Last Saturday our gardening was once again interrupted when we spotted a swarm, our second of the season, clustered on a branch at the edge of a thicket on the eastern border of our apiary. As we had done a little over a week before, we hastily dropped everything to suit up and grab our equipment to catch the swarm and hive it before it decided to fly off and take up residence away from us.
Take 1 Feeling like old hands at this swarm capture lark, we moved with confidence. Up the step ladder to shake the cluster into a cardboard box and back down the step ladder to pour the bees into the nucleus hive on the ground. Repeat as needed.

Unfortunately the bees we caught decided they would rather depart the nuc and recluster in their original location.

Take 2 Could we have missed getting the queen? It seemed unlikely since we had caught the main mass of the cluster. The bees were surely just taunting the beekeepers as bees will do. Undeterred we climbed the ladder, cut off the bee-laden branch, and carried it to the nuc. Shaking the cluster into the nuc, we disposed of the branch to deny them a familiar distraction from the home we were offering.

The bees summarily left the nuc and reclustered on another branch deeper in the thicket and higher up.

Take 3 Trading the nuc box for another that was a litte more propolyzed, we added a wee drop of lemony scented lure, just for good measure. Then hacking our way to their location, leaving a mess of twigs, branches, and entire saplings in the yard, we again set up the ladder to cut the branch on which they were clustered.

Actually we set up two ladders. They had clustered at the fork of a thick, long-dead branch. While one of us held the branch immobile the other trimmed off excess length and finally cut away the fork. Carefully carrying it to the nuc we once again shook the bees into the nuc on the ground.

This time we were rewarded with a few fanners at the entrance, bums in the air, wings spreading the homing scent of Nasonov. A small tide of bees walked into the nuc and we felt quite pleased until we noticed the growing tide leaving.

The bees left the nuc and reclustered on a sapling trunk yet deeper in the thicket and yet higher up, quite out of range of the step ladders we had.
Take 4 We paused in our relentless yet feckless chop-and-shake pursuit to have a little think albeit without the cuppa tea and came up with a cunning plan.

Instead of felling the tree, we partially cut through the trunk at a little more than ladder height and then carefully bent it down to be roughly parallel to the ground. We now moved the ladder under the cluster and placed the nuc on the ladder shelf so that the bees were directly above the open nuc. Now you will not be expecting the next bit but we shook the bees into the nuc one more time.

At last the bees seemed to become cooperative. The face of the nuc was covered with fanning bees and fliers were landing all over it to walk into the entrance. We were elated by our hard-won success but there would be one more brief shock.

As we complacently watched the bees entering the nuc, we remarked on the way our each attempt at capture had sent them ever deeper and ever higher into the thicket, whereupon we spied a cluster of bees impenetrably deeper in the thicket and impossibly higher. Our spirits fell for a few seconds until we noticed that the surface of the cluster seemed oddly boiling. Over the next several minutes it diminished as its bees joined the rest of the swarm in the nuc, abandoning this last bivouac. Elated once more, we went to the house for dinner and a rest, returning to collect the nuc at dusk when all the bees would be within.

And so the nuc, wee Angharad reborn, has joined the full hives in our apiary.

Wednesday was our first warm and sunny day since the inspection and the bees took advantage. Luckily so did the Mrs. who interrupted her late afternoon gardening to look at the hives, whereupon she spotted the swarm hanging from a sumac. We hastily sprang into action, suiting up and grabbing some equipment: a ladder, loppers, pruning shears, and a nuc. Then we remembered that we had an empty hive waiting.

Abandoning the nuc we seized a large cardboard box and dropped the cluster (most of it) in. Clapping on the lid we carried it over to Dorcas, opened the hive, and poured in the bees. Covering the opening in the hive roof with a denim cloth, we returned to the sumac where the bees that had taken flight and escaped the box were regrouping. Into the box with most of this lot and over to the hive. Repeat with diminishing returns for several iterations. The bees were enjoying this game much less than we but no one got stung.

Ideally we should have followed the procedure from catching our first swarm and moved Dorcas under the sumac for that first load of bees, and then simply allowed the fanning bees to guide the rest in. But these hives are heavy and while we, sturdy for our age, could have managed, it was far easier to ferry a box at a time to Dorcas in her customary location.

It was a large swarm (we assume from Beatrix) so it is well that Dorcas had eight bars of space ready. Her face became covered with bees, some fanning, which we took to be a good sign. When we tired of ferrying an ever-decreasing number of bees we put all the top bars back in Dorcas but did not reroof her yet, merely placed the denim cloth over it all and weighed it down with some handy scrap lumber.

We popped a few entrance corks, returned to the house to quickly make up two quarts of syrup, and rushed back out to put the jars within the hive’s closet. Then we finally restored the eke and roof and stood back to watch for a bit before tidying up. An hour or so later there were no bees covering the hive but a fanning bee at each entrance hole. A look through the observation window showed a large number within getting down to work.

We are back to three hives.

We have remarkable news towards the end of this post but, first, some background is required. A few years ago the late Roger Sutherland decided to become less active in SEMBA. For his years of service the organization decided that a horizontal top-bar hive would be a suitable gift, allowing beekeeping without heavy lifting. Winn Harliss, another well known and generous local beekeeper, volunteered to construct it. Researching the unfamiliar style of hive, he dutifully provided what seemed the necessary features but could never quite embrace the novelty and forget long-entrenched, Langstroth habits. The design began as a Kenyan hive with sides sloping at sixty degrees, entrance slot at one end, strongly peaked bars, and an observation window1. But then, questions arose. How would one populate such a hive with a nucleus2? Why, make the top of the sides vertical to accommodate medium Langstroth frames. And how would one super such a hive3? Clearly make the top bars thinner in the middle to allow the bees passage upwards, not forgetting an inner cover and telescoping outer cover. Yes, and choose the length of the hive to fit two Langstroth ten-frames placed atop it. The resulting platypus was very well built but chimerical. We naughtily but affectionately dubbed it Frankenhive.

Some time in last September, Roger let us know that he was downsizing. Having received the Frankenhive as a gift, he would feel bad selling it but would we, as top bar beekeepers, be interested in minding it for him? It is a queer thing, both fish and fowl, incompatible with anything else we possess or have seen or might want to work. Still it deserves a good home so we accepted and stored it in the barn until this spring we put it next to Dorcas with only vague ideas of how we would eventually populate it.

Last Friday our daily observations showed that a swarm had spontaneously occupied it!

We saw bees fanning above the entrance slot and steady traffic. In disbelief we risked a quick unsuited peek as we lifted her covers. There were a lot of bees within. The hive was decidedly occupied. We have heard of such incidents but never expected to have such rare luck ourselves. Except for working out a way to feed her we ought now to leave her in peace for a while as she settles in.


1We can still hear an unconvinced Winn reporting in mild puzzlement, “They said you need a window so I put one in”. Someone asked to install a skylight in a submarine might sound the same.
2A good question. We solved it by going full Tanzanian, with straight sides.
3Generally such hives are not supered.

Monday afternoon when we braved the brutal heat (96°F/35°C) of these last few days to perambulate the backyard we noticed that Clarissa was not bearding as heavily as she had been while the other hives were as shaggy as the day before. Also the light bee traffic circling her seemed somehow different. Puzzled we continued our walk towards the dwarf fruit trees and spied a swarm in cluster high in the quince with a significant cloud of bees orbiting it. Were they coming or going? Either way we, now being swarm catchers of experience1, immediately ran back to the house, suited up, and returned with a five-frame nuc, a sheet, and a ladder only to find them gone already. This is why the accompanying picture is of a boring tree top with scattered out-of-focus orange blurs.

As we have written previously, there is never any way of telling how long a swarm will stay in its bivouac location. From an earlier trip to the backyard we know the swarm was not there in the late morning. They could have been hanging there for at most a few hours and chose to depart in the ten or so minutes it took us to collect our equipment, leaving a small cloud of bees flying and crawling around their former location in the tree.

Dejectedly we glanced back at the hives and saw a large swirling of bees in flight around Clarissa. Returning to her we observed her face heavily covered with bees in motion. There did not seem to be any fighting, just jostling for entrances. On the ground in front of her was a patch of bees in which, to our confusion, a few waggle dancers were seen. And then slowly the swirling and crawling bees grew fewer and fewer until Clarissa again resembled herself of the previous day.

Might she have tried to throw a swarm but the swarm changed its mind and returned? Something like this may have happened to us one August. Swarming is generally a lengthy process requiring preparations such as starving the queen to get her down to flying weight. But some conditions may cause an impulsive decision to swarm which is then reversed when the queen is not among those departing.

We generally stay out of the hives in these temperatures to avoid triggering comb collapse but we risked peeking into the unoccupied part of Clarissa and found it full of bees trying to stay cool. While we have been otherwise occupied our tiny split has been quite fruitful. While we did not dare examine any comb in the occupied area we did risk moving two empty bars to the front of the follower board to make the living quarters seem more spacious. Until cooler temperatures that is the best we can do.

Since then she seems to still be bearding less heavily in spite of being very full of bees. Did our intervention let them keep the living quarters cooler or did some bees actually swarm off and the swirling re-entry we saw was those bees who decided to stay? Needless to say, we are now on high alert for more swarming shenanigans.


1Yes, we have only caught one swarm but it still counts as experience.

 

Continuing our adventure from the last post, once the swarm had occupied the nuc on the tarp we left them undisturbed while we prepared a quart of sugar syrup in a Boardman feeder. When it was at last sundown we suited up and went to work.

We began by stuffing the entrance with a wad of tall grass to pre-empt any emerging protesters of our handling. Then we gently slid a loop of wide Velcro® strap under the bottom board and over the telescoping cover to hold all the nuc components together. After tightening the strap we carried the nuc as smoothly as we could manage on the uneven ground to behind the barn onto a stand improvised from parts of a plastic shelving unit.

Once the nuc was in place and the strap removed, we lifted the telescoping cover. The bees had been so quiet during the move that we began to wonder if they had not already departed but they were still within, peeking at us through the hole in the inner cover. We placed the feeder on the inner cover near but not blocking the hole, added a second nuc body to enclose it, and restored the telescoping cover with a pair of the traditional bricks to hold it down. So wee Angharad, as we have named her, is now a two-story with frames below and feeder above. Our last act was to pull away the grass plug so it would no longer confine the bees but still be a slight obstacle to encourage them to orient on their new location.

Now, except for supplying sugar syrup as needed, we must leave wee Angharad in peace for a week or two as her bees settle in, building comb and starting to raise brood. As full of bees as she is, we may soon have to add frames to her second story so they can continue to build comb. And eventually we should build her a better stand.

The next morning there were still a few die-hards at the apple tree and wee Angharad seemed quiescent while our three hives already had traffic. But in another hour or so our little nuc was just as busy as the rest and by mid-afternoon we felt confident in removing the grass plug entirely.