by Torrey Douglass
You know the feeling. The pantry is full of stored food, the morning sun warms your porch, and everyone in the household, from workers to drones, are buzzing happily along. But at some point—maybe after your thirty-thousandth child—things start to feel a little tight. You want some room to spread your wings. So you embark on the bee equivalent of calling up your real estate agent: It’s time to swarm.
If you’ve ever had a hankering to try your hand at beekeeping, or if you already have bees but want to know what to do when half of your hive decides to take for the hills, catching a swarm is not as hard as you might think. Anderson Valley homesteaders, Darius Richmond and Julie Liebenbaum, have caught a few over the years. According to them, the key, like in so many things, is preparation.
As owners of The Boonville General Store it makes sense that Julie and Darius take their food seriously. They are the type of homesteaders who will tackle anything from grafting to butchering, winemaking to beekeeping. I sat down with the two of them on a rainy afternoon for a cup of honey-sweetened tea and a conversation about how a beekeeper or wanna-be-beekeeper can catch a swarm.
Here’s what I learned: Experts believe bees swarm when the hive gets too crowded. Typically swarming occurs in the spring, which gives the bees time to build up food stores in their new home before winter. The queen bee takes a break from her opulent regimen of eating royal jelly and laying eggs in order to lose enough weight to be able to fly, at which point she leaves the hive and lands on a nearby branch. Several thousand of her protective workers quickly surround her to keep her safe, forming a buzzing cluster of bees.
This is the swarm, and it can contain up to twenty or thirty thousand bees. They will remain gathered on their branch while scouts explore the area for new digs. If left to their own devices, the scout bees will return, communicate the housing options through their little bee dances, and by some bee magic (Body language? Pheromones? Telepathy? No one really knows.) agree on and fly off to the best spot. “It can happen really fast,” says Julie. “We’re talking minutes, not hours.” Hence the importance of being prepared beforeyou notice the swarm.
To be prepared, have on hand a “hospitable box,” says Darius. You can get a new bee box from your apiary supply source, or use an old one. It should be clean, with no mold, and a little bit of old wax from previous bees (you can add the old wax to a new box if that’s what you’re using). Situate the box on a raised platform to discourage ants, in a spot where it’s warmed by the morning sun, and provide a wind break behind it—a sheet of corrugated metal on two T-posts is an easy solution if you don’t have a tree line or other natural wind break. Most importantly, make sure there’s plenty of access to bloom and forage, and clean water as well. Hungry bees don’t stick around. Lastly, you’ll need the box frames in which the bees will store their honeycomb and honey.
When you notice the swarm, slide most of the frames into the box, leaving a gap of a few inches in the middle. Place the box under the branch where the swarm is gathered. While swarming bees are fairly docile, you might want to wear a bee suit to protect yourself. Give the branch a single, forceful knock so the main clump of bees drops into the box—remember, they are surrounding the queen, and getting the queen is essential. The goal is to have 60-70% of the bees land inside the box with that first strike.
Next, carefully slide the missing frames into the box, leaving just enough “bee space” between them so bees can move around. Wait about a half hour so as many of the other bees as possible can join the captured group—the greater the number of bees, the more likely the hive will survive. Then add the cover and tape over the entrance, and move the box back to its platform. Remove the tape from the entrance, though Darius recommends reducing it to 2” down from the usual 10” for a day or two to discourage the bees from resuming the swarming process.
Now cross your fingers and hope the bees take to their new home. If you’ve created the right conditions, they should settle in and start getting back to their bee-siness. “I’m a low intervention bee keeper,” says Darius, who generally lets the bees manage themselves. “I do it for the honey, the pollination benefits to my garden, and the joy of learning. It’s the kind of subject that can take a lifetime to master.” If it’s a pursuit you (and your garden, and your tea) might enjoy, catching your own swarm could be an easy way to start.
Main photo by Andy Balestracci; swarm photos by Julie Liebenbaum and Darius Richmond; honey photo by Torrey Douglass