HIVING A SWARM INTO A SKEP

My Sun Hive, full from tippy top to bottom!

July is late for a swarm around here. I’ve been watching with interest the swarm preparations my Sun Hive has been making for weeks. I knew they would swarm again (second time), so I was weaving furiously on a new skep I was weaving out of pasture grasses gathered just this past month.

Meanwhile, at the entrances to my other hives, I’ve been seeing the drones evicted. This last pending swarm would have a risky time getting her virgin queen mated in time for winter, and gathering enough honey for stores. But, I’m game to try and help her in any way I can…

A skep would be perfect for this swarm. Sitting up on a Warre’ box hive stand, she would be easy to feed through the little doors I cut into my old Warre’ boxes. And the hive is small and snug. I could keep the bees well fed and warm. All I had to do was get the skep finished and prepped before the swarm took flight.

What better sight than bees in the air.

I finally finished up the weaving late on a Wednesday night. Thursday morning, the summer sun pouring in through my bedroom windows, I watched my Sun Hive—named Wing—erupt into a swarm that issued like tide waters and orbited the high-hanging hive.

I raced outside and up to Wing, so that I could stand in the roar of bees pouring from the hive. There is nothing I like better than standing in the middle of a swarm, my body literally throbbing with the sounds, the scents, the sensation of bee wings fluttering past my bare face and arms.

She took a long time to settle, finally deciding on an elm branch suspended above my neighbor’s garage. I was grateful she had taken an early morning flight, as I had a lot of work in front of me before I could settle her into her new home.

First, I had to collect her. But before gathering up my swarm bucket, clippers, pruning pole, towel, and ladder, I needed to express my gratitude to Wing for this lovely, albiet late season, child she had sent to us. Wing was still buzzing with activity, and from many feet away, I could hear the loud and celebratory humming from deep in the hive. I placed my hands on her rough-clad sides and place my ear up against her. “Thank you for all your hard work here in this yard. Thank you for your gifts to the flowers, and for your gift to me of your children. Because they settled so low, I trust you meant them for me to gather. I’ll do my best to care for them.”

Then, I hurried down to grab my gear and run next door. Ten minutes later, I was set up on my neighbor’s roof, telescoping out my pruning pole so I could grab the branch the bees were on, and pull it gently toward me and my gathering bucket. If I’d had my skep all ready for move-in, I’d have used it as a gathering bucket, but there was still work to do on my little hive.

So lovely when they settle where you can easily collect them!

The branch was flexible and soon I had it gently clipped without dislodging a single bee. I set the whole branch in my bucket and draped a towel across the top, leaving a small opening for returning scout bees. The bucket waited while I hauled all my tools home, then returned for the swarm.

I carried them home and set them in a shady spot, knowing that any stragglers still haunting the original swarm site could return to Wing, who was—at that moment—orchestrating a full complement of nasanov fanners to welcome home any lost bees. I could almost hear the returning scouts saying to their home hive, “Sheesh, we were only gone a minutute. When we got back, the whole family had been abducted by an alien!”

Now it was time to finish the skep so I could invite the bees into it. I spray the inside of all my woven hives with propolis water. I’ve discovered that if I melt down very old, black comb in boiling water, I end up with a small skim of bright yellow wax, and a brew of propolis, bee bread, and scent in the leftover water, which turns a thick, burgundy color. I freeze this heavenly scented brew in small plastic containers, and use it in a spray bottle to make bees feel welcome in new hives and in swarm buckets and bait hives.

Hmmm, maybe I should use this as perfume? Smells heavenly!

The skep I had woven is a rustic thing with all the grass heads intact. It is thickly coiled and smells like fresh mown summer grass. The propolis spray, mingled with the grass scent was so soothing to me I could only imagine how much the bees would love it.

I sprayed the skep interior thoroughly, set it in the sun to dry, and hurried up my hillside to clip some bamboo cane for spleets, rods that I run through the hive to help support the free-hanging combs. Through the spleets, I wove a few empty combs to give the bees a place to start building. In the hive stand, I put big handfuls of aged tree mulch. By noon, I was ready to introduce “Feather” to her new home.

Add spleets and comb and we’re ready to roll.

I love inviting bees into a new hive by walking them up a ramp and into the entrance. In this way, the bees seem to be choosing to enter, rather than having me pour them in. Watching the bees walk, singing and fluttering their wings as they head “home” is bliss. The process usually takes them about a half hour, and I have a really good chance of seeing the queen if I watch them closely.

I set Feather hive up on a small step up to the bee yard, put a plank up to the entrance, and laid a sheet atop. Then I gently lifted the branch the swarm was still clinging to and placed it on the sheet. I scooped up a large handful of bees and placed them at the entrance. They scooted quickly inside. Down below, the bees on the branch had begun their march upward.

I sat beside them, singing and enjoying this newest colony. Midway down the plank I found them: Two very fat virgin queens, the largest I’ve ever seen! Both walked into the hive and I wished them well. The bees will decide which queen to keep.

I’ve never had bees refuse a hive that was offered in this way, but a couple of bee friends had bees get all the way up to the entrance, stop, sit for a few days, and leave. We can only “invite” them. We can’t force bees where to be.

It was late afternoon by the time I had all my tools put away, the plank stored, and the sheet folded. I lifted Feather onto her new hive stand. Once she was settled, I hurried to the house to fix a big bowl of honeycomb. This hive would need extra help by way of nutrition to be able to build out their wax interior before the cold set in.

Every three days since, I’ve offered them a fresh bowl of honey. The only time they don’t try to sting me is when I have the honey bowel in my hand. Otherwise, they are busy and “testy.” They let me know they have work to do and would rather me get out of the way and let them get ‘er done!

Yesterday, I took my first peek inside. They had put all that honey to good use! I’m hoping that with continued feeding through autumn, this lovely, feisty

What a thrill to look inside and find this!

Busy Feather, resting in her protected bee space.

“Feather” will make it through the coming winter.

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