The iterative method of swarm capture
Part way up the ladder I stopped. The cardboard box I carried kept catching in the branches. The box was too big—I knew that—but I liked it because it was deep. I was hoping it would restrain the swarm longer than a shallow box. Standing on the ladder was not the best place to try new things, but what the heck.
Much to my surprise, the ladder was steady and felt right. As soon as I stepped on it, I knew it would be okay. Engineers pride themselves on designing systems that “barely work,” and my husband, being one, did himself proud: although it barely worked, it worked just fine.
The swarm hung from a branch but was wrapped around the trunk, playing hard to get. Once I got the box under the swarm, I used the hive tool to scrape the bees from the trunk into the box. It was a big swarm, and I felt like I got two-thirds of it before it started to rise out of the box. I closed the lid and climbed down.
My husband had promised to steady the ladder from below, and he had been patient while I struggled with box, bees, and branches. But as I started down the ladder enrobed in a haze of bees, he said, “I’ve got to leave.”
“No!” I said, still worried about the ladder and the now heavy box. “Don’t go!”
“I’ve got to. Bees all over the place!” he said, running toward the creek.
“What the (deleted) did you expect?” I hollered back. “I’m not picking berries up here.”
Once on the ground, I carried the box around to the back of the house and dumped it into the bait hive I set up last week. The mass of bees seemed to orient and examine the surrounds.
I let the remaining part settle for maybe twenty minutes, then I went back up to get it. To make things easier, I took a plastic bag instead of the box. The swarm seemed a lot bigger now, and I began to think I’d captured only half of it. So I swiped as much as possible into the bag and added it to first group.
By the time I went up the third time, I was comfortable on the ladder, but I was still having trouble scraping the bees into the bag because of all the little branches. This time, the weight of the first clump of bees caused the plastic to fold over on itself, so the ensuing clumps missed the bag completely. I dumped what little I got on the third try into the hive and, again, waited for the swarm to settle.
Seeing the trouble I was having, my husband suggested I use the butterfly net.
The butterfly net! Why didn’t I think of that—it was deep, easy to handle, and I could ease it over the swarm before I began to scrape. Excellent suggestion.
The swarm seemed even bigger than before, but I was undaunted. I climbed a fourth time, fit the net over the swarm, and knocked it in. The net was so heavy the handle bent like a bow. I flipped the net over to lock the bees inside and maneuvered it down the ladder. I couldn’t believe the weight.
I dumped the bees into the hive assuming I was done. Bees clouded around the hive, the ladder hadn’t collapsed, and the tree was still standing—all good things. I went to the front yard and sipped a glass of water. But when I looked into the tree, I was amazed: the swarm was still clearly visible. I decided to get more of it.
So for the fifth time, I ascended the ladder and came down with a load of bees. But this time, before dumping them in, I decided to have a look in the hive. I opened the lid and peered down through the frames, and what did I see? A dozen bees, maybe twenty. The rest were gone!
In all my swarm catching days, the swarms always stayed where I put them, but these bees were going right back to their tree, to the very same branch. This was new to me. I decided that I must be missing the queen each time. She must be nestled in a branch and protected from my scraping and swiping. Or maybe I killed her. Bees were dying in this process, and maybe she was a victim. Would the bees go back to their branch without her? I wasn’t sure anymore.
At that point, I remembered there was some queen mandibular pheromone (QMP) in the freezer. QMP can be used to hold a queenless colony together until a queen can be obtained. The stuff was ancient—maybe ten years old—and I can’t even remember why I had it. But I got it out of the freezer, put one of the plastic straws in the bait hive, and went up the ladder for the sixth time.
This time, the clump of bees held. As soon as I dumped them in, they clamored over themselves to get to the lure, smitten by a piece of pheromone-laced plastic. They didn’t try to kill it; they were enthralled by it.
So up I went the seventh time. I got a good load, brought it back, dumped it in. It was like magic, but not the kind I expected. The bees flowed out of the net, but when they hit the top bars, instead of going down between, they bounced as if on a trampoline. In one clean motion, they glanced off the bars, lifted, and flew away. The bees cooing over the QMP were the only ones left in the hive.
If insanity is defined as repeating the same action while expecting a different outcome, I was well on my way. This had to stop. I gave up. Discouraged, I closed up the hive and returned to the front yard.
I stood there, hands on hips, eyes on the swarm when suddenly the noise increased. The swarm expanded, slowly at first, then rose into the air. I stood amidst the chaos, trying to perceive its direction. I was almost sure it was moving toward the house . . . yes . . . over the house and . . . yes, you won’t believe this . . . into the bait hive. The same hive I tried seven times to get them into; the one they flowed from less than five minutes before. Like a mob of teenagers, it had to be their idea, not mine.
So what happened? Had the swarm been considering the bait hive all along? Would it have gone there had I left them alone? Did the QMP have anything to do with it or nothing at all? Why did the bees boomerang back to their branch all the time? Did they have a queen? What made this swarm so different?
I have no answers to these questions. I removed the QMP, gave them a frame of eggs and young larvae, a frame of honey, and two boxes of drawn comb. So far, they are still there, but they haven’t said why.