Crazy things happen with bees, but this is amazing. The day after I lost a swarm last week I was working in the shed getting ready for the holiday when I was summoned with great urgency.
“Rusty, quick, go to the wood pile! You’ve got another swarm.” I couldn’t believe it. Was I going to lose all my bees this summer?
In the trees behind the wood pile I found a great cloud of commotion. The bees were loud and moving slowly north. They passed behind the propane tank, behind the pump house, and were heading toward an alder. Their forward motion seemed to slow and I thought they were going to settle high in that particular tree. Oh great, I thought, just like yesterday a tall spindly alder was going to swallow up my bees and I would never see them again.
But they didn’t settle. I began to worry that if they kept going north they might land in my neighbor’s horse pasture—or the next neighbor’s cow pasture—and I didn’t feel like dealing with it. But the bees started to hover around a young cedar and I knew there was an excellent chance I could get them if they settled there.
From where I was standing, my empty top-bar hive was out of view. It is the only hive I have down near the house and I had completely forgotten about it. It was full of completely drawn comb that was built just last year before it suffered a massive yellow jacket attack. I have pictures of yellow jackets and honey bees rolling around on the ground in mortal combat. Needless to say, the yellow jackets won, and I hadn’t yet decided what to do with the hive.
But as I came around the cedar I couldn’t believe my eyes. The swarm was settling on top of the hive and, in a most orderly fashion, marching through the entrance holes. I still can’t believe it. There—right in front of me—those bees moved in. Within a half hour I had a fully loaded top-bar hive that was purring like a kitten.
So, where did these bees come from? Is it the swarm I lost the day before? Is it a different swarm, but also from my apiary? Did it come from afar? Or did it just move down the hill?
I can’t answer any of these questions. Bees that swarm usually find a temporary resting place close to home, but do not choose a permanent shelter in the shadow of the mother colony. Nature’s way of mixing the gene pool, lowering competition for food, and maximizing chances for survival is to spread daughter colonies a long distance from the parent. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the most favorable housing is found close by and the bees opt for it.
Since my queens are not marked, it is impossible for me to say where these bees came from. From my quick assessment of hive strength, I can’t tell which of my hives threw a swarm. But I have no doubt the first swarm I saw (the one I wrote about earlier) was mine because it settled in a tree right beside the apiary. Later this week I will open everything and I try to figure it out.
Now, here’s the bad news. Beekeepers should never feel victorious. About two hours later I headed out the back door to get a hammer. I was feeling extremely victorious—smug even—about catching a colony by doing nothing at all, when suddenly I heard the unmistakable confusion of a swarm in the leaf canopy above . . . again.
Right away I checked the top bar bees, but they were still there. So it had to be yet another group. In all my beekeeping years I have never seen so many swarms all at once. I’ve spent the last month or more proactively (or so I thought) splitting hives, removing cells, providing extra supers but the bees are swarming like never before. I stood beneath those trees for 40 minutes or so, but never found this most recent group.
I’m not the only beekeeper with multiple swarms this spring. Many folks are blaming the northwest weather—the late spring, the damp days, the dark afternoons. We’ll probably never know. But it certainly is exciting. No matter if you’re gaining them or losing them, there is something primal and compelling about a swarm on the run.