Garden Geekery

A Swarm Story: Episode 1, Capturing Wild Bees

So I haven’t posted on here in a while. It’s been a frustrating few years, losing my hives every winter and not knowing why. This year I thought one had made it through; they seemed to be doing ok all the way into April. But then in May, they were queenless, and not nearly enough bees to survive even if I purchased a new queen. So that was incredibly disappointing, and I’d decided I was done with bees for now, would maybe start again next year. 

As a last-ditch effort, I threw up a swarm trap (or bait hive). I didn’t hold out much hope, as I’d only tried it once before and caught one too late in the season for them to survive the winter. But I figured hey, if I caught some, great. Free bees. If not, no loss.

I’d made the trap a couple of years ago. It’s pretty much just a box about the size of half a deep. Throw in a couple frames of old brood comb, some lemongrass essential oil as a lure, and you’re good to go.

They also supposedly prefer to be 12-15 feet off the ground, which isn’t exactly convenient. But I happened to find a forked tree at the edge of the woods, near where we play with the dogs each night, so I could easily keep an eye on it and watch for activity. So I hauled it up a ladder and strapped it in the tree, not really expecting much nor, to be frank, caring. This was the day I found that my last overwintered hive didn’t make it, so I wasn’t much in a bee mood.

Just two days later, I noticed a bunch of scout bees at the entrance

Scout bees at the trap entrance

But to back up, here’s a little primer on swarms. When a colony gets too large for its hive space, it will split itself in two. The workers will begin to raise a second queen; the original queen will then leave the colony with roughly half the workers (the swarm), while the rest stay behind with the queen-to-be. Sort of like cell mitosis. [N.B.: The mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell!] Beekeepers try hard to stop their colonies from swarming, because it means we lose bees and therefore honey production, but it’s really the natural order of things. It’s how honeybees reproduce and maintain the species — not at the individual bee level, but the colony as a superorganism.

When a swarm happens, or sometimes just before, the bees will send out scouts to go house hunting. They’re on the lookout for a comfy new home for the swarm — the right size, right location, etc. Their behavior is different than those in an established colony: They’ll be hovering around the entrance, walking in and out and around, generally scoping things out. There can be bees from several colonies checking out a potential home, too, so there can be some fights happening. Conversely, when bees in an established colony generally enter and exit, they are on a mission. No fussing about, just straight to business; they’re out to get pollen or nectar, and that’s it. 

So these bees at the swarm trap were definitely scouts. Maybe 30 or so, milling about, checking with their realtor. Now, just because there are scouts, it doesn’t automatically mean a swarm will move in. The scouts may decide it’s not good enough, or just doesn’t have that certain something they’re looking for. Once they decide, they guide the swarm to their new home and move on in.

For me, it was about two days from when I noticed the scouts to when I’m pretty sure the swarm had moved in (closer view here). I didn’t go open it up to check, but there were lots more bees flying around the trap, and their behavior was different. Not quite that of an established colony yet, but not just scouts. Earlier that day, we had noticed a swarm down the hill from our house. Also pretty cool. I wish I had stayed and watched it longer; it’s possible that’s the one that moved into my trap. But it was swarm season, so it’s just as likely that it was a completely different group of bees.

I watched them for about a week before I saw them bringing back pollen–a sure sign of eggs, larvae, and an established colony!

Next time on A Swarm Story: The bees win an all-expenses-paid move to an upgraded apartment, complete with hilarious (?) misadventures!

3 thoughts on “A Swarm Story: Episode 1, Capturing Wild Bees

  1. Pingback: A Swarm Story: Episode 2, Movin’ on Up | Garden Geekery

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