All week the front of Beatrix had been covered with bees, even when temperatures were not high enough to expect such bearding. A sign that swarming was in her future. Finally on Saturday, just as we were about to have a lunch delayed by morning chores, we spotted bees swirling around Beatrix and her face clear. As the air about her emptied and a lighter covering of bees reappeared on her face we looked with anticipation towards our scion and found it devoid of bees.

Abandoning our lunch we went out to try finding the bivouacked bees and discovered a large cluster deep in thicket and high in tree. As when we caught our last swarm we lopped and sawed a path to the base of the tree. Reluctant to try reaching them by ladder we hastily improvised a kind of Steinkraus-Morse swarm catcher. Drilling a hole in the bottom center of a five-gallon bucket we screwed in the threaded end of a telescoping pole we had obtained to change inaccessible light bulbs. We screwed one of the bulb changing attachments inside the bucket. Not the most rigid connection but it served.

After setting up a two-story nuc1 minus the outer cover under the tree and extending the pole we began the cycle of:

  • Raise the bucket towards the cluster of bees.

  • Cover the cluster with the bucket.

  • Sharply lift the bucket to strike the branch, causing the cluster to fall in.

  • Pull back the pole.2

  • Pour bees from the bucket onto the inner cover.

  • Watch them scurry in through the hole.

Some bees took flight rather than settle into the bucket but the recoalescing cluster was smaller each iteration until eventually it had insufficient mass to fall in the bucket. Dislodging it just shook all the bees into flight. Leaving them to find their own way to the nuc, where bees were fanning, we then took the triumphant photo shown and retired for a very much further delayed lunch.

There remained the task of moving the nuc stack to the apiary. The usual procedure for moving a caught swarm would be to wait until dusk when all the bees were within, seal the entrance, strap the nuc/hive parts together, and just carry the box off to its new location. Unfortunately we were quite exhausted from our exertions on a hot day with empty stomachs and with dusk coming late. Tired, sleepy beekeepers moving a well-populated stack of nuc bodies along uneven ground in the dark seemed unwise. Instead we decided to leave them overnight and get up early to move them upon our waking, not delaying for breakfast or ought else. We added another nuc body atop the inner cover and placed a jar of syrup within it to keep them occupied.

Unfortunately the bees had gotten up earlier and more than a few were already flying about. We could have proceeded and left the fliers to fend for themselves but instead we delayed until the rains came that evening to drive all the bees within. We were less tired but the stack was taller than before due to the feeder and rain was falling. It still seemed unwise to move them just then but we did tape some screen over the entrance to contain the bees without suffocating them until we could move them at our leisure.

The next morning, not too early and after breakfast, we found the confined bees checking out the screen, eager to start their work. We did the requisite strapping together of nuc parts and were able to carefully slide the stack onto our garden cart, which we then pulled to the hive stand in the apiary, trying not to tilt the cart too much. Lifting the stack onto the stand, we unstrapped, unscreened, and dropped a clump of grass to obscure the entrance and encourage reorientation, just in case any had already imprinted on the old location.

And so Cerys has joined Angharad and Blodwyn.

1The swarm seemed much too large for a single nuc body.
2Lifting the bucket was easy but when lowering it the other end of the pole kept finding branches on which to catch and interfere with emptying the bucket. So while one of us did the bee collecting the other kept trimming away the obstacles.

Having made our scion we next needed to put it in place. Some simply put the scion on a pole or hang it from a tree branch and still use a ladder to reach the swarm, content with having the swarm at a reasonable height and accessible location. Others avoid ladders entirely and throw a rope over a branch to raise and lower the scion. We opted to build a rudimentary scaffold and use a rope and pulleys.

We used treated lumber, which may make some nervous but we assured ourselves that the bees will not be spending much time on it and the treatments are much less toxic than they once were.

We had planned on using lumber with the usual bodger’s two-by-four dimensions but in these times of irregular supply chains we had to settle for one-by-eights.

The arm need not be too long, just long enough to discourage bees from overflowing the scion onto the upright. For us, that was a two-or-so-foot piece of our lumber. We overlapped one end of it with one end of the eight foot upright, forming a right angle, and attached with one and one quarter screws. We had some problems finding sufficiently short deck screws.

The one advantage of using such wide boards is that we need not worry about attaching a diagonal support to prevent the arm sagging.

We then flipped the assembly and added some screws from the other side. This may not have been strictly necessary but with such short screws we felt better having some holding from each side.

Next we cut one more short piece of lumber to cover the arm and butt up against the upright. We attached it with the usual decking screws along the top. Along the bottom we positioned two pulleys, one near but a little away from the upright and the other near the end of the arm.

We threaded our plastic rope through the pulleys. The rope needs to be of a length that allows the scion to be in the bucket while someone comfortably holds the other end. That is roughly twice the height of the scaffold plus the length of the arm. Our is somewhat longer and we could not be bothered to cut it shorter.

At the end that would hold the scion, we tied a carabiner for quick connection to and disconnection from the eye screw in our scion. We attached a rope cleat on the upright edge opposite the arm. This was to allow the person doing the lowering, if not in a bee suit, to be a little further from the scion.

Scions seem to often be positioned in front of hives, presumably to better get a swarm’s attention, but that would be a windy location for us and require us to solve the problem of anchoring our scaffold to the ground. Also, the swarms we have caught had bivouacked behind our hives. Instead we looked among the carnage wrought by our last capture, hoping for a straightish tree trunk to which we could attach our construction, and found a suitable clump of two trunks we had cut to a few feet in height. Between them we cut a rude slot into which we jammed the base of our scaffold and stabilized it by running a pair of those long bolts used to fasten landscape timbers through one trunk, the scaffold held vertical, and into the other trunk.

We attached our anointed scion to the carabiner and raised it, winding the rope around the cleat. We had far too much rope to fit so we tied the rest around another stump. With the arm pointing into the woods, the scion is somewhat protected from wind by the surrounding trees. And now, with the scion visible from several windows of our house, we wait and watch.

When we first read about the Russian Scion on Sassafras Bee Farm‘s blog it was a little known tool in the USA. Now, years later, instructions and references and even videos are quite easy to find online.

As a quick reminder, after leaving its hive a swarm will collect nearby at a bivouac location until, based on scout reports, it decides on a new home. Then it flies off to occupy it. Just as a bait hive or swarm trap is a lure for such occupation, the scion is a lure for bivouacking. In each case the lure is installed where it should be attractive to a swarm and convenient for the beekeeper.

The common form of a scion consists of two pieces of wood, a flat roof piece and a centrally located, narrow, descending piece, and some sort of mounting hardware. The descender is covered in cloth that is impregnated with propolis, wax, and whatever smells welcoming to bees. The roof keeps rain from washing away the smells. And the mounting hardware is for hanging and removal of the scion.

A recent innovation is to use the lid of a five gallon bucket as a layer atop the roof piece. This allows the captured swarm to be easily contained in the bucket and transported to the awaiting hive. For our bucket we used one with a screw-on rather than snap-on lid with the notion that it would be gentler on any swarm we sealed within.

We began by cutting a disc of half-inch plywood of radius to cover as much of the lid bottom as possible while allowing us to close the lid.

We used a zipsaw with a plywood bit because ours had a circle-cutting jig. Such jigs are also available for sabersaw and router but the roof need not be a perfect circle or even a circle at all. The bees should not mind some plastic showing around the edges so even sawing a square is fine for the jigless.

Centering the disc on the underside of the bucket lid we drilled through both at the mark left by our jig using a large enough drill bit to accommodate the largish eye screw that would be our mounting hardware.

The descending part of our scion is some inch square cedar scrap. We cut its length to a bit less than bucket depth. At the center of one end face we drilled a hole for the just mentioned eye screw.

A thick dowel could also serve. We considered cutting an old broomstick handle but drilling the central hole would have been more challenging. Maybe not that much more since this does not need to be perfect either.

A long descender is better for catching larger swarms but if too long will either keep the lid from closing the bucket or crush bees on the bucket bottom. Our overcomplicated way to maximize length was to first assemble the scion by screwing the eye screw through the holes in the bucket lid, plywood disc, and descender, in that order. Next we laid a tiny scrap of 3/4 inch plywood in the bottom of the bucket and dusted the top of the scrap with powdered chalk. Then we screwed our lid onto the bucket as far as we could. If it bottomed out against the plywood scrap, which we could tell by the dust on the end, then we trimmed a tiny bit off the descender and repeated the process until the end came up clean. At that point we, of course, returned the chalky scrap to our collection of little bits that would be thrown away if not for uses like these.

Once the descender was the right size we applied a little wood glue to the end that would touch our plywood disc and reassembled the scion for the last time.

The disc did not sit quite flat against the bucket lid and wobbled a bit so we added four small screws to hold it more securely. In hindsight they would hold better had we placed them further from center but they seem to be adequate for the job.

Any swarms we catch will not have far to go to be re-housed but we felt uncomfortable at the thought of sealing bees in a non-ventilated container and decided to provide some airholes somewhere around the bucket rim. An inch square of number eight hardware cloth seemed as if it would be adequate ventilation but we did not know how to easily and reliably attach it. So we decided that sixty-four holes of one-eighth inch diameter would be a rough equivalent. Then we ran out of patience after drilling thirty-two. It seemed somehow even more tedious by our drilling from the inside of the bucket outwards in order to put the roughest sharpest edges where bees will not be in danger of cutting themselves.

We then stapled some burlap around the descender and rubbed it heavily with the swarm lure we recently made. And finally we installed the scion outdoors, which will be covered in a future post.

Yes, oft misquoted, the witches in Macbeth did say "double" rather than "bubble". But then lemongrass oil is too wholesome an ingredient for their recipe so we are not being entirely accurate ourselves.

In preparation for luring swarms onto scion, of which more posts are imminent, or into nucs we have recently made a batch of lure with a version of the recipe we found on beekeeper Linda Tillman’s site. It has been said that the most active ingredient is the lemongrass oil while the beeswax and olive oil mostly provide a slow-release vehicle for it. But the beeswax probably provides some welcoming-to-bees smells as well. Not sure what they will make of the olive oil.

  • 1/4 cup(59ml) of olive oil

  • 1/2 oz(15g) beeswax

  • Not in the original recipe, we added a similarly sized chunk of propolis for additional welcoming-to-bees smells.

  • 20 or more drops of lemongrass oil

  1. In a double boiler gently warm the oil and melt the wax(plus propolis) in it, stirring as needed. Since anything once used for melting wax becomes unusable for anything else, we did our warming and melting right in the jar, set upon a trivet in a water bath.

  2. Let it cool for just a few minutes. Cool too long and adding the lemongrass oil becomes impossible. In that case reheat and repeat.

  3. Stir in the lemongrass oil and leave to cool entirely. The result is a paste.

Ours was actually setting up harder than expected so we reheated and mixed in a little more oil.

Our other mistake may have been to make a triple batch since we found out later that the lemongrass oil supposedly loses effectiveness after a year but we wanted to be certain of having enough to impregnate the burlap we shall use for our scion.

Sassafras Bee Farm Blog PictureThe Sassafras Bee Farm has impressively been blogging daily for the last two months, finding wonderful bits of beekeeping lore to report. We were excited by a particular recent post, which we shall cover after some introductory verbiage for the sake of non-beekeeping readers or just plain pedantry.

Swarming is the method by which honeybee colonies reproduce. When a colony grows large enough some bees will depart the hive with the reigning queen to find a new home while the remainder raise a new queen and carry on. Under favorable circumstances it is possible for a booming hive to cast several swarms in a season. As satisfying as this may be to the bees it is a loss for the beekeeper unless the swarm can be recaptured. This is why there are so many techniques to try to prevent swarming1.

When a swarm leaves its former home it does not proceed directly to a new one. Instead it clusters in a bivouac location until, based upon reports from scouts, it chooses its new habitation2 and flies thither. This provides an opportunity for the beekeeper whose hive has swarmed to collect and re-house the bees before they can choose to leave the apiary altogether. Unfortunately the bivouac location can be out of sight3, leaving the beekeeper unaware that swarming is occurring, or inaccessible as up a tree beyond the reach of the longest available ladder, swarm catching pole, or the beekeeper’s foolhardiness.

As a fallback the beekeeper can hang swarm traps, also called bait hives, in likely locations away from the apiary. These are suitably sized and scented boxes made to entice the scouts to convince their swarm to take up residence after which the beekeeper takes the box to the apiary and moves the bees to a proper hive. Of course, it may be someone else’s swarm that is caught.

Now from Sassafras Bee Farm we learn of another way to keep one’s own swarms, the Russian scion. This technique essentially applies the principle of the bait hive to the bivouac location. A tallish pole (perhaps ten feet high) is placed not very far in front of the hives. Larger beeyards may have more than one. Atop the pole is hung the scion. While there are more elaborate designs involving covered mesh baskets, it need only be a simple roof about a foot square to provide a bit of shelter to the lure beneath it. The lure can be a short, vertical length of wood covered in propolyzed burlap. Or just the propolized burlap itself hanging beneath. Or even an old frame. The bait may also be perfumed by some of the usual lemony essential oils. While the presence of this bait will not cause swarming it provides a convenient place for a swarm to bivouac which is easily seen and reached by the beekeeper.

Should Beatrix survive the remainder of winter she will surely cast a swarm if we are not timely in splitting her. Considering how often life and weather prevent us from timely care of our bees, a scion would be reassuring. We shall see if we are timely in constructing one.

1It is as easy as preventing teens from having sex.
2As described in Dr. Thomas Seeley’s HoneyBee Democracy
3 Ours was.