Swarms and Ladders

By Jean Webster
Honeybees the world over are in danger, from commercial beekeepers with 30 to 40,000 hives whose honeybees pollinate farmers’ crops, to backyard beekeepers with one or more hives. Blame has been placed on pesticides, used on agri-farms, that can kill a hive within a few years as well as mites and diseases that cause deformed and weakened bees.

Five years ago, we started with one beehive in the backyard of our home near the ocean in mid-coast Maine. It had more to do with a retirement occupation than the plight of the bees. Since then we’ve become champions of honeybees, like the thousands of backyard beekeepers in small towns and even in cities like New York and Chicago. It’s not about the honey. It’s about the bees.

All went well our first year. We joined a regional club, learned a little, and got about six pounds of honey. Sweet! How little we really knew.

The following year we learned firsthand about swarms – when nearly half the 60,000-plus bees in the hive take a new queen and abandon the colony. Why? No one is sure. It could be crowded quarters or an aging queen. We learned that “swarms” can happen frequently.

Our bees swarmed one Sunday morning while we were enjoying coffee and the newspaper on our front porch. We heard the swarm before we saw it, and immediately went into action. Houses here are practically within arms distance. We had to move fast.

The bee club has a “swarm chain,” a list of people looking for bees to populate a hive. We already had a second hive in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house. So we contacted Linda who lives about five miles away and who was in the market for bees for another hive.

Linda had recently rescued a swarm, so we followed her instructions. Fortunately, the swarm (which looks like a giant’s beard, with all the bees clustered together, keeping the queen safe in the center) was in a low bush. But, it was in our neighbors’ yard. Understandably, they weren’t happy, but we assured them we just needed time and space.

It took less than half an hour to coax the swarm – 30,000 bees – into the wooden box Linda would use to transport them home. Our remaining bees could get on with their work, bringing in nectar and pollen for the hive.

Two weeks later our honeybees swarmed again. This time, I was on my own. I’d ignored a few bees in our dining room skylight on Saturday. That was the clue. Now, there were about a dozen. And, when I walked outside for the paper, I saw the telltale “beard” on a flowering bush by our driveway – about five feet high.

Checking the “swarm chain,” I contacted Ken, a longtime beekeeper who was delighted to claim the swarm, and “rescue” the stranded bees in my skylights.

We both wore protective gear: a lightweight one-piece suit, long gloves and a pith helmet with netting over it. This outfit made it difficult for a rebellious bee to sting us.

Using clippers, Ken cut the bee-covered branch off the bush and shook the bees into the bucket I held. I quickly whisked the screened cover onto the bucket, and our second swarm was ready for transport.

Now for the bees in the skylights. They’d probably arrived the day before the swarm to scout for a new home. Our old cottage has many entrances for honeybees. They were simply trying it out.

For this rescue, we used a ladder and two yogurt containers with covers. “I haven’t done this since I was a kid,” Ken said, thrilled to be renewing this odd pastime.

One at a time we liberated the dozen or so bees in my skylights by scooping each into a container. I hurried each one outside, hoping she’d return to our much-decimated hive. And that’s how we rescued those scouts, mostly without harm.

There were no more swarms that summer, but also no honey for us. Beekeepers have to leave enough honey in the hive for the bees to survive the winter.

However, the 2011 season rewarded us with nearly 125 pounds of honey. This “gold” came from three hives at three locations. The flavor of the honey is a combination of plants and flowers in each neighborhood.

How beekeepers harvest the honey is another story.

Jean Webster is a poet, freelance writer and candy shop proprietor in Maine.


4 Responses to “Swarms and Ladders”

  1. Russ Layne Says:

    Very much enjoyed your piece, Jean!

  2. Anita Says:

    Jean, you make it sound like fun. Compulsive tea drinker that I am, I go through half a pound of honey a week, so I’m very grateful to backyard beekeepers.

  3. LeeAgain Says:

    What a fascinating story! I can’t wait to read about the harvesting of the honey.

  4. gloriab. Says:

    jean, very interesting article. what a fascinating hobby and
    with such sweet results. i use a lot of honey and love it.
    hope all is well. i will be moving up to boston area for the
    winter and hope to be able to get together. love, g.

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