Swarm!: We Take in Refugees

“Wanna have some fun?”

That’s a loaded question.

If you hear that question when you’re in your 20s, hanging out in a bar, and it’s asked by an attractive member of the opposite sex, your answer instinctively may be, “Yes.”

If hear that question when you’re a family man sitting in the family station wagon with Maine license plates outside of a squatter’s den in inner-city Baltimore and it’s asked by a heroin addict in your car who’s trying to score some smack, you should definitely say, “No.” [Long story. Just trust me on this one. It’s more terrifying than fun.]

If you hear that question when you’re in you’re asleep in your corporate cubicle, and it’s asked by your beekeeper friend, you should say, “Yes.” You can be guaranteed it’s going to be far more interesting than anything happening in the office.

“Wanna have some fun?” Phil had called me in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny, warm August day. He had just received a call from Eli, who had just received a call from a friend, who had found a swarm of honeybees hanging on the side of Marginal Way, a street couple of blocks from the Urban Farm. They definitely weren’t my bees, because they had just moved into roomy new digs. Swarms, contrary to what you’ve probably heard, are not bees in attack mode. A swarm is simply part of a bee colony that outgrew their old space and are looking for a new space in which to settle down. They are refugees.

I hopped in my car and went to meet Phil. He was easy to find. He was the guy on the side of the road surrounded by a cloud of bees, waiting to wrangle the football-size-plus clump of them into a box so he can give them a ride to his house.

The trick to capturing a swarm is give them a place to go. It’s not really a trick, because they don’t like being out in the open. They want to get into a safe, appropriately-sized, weather-proof spot as soon as possible. They leave their overcrowded home, fly to a tree branch or other spot, all hold on to each other for dear life, and send out scouts to look for places. If enough scouts say, “There’s a nice place over there,” then the all follow. All of this takes just a few hours. The new home might be a hollow tree, an attic, or any other empty space. In the city, good high trees are hard to find, as are hollow trees, because all of the sick and dying ones that would be hollow are cut down. These bees, left on their own, might have eventually found a empty ceiling or attic space in a warehouse of apartment building. More likely, they might have met a worse fate and been sprayed with pesticides by a panicky property owner or city worker.

Capturing a swarm is part public service of the beekeeper, because property owners usually don’t want the bees around, and part self-service, because the beekeeper gets a vigorous new colony, queen and all.

This particular hive had the mis-fortune of swarming late in the season, what Phil called a suicide swarm: Forced to leave due to overcrowding, but too late in the season to build up a strong hive to make it through the winter.

To give them a home, Phil placed his briefcase nuc under them. A briefcase nuc (as in “nucleus colony”) is a small-ish plastic box, with hive frames in it, that can be sealed up for transportation. Phil has captured hives from high in trees, but this one happened to land on a juniper bush, conveniently about a foot off the ground. Very convenient. He put the briefcase nuc under them, scented it with a little lemon oil, which mimics the bees natural swarming scent, and waited.

Blob-like, as if it’s a single amorphous organism, it slowly oozed (or, if you like, crawled) toward the small opening. We watched it flow, like a small river.

One hiccup: Phil need a couple of more frames for the nuc, and the closest place to get them was out of my hive at the Urban Farm. I drove over, but it was closed and locked up tight. I had been told that there is a way through the back door of the taxi garage next door, but I hadn’t ever seen it. I peeked in the garage. No one was around and I didn’t I see a back door. Luckily, a few minutes later a old taxi driver named Bruce pulled up and asked me if I needed help. I told him what I was trying to do and his eyes lit up. He launched into a story about partying with a friend back in in the 1970’s and finding a massive bee hive in a old metal drum, which he and his buddy, for fun, smoked out then harvested 75 pounds of honey. Ever since then, he said he eats honey every day. Bruce showed me toward the back of the garage and into a side room, to the back door. I quickly took the top off the hive, removed the frames, shook off the bees, and closed it back up.

I dashed back to meet Phil. Most of the bees were already in the nuc. A woman from a business across the street joined, driven to curious distraction trying to figure out what we were watching. She kept her distance, but got a quick lesson from Phil about honeybees, probably one she’ll never forget.

Phil moved the nuc back to The Honey Exchange for a few days while we got the parts to expand my hive. We put another box on top of my hive, with a sheet of newspaper underneath. This paper gives the two merging colonies time, as they chew through it, to get used to each other’s smell and accept them as their own. Otherwise the newcomers will be attacked as invaders. With the hive box and frames in place, we brought over the nuc, found and captured the queen to use in another hive, and presto, I had a hive that instantly doubled in size, in really good shape for the coming cool weather.

2 thoughts on “Swarm!: We Take in Refugees

  1. McDermott says:

    Good stuff Jim. Didn’t you say you were using Russian bees in your hive? And that they were more “aggressive” than Italians or Carniolans? Are the new bees Russians? If not, are the Russians a threat? In other words, can Russian bees and non-Russian bees co-exist in close proximity?

    • jfrederick1 says:

      Good question. The pedigree of the hive is Russian/South Portland. That is, the queen is from one of Phil’s hives in the Willard Beach neighborhood where we live in South Portland. She mated in that area, where the several known hives are Phil’s or friends, so chances are she mated with a Russian drone. The swarm pedigree is, of course, unknown. We plucked the swarm queen out before the merger and Phil gave her away to a beekeeper in need. The rest of the bees will happily coexist with a gradual introduction through the newspaper. Over the following weeks, they’ll work alongside the others, then die off, and when they do, the hive will be 100% Russian/SoPo again, but at the new, larger population size.

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