In order to prevent swarming and keep my bees at home, I did the logical thing. By the end of last week, I had split each of my hives into two parts. And because I wanted local queens, I made simple walkaway splits, assuring both halves had eggs and young larvae. I didn’t worry about where the queens ended up because I knew the bees would soon tell me.
Three days later, I found emergency queen cells in half the hives. Perfect! What more could I ask for? After that, I marked my calendar and crossed “splits” off my to-do list. All I had to do was wait for them to finish the job.
The best laid plans
Then yesterday—after three days of cloudy, shivery temperatures and intermittent rain—the sun showed itself in the early afternoon. For the first time in days, the leaves of the trees glowed celery green and glittery sunlight warmed the soil. The roof of my house steamed like a tea kettle.
I reached for my camera and walked up the back slope, looking for the source of the bright red pollen the bumbles were wearing. After I snapped a few unsuccessful shots—bumble bees are nervous creatures—I became aware of an unmistakable sound. I stood up, listening like a cat. A swarm!
Convincing myself of the obvious
But then I talked myself out of it. I just finished splitting, I reasoned, so no one’s going to swarm. Silly me. I resumed my hunt for bumbles, but the sound was insistent and close. I stood up again. “You know it’s a swarm,” I told myself, “so why pretend it’s not? Just go find it.”
So I did. I followed the sound, guided by its intensity. I kept climbing higher and higher, up the steep trail toward my loftiest hive location. It was confusing because the colonies there were noisy, and as I approached them, all the sounds muddled together. But after I passed, the sources separated again, and the swarm sound predominated. I scanned the limbs overhead until I saw it—not the cluster itself, but a place right above it where a miasma of poison-tipped runaways dipped and dove in the sunshine.
An afternoon flight
If you’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, you’ve never really seen a tree. The trees here go up and up until they tickle the underbelly of the cosmos. There is no way you’re ever going to retrieve a swarm from one, so finding the bees is a matter of interest, nothing else.
This particular tree, a big-leaf maple, is clinging to a steep slope about equidistant from my low-elevation hive stand and my highest one. I tried to convince myself the swarm wasn’t from one of my hives, but really? Of course it was from one of mine. It’s only a question of which.
And just as all the books say, “Swarms are likely to occur on the first warm spring afternoon following a rainy spell.” This one issued at about 1 pm. I should have expected it.
By 4 pm, my bait hives were being examined by scouts. Several of them had contingents going in and out of the entrances, circling behind and underneath, and loudly discussing the pros and cons. Still, I know how honey bees operate, and these bees will most likely move a fair distance away. I’ve often seen them get worked up over a bait hive—to the point I was sure they would move in—only to have them ultimately reject it. It’s that democracy thing. Like good citizens everywhere, they need to discuss the issues thoroughly, then vote.
A few stragglers were still out as darkness fell and the rain returned. All night long, I heard the wind. Occasionally the thrashing was punctuated by torrential downpours, and these were followed by more wind. I kept thinking about those bees getting beaten by raindrops the size of marbles and battered by maple leaves as large as dinner plates.
Camping in bad weather
In years past, I’ve watched many swarms in just such a position. One year, a swarm remained in a maple tree for eight full days of rain and hail before it finally took off, seemingly none the worse for wear. I remember watching the bees until my neck hurt, and talking to them about available real estate. Many times, I’ve wondered where they finally went and why they went there.
Then, too, I always think of these “campers” when a beekeeper has a hissy fit about opening a hive—even for a just a second—in the rain or in the cold or the wind. Yes, I know, brood is more delicate than adult bees. But even so, I think our bees are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They are tough creatures. Honey bees are built to last through the eons, even as other creature, other plants, and other climates come and go.
Bees are built to last, but
This is the end of my story, although it’s not the end of theirs. Just like other swarms, I know they have a good probability of setting up a new home, but a low probability of making it through the first winter. I share this story simply because I think honey bees—especially swarms—are endlessly fascinating and hopelessly complex, especially for our mere mortal minds.
Honey Bee Suite