I had a cardboard box, set of for catching bees, but Kevin suggested that it might be more direct to shake the bees right into a hive box. I jumped into the car, drove home, and came right back with one of my boxes.

After setting drop cloth on the ground, we sprayed sugar water on the bees, which is said to calm them down. (They're busy licking sugar off their legs, and aren't interested in humans.)

And then we stuck the hive box under the bush, and shook the branch. The bees fell neatly onto the open top of the box, buzzed up a storm, and then started crawling inside the box. Bees like to be inside of dark places.

We closed up the top of the hive, leaving a little room for the bees to fly in and out.

Bees "go to bed" at night, and the plan is that I'll go pick up the hive box when I'm done with tonight's rehearsal. I'll drive it back to the house, and set it up in our back yard.

A station wagon full of bees. Sounds like fun!

In the time that I was driving home to get my hive box, another swarm had been spotted. This one was clinging to the trunk of a small weeping mulberry tree. It wasn't going to be possible to shake these bees into a box.

But Kevin came prepared! He had a home made bee-vacuum in the back of his truck.

A bee vacuum sucks bees into a screened box, using (relatively) low pressure suction. It's quite a clever contraption.

I think we gave the neighbors something to talk about. What's nice is that nobody was freaked out. Everyone was delighted by the whole spectacle. (And I should add that donning the geeky beekeeping suit makes you an Instant Expert in most peoples' eye. If they only knew...)

Afterwards, Larry showed us the bees that he had caught, earlier in the week. Three swarms from one colony! What a booming population!

So, everyone wish me luck! Hopefully, when I finish with work tonight, I'll be picking up box-full of bees!

I still hope to get bees from our friend Taylor, but it had been my hope all along to have two colonies. That way, if anything went wrong with one group of bees, I could use the other colony for "spare parts."


Ryan said...

Wow, remind me never to crash into YOUR car! *shaking head* =)

-- Ryan

Em said...

Awesome! I hope you were successful in picking up a box-full this evening! I am looking for a swarm to catch this spring too - it's just now getting to swarming season, so I can't wait to hear if there's one out there for me! My box is coming tomorrow!

Stefaneener said...

Oh, lovely. I personally prefer to wrap them up and take them in the early morning. They're so much more tractable then.

You can also push bees off a tree trunk like that with your hands, "plopping" them into a box. Nice swarms.

The Gillespie Tribe said...

How terribly fascinating!! I love all the pictures =o) Whatever happened to the bees in Kitty's tree?

Christine said...

Congratulations! Sounds like a ton of fun- that bee vacuum is hilarious!

sharp green pencil said...

This is all so fascinating.. I had to laugh a bit at the bee vacuum!
I have to say Lisa that my (probably wrong) perception is that people are far more aware of solitary bees here than in the UK. ..something I may have to change :)
and yes the Sladen book is a joy .. you may well get the copy I had. I should slip a note in it, bit like message in a bottle!

Sylvana said...

My husband and I both loved this post - we've never seen a picture of a bee swarm before.

garden girl said...

Very cool! Good luck with your bees!


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