Friday, July 29, 2011

Holy Swarms!

Or maybe a more appropriate title would be "Why You Should Maintain Your Hives So That You Don't Scare the Crap Out of Your Neighbors".

It was a morning like any other morning. I was milking the goat while the hustle and bustle on Mission street droned in the background. I had forgotten my strip cup inside the house and ran upstairs to retrieve it. When I returned to my milking duties, there was something off. The air felt different. Crowded. Almost electric.

I looked out across the yard and noticed a lot of  winged creatures zipping madly about. They seemed to be multiplying with my every breath until I suddenly realized that the sky above me was buzzing. Loudly. Great balls of bees, this was a swarm!

It looked like a goddamned plague. I noticed my neighbors were gazing out their windows in horror. Or awe. It was difficult to tell. Why no one was at work this morning can only be a testament to my shit luck around these sorts of things.

I whipped my phone out of my pocket like a gun from a holster and dialed my friend Esperanza. I held the phone up into the cloud of bees. The buzzing roar was so loud that she could hear it on the other end. "Don't worry," she assured me, "they'll land somewhere in a big clump in less than an hour. Hopefully on your property so you can capture them."

Meanwhile, my neighbors continued with their faces pressed to the glass in bewilderment. I sidled up to the window to perform some damage control. In atrocious broken Spanish I explained, "No preoccupada. En un hora, calma. Las abejas necesitan una nueva casa. Pero mira, no pica." I ran to the center of the swarm to demonstrate that the bees wouldn't attack. The muchachos at the window were either impressed or concerned that I was insane.

Gradually, the bees found a spot on the loquat tree to regroup. I watched as the ball grew and grew, and breathed a sigh of relief that the airborne chaos was subsiding. To stand amidst a swarm, the air vibrating with activity, is as exhilarating as it is unsettling. I welcomed the temporary calm.

Esperanza warned me that time was of the essence. The bees might hang on the tree for a couple hours or a couple days. This was a bee emergency. I didn't want to lose half my hive, but of course I didn't have any extra housing on hand. I needed a bee house stat. But where was I going to get a new deep and frames? Immediately?

One of my interns, Niki, had just told me the day before that Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper had reopened in the Mission, a mere two miles from my house. I jumped in the car and tore off to shop. They were just opening when I arrived. I met the shopkeepr, Brian, a calm and relaxed fellow who looked as though he didn't quite know what to do with a woman who had worked herself up into such a dither about a routine bee swarm . But how incredibly helpful was he? He advised me to capture the swarm in a cardboard box and then move them to their more permanent location. He also apprised me of many other beekeeping bits and bobs that I should keep in mind while maintaining hives in a city. I left the shop promising that I would join the local beekeepers association, since clearly I needed to get a grip on some of the basics.

I raced home, fearing that my ladies may have abandoned my property for greener pastures. But they were still there, in the same spot where I left them.

Now came the tricky part: getting the swarm in the box. I called my friend Kitty. She had been capturing swarms all summer. She'd have some good advice as to how to maneuver this delicate operation. The instructions were simple: bang the branch really hard so that the entire clump falls into the box in one go. Let them settle. Then move them to their new hive by turning the box upside down and whacking the bottom of it forcefully with a stick.

The seemingly simple somehow always turns into a major something when I'm around. I suited up with my veil, gloves, and long sleeves and set up a ladder under the branch. I grabbed a sturdy stick and held my breath as I swung. Plop. Shit, only a quarter of the bees hit the box. I whacked again. OK, I got another quarter of the ball, but now the bees were agitated. I struck the branch again, this time cracking it. Finally, I just ripped the branch off and shook it really hard until most of the bees appeared to be safely ensconced in the cardboard. With the flurry of activity, I had unwittingly created a mini swarm. A really pissed off one at that. I escaped with only a couple shrieks from a sting and a couple stragglers finding their way inside my veil.

But I wasn't done yet. The husband who had heard my yelps stood by the back door to brush me off with a rainbow colored duster. The angry bees trying to sting me through my veil and gloves needed to join the rest of their cadre. It felt good to have someone on my side in this precarious situation.

The next step was to assemble the deep and allow the bees to re-coalesce. I needed a break too. But only a short one as I was anxious to finish this job.

I returned to the humming box after I had set up the hive in it's permanent spot. This part should go smoothly, right? I brought the box over to the deep, turned it upside down, and gave it a good thumping. I was told that I didn't necessarily need to have the bottom board in place to do this. Bad idea. After the whacking, the bees dropped straight through the hive, landed on the ground, and then swirled back up into the air. Great. Another swarm. This time I wasn't as lucky, getting a sting on the inside of my upper thigh. Not quite THERE, but a little too close for comfort.

Half of the bees eventually settled on the frames inside the hive, while the other half clung to the cinder block holding up the deep. I feared that the queen was in the clump on the cinder block. But the ladies were livid at this point so I decided to leave them alone for a day before installing the bottom board. Messing with angry bees is about as smart as picking up a hissing cat. A cooling off period seemed in order.

The next day I returned with bottom board in hand to complete the job. But how was I going to do that without crushing all those bees on the cinder block? What ensued was a chaotic operation in my amateur hands. Smashing occurred. Bees died.Clumps of bees who refused to leave their cinder block for the nice new frames in the hive were prodded with the rainbow duster creating yet more swarming. I felt like a clumsy, inept oaf wearing a ridiculous hat.

In the end, everything turned out fine. All of the bees found the entrance to the hive and settled in nicely. Though I wish that I would have gotten some video footage of it. Because damn, I was one bad ass motherfucker wrangling those bees.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. We're picking up a new honey super next weekend (ours have filled up two deep bodies and a medium body already) up in Sebastapol and I suppose we should just go ahead and pick up a second hive as well in case this same thing happens to us. We have to do an inspection today anyways.

  2. I never knew there was much to bee keeping. I thought you just got a hive, some bees moved in, and it was happy days from there on in!

    Mind you, I like the idea of a swarm!

  3. I hate to say this, but I love to read the blogs of things going erm...roughly. Because it never fails, (I think I am the red headed step child of Murphy) if something can go wrong for me, it absolutely will, usually in the most humiliating of ways. So it makes me feel better about my awkward(inept?) attempts at anything to read about near disasters that turn out alright in the end like this. Gives me the courage to keep on trying stuff! So Thanks!

  4. Holy crappola, sounds like it was quite something. This post had me laughing out loud one minute and feeling really inspired the next. YOU are a rockstar kind of homesteader and i love your might and determination! It runs through all of your postings. Sounds like everything worked out and you learned something new. Thanks for sharing and taking me on this adventure of yours, loved it.

  5. This reads like an exhilarating sci-fi thriller. Woah! You are one tough cookie!!

  6. I agree with Indigo, I appreciate hearing about the stuff that doesn't go so smoothly. Just the thought of standing in the middle of a swarm makes me jumpy!! Bad Ass is right!!

  7. Ok, Darling... I did not say anything about leaving off the bottom board. Who the heck gave you that information? And we need to get you a nice bee brush instead of that feather duster. They hate the brush.

    I'll give you a cool tip I learned from Charlotte. When working the hive and trying to look between a gazillion ladies to see if there is brood, just blow on the frame. They move every so nicely out of the way.

  8. AHHH.. Ha Ha Ha. Good job, Heidi! :-D
    Better you than me. I am in awe, again!

  9. Oh wow!! Sounds like you had quite an adventure! Maybe not the best one...but for sure one that you will remember! It sounds like you did a great job getting everything back into control again!

  10. So happy I stumbled across this blog! This post made me laugh like nothing other.

    Thanks for the morning chuckle!