From our blog posts earlier this year, you may have already gathered that we have A LOT going on at our Community Farm in Alexander, NC. Last week, we added one more aspect to this multifaceted project site — beekeeping. Farm intern Yael Girard came across a disturbed wild honeybee swarm while out scouting the planned route of our interpretive trail. Luckily, Yael had the experience and equipment to act quickly to save the colony. Here is her account of the day:
“Lost in the reverie of walking through the wooded property at the SAHC Community Farm, I may not have noticed the swarm had I not walked directly into it. I came into a clearing and found myself in the eye of a bee hurricane. The recently disturbed queen had not yet found a place to land, and the other bees were chaotically following her around the open space.
Queen bees are not the best flyers, being quite a bit larger than the workers and drones, and will usually try to limit their time in the air. Since she is the very life force of the hive, the rest of the bees will rush to protect her. When she landed, I watched the other bees surround her to form an undulating pendulum on a nearby tree branch. Once this buzzing blob had been established, the bees were fairly docile and hesitant to move. With their home destroyed, they sent out a few scouts to find a new location, but this can take some time. On a temperate day in late September with nights that fall into the fifties, and with no established hive and no honey stores, they didn’t have much of a chance at survival.
Since I had some experience with keeping an apiary, I decided we might be able to save the colony if we put them into a man-made hive. This can be a challenging process because you are dealing with thousands of individual creatures that act as a unit. The goal is to move the group as a whole without the queen flying away; once the queen goes, the whole swarm goes.
When handling my hive at home I rarely wear the standard bee keeping equipment, but given the fact that I was not familiar with the behavior of this hive, I suited up. This consists of long sleeves, long pants, a netted helmet, and gloves. If you swat at the bees or crush them inadvertently, it can set off a chain reaction of territorial aggression — This is bad for you and for the bees. You may end up with numerous stings and each bee that stings you will die, since its stinger will usually be left behind along with some of its organs. When handling bees, it is important to stay calm and move slowly and deliberately to minimize the stress to the group.
In preparation, I set an open Tupperware tote under the hanging swarm, to serve as an in-between receptacle for transporting them to the hive box. I gently grabbed the branch, snipped it, and lowered the whole thing into the bin. Then I put the lid on as quickly as possible and duct-taped it shut to avoid any intrepid bees from making a getaway and/or stinging me while I carried the bin up to the new home site.
We set up the new hive on the edge of a beautiful hayfield with picturesque sunsets, a nice breeze, and access to lots of forage. Having a clear flight path and plenty of nearby flowers and water will give the bees a much better chance of survival. Unfortunately, after being jostled and jumbled a quarter mile, the swarm was not in the happiest mood. So, when I opened the box, the queen made a run for the nearest tree. After they recreated the blob formation, I was able to cut the branch and then introduce them into their new home. As an added enticement, I dripped some honey from my hive onto the frames. Despite some confused flying around, the majority seemed to get the idea and pile into the hive. The best part is that no one was stung in the process.
This is a difficult time of the year for a colony to be without a home. Usually the bees would have built up honey stores throughout the summer and would be have no trouble surviving a winter without foraging. However, our bees have lost all their hard work in the move and, therefore, we will need to assist them through the winter. I have taken several frames from my hive that are mostly full of honey and several where the comb is drawn out to get them started. In addition, we will cook a syrup of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water and feed them until spring. With a little luck, we might be able to sustain them until the flowers start blooming again and they can survive on their own. It is exciting to think that someday there may be SAHC Community Farm Honey from this wild hive.”