Friday, April 20, 2012

4/20 Smoke Bees Erryday

4/20, a day when we can all get together and smoke some bees.

Or catch them.

Today, while inspecting hives in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a small group of apprentices, I received a text from Meg Paska, The Brooklyn Homesteader.

"A friends bees swarmed in Carroll Gardens. Want free bees?"

The answer is yes.

Yes, I would like free bees.

Thank you kindly.

Catching a swarm is one of the coolest things you can do as a beekeeper. The bees themselves tend to be healthy, as swarms cast from hives that were strong and resilient enough to survive the winter.  They're docile as well; without a hive or brood to defend, they have no reason to sting unless seriously mishandled. That said, it's usually a good idea to wear basic protective gear like a veil. When knocking bees out of a tree, it is surprisingly easy to drop them in your face, and having a bee crawl up your nose is an experience I urge you not to try.

There are other risks as well. Swarms often enjoy alighting in hard to reach places. Up trees, on top of lamp posts, in chimneys, etc. Always remember to be safe and respect the limits of your abilities and equipment. Free bees are great, but they aren't worth hurting yourself. There are many people and beekeeping clubs (including me and the Backwards Beekeepers of NYC) who are happy to help catch swarms and give them a good home. Ask for help if you need it.

Back to the story.

I had an appointment in Red Hook to inspect the hives at the Added Value Community Farm and knew that there was a lot of extra equipment to hive a fresh swarm in, but by the time I was finished with my inspections, it was almost 3 and I figured that someone else would have collected the swarm.

I mean, free bees, right? Irresistible.

Still, I figured I was due for some good luck. Accompanied by one of the Brooklyn Grange Beekeeping Apprentices who was free for the afternoon, I threw some boxes (tupperware!?) into my car and booked it to Carroll Gardens.

I dropped Allison, the apprentice, off at the corner with instructions to find the house with the swarm while I went around the block trying to find a place to park. If someone had already laid claim to the swarm, I could just swing back around and she could jump right back in. No fuss, no muss. When I found parking, which happened to be extremely easy, I found Allison standing out in front of a bright pink flowering ornamental cherry tree. Up at the top was a remarkably large swarm, hanging from a thick branch and buzzing contentedly.

Hello, ladies.

After I finagled a ladder from a friendly neighbor, I set it up under the swarm, being very careful not to stomp on the flowers underneath. I sprayed the bees with sugar syrup to get them full, heavy, and calm while I maneuvered the large plastic tub I had brought into place under the swarm.

Would you care for a snack?


I quickly jerked the large branch the cluster was hanging on, the entire mass of bees fell into the box with a thud, and I slipped on the lid.

Swarm captured.

Bam them bees into the bucket.  Don't smash them!  A quick, firm tap will do.

Closed up and super excited.

The action sent a cloud of confused worker bees flying, so I waited several minutes for them to land on the branch again and shook them into a small cardboard box, which I quickly emptied into the main tub of bees. I did that a couple times and ended up only leaving a handful of bees behind hanging out on the branch. They should find their way back to their original hive over the next day or two with no problem, as long as I got the queen.

Catching the stragglers and showing off my worn out bee pants.

Get in my swarm box, or I will point at you with strong intent.

With the bees in tow, I gingerly placed them in the back of my car, returned the borrowed ladder and headed back to Red Hook where I had set up a deep hive body full of drawn frames to accept the new bees.

Looks like plenty of room.  For a package, this would be huge.

Once I arrived, I opened up the hive and started pouring. So many bees.

Slightly bigger than a three pound package.

Quite a bit bigger, in fact.

After they were all out of the tub, I did my best to close the hive without squashing too many and started transferring any large masses of bees hanging on the outside of the hive to the entrance at the front.

A small gob of bees.  Warm and fuzzy.

I'm covered in bees.

When I left them, they were marching in and spraying Nasonov with their butts up on the air. Good signs.

Allison, looking triumphant with a buttload of bees.  That's a technical term.

Welcome home!

This is probably the biggest swarm I have ever caught and it barely fit into a 10 frame deep. I'm going to have to go back soon and give them extra room to expand into. If their queen is good and starts laying, they're going to grow, and they're going to do it fast.



  1. That's a good sized swarm! They look very light n colour, most American bees like that?

  2. It depends! There is a lot of genetic diversity in the American beekeeping community, with Italian, Carniolan, Caucasian, Russian, and the various crossbreeds that result from open mating.

    I spotted the queen in this swarm the next day, and she was very light. My guess is that she is a southern-bred Italian.