Danger: Low Flying Bees

Here’s a 65 entry that was certainly not on the original list.

Several weeks ago, our neighbor Leandra, called to report a swarm of bees hanging from the cedar tree next to our drive. “What do you think about moving them to one of hives in the orchard?” she asked. Well, it’s an idea, and it’s something I’ve never done before.

Growing up in Lakeside, our family moved into “The Castle.” It was a two story Victorian with a full basement, a two-holer outside, barn owls in the attic and gazillions of bees in each of the three chimneys. It wasn’t long before Dad brought the toilets into the 20th Century, boarded up the attic, and tried to remove the bees after sister Susan had adverse reactions to their stings.

During the hot summers, I remember honey dripping into the fireplaces, digging our own swimming “pool” in the dirt, and playing cars in the cool of the basement where the one-eyed monster lived. Turned out the one-eyed monster was just the pilot light of the furnace in the corner, but it makes for a good story, but I digress.

Fast forward to Sebastopol and more bees. We inherited a survivor hive with the purchase of our home. We knew nothing about the care and feeding of bees, but learned as time passed. I bought a suit and hood for protection as we inspected hives, harvested honey, and moved their home to a new location on the property. The hardest part was not to panic and run away as hundreds of bees flew strafing runs at me. In this state, they are a bit agitated and agressively discourage any intruders, namely, me. Considering the odds, I was lucky to be stung only several times. Nothing serious happened except the arthritis in a couple of fingers mysteriously disappeared.

Everything was going splendidly in the hive until heavy rains this past December. Between storms I checked on the box to see how the ladies were faring. Apparently not well, for they had left for a better home, taking most of their honey with them.

Beekind is our local bee store that offers “nucs” for sale and we ordered one to repopulate the abandoned hive. A nuc is like a starter home for bees. You get a small colony of worker bees with a resident queen. You move the nuc into your regular hive box and hopefully they like the decor and stay. If not, you’re out $175.

So we were waiting for our nuc when Leandra called to say there was a swarm of bees in one of our trees. She said it was relatively small and within an arm’s reach from the ground.

I was out and wondered what to do as I drove back. I had never collected a swarm before and my bee buddy, Jeffrey, was in New York. Supposedly, collecting a swarm is not that dangerous. Their bellies are filled with honey to support the new hive and therefore can’t bend their abdomen to sting. At least, that’s what I heard. Hearing and doing are two separate things and images of thousands of bees buzzing me swirled in my thoughts on the way home.

The swarm was still hanging from the tree when I arrived. Leandra has bee experience but no bee suit. I had a bee suit but no experience. Together, we formed a plan and I suited up while Leandra put 911 on speed dial from a safe distance.

The key to a swarm is their single-minded focus on the queen. They are intent on keeping the queen protected within the body of the swarm, and wherever she goes, they follow. Step One of the Plan was to trim away the surrounding branches and Step Two was to snip the branch they hung from into a five-gallon bucket.

Step One worked fine, Step Two not so much. Trimming caused some bees to drop off and fill the air while cutting the main branch succeeded in catching only half of the bees in the bucket. Immediately there were more bees than I’ve ever experienced swarming around me. No time to panic, I just hoped they over indulged on the honey and weren't in the mood to sting me.

With the bucket on the ground, I tried to scoop up loose bees on the ground. That just pissed them off. I backed away and let nature do its thing. As I said before, the swarm focuses only on the welfare of the queen. If she landed in the bucket, the bees would move into the bucket. If she didn't, the bees would regroup to wherever she was and move on.

It was quickly apparent the queen was in the bucket. The bees flowed in like a genie returning to its bottle. I covered the bucket and carried them to an empty hive. The swarm was dumped into the box with a frame of honey left by the previous tenants to entice them to stay. I capped the hive and walked away. No muss, no fuss, no stings. Mission accomplished, so to speak.

But, the new digs were not to their liking. By the next morning, the hive was empty. I don’t know, maybe they didn’t like the color of the drapes. All I can hope for now is that next month’s nuc will.

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