After pouring them into the nuc

Capturing our First Swarm

Sometime after breakfast we heard the first swarm of the year.

We went out on the upper floor deck and watched the enormous cloud of bees move off into the woods. We’ve gotten used to swarming in our bee yard; it’s the natural way bee colonies multiply. But since we had just done a full inspection the day before and made some adjustments in three of our nine hives, we thought we had prevented any possible swarming.

The bees are much smarter than we are.

Shortly after lunch we heard the bees again. Another hive was throwing a swarm. This group moved off to the right, and enveloped the lone spruce tree in our upper field. After a few minutes, when the cloud of bees didn’t keep moving away, we started to get excited. It may have been Lance who first suggested as we stared in fascination, “Maybe they’ll settle in the tree and we’ll be able to catch them.”

We have two swarm traps up in the woods, but have never caught a swarm in one, much less retrieved a swarm from a tree.

But we’re learning.

We hurried downstairs, out the door and up the mountain to the spruce tree. Sure enough, the bees were starting to form three clusters in the tree.

Beehives that are ready to multiply typically start raising a new queen, then a few days before she hatches, the old queen and half the hive will leave for new digs. They will leave in a great cloud, then settle somewhere nearby, clustered up for warmth with the queen at their center, hanging contentedly in a ball in a tree or under a deck somewhere until everyone who is moving has found the cluster. Then, a day or so later, they will head off to a new hive that scouts have already found and chosen.

If you see a group of hundreds of bees hanging in a cluster on a branch, they are in the middle of their move, and can still be convinced to choose a different home. And while it sounds potentially scary—all those bees! a swarm!—they are actually incredibly placid and easy to work with during this process.

So when we saw this colony swarm and realized they were going to cluster in a spruce tree 50 feet from our bee yard, we knew we could capture them and put them back in our apiary in a brand new hive. And voila, we would magically go from 9 hives to 10, free of charge.

But of course, we’ve never actually caught a swarm before, so we were pretty nervous. But excited and hopeful won out over nerves. We suited up, grabbed a bedsheet, a big plastic bin, a stepladder, some nippers, and a half-sized beehive called a nuc (or nucleus colony) to temporarily house the swarm, and headed up the mountain.

The plan was to cut the (small) limbs of the spruce tree where the clusters were hanging, and get those branches to fall into the plastic bin. We spread the bedsheet under the spruce tree to catch any bees we might miss; we didn’t want them to get lost in the grass. We sprinkled lemongrass oil into the half-sized hive (the bees love the scent), put frames of beeswax foundation in it, and set it on the sheet under the tree. Once we had the bees in the plastic bin, we’d pour them directly into the hive.

Bees and branches in the bin
Bees and branches in the bin

If we managed to catch the queen (she would be in the middle of one of the clusters) and get her into the nuc, all the rest of the bees would agree to stay there with her. They would immediately start fanning out their unique hive pheromone and any spilled, wandering, or confused bees would find their way quickly into the new hive.

And it all went exactly to plan.

After pouring them into the nuc
After pouring them into the nuc

Lance climbed the ladder while I held the plastic bin as high as I could over my head, directly under the first two clusters. He trimmed the branch, and the entire group of bees dropped with a thunk and a huzzz into the bin. Easy. The second cluster was higher and harder to reach, and we lost a few to spillage, but even though lots of bees took to the air around us, the great majority were in the bin. I shook the bees off the trimmed spruce branches, then funneled them into the nuc. In seconds we knew the queen was inside; hundreds of bees stood on the front porch (and all around) the hive, using their wings to fan their pheromone into the air. The signal was out: Here was their new home.

We watched it all, fascinated. None of the bees were upset or bumping us. No guards were out demanding that we leave. They were a happy hive in a fresh, sweet-smelling home.

We gave them an hour or so to all make their way inside, then we put the top on the nuc, stuffed soft cotton into the entrance and carried it 50 feet over into the apiary, where they had a special place not far from their original hive.

Since they have no honey stores yet (the new hive is completely empty except for frames of wax foundation for them to build comb on), we made them some sugar syrup and put it in a feeder on top of the hive. That will feed them for a few days while they get adjusted. Then we pulled the cotton out of their entrance, and left them alone to adjust. In a few days, we’ll transfer them from the nuc to the full-size hive that’s waiting next door.

It was an incredible experience; so much easier than we thought it might be. And such a pleasure to be a part of.

The pink nuc in its new slot in the apiary
The pink nuc in its new slot in the apiary

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