Free bees: One man’s treasure
Published 9:06 pm Saturday, April 18, 2015
Freebies are those things that are just for the taking; things that have become one man’s trash can easily become another’s treasure. Who doesn’t like freebies?
Yet, in beekeeping, the word “freebee,” which sounds the same, takes on another meaning altogether. It literally means, “bees that are free,” for whomever, for the taking — a swarm.
That word evokes hysteria among those who do not know. A swarm is somewhat the same as a herd of cattle, a pod of whales, a gaggle of geese — simply, the name of a group of bees.
It’s bees doing as they have been created to do. That is, in an effort to perpetuate the species, have about two-thirds of the hive with the old queen “pull up stakes” and leave the remaining workers of the mother-hive the task of rearing a new queen, while those departing establish a new colony.
They will usually gather into “a ball of bees” some distance from the original home place on almost any available object. I’ve seen them on mailboxes, flagpoles, batting cages, rocker panels of vehicles, eves of a roof and such, but often on a limb, and most times where we humans determine they should not be.
There, the swarm waits exposed for a report from scout bees where to set up the new hive before moving on.
Swarms can happen anytime between late March until September and possibly beyond, in Kentucky, although May to June seem to be peak periods for the activity. An old saying is, “A swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.”
The thought is, that with July comes the end to the spring nectar flow and the next not until late summer and fall. And if left to themselves, they then would not be able to build comb, raise brood (baby bees) and hoard enough stores (honey and pollen) to survive the winter.
I recall the first catch during a couple of swarm seasons ago. A farmer friend had found it. It was close to home, May 2, and on the rear corner of a tobacco wagon (see picture). They were in the open, an “easy grab” it seemed, and although, a busy day for me, I quickly decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get some free bees.
The gravel crunched under the weight of the truck turning from Switzer Road and with the cordial country gesture of the uplifted hand to a neighbor mowing her yard, we rumbled then across the cattle guard and up the rutted way.
There were two wagons in the barn lot and to find which one held the gob wasn’t difficult. After a picture or two and then only one quick but gentle swipe of the brush, all but a few made a soft thump and mushroomed on the bottom board like a bucket of wet sand.
I then quickly added the inner cover of the hive body and removed it only long enough a time or two more, to rake in those hangin’ on like the proverbial “hair in a biscuit,” under and between the floor planks, to insert the absent frames, and then placed the top cover over it and stepped aside to admire the quick work, as did the farmer friend from a respectful distance astride his ATV.
Even though you may not keep bees, there are a few things you could do, or not do, to help those who do keep bees and rid yourself and property of a swarm if so desired.
First, don’t be afraid or panic. As has been written, “… no life-loving bee wants to sting you.” I don’t suppose they know it, but they do die if they sting you, as “the stinger” is torn from their bodies with the venom sac along with part of the entrails to continue pumping venom into the wound.
Even so, a swarm of bees having gorged before they departed are full of honey and though they can, it is more difficult for a full bee to sting than if she’s not. She has to contract her abdomen, or bend over, to sting. Imagine after a big Thanksgiving dinner you were asked to touch your toes.
However, give them room and don’t provoke them. If your curiosity brings you close and you get bumped, don’t swat and back off! If you’re allergic you don’t need me to tell you to stay away!
Second, do not spray them, please. There is a time to kill, but this isn’t it, we hope. If that time comes, I suggest a professional. I recently caught a swarm that had been “sprayed” three days before. Some died but ninety percent or more it never reached.
Such an occasion to do so may be if they have made their way into the inner parts of a structure so that the damage to get to them would cost more than extermination.
Finally, contact a beekeeper. If you don’t know one, a local beekeeper’s organization such as Frankfort’s own, Capital City Beekeepers at http://capitalbees.weebly.com/ or The Kentucky State Beekeepers Association’s at www.ksbabeekeeping.org have lists of local beekeepers willing and waiting for a call for free bees.
The beekeeper should arrive with something to put them in, usually a hive body and best “primed” if possible, with a frame of brood and honey each to help “hold” those shaken, brushed or coerced into it. Also, a bee brush, smoker with fuel and lighter, hive tool, flashlight and a veil (a beekeeper, as many top notch keepers suggest, should always wear their veil).
Cardboard should be included in the list, for a multitude of uses, e.g.. a makeshift ramp to slide bees into a box that cannot be placed directly under the swarm. A queen cage is helpful if the queen is caught by hand, to place and keep her within the box. With her inside, they’ll stay.
Screening or hardware cloth should also be on hand to close the entrance to the box before the move home and we should never forget the all-important duct tape, if but to cover the hole in your jeans you forgot about!
Catch the queen
The beekeeper needs to also remember the first shake or swipe of the bee brush is most crucial, to ensure the best chance of catching the queen with the crowd before she has a chance to run. She can, and she will. She is easily elusive and for good reason, without her the swarm dies. Again, “you catch her and you got ‘em”!
Therefore, do not think it unusual or chalk it up to inexperience, if observing a beekeeper contemplating initially on how to go about the job. I’ve found myself creating a ramp or box on-the-spot, and then practicing “the play” before engaging the swarm. “Measure twice and cut once,” as they say. It is a wise swarm-catcher that does.
And so I did that very thing that afternoon, with what I call The Wagon Swarm, leaving it for absent foragers to gather inside by nightfall with the others. Returning, the settled deep box glowed white in the glooming of a high riding moon.
Spring peepers mixed with the hushed hum of thousands of free bees contented inside with their queen. Methodically and gently I screened the entrance and strapped it all down for the short trip home, a new home.
Where with a top feeder added and a few weeks later, the first generation from that colony then foraged among the white blackberry and clover blossoms this side of The North Fork of the Elkhorn, a working hive of free bees and this one man’s treasure.