Retrieving a swarm from the top of a holly bush in Vancouver required patience, a ladder, a banker's box and a neighbour's pruners for the many branches the branches surrounding the cluster. Photo: Amanda Goodman Lee

Lessons learned from our first bee swarm of the season

We caught our first swarm last week in Vancouver, under circumstances that, like everything in beekeeping, delivered us a wealth of information.

With the strong warm weather of May and June and the lack of rain, most hives in the Metro area grew like stink. The week of rain in late June not only shortened the main blackberry honey harvest but also kept at bay booming hives that wanted to swarm.

Jaquie Bunse, the provincial bee inspector for the Fraser Valley, warned last month that this would likely result in a flood of late swarms in July when the weather inevitably turned warm. That’s exactly what happened.

Too heavy for the thin chestnut tree branch, the swarm eventually settled on several branches of a nearby holly tree,

Too heavy for the thin chestnut tree branch, the swarm eventually settled on several branches of a nearby holly tree,

The Richmond Beekeepers Association’s swarm line, manned by Lee Wood, was kept fairly busy. I also got a few calls, which I directed to area beekeepers.

Our swarm came about at the end of one day last week when Lee called to say there was one reported in a tree near the Pandora Community Garden in Vancouver.

Reaching up to gently cut away some of the branches around the swarm so that I could get a banker's box under most of the cluster. Photo: Amanda Goodman Lee

Reaching up to gently cut away some of the branches around the swarm so that I could get a banker’s box under most of the cluster. Photo: Amanda Goodman Lee

It was on our way home from work, so we decided to swing by and see if we could find it. We always keep our veils and some rudimentary equipment in our truck during swarm season, and Amanda had a cardboard banker’s box under her desk. We didn’t have a ladder with us, and that was going to be a problem: Lee said initial reports were that the swarm was hanging from a tree branch 25 feet in the air.

Sure enough, when we got to the park where the garden is located, we found this enormous swarm hanging precariously on a thin branch of a chestnut tree, safely out of reach. The weight of the swarm had already broken two other branches.

We didn’t have to wait long; as we were heading to a friend’s house in search of a ladder the branch broke again and the air was alight with a massive cloud of bees. One of the local gardeners, Scott, called my cell with the news and we headed back to see where the bees would next land.

Swarm safely housed in the banker's box. Leaving it for a while allowed stragglers to fly in through the handle holes. Photo: Amanda Goodman Lee

Swarm safely housed in the banker’s box. Leaving it for a while allowed stragglers to fly in through the handle holes. Photo: Amanda Goodman Lee

They eventually settled on a holly bush much closer to ground. A neighbour across the street loaned us his 20-foot ladder. A friendly gardener loaned us a pair of pruners, and someone else held the ladder, which was balanced precariously into the bush.

We soon had the majority of the swarm in the banker’s box. We set the box on the ground under the bush, and over the next 45 minutes the stragglers, lured by the queen’s scent, piled onto the box through the handle holes.

I hadn’t brought duct tape, but found a little bit of electrician’s tape under the seats; we taped up the holes and carted the prize home, rehousing it later that night in a hive into which we placed several empty but drawn combs.

It turns out the swarm came from one of two hives in the community garden. The owner, Joanne Platt, a new beekeeper, told us she had seen 14 swarm cells in the last week but felt she couldn’t split the hives because of the city’s bylaws restrictions of two hives per lot.

We told her how to relieve pressure in the hive in future, and that she can always create a nuc or split with a couple of frames, which she can then give away to another beekeeper.

The loss of the swarm was severe to Joanne: it had to have been close to five pounds of bees, and she tells me the queen was a phenomenal layer.

While swarms are considered to be found money to the beekeeper who collects them, Amanda and I want to operate on a different wavelength. We told Joanne that at some point next year we’ll send a queen her way when she needs it.

It is matter of beekeeping etiquette I learned recently from another RBA member, Eric Crosby, who offered me a future queen for pointing him to a swarm that turned into boon. That queen is now building a great hive for us.

So, some of the lessons learned this time:

  1. Carry a complete swarm kit: box, duct tape, veil, clippers, even a small saw for branches too big for the clippers. It can all fit inside the box. If possible, carry a small folding ladder during swarm season. It makes it easier for those times when neighbours don’t have ladders.
  2. Make friends. Neighbours are often very curious and want to help. We found someone who had a large ladder, others who had tools or items that we’d forgotten to bring.
  3. When contacting those who call for swarms, swap telephone numbers. In this case, Scott’s call alerted us to the fact the hive had moved and was settling lower.
  4. Keep a few extra drawn combs and a hive box for resettling the swarm. In our case all we had was a few Dadant frames. Now we have to convert them to our standard brood frames.
  5. Be prepared for a swarm to become a teaching moment. While we waited for the swarm to settle we were approached by lots of people who wanted to know what was going on. One pointed us to a nearby bald-faced hornet’s nest that also needs to be removed. We also ran into a former beekeeper from Iran who, in seeing the swarm, decided he wants to get back into the hobby.
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