Adventures in Beekeeping: The First Swarm

Do you know what is the worst? Starting off blog posts. I’ve been doing this shit for ten years (eleven? It may be eleven years at this point, I don’t even know…) and I still spend an inordinate amount of time starting and re-starting posts because there is just no way to fully capture in words what it’s like to be in the middle of an awesome day– getting things done, spreading a full cubic yard of mulch in your garden– and then it’s like someone pulled the emergency-stop on your entire body, bringing all of the singing and mulching and getting shit done to an abrupt halt because of the buzzing. 

You might be asking, “what buzzing?” And so was I. But it was more like .03 seconds of what the fuck is this buzzing?! And then I realized real quick that some shit was going down with one of my bee hives.

So.

Let’s just start here. Some shit went down with one of my bee hives.

Basically after a day of “running errands” which, on the farm, includes filling up the truck with a dozen bales of straw…

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And then filling it back up with mulch…

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I was just getting in to my groove shoveling and spreading mulch when about twenty yards away from me, this happened…

It doesn’t even capture it.

Thirty-thousand swarming bees make this incredible sound that basically reverberates down to your very soul.

It’s insane. And I caught this swarm mid-well.. swarm.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned about swarming bees in the last few days…

  1. In the wild, bees swarm to spread their population. When a hive gets too crowded (or has a surplus of food that makes them want to grow quicker than they can build new comb) they decide to swarm. This means the workers build a “queen cell” in the comb (which is larger than a normal cell), they feed the larva in these cells royal jelly (which turns them into potential queens) and then the existing queen takes off with about half of the hive workers and goes to form a new hive elsewhere, while everyone else stays behind with the “soon to hatch” queen… WHAT. You guys, I know, it’s totally crazy.
  2. Bees are fucking amazing. Can we all just acknowledge that?
  3. While “swarming” HRH the Queen will hang out on the branch of a tree or something near the hive, and a ton of workers will swarm around her. A few scouts will fly off to look for potential locations for the new hive, and then they come back and essentially do a little dance for the queen, and then the entire swarm of 30,000ish bees just collectively takes off in the direction of the location for the new hive.
  4. What.
  5. WHAT.

So the point at which I heard the swarm was right when all those little shits were taking off for some location that was not on this farm. It was amazing.

I followed a cloud of bees about 50 yards down the street behind my neighbors house and into the woods before I lost them. And then I just stood there listlessly for a good five minutes because apparently that was that… a quarter of my bees just up and left two months after they arrived at the farm.

Now, swarming bees aren’t necessarily good or bad (which basically means everyone has a different damn opinion about this and I can’t tell which is which) BUT it’s a natural part of bees doing what bees do, and I didn’t “lose” a hive… presumably I’ve got a fair compliment of workers and a new queen about to hatch.

If those bees didn’t swarm, however, they’d be spending all of their energy making honey instead of going rogue out into the woods. Now that hive is going to be spending a lot of time bolstering its numbers instead of making food IF they successfully hatch a new queen.

So… I’m learning.

All the things I read about bees told me they’d be spending so much time drawing out and filling the comb in the brood boxes that I’d probably only get one super of honey per hive this year. Well. They’ve already made pretty good progress on that, and, apparently, because they’ve been well fed with sugar syrup (abundance of food) AND we’ve had a couple of very rainy weeks that have kept all the bees in the hive (crowding) on the first really nice non-windy day they were like, hey, we’re getting crowded in here, and there is obviously a ton of food to go around so WE’RE OUT.

Mic drop.

There’s so much chance at play here. If I’d known what a crowded hive looked like I might have added new boxes to them last week which might have avoided the “crowding.” Or, if I hadn’t been outside at that particular time I might never have known that hive swarmed. If it hadn’t been raining for weeks, they may not have felt overcrowded. If I hadn’t been feeding them weekly jars of sugar-syrup, they may not have felt secure enough in their food production to swarm…

The truth is, I’m on track to produce 40+ pounds of honey this year. I haven’t eaten 40 pounds of honey collectively in my entire life… so I’m not really worried about honey production so much as I am about learning to read my hives.

Bees are fascinating little creatures, and I’m learning to appreciate them more every day.

22 Responses

  1. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of container to store honey in so that it doesn’t glop all over everything when I take some out.

  2. Truly, truly fascinating! I had absolutely no idea they did that kind of thing.

    Especially the mic drop.

    ;P

    I still want to try my hand at bees. I still have to get my fiance on board though…

  3. Amazing education for me. I have no desire to beekeep without a top to bottom Teflon suit due to reactions to stings, but they fascinate me!

  4. I’ve been getting so sad reading about how all the bees are dying so I LOVE this story! I’m so happy that people like you are keeping them alive!

  5. I enjoy all of your posts — but I have to say, I find the bees FASCINATING! So glad you were present to see the swarm – not only so you know what happened, but also that had to be cool as hell!!

  6. I like Lou’s idea of Black Feather Farm Honey. I would place an order for two or three or more jars! 🙂

  7. Had a swarm 2 years ago … INTO my house!!!! Twice in one week, but the first swarm left quickly.

    I came home, saw the swarming at the corner of my house, and quickly realized (ear against wall) they found a little hole where the two walls met. Within 4 days, by the time the bee keeper came to remove them, we had over 20K bees, making nectar in the floor joist space. The temperature in the wall was 7 degrees hotter where the hive was.

    The shear amount of honeycomb in those 4 days was nothing my brain could wrap around. When they cut out my floor, I just stood there in awe. Talk about nuts!

    I could stand directly underneath them as they were flying in and out and they paid no attention to me. They were so docile, more concerned with getting their nectar made then with me standing there. Pretty freaking neat!

    Until that day, I had zero idea how important bees were. Until that day, I had zero appreciation. Now, I have plants that attract them (just hopefully not into my house again).

    My house smelled like nectar for over a week. It is such a distinct smell that forever stays embedded into your senses, that last weekend I was at a store and smelled it. There was a hive somewhere I couldn’t see.

  8. Hi. Long long time reader, first time posting (I think, but who knows, because wine). Your blog is my favorite read and you’re living my dream. You’re my hero.

    I’m a life-long beekeeper by birth. My dad did it my whole life, starting as a hobby with one hive in our back yard to eventually running a full time business of honey production and agricultural pollination services for our region. It’s a truly amazing thing to watch.

    If you want help/advice on anything from swarms to extractors to whatever, feel free to shoot me an email. I love when people get into beekeeping. Great hobby.

    1. Hello Dina I started with Bee, by they adapting me
      I started with planting cilantro all over the backyard.
      They found water, food and my garage wall.
      Now I have 2 hives lol, and one swarmed in early February, before I had a chance to get super on.!
      They are great, could you guide me in how to get the honey out? Is that what the escape board is.? Haven’t found any info on how to do it.
      I do not want a lot of their honey, my interest in helping them
      I think I’ve done pretty good, my girls are not very docile though. The are pretty aggressive Texans lol

  9. Am I a freak for worrying about the swarmed bees? I hope they find a new home that’s safe and close to food.

  10. Yup. We lost 3 swarms this year. It rained for a week straight and then 3 of our 7… I think… swarmed. But, since we were a week and a half away from harvesting honey, we didn’t feel like it was THAT big of a loss. One was 200 feet up in our neighbors tree. We saw it, got a box ready to create a “trap,” walked it over and when we got there the swarm was gone. Frustrating.

  11. The good thing about swarms is that you can also CATCH swarms and get free bees! Just put the word out that you are looking to re-home swarms so they don’t end up in people’s walls, water boxes and other places they might get exterminated. The key thing though is that you must act fast. Once the swarm stops to collect on a tree and send out scouts, they could move on fast. Swarms are somewhat docile since they don’t have brood and honey to protect, and they are geared up to start building comb right away. I haven’t been fast enough to catch any swarms so I’ve been doing something more complicated and time consuming to get bees. It’s called a trap out.

  12. this was extremely fascinating! I never knew this about Bees. As a child I had an allergy to them so that swarm would have probably made me pass out. But now I find the whol beekeeping adventure interesting. Maybe once the farm is up and functioning that will be on the list of to do’s.

    How are the keets? any survive?

  13. You are a marvelous writer! You could be talking about hoofing horses and I would be entertained. You also have the ability to write like you are talking to a friend. I so appreciate your blog. Thanks!
    Margaret

  14. I started beekeeping last August with 2 purchased nucs with mated queens. Lost 1 hive over wintered and purchased another package this past April to replace it. Two days after I installed the package my surviving hive swarmed 3 times and I was able to captured 1 and put them in a third hive. The end of May my package hive swarmed and I caught it and put it in a fourth hive. One week later I checked it and found that all the bees had left. I have read numerous articles, watched youtube videos and talked to long-time beekeepers and have come to the conclusion that there isn’t one perfect way to keep bees and the little girls will always keep me trying to be a better beekeeper.

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