Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Honeybee Swarm!


As it turns out, no bees had moved into my friend Kitty's tree. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, click here.) We think that some scout bees had been checking it out as a possible home, and the one way "door" we installed deterred them.

Now, apparently, word has gotten out that I'm a crazy bee-catching maniac. I got a message on Monday from one of my co-workers that her neighbor's bees were about to swarm, and that her neighbor wanted to give the swarm to a good home. Of course, I called to see what this was all about.

Sure enough, her bees had swarmed, and were hanging out in a tree in her back yard. I was welcome to collect them, if I wanted. After work, I convinced Robb to come along on this crazy adventure. We swung by Kitty's house, and picked up the hive that we had set out, hoping that it would attract the bees Kitty and her husband had seen.

The swarm was as large as a human head. A solid, seething mass of honeybees. The swarm is such a discrete object, that it almost doesn't look real. Robb described it as looking like a sculpture, or like something out of a cartoon.

You might think that this would be terrifying, but it's actually really magical. Or maybe it is terrifying, and I'm more than a little bit insane.

Somewhere in the middle of that gigantic cluster of bees is their queen. Look how orderly they all are -- heads up, wings slightly spread, bellies full of honey that they've taken away from their old hive. At this moment, they are completely calm. It's amazing.

Elizabeth was fearless. She clipped away some of the branches in front of the swarm, without donning gloves. (I have no idea what kind of tree it is, although I correctly guessed that it's from South Africa. Apparently, Northern California and some part of South Africa share similar climates, so we can grow some of their beautiful exotic plants.)

How do I describe catching a swarm? On the most basic level, you have to get the queen to go inside a container, and once she does, the rest of the bees will follow her. Bees want to live in darkness. It's incredibly simple. Or as simple as anything involving countless stinging insects could possibly be.

In this case, I held the hive box, and Elizabeth shook the bees off of the branch. Then she brushed the stragglers into the box. This agitated the bees. We were, to quote Eddie Izzard, covered in bees. For some reason, I was the main target for the bees. I had them clambering into my glove, in the pockets of my jacket and climbing up my stomach.

That was just too much. I just grabbed the hem of my jacket and all my shirts pulled up, and asked Elizabeth to get the bee off of me before it climbed into my bra. Sorry Elizabeth. I don't think I made a very good first impression. (And what a boring bra I was wearing!)

After we had most of the bees in the hive box, we set it with the top slightly ajar, and went home. Elizabeth was headed to her studio, and we wanted to give the bees a chance to settle down for the night. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was kept at her studio until late, and so we decided to pick them up the next day. I think it's safest to transport bees at night, when they've gone to bed, and aren't likely to start flying around in the car.

Somehow, our plan took a wrong turn. Robb and I had left a box of bee-transporting gear in Elizabeth's yard (ratchet straps, duct tape and whatnot). And Elizabeth had thoughtfully set it inside her house, to keep everything dry. Only, we were picking up the bees when she wasn't home, and we didn't know that we wouldn't have access to any of our stuff. (Also, I forgot my phone. Idiot.)


If the last few years have taught us anything, it's how to adapt. Robb and I have become the masters of realizing that life has dealt us a bad hand, and -- with humor and resourcefulness -- turning the whole thing into a winning situation. There's no arguing, no pouting. We assess our situation, and get to work.

The light was failing. We didn't have anything to hold the hive together. Oh well...We wrapped our bees in a shower curtain liner, avoided making sharp turns, and got the bees installed in our back yard without incident.

It's thrilling and addictive, but really, I have to stop collecting wild bees.


Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

OMG! What a story and the pictures are amazing! You are a brave person!

InJuneau said...

I think it's a Bottlebrush Tree

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Tatyana --

I'm actually not particularly brave. The bees are totally mellow.

Okay, maybe I am brave because I didn't completely freak out when the bee was trying to crawl into my bra.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

InJuneau --

The flower clusters were wonderfully asymmetrical. The trees that I think of as bottlebrush trees have cylindrical flower clusters.

But what do I know?

InJuneau said...

Oh, maybe not then. I thought I was seeing cylindrical ones in addition to the ones that look like colorful leaves. Neevermind then!

Anyway, wonderful save of a swarm!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story!
I have heard of bees swarming and was wondering how you catch them. It is not like catching a runaway dog.
How many bee stings did you get?

Christine said...

Awesome story. And a great excuse to get new lingerie!
I think its a grevellia, which I thought was an Australian native, but I'm constantly mixing those communities up.

Kyna said...

Wow, that was crazy! :D

Stefaneener said...

Fantastic! I always carefully suit up for swarms. Just. . . do. At least when the shaking starts. If I found one where I could clip the branch and lower the ball, well then I'd do it bare. That rarely happens, though.

Sheets are your swarm-catching friends. I do my catching if possible in the afternoon, and pick up in the wee hours of the morning, so they're cold and huddled in. And I drive with my veil up!

Enjoy the girls. Nice photo of that swarm. It never stops being enjoyable.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Lisa,
Great photos! I've never seen one of a swarm like that before. It is striking how orderly it looks.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lisa and Robb, I was utterly fascinated reading this account of gathering bees in the wild, or a friend's garden as it happened to be. Your bravery is remarkable and I do admire the way you went about everything as I am not at all sure that I should wish to be in such proximity to a swarm without adequate protection.

I do so agree with Robb that they do have a sculptural quality and I thought your first image most effective indeed.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Stefaneener --

Elizabeth was less interested in "suiting up" but I wanted the protection. My jacket it too big, and the bees slipped under the elastic waistband.

We don't have tons of extra bedsheets, but the shower curtain liner worked really well. When we were preparing to move, we took unwanted clothes and linens to the Goodwill.

We've been doing night pick-ups because I have to be at work so stinkin' early. There's no extra time in my morning schedule. And anyway, I'm pretty much of a failure as a morning person!

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

vrtlarica --

I didn't get stung at all, while we were handling the bees.

The next night, I managed to get a stinger in my pants leg when I picked up the hive box. I think a crushed an innocent bee. But the slight spandex content in my jeans meant that the stinger was *mashed* into my leg. Yee-ouch.

Sheila said...

That is amazing! I can't imagine!

Sylvana said...

That swarm is beautiful. I couldn't imagine remaining calm if a bee was climbing under my shirt!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story. I love bees! What great pictures. I have never seen a swarm. Do you get lots of honey? Wow and only 1 sting. Thanks for the comment on my blog -

Laurrie said...

This is an incredible story and quite an adventure. I had no idea about bees, but boy am I learning, as are you, but I feel so much safer here at my computer than you are out there handling that swarm! Amazing post.

lkw said...

Oh, my goodness! I had no idea what a swarm of honeybees looked like.

Thanks for the insight into what seems to me like a great adventure.


Karyl said...

I'm so jealous of your bees, and I love that you strive to live in a pout free environment.

Molly said...

whoa, those photos of the swarm are amazing! I would love to have beehives but there's so little time, so many fun things to do.

Naseer said...

I'm so scared of bees. That picture of the swarm was terrifying, but very cool. Maybe one day...


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