I was doing some things outside the barn the other day when I heard a very loud humming sound, and looked up to see a dark mass hovering over our bee hive boxes. I’d seen this before and knew what to do. Quick action was needed. Luckily I had my phone with me.
“Joe, we’ve got a swarm!”
Joe Long is a beekeeper that keeps hives on our farm. We’re so happy to let him use our property in this way, not only because bees are so important for the ecosystem and food production, but also because we love the honey. It’s a win-win!
So what’s a swarm?
When a hive grows to the point where it needs to expand, the colony will divide itself. A queen bee accompanied by a large number of worker bees will leave to create a new hive. This is most likely to happen when the weather starts to warm up in the spring, so around here May is considered “swarm season.” A swarm is a great asset if you can catch it because it’s an already established colony with great production potential. So if you’re lucky enough to see it when it happens, every moment counts!
Joe got there quickly. By that time the dark mass had moved off, but he knew what to do.
“Which way did they go?” he asked. I pointed towards the southeast, where I’d last seen them moving. Joe started walking in that direction. After just a few steps I heard him call out.
“Found them!” He pointed up into the large hackberry tree that’s in the middle of the back paddock, to a large, dark mass draped around a thick branch. From where I stood it looked like someone had wrapped it in a black shawl.
“I need a tall ladder and a bucket,” Joe said. We had to work fast. We happened to have some guys working on the roof of the house that day, so the ladder was handy, and I’d been out dipping in my indigo vat, so my five gallon rinse bucket was right there. He cautioned me to stand at a safe distance, although he explained that bees in a swarm were actually quite docile, as they would have consumed large amounts of honey and covered themselves with it before leaving the hive. This was how they took it with them so they’d have it to set up their new colony.
I watched in amazement as Joe placed the ladder against the branch, grabbed the bucket and proceeded to climb up towards the settled swarm. When he got to the branch, he literally knocked as many bees as he could into the bucket, climbed back down the ladder and poured the bucketful of bees into a hive box waiting on the ground. He repeated this process several times until most of the black mass had been transferred to the box below. I could still see a number of bees on the branch and a few more buzzing around.
Once he had collected as many bees as he could, Joe proceeded to settle the bees by hitting a shovel with a trowel to create a clanging sound. This “tining” or “tanging” method has been used for centuries. Though not much is known about why, it’s thought to have a calming effect on the swarm and therefore making it easier to capture. Joe explained that this would hopefully orient them down towards the hive box on the ground. If we were lucky, the queen was in the box and the rest of them would follow her and make it more likely that they’d stay and create their new colony there.
It didn’t take long to see that the last of the swarm had answered the call and joined the others in their new found home, and he was able to move the hive box to join the others in its optimal location near the edge of our garden. Success!
Our property is rich with pollinator friendly flowers and blossoms, creating an abundant environment for the bees to do their good work of pollinating the plants and producing enough honey to share with a few humans. Does it harm the bees when we harvest the honey? Not if it’s approached responsibly. As an ethical beekeeper, Joe is extremely careful to keep a healthy balance between what is harvested and what is left for the health of the hive.
Caring for the bees is a year round task that involves careful monitoring of the hive conditions, food availability and the constant threat of mites and viruses that have threatened the planet’s bee population in recent years. Much like other domesticated farm animals, honeybees have been bred over the millennia to be dependent on human intervention and don’t do well in the wild.
With a little bit of knowledge and care, the partnership between humans and honeybees can be a satisfying and productive collaboration.
See a swarm? Call a beekeeper! And when you’re enjoying all the goodness of the garden this summer, thank the bees and their caretakers for their wonderful work! If you’re local, you can reach Joe Long at Honeyfx Apiaries, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click “Play” below to hear Joe talk about what happened!