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Adventures in Bee Snatching

by Community Forests International on July 16, 2013

I did something last week that I would have thought outrageous a few days before.   Daimen and I just spent a week or so at Whaelghinbran last week. We were there house-sitting while Sue was at a wedding in the states, and were taking the opportunity to cut her firewood. The firewood could not have gone better, and we were able to release about a hectare of long lived Acadian Forest species by removing some of the low-quality hardwood over story.   On Sunday we sat down in the kitchen for lunch and reprieve from the 35 degree heat. I was facing the brook looking out the window and noticed a lot of bees flying around.   Daimen quickly recognised it as a swarm.   I now know that a swarm forms when a healthy hive outgrows its home. The queen lays queen cells which will develop into new queens, then leaves the hive with a significant number of the other bees. This detached swarm goes looking for new digs.   And before settling in a new home (which can be anywhere from an old tree to a house), they ‘beard up’, meaning the queen lands somewhere – usually a branch of a tree – and the other swarm members land around here, hanging off of each other forming a bee ‘beard’. It was between this flying swarm and beard stage that we found them.

As it happens, the swarm and beard is relatively docile, even though when close your impulse is to put walls between yourself and the hoard of stingers.   And my instinct was definitely to run.   Especially when Daimen told me we were going to catch the thing.   Daimen said that if you get the timing right, and catch the bearded bees before they find a new home, you can move them to an empty hive, effectively doubling your bee hive population.   He then left to grab a pillow case to catch them with.

The bees quickly bearded up, and I soon became aware that there were a lot of bees that we were going to try to catch. But Daimen knew what he was doing so I was willing to go along.   It didn’t instill confidence, however, when Daimen returned, took one look at the swarm and said with a nervous laugh ‘I’ve never dealt with a swarm this big before. I think we’re going to need something bigger than a pillow case’.   Soon I found myself, for some reason, climbing 10 feet up in an old apple tree overhanging a steep bank, just a meter from thousands of bees, cutting off the limb they were attached to. Daimen was down below, having now returned with a burlap feed bag. We carefully lowered the bearded bee swarm towards the ground, being very careful not to disturb them.   Very carefully.   Very.   True to his word, Daimen was quickly cutting off the branches protruding from the swarm that prevented the feed bag from going over the lot of them. As we tried to fit the feed bag over the swarm, we both know we needed something bigger. Within a few minutes Daimen was back with a large recycling bag. This was not ideal, as it was hot and plastic doesn’t breathe. But Daimen has set up a new hive a short distance away, so we knew we could get the swarm over there quickly enough not to harm any bees.

Reaching the opening of the bag over the swarm required a lot of discipline as my hand touched the swarm and my mind was definitely in flight mode. Soon we had the swarm captured, and Daimen quickly (but gently) jogged over to the vacant hive.   As we stood over the new hive we removed the plastic bag to release the bees. Daimen – with a brisk shake – easily transferred the bees into the top of the new hive, placed the top on and we moved away just in case.   Now there is no guarantee that the swarm will like its new digs. If, for instance, the queen doesn’t make it into the new hive, the other bees will quickly vacate it to find her.

Fortunate for us, we got her and a large number of the other bees inside without incident. The bees quickly went to work cleaning any undesirables out of their new hive, and within a day they were sending out their field bees in search of nectar and building new comb.     I have no experience with bee keeping. But watching Daimen confidently handle this swarm and doubling Whaelghinbran’s number of bee hives has made me want to learn more about bee husbandry. Too bad our bee workshop is already full. Maybe I can convince everyone else there ought to be another one... Any takers?

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