One of the comments on our website asked for more on swarming, so here goes: first, the tale of a swarm recovery. Next post will be a bit of the science behind this aspect of bee behaviour.
More times than not bees will swarm close to the beeyard or home from which they emanate, choosing a nearby bush or tree. Very often, the queen mother alights on a twig or trunk quite close to the ground, so the swarm can be reached by a stepladder or by standing on an empty beebox. With a bit of careful snipping of twigs, one can detach the greater volume of bees still hanging in a bunch like a large ripe and delicate fruit, and lower them into a box containing some empty frames and, perhaps, a frame or two of larvae and emerging brood. A couple of sharp shakes dislodges the bees and queen into their new home, and unless the swarm has been there for some time, and has already made up its mind where it wants to go, the beekeeper will be successful in starting a new box of bees right there in the beeyard or near- by. The bees that fall outside the box, within moments, begin to crawl in a tide towards the entrance of their new home. Many of them will stop in or near the entrance or upon the sides of the box and adopt a curious stance, heads down and abdomens raised, wings fanning the air and heads pointed towards the entrance. They have established the presence of the queen inside, and the scent trails set up by their backward-fanning wings lead others, further away, or disoriented in the grass, to the presence of their queen.
This time, however, they had ensconced themselves high up in the elm by the house. The assembled gear I would need to recapture the fugitives lay beneath the tree. The somnolent swarm was still in place, only a few bees flying in desultory circles among the branches. With the extension ladder placed against a substantial limb, I gathered my coils of rope over my shoulder, hung a bush saw over my back, stuck a pair of pruning shears in my belt and mounted cautiously upward like Badger in the assault of Toad Hall. Along the way, glancing up frequently at the approaching swarm, I paused and snipped or sawed off branches that would interfere with the downward passage of my bees. They were to be kept oblivious to this part of the journey to their new home. No jarring, or slipping, or scraping along boughs must take place. I estimated the weight of this swarm at about eight pounds. Given a ratio of about 2,500 bees to a pound, we were about to take serious liberties with the domestic arrangements of about twenty thousand bees whose presently peaceful disposition could not be expected to overlook a drop of twenty feet, a scraping over branches, or in any manner being brought to a full awareness of their changing and descending situation. By now the swarm hung only inches above my head. I could watch the return to the swarm of the scout bees – those most experienced foragers of the old hive – who had been flying into every hollow tree, crawling into cracks in walls of barns and houses, measuring and estimating the available space in abandoned seeders and threshing mills, taking into their heads every kind of comparative information that could help to select the very best new home for the patient swarm hanging in the elm a mile away. Some scouts had already returned and were excitedly transmitting an account of their adventures to the communal mind of the swarm which seemed, by its very stillness, to be listening in hushed, rapt attention. Each returning scout offered her best choice, and danced upon the living skin of her family a chronicle of her observations, all the advantages her new-found home featured, and perhaps, for all we know, the disadvantages that tempered her enthusiasm. For it was clearly evident as I crouched uncomfortably in the branches below the murmuring metropolis-in-transition that not all the returning scouts were exhibiting the same ardor in relating their stories. Some, indeed, were running nimbly over their sisters’ backs, stopping to agitate their abdomens in a violent wiggle-waggle, and resuming their rapid, mincing circles and figures of eight, oblivious to all but their urgent message. Others, however, appeared reticent, lacking self-confidence, stopping frequently to watch their dancing sisters, and showing an unmistakeable desire to bury themselves in the herd.
The swarm was attached to a limb about two inches thick, and I got on with the business of sawing it free. The first problem was going to be the combined weight of the swarm and the substantial branch to which it was clinging. First, I cut away the main part of the limb that stretched out beyond the base of the swarm. This fell away with little disturbance to the bees, although twenty or thirty were dislodged in the process and began to fly low level reconnaissance patrols abound my head. We had obviously moved to the first level of a general alert. It was perceptible, as the branch fell free, not only by the airborne patrol but by a kind of convulsion or shrinking of the swarm, and a ripple of deep sound that said the vibration of the saw and the jarring effect of the limb breaking loose had been felt and noted in the very depth of the cluster. Now I faced the difficulty of isolating the swarm from the many twigs it encompassed – many of them belonging to different branches. These I would have to snip off carefully, and they would be lowered with the bees. But the support of the swarm they had provided would be removed, adding to the already extraordinary weight being borne by the bees clinging to the mainstay. These insects, after I had finished my snipping, would be holding eight pounds of suspended siblings on their six fragile feet clinging to the rough elm bark. I was literally removing the reinforcing rods and beams of a living building, thereby creating a critical instability. By the simple laws of physics, this situation would get to the heart of the matter, as it were, and I should no doubt be held responsible .I looked down, and below me appeared a green well, free of limbs and twigs. At the bottom of the well was the beebox, a small enough target it looked, too, from up there. The trickiest was going to be the next step, the severing of the limb on the inside of the swarm. Not only by now did we have a far more unstable mass already awakening to a level of alertness that could move swiftly to the pre-emptive strike option, but we had the difficulty of turning the limb from the horizontal to the vertical as it was prepared for lowering .I am saying “we” now because Alice has appeared on the grass below, and shielding her eyes with her hand is gazing upwards.
“How’s it going?
“Fine! So far so good. I’m just about ready. I’ll lower it the first bit and then you take it from there.”
“All right!” She hasn’t realized, I thought with perhaps a hint of disloyal complacency, that if it drops, the bulk of those bees will hit the ground with something like the impact of a rotten melon lobbed onto the compost pile. But mine now was the present danger, and I set about sawing once more through the limb, holding the previously amputated end in my left hand to diminish the movement and vibration. The rope was in place, tied just swarm-side of where I was sawing, the end going over another limb conveniently set five feet above the work site and disappearing down the green well where it was being gathered, I presumed, by Alice on the ground. As the saw bit through the sticky green bark underneath, causing another loud murmur of concern, I took the surprising weight in my left hand and lowered it very slowly till the swarm had swung into a vertical position, many of the bees seizing new purchase on the stump of branch which was now pressing against the side of the swarm. More bees had taken to the air, and I had received my first sting. A low, threatening hum was issuing from the depth of the cluster, and clearly, whatever had to be done had better be done quickly and gently. Bee venom is a powerful pheromone – even one sting carries a strong smell, quite noticeable when you have learned to recognize it. The more venom in the air, the more concerted and vicious is the response. But a fresh swarm is reluctant to abandon its peaceful, holiday spirit. The bees have previously gorged themselves on honey before leaving the hive, preparing themselves for a long fast before there is food available in the new home. Within limits, basically the main integrity of the swarm, they are patient with interference, and so with a few spasmodic jerks as the rope caught on the limb above, our bees descended from their lofty eyrie high in the elm. Alice, at the business end of the rope, caught the end of the branch where the rope was tied and dumped them with one sharp jerk unceremoniously into the box. After a thoroughly successful recovery, we repaired for tea. Later that evening we would move the box back into the beeyard, our stock of overwintering colonies increased by one.