Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Easy come, easy GO! My first swarm catch hits the road!

When I went to bed on Sunday night, I figured Monday would be just like any other Monday...and that's really busy. And I wasn't disappointed in the least. But I got a great surprise around 9 o'clock Monday morning. That's when one of the guys that works in my office called the house to say that a public school in the county had a swarm of honey bees on a picnic table and wanted them gone and would I be interested in getting them. The answer was a resounding YES! 

I called the Rockingham County High School which is 8-miles from my house and in the county seat of Wentworth. The school's secretary told me they did in-fact have a swarm on the school grounds. She told me they were under a picnic table and they would like to give them away to a good home. She said one of the teachers heard me talk on my television show about being a beekeeper, so they immediately thought of me and wanted me to come get them. I told her it would take me a few minutes to get there, so I ran and loaded up an empty hive and a spray bottle of syrup and my veil and headed to the school. When I got there about a half hour later, I was met by a friend who is the school resource officer (a deputy sheriff assigned to guard the school). Jeff Strader, the deputy and one of my former co-workers at the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office, guided me to a courtyard just outside of the school cafeteria. And there they were...a big, golden blob of honeybees.

The colony had landed under the end of a picnic table. A teacher told me that they weren't there on Friday afternoon, so its obvious they found their new digs sometime over the weekend. They were very docile, there wasn't any flying around, they were tightly clumped and very still. I got very close to check them out and they never flinched with my bare face just inches from them. So I decided to put on my coveralls and veil and go to work to get them in the hive.

Here's a closer look at the wayward colony. As you can see, the cluster is a little smaller than a basketball. They were in a perfect spot, under the edge of the table at the end...a great place to put the empty hive. So I sprayed the colony really well with sugar syrup, then I picked up the edge of the table and let it drop. The cluster plopped right into the empty hive. By this time, one of the classes stopped what they were doing to come out and watch. Ron Wheeler's automotive technology class watched intently while I collected the stray colony. The students were quiet as church mice until I dropped the table -- then all you heard was "ohhhhhs" and "ahhhhhs" from the future auto mechanics. I felt a little uncomfortable at first, not for their safety but because I was catching my first swarm and now I had an audience watching my every move. But they were super and quiet and asked some really great questions later. They were a great audience. 

Here you see the bees as they were dropped into the hive. Once they fell, most stayed inside and some perched on the top of the frames and went to work fanning their pheremones into the air. And for the first time in two years of beekeeping, I got stung. It was my own fault, I squashed a bee with my bare hand that I didn't see. She was on my leg and when I put my hand over her, she got me on the edge of my hand. I scraped the stinger out with my hive tool. I also carry sting swabs in my tool box so I put one on the sting spot and it didn't hurt anymore. Those sting swabs are great.

I waited about 45 minutes for the stragglers to find their way back and then I put the top on the hive. Once I noticed some coming and going from the entrance, and since it was getting close to lunchtime when more students would be around, I decided to stuff my glove in the entrance, load my girls in the truck, and head for home. There were few bees still lingering around the table when I left, but to make sure no one would get stung, I helped Jeff put yellow caution tape around the picnic area to keep the kids out for the rest of the day.

I've read hundreds of accounts of catching swarms, and watched countless YouTube videos too. So feeling pretty confident that I did everything right, I got the bees to my house and put them in their place of honor next to my other bustling colony in the "lemon" hive. I put an entrance reducer on the front and then made some sugar syrup and put a hive top feeder on. I pictured them getting started on drawing comb and living like - well - queens. End of story. Right?

WRONG! After an hour of watching the occasional bee come and go -- all of a sudden, one bee, then tens of bees, then hundreds of bees and then thousainds of bees came boiling out of the hive. No, this wasn't an orientation flight buzz of bees...this was a swarm of bees. My honey bees, my very first swarm catch, the colony I had every intention of turning into a thriving metropolis...had other ideas and decided to hit the road yet again. And all I could do is stand by helplessly and watch them take to the sky. Honestly it broke my heart to watch them leave and to know that my hard work was pretty much all for nothing.

Just across the creek from my hive is where they landed. They were up about 20-feet off the ground and landed on the side of a pine tree entangled with vines and poison sumac. I watched them perched there for about a half-hour, then I went inside and made a few phone calls, and when I returned to check on them, they were gone. I saw a few bees flying around the spot where they landed, but for the most part, the colony had disappeared. I'm not sure if this pine tree has a hollow spot in it, and for all I know they could be deep inside it, but I don't think so. I just hope they like their new place...wherever that may be.

If I get another call tomorrow to come get an escaped colony of bees, I will do it in a heartbeat. Am I disappointed? Of course I'm disappointed, but I look at it as a two way learning experience. I learned how to catch a swarm, and the students at Rockingham County High School learned that saving the honeybees is extremely important. A school is a place of learning, and besides teaching the young people valuable lessons, I learned one on Monday too. It was an experience I wouldn't take anything for even though it didn't work out like I hoped.

On to other news, next week I'm getting another queen from Busy Bee Apiary...and I'm planning to split my current colony. I'm just hoping and I've got my fingers crossed that I'll have better luck with my split than I had with the swarm from the high school.

Thanks to the staff at Rockingham County High School for thinking of me when they found the swarm, and if another colony drops in anytime soon, please keep me in mind. My motto is; Have hive, will travel!


  1. Cool story. I've never done this myself. Did you see a queen by any chance? Was there any drawn comb on the frames? Perhaps completly closing the entrance for a couple of days might have made a difference?

  2. Mark - What an excellent post. A great learning experience for you and a group of lucky students. Too bad they didn't stay, but I think it's not uncommon for bees to swarm twice. I'll bet you get lots of opportunities to catch swarms this season. Better be prepared with lots of equipment. Free bees are the best.

    We had the first bear of the season last evening. Big guy - about 300 pounds! Now I get to start worrying about my hives again. Oh well, life in the mountains. And guess what? We had some snow this afternoon! Know of any nice homes for sale in the Triad? ;)

  3. Steve: Good to hear from you! Nope, I never saw the queen. The swarm was so big, when they dropped into the hive box, there were bees everywhere. After about a half-hour, they settled down enough and scattered throughout the hive so I could close it up and transort it home.

    You brought up some great points. No, I didn't have any drawn comb available. All I had was in my current colony. But next time, I am going to shake the bees off a frame or two in one hive and put it in the hive with the new swarm. And as far as letting them sit in the hive for a day or so, I think that's a great idea. I was talking to my friend Jared who said the same thing. So next time I think I'll sit the hive under my storage building in the shade with screen wire over the entrance and let them settle, then move the hive at night and remove the screen so they can orient themselves during the day. I have learned a lot of things I will do next time.

    Lynn: Hey my friend! Thanks for the Facebook post too! Always great to hear from you.

    I have two hive set-ups ready to go now, but I plan to split my current colony next week if I get the queen from Chapel Hill. They said the first week of May would be the available date, so even if I catch another after that, I still have a stand-by hive. I'm ready when they are.

    I read last week that some police department in southern Virginia shot and killed a bear. So I knew it wouldn't be long before they would be venturing out. It always bothers me when I hear of police killing a bear, if you think about it, its man's fault they're venturing out and becoming more bold which ends up getting them killed. Poor guys. But if people in the flatlands only treated them like the folks in the mountains, I think everyone would get along fine.

    Yes, there are los of houses in the Triad for sale, so c'mon down! :)

  4. Mark:
    My first swarm capture left by noon the first day. The next two worked out much better, I kept one and the other went to someone whose bees had absconded. Both seem to like their new homes.
    Someone on the Organic Beekeepers (Yahoo) said too much old comb is a waste of time for a swarm. According to him, the swarming bees get in Max-Wax-making mode before they swarm. When they pick a site they immediately start putting out wax for comb.
    When I collected my Playa Vista swarm I could see little specks of wax where they had started to make comb. They filled a five frame nuc in 10 days and another five frames in two weeks after they were put in a medium super.
    I do like the idea of leaving them closed up over night so they can settle in.
    Best of luck on the next capture. (Swarm notices often show up on Craig's list around here.)

  5. Dennis: Thanks for dropping by and its good to hear from you as always!

    Its amazing that you brought up the "specks of wax" you found when you got one of your swarms. I too found the exact same thing. The school personnel said the swarm wasn't there Friday, and I got them on Monday..so they had been there somewhere around 24-48 hours and started making comb. So keep that in your memory bank for future reference to determine how long a swarm has lighted.

    I read or heard somewhere that "tree bees" tend to go back to their natural habitat and not stay in man-made hives. Who knows if its true or not? This swarm went into a tall pine tree, and my hive is made from pine -- so I don't know what the difference would be.

    Thanks for your support and I am standing by for my next call. Good luck with your girls!

  6. Congrats on your first swarm catch! I haven't had one yet... but sure looked like a nice job. The bees just had other ideas. Thanks for sharing :)

  7. Great job collecting the swarm, to bad they decided to swarm again. I enjoined reading the post nevertheless. Hopefully I will get a chance sometime to capture a swarm. My wife went to Rockingham County High School back in 1996. Was the sectary still Mrs. Plainte?

  8. Hi Mark,

    Great post. What a perfect swarm to catch! Right under a table. It would have been awful watching them fly away. Bummer! You are right, at least you educated those kids about saving honey bees (an how they don't swarm and attack, too).

  9. Beau: Thanks a lot and its great to hear from you. I see you have some new bees to expand the family! And the hive picture looks nice, I like the layout. With this being May, I'm hoping I'll get another shot at a swarm. A friend of mine and another person on Facebook told me they both drove through swarms this week...going down the highway. So they're out there, I just need to find them. Good luck, my friend!

    Greg: Thanks and welcome to my blog. I have no clue who the secretary was. She said her name but I really don't recall, I was so excited about the swarm that it didn't register. I know that Mr. Hales who teaches there is the one that had them call me. Hang in there buddy, with this being May, and a lot of swarming happening now, you may get that chance. Stay in touch!

    Jessica: Hey little Momma! I just left a message on your latest post. Gosh with goats, and alpacas, and chickens and bees...and a baby coming along too...that farm is getting busy! But I know they're gettig excellent care with you and Glenn and Oliver looking after things. Oh, remind me to tell you the story about the man I arrested on a warrant who was walking his goat on a leash down the road. Its a great story! :)

  10. I'd consider this a great practice run! They didn't even give you time to put in a frame of brood to keep them busy. They must have had another spot in mind all along.



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