With chagrin, I must tell you that my bees have swarmed. And now I’ll explain to you how perfectly natural this all is and why I should not be ashamed - but I’ll still be wrecked.
Here we go: Swarming is perfectly natural. Particularly at this time of year. I should not be ashamed. I’m saying that out loud but I am not buying it. I should have seen that my hive needed expanding. Beekeepers of the internet are of two minds about my level of culpability here. Ninety-nine beekeepers say supportive things like: Sometimes you can’t tell and It’s not ideal, but this is a good way to learn. One says: Your mistakes make us all look bad.
A swarm sounds scary, but with most things bee-related, it turns out to be not-so-scary and ever-so-interesting. This is how bees reproduce at a colony level - when a colony begins to feel that it is running out of space in the existing hive, it splits in two. The old queen leaves the hive - with about half the worker bees - and finds a nearby place to rest (for a few hours, or as long as three days) while a few scouts go off looking for a new home. In this case, they swarmed into my neighbor Judi’s flowering cherry tree. She was very gracious about it and posted pictures on Instagram.
A more experienced beekeeper with an extra hive box on hand would march right over to her neighbor’s tree, catch the swarm, and be like: Oh look - extra bees! I used to have one hive and now I have two! And really, this inexperienced beekeeper would have done so as well, had she been in possession of extra equipment and extra space to locate a second hive.
A low-hanging bounty of extra bees should not go unclaimed, and as the comments on Judi’s Instagram posts grew increasingly alarmed, I called a beekeeper who agreed to come and capture the swarm. And she’d even let me help!
And then? As she made the arduous journey from Berkeley to Livermore in afternoon traffic, the bees dispersed - that is, they collectively rose up, flying in a massive circular vortex filling the yard with a tornado of bees and then they were gone. Beautiful, fascinating, and gone. Stupid extra bees.
So what about the rest of the hive? The bees that didn’t leave with the old queen? Um - good question. They’re still here. And this is where it gets a little tricky....
Before a swarm, bees make arrangements to replace the old queen. They leave a number of developing queens in special queen cups in the hive. When the first new virgin queen hatches, she goes around and kills all of her rivals in their cups. After a few days, the new queen will leave on her mating flight - she’ll fly out, locate a drone congregation area, and mate in mid-air with 12 to 15 drones (they have one job). Once she finds her way back to the hive, she’ll begin laying eggs, and the colony will slowly return to normal. Maybe.
There’s a decent chance of everything going right. Also, there’s a decent chance of the queen being eaten by a bird. OH and? I’ve been advised not to open the hive while all of this is going on (or not) lest I disturb the process - so we won’t know whether the colony has successfully re-queened for 3-4 weeks.