Beekeeping: Catching the Swarm

On December 6th, 2012, I got my first top bar bee hive. It is now July 6th, 2013, and I now have six bee hives: two Langstroths and four top bar hives. I really didn’t plan to expand so quickly but when bees started swarming, the farm took action.

I had to name my hives because it got crazy trying to talk about them with a complicated description each time. We decided to name them and they are in order of aquisition: Olenna, Cersei, Arya, Khaleesi, Sansa and Osha. We are big “Game of Thrones” fans and it seemed appropriate.


Olenna (top bar) getting ready to swarm.

The first swarm was from Olenna, on April 5th, my first top bar hive. The queen in that hive is a great egg layer and she just kept producing more and more bees.

One afternoon, I witnessed the swarm, which I heard way before I saw it. A swarm moving is an amazing sight, and I  saw them land and form a huge ball at the top branch of a black sapote tree about 30 feet up. It was fairly high up but Dan, who stayed on our farm at the time, said he could get it, no problem. He suited up and climbed up the tree with a five-gallon bucket. Neither one of us had ever captured a swarm before so we were super excited.

In the meantime, I prepared the top bar hive to receive the bees that Dan constructed just for this swarm. We knew it was coming for days as bees piled up on the outside of the hive box. I took two combs out of Olenna and placed them in the new, now empty top bar box. The incoming bees will have some brood, some food and a place to call home with a few combs. It also is a way to get them to stay and not go off somewhere else.


Bucket directly under swarm.

Dan placed the bucket under the bees, where they had formed a ball on the top most branch. He shook the branch as best he could, and it rained bees and luckily most did go into the bucket and he put the lid on the bucket and climbed back down to put the bees into the new hive. He did this a second time. Each time he came down he poured the bees from the bucket into the new hive.

Dan managed to get quite a lot of bees but what we were really hoping for was that he got the queen. Without the queen, the swarm will leave to find the queen wherever she was, or go back up to the top branch of the tree again, or return to the original hive.


Queen excluder.

I stapled a square of queen excluder fencing at the bee escape. The workers can come in and out but the drones and the queen can’t. So, if she was in there she would at least stay until the excluder was removed.

My beekeeping mentor, Yeshuah, told me to watch and see if the field bees were bringing in pollen. She said this was a good indicator that the queen was present.

In the next few days, the bees seemed to settle in nicely. Coming and going with their pollen saddlebags filled. All seemed right as they went to business as usual. I took the queen excluder off.

In the next week, we would go in to see the comb building progress, look for eggs and to find the queen. We called this hive Cersei, because the queen was voracious egg layer and there were a lot of bees.

On May 14th, I walked into the orchard only to hear the loud roar of bees again. If you’ve never heard a swarm before, it sounds so loud, like a massive roar. At first, you can’t tell where it’s coming from so you just walk towards the sound as best you can until it gets louder and you can see it.  Soon I was at the top of my property, and I saw the swarm moving in its whirlwind pattern like a hurricane. They fly in circles and all move at once in the same direction. This time they landed on a very thin branch about 60 feet up and they weren’t coming down into a bucket as far as I could see. So, I sighed and left and throughout the day checked on them to see what their status was.

A swarm typically moves not far from where their original hive and it stays there approximately three days while their scouts go out and look for a suitable home. Once one is located, they all synchronize and fly off  together there. By the end of the first day, this swarm was gone. I was some what disappointed.


Kat scooping up the swarm.

The next day, I walked up there again. I’m not sure why but I’m glad I did. I saw a bunch of bees flying somewhat erratically in front of a rock wall.  I got closer to see that there were really more than a few. I decided to get even closer and walked through some knee high brush and walked down a little gully to the bottom of the rock wall where I saw a big pile of bees on the ground. So, the swarm fell, I immediately thought. I saw that they were going in and out of a few holes in the rock wall very near to the ground. I had never heard of bees nesting so close to the ground before. It seemed that all the bees couldn’t even fit in their new found home. Looks like their scouts were rushed and did a poor job locating a proper home.

I went down to where everyone was still having their morning coffee and told them that the swarm still there but it was on the ground.

Kat, who lives on our farm, announced that she would scoop up the bees with her bare hands. I was so impressed with that. I started to see the logic in it and we quickly prepared some tools and buckets to start the process. The bees were literally on the ground, so we started to herd them into a tilted bucket by ushering them in with our arms and hands. We were getting quite a lot. We had a empty Langstroth hive box with us, and we would dump them in, and go and get some more. I realized that the queen was deep inside the wall and perhaps we were wasting our time. If she never came out, we would lose this hive. Soon the bees were actually walking into the hive box on their own, so we rigged it close to the opening in the rock wall and watch them file in. We wondered whether the queen would follow. We left it like that and went on to do our farm chores.

One of my “chores” that day was to do a sight inspection on my neighbor’s hives. He was out of town and I had called him to ask him if it were possible if I could have a frame of brood out of one of his Langstroth boxes. In exchange, I told him I would check on his bees in his four hives. I needed the frame of brood because I had this hive trap set up and it seemed like I caught a small swarm. Even though I hadn’t gone in the box yet, I could see how limited their resources were by their numbers. I hadn’t planned to go into his boxes that day, I just wanted to see them and see what was in store for me the following day. When I got to the first hive, I knew there was a change of plans.


Larva and hive beetles.

At the first hive, there were no bees coming in and out. I went to the rear of the box and put my head close to the box to listen for the hum. Not hearing the hum of the bees let me know there were no bees in there.

I pried open the top of the hive and beetles went every which way and a mouse jumped out the front entrance.  A few robber bees were around stealing abandoned honey, but there was no colony to be found. The combs were sticky or slimy. This was my first slime out. I’m not sure what causes the sticky residue on the outside of the combs but I imagine its a combination of honey and filth from the multitude of holes wrangled through the combs from the worms.

The next box, was two supers stacked high. The front landing was covered in bees and they didn’t seem to be doing much of anything but looking at me. It looked very suspicious. I moved on to the the third box and it to was empty. I looked inside and found all sorts of vermin squirming about; hive beetles and larva, wax moths and their larva, earwigs, geckos, and ants. No bees.

My major concern was to destroy all of this vermin immediately. I rushed back to the farm and got recruits to help and we brought supplies…even a blow torch. On our way, it started to drizzle just slightly. I thought about the swarm and realized I had better put a roofing tin on top of the hive box to keep the rain out. But it wasn’t really raining, and I could see that it was going to stop but what if I was knee deep in those hives next door and it really started to rain. I wouldn’t want to stop what I was doing and run to the top of my property to cover that hive. So logic won out and I went off to cover the hive.

On my way to the hive, about 15 feet away, I saw a small gathering of bees on the path. How odd I thought, what are they doing all the way over here. I stepped over them and went to the box and placed the tin roofing on top. As I turned, I saw the five-gallon bucket was still there and I thought why not get those bees up and put them in the hive. I grabbed two clumps of weeds where the bees had congregated and shook them over the bucket. After my second clump, I looked in the bucket and not one bee was in there. I looked around and they were all flying about me and landing back into the weeds. I looked closer at the ground and saw the queen walking on a stick. How incredible, there she was! I picked her up and walked over to the hive and lifted the top and she gently walked it. We had the hive now. I rushed back to tell Kat that I found the queen after all and we now had another hive!

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Worm infested comb.

It took hours but we manage to smash, crush, burn all the bugs, or at least most of them, in both hives.  We had to destroy comb that was writhing in worms, including wax moths and their larva. I cut out several combs from their frames to bring back to my chickens so they could pick out and eat the worms and bugs. If not, my only other solution was just to burn everything. Since they were not my hives and my being a salvageable person by nature, I merely scraped them clean and burned around the cracks and crevices with the blow torch where my hive tool couldn’t reach to kill all the bugs. Exhausted, the next day we were to go see the last hive in this apiary.

Day two, we went back over and when we arrived at the two- box hive the bees were all gone except for a few defenders. I beat myself up a little while before I went in. Why had I cleaned out boxes where the bees were already gone and not gone first to this hive that was still there and in need of my help the most? Feeling pretty bad, and sorry for the bees. we began our work.


Slime out the day before we cleaned it out.

Once inside, the comb was in total decimation. Really bad, the worst out of all three. How odd I thought. The bees were just here yesterday. As we explored further, we discovered why. The oil tray on this hive was dry as a bone and it it was a living hell of vermin. An oil trap, is a tray of vegetable oil that is screened off from the bees. Hive beetles, their larva and varroa mites fall or crawl through this screening and land in the oil where they drown and die. It should be changed and cleaned at least every few weeks. This one looked like it never had been cleaned and the oil was gone completely. I almost cried thinking of those poor bees and the struggle they went through trying to survive with a ghetto of hive beetles breeding so close to their home and their young. I felt their suffering. I thought back to the day before seeing them all on the front of the hive lined up, all their little faces, they were exhausted and they gave up hope. It took us three hours to clean it up.

Day three, one last hive to check on and it was further away… far enough not to be contaminated from the others. It was doing okay, not great. We cleaned up, did some maintenance and squashed about 30 hive beetles.  I didn’t see the queen and I didn’t see any eggs. I knew this must be one of the splits I had heard my neighbor had done recently.  A split is like a swarm, except the beekeeper does it. He splits the hive literally in two, taking the original queen and half the bees to the new box and leaving the other half of the bees to make a new queen in the old. Sometimes, they already have a new queen in the making. This hive might well be queenless, I thought. We left and on our way back, checked on the few remaining defenders from the third slime out.

When we got there the little bees were calmer and even though they had one little comb with no honey, queen or brood they seemed relieved. I brought them some honey so they could get something to eat. They did this really amazing thing and I’m really not sure why but they all jumped out of the hive and came out and landed on me. Then they just fanned their wings and I watched them for a bit in wonder and then shooed them away. We left them and I thought about going back to feed them again or add them to the forth, remaining hive box. None of which I did.


Arya (Langstroth) and Ku’uipo.

So, I was unable to get any brood frames for my small hive (now called Arya) and I realized that my hive must be an abscond from my neighbors. An abscond is a hive that for some reason or another leaves its hive box in a hurry. A slime out is a good reason for an abscond. I was glad to have cleaned up the slime outs next door. I had never cleaned out one before and I was set to destroy the breeding ground and save my bees from such a fate.

The hive we got from under the rock wall, we named Khaleesi and brought it down to the Kumu Aina Langstroth bee yard and set her near Arya, the abscond hive from next door. We left her in the Langstroth box because I did not have a spare top bar. I decided to give this hive to Kat for her brave efforts scooping up the bees off the ground.

So now I had my original top bar, Olenna, her swarm, Calesei, also a top bar; and two Langstroth hives, Arya the small abscond, and Khaleesi the rock wall swarm.

We went inside Arya to make an initial inspection. I was surprised that she had a good number of bees.  She was busy building comb and seemed content. Maybe I didn’t need that brood comb after all.


Kat preparing to capture swarm.

On May, 28th, another swarm was spotted. This one, was reachable and  in a small avocado tree. Again Kat volunteered. This time she would climb up the tree and capture the swarm. We all ran in different directions, one getting a bucket and lid, one a saw, one a ladder and the rest putting together a stand and a box to place the bees into once we had them. I told Alayna, Kat’s cousin, where to find another Langstroth box, where I was currently using it as a swarm trap.  My swarm traps, basically consist of a Langstroth box with a bottom and a top and 10 foundationless frames, a reduced entrance and a lemongrass oil lure. She came back to report that there were bees in that box! Opps, okay so we have yet another swarm! I told her another location where I had another swarm trap and she came back with it unoccupied.

We decided the best coarse of action was to use the ladder, cut the branch that the bees had balled up onto and drop it into a bucket. It was very successful and before long we had the entire hive in a five-gallon bucket. We placed her into the Langstroth box and named her Sansa.


Alayna, Zara and Kat with Sansa.

Afterwards, I went to check on the swarm that Alayna had found in the swarm trap. Bees were coming in and out but it seemed like a small swarm and I wondered if they too were an abscond. By my calculations it was just one day they had been there.  Soon, but not today, I would come back at night when all the bees had returned from foraging and bring this box down to the Langstroth bee yard. There was so much going on and by the time we actually went to retrieve it, which was about three days, it was too late. But as it turns out this was a good thing.

In the meantime, the largest swarm I ever saw was on another Avocado tree. This swarm was unreachable. Too high and on a weak branch. I hurriedly put together a swarm trap and put it near the swarm, underneath the avocado, hoping that she would fly into it and occupy it. After a few days, on May 30th, she was on the move. I watched as she swarmed up into the trees and I followed her. I watch her pass my swarm trap and go further South on my property. Soon we were all in a clearing and thousands of bees were in the air. She made her way over to the rock wall and I thought for a moment, oh no, not another rock wall hive. How will she fit? But no, she moved past that and was oddly enough going to the swarm box that had just recently captured a swarm. She literally took over the box and moved in. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw. I thought now this is the King of Thrones! We brought her down, named her Osha and placed her in the Langstroth bee yard.

The farm now had six hives, and had captured five swarms in less than a month. We immediately began construction to build four top bar hives and we had to work fast. I only wanted two Langstroth hives and I wanted four top bars. My professional beekeeping friends told me that hive beetles were everywhere in high numbers and that every hive must have an oil trap. So, we went about making oil traps for all the hives too.

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Happy working in the hives.

One might think this is the end of the story but each hive has a particular on going story. I find beekeeping so challenging. Each time I go into a hive, I have a particular objective. For now, I must make sure that each hive has a laying queen, is making foundationless comb straight and is thriving. It has taken all of June and some of July just find out whether each hive has a laying queen. I wonder if it will ever be routine maintenance at this point but leave it to bees to keep me waiting for the next episode.


















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