bee stories swarming

My husband made me do it

It was a Sunday morning, exactly nine days after I split my top-bar hive with a Taranov board. I finished answering e-mails before I walked outside and headlong into a frenzy of darting, diving, dipping insects that were coalescing in a tall Leyland cypress.

I wandered into the midst of the chaos, curious why Leylands attract so many swarms. I wondered if I could bottle it.

The bees continued to spill from the top-bar hive for another few seconds. I had recently checked on the split, and it was fine. It ended up with the old queen and, after only a week, displayed a perfect patch of brood. So this was an after-swarm, probably headed by a virgin queen from one of the 24 queen cells I had seen there.

My husband and I agreed the swarm was too dangerous to get. The tree was skinny and we feared the weight of the extension ladder might damage it, or that a slight shift of the trunk might cause the ladder to topple. We decided to leave it.

“Three packages of bees up there,” he kept saying, which made me feel terrible. But I try not to be stupid about bee retrieval, so I did my best to ignore them . . . and him. My three swarm traps had fresh lures and the bait hive behind the house was stocked with used brood comb and a frame of honey. The best I could do was wait.

One day passed, windy and cold. The second day was stormy, and the night was worse. The third day yielded raindrops the size of jelly beans. The fourth day was cloudy, but clearing. I knew the swarm would soon leave.

“I’ve got an idea,” my husband announced while making breakfast. “I will lash a t-post across the top of the extension ladder so it will rest on two trees instead of one. The weight will be divided between trees and the ladder will be more stable.”

“No way,” I said. “The trees aren’t strong enough to support your weight.”

He gave me an odd look. “Not my weight. Yours.”

I felt instantly sick and left my breakfast on the table.

I spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon stewing. He’s not the beekeeper. He’s doesn’t even like bees. He wants nothing to do with my hobby. So why is he telling me how to do it? And why does he think I should risk life and limb on his Rube Goldberg device? Finally, I got so angry I wanted to prove it wouldn’t work. “All right,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

So while he collected extension ladder, t-post, and cable ties, I assembled tools for catching a swarm, none of which I thought I would need. When all was ready, I gave the dog my cold toast and honey as a farewell gift, and ascended the ladder with cardboard box and hive tool in hand. Any moment now, I thought, the tree, the swarm, and the ladder with me on it will smash a crater into the driveway. And as the bees fly away unscathed, my dying words will be, “I told you so.”


Next time: The iterative method of swarm capture

The quest: a fairly large swarm from the top-bar hive.

The quest: a fairly large swarm from the top-bar hive.

A big ladder for a skinny tree.

A big ladder for a skinny tree.

When life depends on a small block of wood.

When life depends on a small block of wood.

Nylon cable ties connect t-post to extension ladder.

Nylon cable ties connect t-post to extension ladder.

The t-post rests on a neighboring tree.

The t-post rests on a neighboring tree.


  • That is one fine looking swarm! Can’t wait for the sequel, since that means you survived (more or less) unscathed!

  • My fave hive swarmed yesterday – onto a wispy maple branch about the same height. And moved on this morning – past the bait hive into the green yonder. Sigh….
    Do tell – did you retrieve yours?

  • OK, I do not mess around much with comments but I was somewhat concerned with your ladder in that your feet are incorrect for usage. The pointed parts of the feet should be poking into the ground as it anchors the base of the ladder somewhat while if they are flat on dirt it acts more like a small pivot. Having experienced a medium ladder fall I’d encourage you to look into this little pc of wisdom gained by experience.

    • Chester,

      Thanks for the info. I hate ladders, so I had two people holding it while I was up there. Also, the top of the ladder was tied to the tree to keep it from sliding laterally.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I live in Vancouver, WA and I started two hives last spring. In the fall, there were lots of yellowjackets, so I reduced the entrance a lot. On a warm day in January, I decided to pull out the entrance reducer and found the entire entrance all the way across blocked with dead bees. Using the hive tool, I reached in and cleaned out as much as I could and ended up with quite a pile of bees.

    Bees started coming out of the hive like crazy. When I looked inside, I found quite a bit of bee droppings on the frames and inner cover since they were unable to get outside to take a cleansing flight. About the same time, I was hearing from everyone that we needed to feed the bees. Someone told me to get bakers sugar and just sprinkle it on the top cover, and I did. A couple of weeks later, when I checked on the girls, they were dead—it was like they died instantly. Bees were half way in a comb doing some job and then just died. Many were dead on the sugar on the inner cover, and many were dead at the bottom of the hive.

    My guess is that they either got too cold working to get the sugar into the comb, or the sugar itself killed them. My question is what to do now? I have a new nuc coming next month, but I don’t know if the equipment I have is safe for them, or if I need to start with new frames. The old frames are drawn out and many of them are filled with honey, but they are also partially filled with sugar that they bees had started to move in. Are the old frames an asset or a liability to my coming bees? I’d be so grateful for your thoughts!


    • Katie,

      Comb, especially comb containing honey, is a huge asset as long as the hive didn’t die of a disease such as foulbrood or nosema. Based on your description of what happened, it sounds like they died of a combination of not being able to take cleansing flights and not being able to find food. Also, since they couldn’t take cleansing flights, bacteria probably built up on the in-hive feces.

      The powdered sugar did not kill the bees, nor would they store it in the wintertime. Honey or sugar can be very close to the bees while the bees are too cold to go find it. If they get really, really hungry they may go looking for it (like the sugar on your inner cover) and then get so cold they can’t get back to the cluster and end up dying. This is why sugar should not be put on the inner cover but should be placed on the top bars, as close to the cluster as possible. By the way, when you see dead bees with their butts sticking out of the cells, it means they were licking the bottom, trying to get every last morsel of food.

      Colonies often die of hunger even when honey is within inches. It is always a good idea to move the frames of honey as close to the cluster as possible, so they can find it. Bees get so cold they get sluggish and can barely move. When this happens they will starve.

      At this point I would scrape the top of the frames to remove as much feces as possible. Then I would just go ahead and give it to your nuc. They will build up really quickly with all the extra comb and honey.

      Sugar that you see down in the comb could be sugar that fell down there, or that was stuck to the bees and rubbed off. Alternatively, you could be seeing sugar granules from honey that has crystallized. In any case, it is harmless.

  • Rusty,

    “Not my weight. Yours.” Great punch line and as usual you have a great sense of timing.

    I have read that the bees will wait for acceptable weather before they take their cleanings flights, that is, unless they have diarrhea. I am a first time beekeeper and I am not clear on that point.


    • Steve,

      Yes, bees will wait for a warmish day to take cleansing flights. You can often see evidence of it on sunny winter days when they live splotches on the snow. They don’t need a long flight, just a quick in and out.

      Bees can hold their feces for months unless they have diarrhea, which can be caused by a disease such as Nosema apis or from a diet heavy in ash content. If they can’t “hold it” and they can’t get out, they end up fouling the inside of the hive. No only does this look and smell terrible, it also can spread disease.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I know, it’s an old thread. But, I just found it.

    I built a bee vacuum, out of 5-gallon buckets, a broken 1 hp shop vac, and some old swimming pool hose. Works great! Cheap too. Partially my design. The nice thing is, I can attach 1.5″ electrical conduit, to the end, for aerial maneuvers, and those can be stacked. I took a swarm, out of a tree, that was around 33-35′ up. 2 lengths of 10′ conduit, an 8′ stepladder, and I can reach 7-7.5′ . I was one step down, from the top of the ladder. I used a crook in a limb, to rest the conduit on, because my arms we’re worn out. But, I got ’em.

    Had I had another conduit section, I could have remained on the ground, with no ladder. If you want pix, to share, let me know. Al

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