A Swarm

Yesterday evening, while checking on the roses and chatting with a fellow gardener, I suddenly noticed a strange buzz. When I looked up, I saw an amazing sight: a large cluster of bees was hanging from a branch of our crab apple tree. I remembered from my high school biology class that a queen bee must be in the middle of this swarm.

The swarm

This was exciting and a little scary. What should we do? First, we asked our visitors to avoid the area and blocked it off. Bees in a swarm are not at all aggressive, but it was certainly better to be careful.

The two beekeepers of our garden were not available and it was getting late. What now? Fortunately, New York City’s fantastic bee keeping community is ready to help in such an emergency.

A phone call and 15 minutes later, Ray Sage came to the rescue. Ray has been keeping bees for the last 6 years on a rooftop in the East Village and is an experienced swarm capturer. He quickly assessed the situation. The swarm had chosen a low branch and was accessible by stepladder; good. Did we have a hive for them? We improvised one with two spare stackable boxes from our hive, a few empty honey frames and a piece of plywood for a bottom. But how could we get the bees into this contraption? Ray took a large plastic garbage bag and climbed onto the ladder. I helped him to hold the open bag under the swarm. Then, Ray shook the branch. Clumps of bees fell down. Another shake and most of them were “bagged”.

Ray is shaking the bees into a bag

Normally, a beekeeper would wear a protective suit, but here, we were in a hurry. Amazingly, Ray got stung just a couple of times and I didn’t get stung at all, even though there were plenty of bees all over us. These ladies were completely focused on their queen.

Ray brought the bag to our makeshift hive and poured the bees inside. He then quickly put an improvised lid on the box.

The bees are emptied into the box.

A few wooden sticks wedged under the lid generated a space for the bees to get in and out. Since we had not captured all bees from the apple tree, Ray took the bag back and collected a few more. By the time we were ready to put these bees into the box, the ones inside had markedly calmed down.

By now, excitement was growing in our regular hive. The arrival of the new colony had not escaped the attention of our resident bees. Workers were sitting near the entrance with their rear end up. They were guarding their hive against possible intruders. Ray checked for fights, but did not see any. Perhaps, it was too dark by now and the bees were getting cold and sleepy. A short time later, the buzz in the new hive got quieter, bees crawled into the box and not out, and when we checked the area around the apple tree, it was abandoned. The smell of their queen must have guided all bees into their temporary home.

Ray is adjusting the lid on the box to generate an entrance.

Where did these bees come from? We think that the swarm originated from our own hive. Swarming is a normal occurrence during spring. It serves to propagate the colony. Bees may decide that it is time to swarm when their hive becomes crowded. They nurse a new queen and the old queen moves out with about half of her workers. They all fly away, congregate at a temporary site (like our crab apple tree) and send out scout bees to find a suitable place for a new nest. When such a place is found, the bees will move in, build cells and forage, and the queen will begin to lay eggs. Exactly this happened 5 years ago when our first bee colony moved into a little Asian cabinet that decorated one of our garden plots. The colony stayed there all summer long and even survived the winter. Ray was the one who helped transferring these bees into a proper hive.

The cabinet that served as the home for our first colony. The bees flew in and out of a crack between the doors. They were moved to a proper hive the next year (fotos by Hubert Steed).

That year, we gained a colony of bees. Yesterday, we almost lost half of ours. It was lucky that the swarm had not yet left the garden and we found it in time. Ray offered to bring a new hive in a couple of days. Hopefully, the bees will like it and stay with us, our much anticipated honey harvest depends on it.