The saying “may you live in interesting times” is often quoted as an old Chinese curse. It turns out this probably came from the British diplomatic service in the 1930’s rather than China, but it is apt to our situation nonetheless. We live in interesting times. March has been an especially interesting month for me, personally, and of the various stories I could tell I thought an early swarm might be the most interesting.
I was walking outside our house around 3 pm on March 17, and there were a lot of bees flying around my apiary. I was recovering from an illness (not COVID-19, before you ask) and still a little fatigued, so I was just confused. After a bit I realized that perhaps this was a swarm. The bees seemed to be flying between a three-story nuc that I successfully overwintered and a pine tree, and a little investigation found the swarm.
Normally we don’t see swarms in northern Virginia until early to mid April, so this was a surprising find. A local beekeeper friend said she had never heard of a swarm this early in our area. It has been a warm year, apparently. The picture above was taken about 20 minutes after I spotted the swarm and the bees had settled down a bit.
With some help from my darling wife to carry some of the equipment, I set up a sheet underneath, a ladder, and a ready hive. As you can see I took some of the frames out to make room for bees. My original thought was to hold the hive underneath the branch, but after picking up the box I realized this was a terrible idea. I found a much lighter cardboard box and taped up the bottom.
Climbing the ladder I banged the branch, and most of the bees dropped into the box. Plenty of them stayed so I could dump the bees into the deep hive shown in the picture. The frames were about half comb and half foundation, so the bees had some ready comb on which to start a new colony. A probably should have set the hive on the sheet beneath the swarm. As it was a number of bees returned to the branch and re-clustered.
I took this picture about 10 minutes later, and 50 minutes after this the bees were mostly in their new home. So I probably had the queen, even though some bees had returned to the pine branch. They disappeared in a day or so, either finding the swarm or returning to their original hive. I let the new hive sit overnight because at this point it was 5 pm, and I didn’t fancy moving the hive at that point.
The next morning was rather cool, about 42 F (6 C), so the bees were clustered in the hive to keep warm. I strapped the hive together, as I could just imagine it coming apart while I was carrying it. It was short move into the apiary and I set them between my taller hives Calypso and Mercury. I placed some pine branches across the entrance (not shown in the pic) to encourage the bees to reorient.
It didn’t occur to me to feed the hive, and with the next few days too cold to fly I was a little concerned they might not have enough food. Nothing to fear, however, as the next warm day the hive was very active.
I gave the hive a week or so to settle in, looking inside on March 29 to see how they were doing. I didn’t find the queen, though the capped brood and larva in this picture indicates she is in there somewhere. The hive was even a little crowded, so added a second deep to give them some room to grow. It takes 21 days for the new bees to emerge, so the population will go down as the actual swarm bees slowly die off. The first bees should emerge this week, so they should be fine.
The early bird catches the worm
This saying first appeared in the book “Remaines Concerning Britaine” by English historian William Camden. Some online sites claim this appeared in 1605, while my favorite Facts on File: Dictionary of Proverbs book claims this appeared in 1636. I eventually found this Quote Investigator article that clears up the mystery. While the first edition of “Remaines Concerning Britaine” appeared in 1605, this proverb did not appear until the fifth edition in 1636. I know you were wondering, so there you have it.
The proverb captures the notion that getting up early improves your chances of finding what you’re looking for, worm or otherwise. Honey bees certainly think so, as they tend to be early risers. For our purposes, it seems a good choice for an early swarm post even though we know that swarms, let alone bees, do not actually catch honey.
Stay safe and take of each other, and may you prosper and find honey.