In case you were wondering what NOT to do when raising bees, here are a few ideas:
Sunday afternoon, after transplanting iris, daylilly, and blazing star flowers that were growing wild along our fenceline (moving them to the flower bed in front of the house - I love free flowers!), I went to chat with my husband, who'd just finished digging a new strawberry hugulkultur bed between the apple trees (I want to try Herrick Kimball's "Hugelberry" idea from his new book The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners). We were both tired and ready to break for supper, but as we were talking, I just happened to look out into the field behind our house, and saw this:
(sorry it's fuzzy, but my daughter wasn't getting anywhere near those bees with the camera!)
Now what? I'd read enough to know that catching a swarm is fairly easy (if you're quick and they don't fly away before you get there), but you have to have some kind of box to put them in. After wracking my brain for a bit, I remembered that I still had the cages I'd brought the bees home in - perfect. I fetched one out of the garage and, along with my pruners, went to work. I cut off the branch a little before and after where the swarm was hanging, so that I could maneuver the whole thing more easily to shake them down into the box. It all went smoothly, and I brought the box back to the lawn until I could figure out what to do with it. While I was at the tree, however, I saw that there was another bunch of bees clinging to the trunk. I had another bee cage, so I figured I'd go and collect those, too. I brushed them off of the trunk with my bee brush as well as I could, then covered that cage and put it by the other one.
It's a good thing that I went back for that second bunch - judging by the number of still-loose bees that were collected around the outside of the cage, the queen was in that second batch.
First up - where was I going to put this new bee colony? I didn't have any more hives, so what was I going to do with them? I quickly went online and looked up how to make a basic hive box, figuring we could cobble something together and then make a decent floor and roof for it later. My husband was not sure that was such a good idea, and flat out said that I should just release the swarm and prepare better for next time. But, at my obvious distress, he set to work building a quick hive box. Thankfully, we already had the necessary wood, so he just had to cut it and screw it together.
The next thing to do was to find out which hive the bees had come from. "Check Bees" had been on my to-do list for over a week, but I'd been busy with other things and hadn't gotten around to it. Obviously I shouldn't have put it off!
When I looked in the first hive, I figured it was the one that had swarmed - there were hardly any bees in it - maybe a hundred or so. When I looked in the second hive, however, I was puzzled. This hive was chock-full - only one frame hadn't been drawn out, and - oho! - there were queen cells in the top box. Since overcrowding was usually the cause of a swarm, and this hive was making new queens, the swarm must have come from this colony. So why were there so few bees in the first hive?
Still trying to work that one out, I realized that the first thing to be done was to make more room in the overcrowded hive. I grabbed my giant 5-gallon kettle and harvested four frames of comb. Hopefully that will give them enough room so they don't need to swarm again soon.
But now back to that first hive - what was going on there? Why were there so few bees? I looked again at the comb, and saw that there were no bee babies at all, and no honey, just some cells half-full of pollen. Something was very wrong. No larva meant no queen. No queen meant the colony would slowly die out. It was worse than I thought.
Then it struck me - this was the solution to my swarm relocation problem. It was only a matter of time until the first colony died out altogether, so why not clear them out and put the new swarm in their hive? There was a risk, of course, that the first colony had succumbed to disease - but if my choices were take a chance on disease or lose the swarm, I figured it was worth a try.
So I took out all of the comb, brushed most of the bees out of the hive, and shook out the boxes containing the swarm into the now-empty hive. I closed it all up, said a prayer that this cockamamie jerry-rigged idea would somehow work, and went to deal with the combs I'd harvested.
I had been very careful to brush off any bees that were on the comb from the second hive before I put the comb into the kettle and covered it (I definitely didn't want any bees in the house!) but when I came back to the kettle, there were bees in it! Very pale, disoriented-looking bees. I soon realized that those bees had just hatched out of the brood comb! About 1/4 of the comb I'd harvested turned out to have brood in it. With an inward cringe, I realized I would have to pick out all of the bee babies before I could process the honey and wax (to make it a little easier on my over-emotional adrenaline-pumped mind - waste not want not - I fed that brood comb to the chickens).
Once all of the brood comb had been picked off (I used a fork), I took the rest of the comb into the kitchen to process.