Friday, July 23, 2010


I am relating events that took place about a month ago.

I can't believe it's taken this long to get it together to write this! I've just been remarkably busy- I'll resist the obvious analogy- and somehow it just kept slipping away from me. But it is a story well worth telling, with many lessons learned.

In late June, our bee hive swarmed.

Of course it was the week that Packy was away, so he missed the whole thing which was a shame, because it was Very, Very Cool.

I didn't notice them at first. It was a gorgeous warm, sunny day- the first we'd seen in way too long, and I was attempting to catch up on a million farm chores, mostly involving mowing. Not the most exciting chore, but so satisfying when it's done.

In one of the many back and forth trips to the house, I suddenly looked over and saw this on the fence:

Well, I was pretty sure what it was. I tried to get close enough to make sure that they were actually honey bees and not some other kind of flying buzzing insect, and then realized that I was foolishly trying to get very close to a buzzing mass of over-excited insects while wearing no protective gear. I decided to step back and call in an expert:

Oddly enough, I had just seen Thom a couple of days before at the inFARMation at the Coast event in Astoria, and he had given me one of his new business cards. Thom is a beekeeper,teacher, prolific blogger, and all-around interesting person. I enjoy when our paths cross, I always learn something. That day I learned that we don't know nearly enough to be the keepers of a bee hive. Thom was remarkably patient with me and my several thousand questions. Packy and I are both looking forward to taking his beekeeping class this winter to hopefully answer a few thousand more.

Thom assured me that yes, those were indeed honey bees swarming on the fence. He got a nuc box (which is a sort of temporary hive, 'nuc' is short for nucleus) out of the back of his truck, grabbed what looked like a drafting brush, donned his snappy bee jacket (with attached hood- so cool) and proceeded to pop the box open underneath where the bees were hanging out on the fence and then just brushed great clumps of bees into the box.

The bees were fairly annoyed by this, to say the least. Thom remained very cool, which I guess is something you develop over time as a beekeeper. Thankfully I managed to resist doing the panicky "Oh God there are a Huge Number of Bees Flying Around Me" dance. I just stood as far away as I could get and still see the action. I was wearing a protective hood, and long sleeves and gloves and all, but it was still a bit disconcerting to be that close to that many agitated bees.

Very Interesting Bee Fact that I Learned #1: Bees can sense their predators by the carbon dioxide that they exhale, so if you want a bee to stop following you around, hold your breath and back slowly away from it. Good to know.

Once Thom was sure that the queen bee was in the nuc box, he set the box on the ground near the fence.

"The rest of the hive will follow her into the box eventually," he assured me as I looked in worry at the hundreds of bees still lurking on the fence. "They can still scent the hormones she left on the fence, so they're confused, but they will find her."

Oddly enough, while Thom was busy wrangling our swarm, I got a call from our friends Jean-Marc and Kathleen, asking me if I happened to know of anyone that could take care of a swarm of bees that had showed up at their house that day.

"Weird..." I said to Thom. "Did some secret ultrasonic message go out to all the hives to swarm today?"

"No, it's just the first really warm day of the year," he observed. "This always happens. It's not great that the warm weather has come so late this year. It's almost to the point where the new hives won't be able to build up enough food stores for the winter, and you may have to feed them."

Very Interesting Bee Fact that I Learned #2: If bees swarm too late in the season, there aren't enough pollen producing plants around to allow them to build up adequate honey stores to last them until the following spring, and unless these hives are provided with additional food, they will probably die.

Thus the charming old English poem that Thom recited for me:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly.

So, Thom left to go capture Jean-Marc and Kathleen's bees, and told me he would be back later to check on the nuc box and help me move it to a location near the old hive. We set it up on cinder blocks to keep it off the ground because-

Very Interesting Bee Fact that I Learned #3: Skunks are a voracious predator of bees, and keeping the hive off the ground can protect it from attack. Skunks will scratch at the entrance to the hive and then eat the adult bees who come out to investigate the disturbance. A hive can be seriously depleted if the skunk isn't stopped, so it was well worth hauling the cinder blocks out to the hive location to provide some extra protection.

I woke up the next day feeling pretty happy about the new bee hive, and looking forward to telling Packy all about the excitement. Imagine my consternation late in the day when I looked over and saw this:

The bees were back on the fence! In a very cool clumpy shape, true, but what had gone wrong?!

I called Thom, who was very puzzled, and theorized that perhaps it was because the hive had been left too close to where they had swarmed to the day before, and that maybe he should just take the swarm back to his place to 'reset' the hive's location, and then bring it back to our farm at a later date.

He heroically came out again to our farm to investigate, and did the first thing any curious beekeeper would do, ( I can't believe I didn't do this, such an idiot) he went to look at the nuc box to see if he could tell what went wrong.

Which is when he told me:

"So, yesterday's bees are still in the nuc box, and look very happy. It looks like your hive has swarmed twice!"

Well. I didn't know they did that, but apparently:

Very Interesting Bee Fact that I Learned #4: A bee hive can swarm several times in a season. The first time it is the old queen taking off with a large percentage of the worker bees accompanying her after one or more new queens have been born in the hive. Bee hives, much like Wild West towns and their gun slingers, aren't big enough for the both of them. Subsequent swarms would be with another of the virgin queens (I just love beekeeping terminology, so Elizabeth the First) and are usually not as big as the first swarm.

This time Thom sprayed the bees with water, which I think he said calmed them down, or at least stopped them from flying. Then out came the drafting brush again, and hive #2 was scraped off the fence into a second nuc box.

Beekeeping is a huge subject, and a lifetime of study and experience will still probably only scratch the surface. I am humbled to realize how much we need to learn in order to be good stewards of these phenomenal creatures, but I'm very much looking forward to learning it. Bees are just amazing.

And Thom is pretty damn amazing too.


  1. Yay for Thom T. the king of bees (and some other stuff too)

  2. Nice post, Teresa. This has been a big year for swarms. One point of clarification, I sprayed the second swarm with sugar water. This not only makes them heavier so they will think twice about flying, but the sugar in the water is slightly sticky so it temporary glues their wings. The bees clean each other and get a nectar-like treat in the process.

    Also looking at all that grass in your field, you should consider haying it. You can probably get 100 bales per acre and sell it for $3 to $4 a bale.

    I look forward to finish getting you set up with the colonies.


  3. Teresa! I've told everyone I know (slight exaggeration) about your blog. (I actually have told those friends who can appreciate your writing and your wonderful sense of humor. Hence, you have fans all over the US!)
    I love reading your stuff.

  4. Thanks for all the comments- it's a bit overwhelming to know that people actually read this thing. yikes.

    Thom- thanks for the correction on the sugar water, I knew there was more to it, but couldn't remember what. Can't wait to get the bees into their new official home! Will talk to Packy about the hay- we don't have equipment, so not sure if it will make financial sense, but it might... hey, do you need hay? Hmm...

    Marina- well, THANKS! I'm so glad you appreciate my sense of humor. I knew there was a reason we got along well. Hope you can come visit the bees sometime soon.

    Aunty- Yay Indeed! Thom saved our asses, and our bees as well. WHAT a guy.

    g- yep. That really could have been the whole post right there.

  5. Fascinating. My friend Molly is a first time beekeeper and seems to be loving it. Looks like there is soooooo much to learn. You can see her adventures here.