I love bees. They are extraordinary creatures who cooperate and communicate for the overall good of their community. They work tirelessly on their assigned tasks and change their focus depending on the requirements of the situation. It’d be easy to write a reference letter for a honey bee. They’d be an asset to any team. And bees are so photogenic, often posing against a backdrop of wildflowers or honeycomb.
It was my intrigue and admiration that made me decide to become a beekeeper. I read books and signed up for a beekeeper course. Over a couple of weekends, I learned some bee basics and had a practical day out learning to use the smoker, check the hives, and spot the queen. Jack and I visited the local guru at Seaside Bees for advice about building a top-bar beehive and Jack got to work building us two imperfect, but usable hives. City guidelines encourage that neighbours are consulted about bees, so I talked to ours and it turns out that one of them was a beekeeper, too! These days, it didn't happen if it didn't happen online, so Jack set up Double Happy Honey Bees (under development). All I had to do now was find a swarm.
The Buzz: Bees swarm instinctually, usually when the hive is full of bees and they need to split for the population to grow. The worker bees make queen cell cups, which look a little bit like peanuts in a shell protruding out from the honeycomb. Then queen lays an egg in the cup and the worker bees feed her royal jelly (beyond the three day ration given to worker bees and drones) so this egg will grow into a queen. Before the new queen emerges, a large portion of the worker bees in the hive will gorge themselves on honey and together with the old queen, they leave the hive to find a new home. Swarming bees tend to be happy and mild-mannered because their tummies are filled with honey.
Soon enough, I heard about a swarm in a tree at my son’s school. It was a few metres up the tree that was growing on the side of a hill so not an easy removal. As a virgin swarm collector, I called in experienced beekeepers to help me get it down, but no one was willing to go up for the job. So I climbed the tree myself and squished up next to the swarm, but it was very high up and I did not have enough hands to hold myself in the tree, hold the swarm-catching box, and encourage the bees to go in. By the next day, another beekeeper, much cleverer than I, had set an old hive at the bottom of the hill under the tree. Smelling the delectable honey, the bees willingly shepherded themselves into their new home. I was disappointed to have missed out on those bees and resolved to catch the next swarm.
A couple of days later, I heard through social media that a swarm of bees had landed in someone’s tree, just a metre off the ground. Much more doable for a newbie! I drove to the site wearing my bee suit, armed with a large cardboard box, a pruning tool, and duct tape. The bees gathered tightly together on the pine branch, buzzing quietly. I set the box on the ground under the swarm, took a deep breath, and shook the branch hard in a downward motion. The swarm fell off the branch and landed in the box. A small cluster still stuck on a tiny branch, so I cut it off and put it in the box with the bees attached. I folded the lid down, duct taped it shut, and put the box in the trunk of my station wagon.
The box felt surprisingly heavy in my arms and I marvelled at the humming that now seemed very loud. I thanked the homeowner and took to the road for the 45 minute drive home. I turned the radio off, happy to have the gentle buzz to serenade me for the trip.
I'd driven about halfway home when I stopped at some traffic lights and gazed into the rearview mirror only to find that I couldn't see out my back window - because it was covered with bees! They must have found a gap in the cardboard box and escaped. It was a long light and slowly more and more bees began to fly up towards the front of the car to say hello. I was still wearing my bee suit, though not my gloves or my veil. I began to hum, hoping this swarm would be as placid as reputed. I drove slowly the rest of the way and was fully surrounded by bees by the time I reversed into my driveway.
With my hood, veil, and gloves back on, I carried the box, still heavy despite the escaping bees, from the back of the car and down to the site of our top bar bee hive. I turned over the box and lightly shook it. Many of the bees buzzed around me and most went into the hive. I put the top bars in place and closed the lid. Now it was a waiting game. Would the queen like her new home? Would the bees stay and thrive?
Funny honey: Bees communicate with pheromones. The alarm pheromone smells like bananas. Don't try to sweet talk a bee after your lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches!