Swarm Catching vs. Coronavirus Catching

Sometimes life, like swarm season, comes at you fast. I caught my first swarm of the year on March 23rd. I got the swarm call right before a department head conference call concerning our county’s response to the coronavirus. As the head of our local Soil and Water Conservation District, a county department of two, I’m required to attend these meetings. To be honest, it’s not my favorite job responsibility, and I feel a little out of place with the county higher-ups who wear neckties and shiny shoes. For instance, once having spent too long providing technical assistance (official government term for chatting) at a dairy farm, I made it to the county department head meeting just in the nick of time, right before the county manager gave some important update, the details of which I currently don’t remember. Mostly, I remember the sight of the Register of Deeds and Library Director sniffing inquisitively, and the smell of cow manure wafting from my boot. But I digress.

On March 23rd, about ten minutes before a county department head teleconference (in lieu of a physical meeting because of coronavirus), Lowry, my wife’s poppaw and my next-door neighbor, called me and said one of my hives had swarmed–“a biggun in the crotch of an apple tree.” Admittedly, my swarm control previsions had been little to none this spring. The bees had been on the back burner, as my wife and I are expecting a baby, our first after nine years of marriage. According to my wife, I now have other priorities than beekeeping, like insulating walls of our old farmhouse to make sure our offspring has comfortable environs outside the womb. At the rate I’m going, I figure our child will be thirty-four by the time I finish this task.

a never-ending project

Before Lowry’s call, I hadn’t thought much about the possibility of catching a swarm this early. Seemingly, all my brain could focus on was the possibility of catching coronavirus. But after Lowry’s excited dispatch, worries of catching coronavirus suddenly evaporated. The great philosopher Patrick McManus had his own theory for this phenomenon, a theory which he called the “worry-box” and summed up as follows: 

“I have this theory that people possess a certain capacity for worry, no more, no less. It’s as though a person has a little psychic box that he feels compelled to keep filled with worries. When one worry disappears from the box, he immediately replaces it with another worry, so the box is always full. He is never short of worries. If a new crop of worries comes in, the person sorts through the box for lesser worries and kicks them out, until he has enough room for the new worries. The lesser worries just lie around on the floor, until there’s room in the box for them again, and then they’re put back in.” (From The Good Samaritan Strikes Again)

Swarm catching had suddenly returned to prominence as the main worry in my worry box, displacing coronavirus-catching for the time being.

Of course, everybody who keeps bees knows that swarm calls always come at the worst time possible. For instance, there’s an old story that circulates about a beekeeper who got a swarm call an hour before his only daughter’s wedding. After weighing his options, the father made the only rational decision a beekeeper in his situation could. Since he didn’t have time to run home for his beekeeping stuff, he borrowed his daughter’s wedding veil.

Like that father, I solved my swarm dilemma with similar aplomb. I stuck in my earbuds, dialed into the teleconference on my cell phone, and hightailed it home to recapture my AWOL bees. I suppose many of us have recently learned the advantages of teleconferences–you can attend meetings in pajamas (or while swarm catching), plus the smell of manure doesn’t waft through the phone.

In any event, I’m happy to report that I did catch that swarm, a “biggun” as Lowry would say, and that for a while, even though I was dialed into a coronavirus teleconference, my mind was on something completely unrelated to COVID-19.

My swarm of bees marching into box. I should have got a bigger box

The Other 85%

Recently, North Carolina’s head apiarist visited our local beekeepers’ meeting. He had a monkish, Mr. Rogers-like calmness about himself, which I suppose is one reason why he’s such a good beekeeper.  When examining hives he didn’t wear a protective suit, veil, or gloves. He didn’t seem the least bit afraid.

So far I’ve yet to develop this calm confidence around bees. Although I’ve graduated to glove-less beekeeping, I sometimes shelter my hands in pockets when bees finally take interest in me. Ironically, it’s never the bees that buzz loudly around my body that sting me. These bees are just hoping to irritate me enough that I’ll leave—they’re all bark but no bite. The ones that get me give no warning. They just make a “beeline” to me and thrust their stinger in.

Once stung I usually lose all self-respect and run away flailing and flapping, after which I put gloves back on. When one bee stung the head apiarist, he didn’t even flinch. He just calmly removed the bee and went about his business.

I guess it’s the unpredictability that gets me flustered. A sting doesn’t hurt that bad, but I can’t foresee when one of those suicidal bees will take aim at me. And once one stings me, I become even more worried that I’m about to be popped again. Since I’ve started keeping bees, I’ve been stung three times in five months, and I usually inspect the bees once a week. This means I’ve been stung three times in about twenty inspections. Unfortunately, it’s the 15% I remember, not the 85% in which I’ve escaped unscathed.

Of course, worrying about stings does no good. I’m sure bees can sense fear and anxiety somehow, and I know if I remain calm the bees are more likely to as well. Perhaps one day I’ll develop a Mr. Rogers-like persona around bees, but for now I’m more like Sir Robin in Monty Python: I bravely runaway.

oh honey, honey…

We spent a hot, happy July 4th doing something entirely new and different.

This year we extracted honey from two of our three bee hives. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect…beyond getting sticky…but it ended up being a lot of fun.

honey frames

Stephen began the morning suited up in his bee suit and retrieved two hive supers from hives Barney One and Barney Two. Being terrified of the “Barnies,” I faithfully stayed inside and ate a bowl of cereal and watched an episode of Leave it to Beaver.

We set up our honey extracting operation on the  back porch, using a honey extractor from our local agricultural extension office. As Stephen brought in the honey frames, I would cut the wax cappings off of the honey comb.

once the cappings have been removed

Two frames at a time are loaded into the extractor, which is turned until all of the honey has been pulled from each side of the honey comb. Extracted honey then pools into the bottom of the extractor where it is allowed to drain into a bucket strainer system.

Frame in the extractor before being turned

Stephen turning the extractor and honey draining into the bucket

Wax cappings are left to drain over cheesecloth for the afternoon. Once they are sufficiently drained we will run the extra honey through the bucket strainer and the cappings will  be rendered into refined bees wax.

Once the honey has been strained of any impurities (extra  pollen, dead bees, and honeycomb) it is ready to be bottled. Stephen attributes the dark color of our honey to the local yellow poplar trees, clover, and sour wood trees that his bees have been frequenting.

As far as taste goes, its good. The honey has a mildly floral scent and a pleasant sweetness. Its not overpowering or sickly – its just nice. And this assessment is coming from someone that doesn’t really like honey all that much.

We spent from nine in the morning until nearly midnight to complete the entire process – but it was time well spent, once again carrying on a Pleasant Hill bee keeping tradition. We did a lot of hard work, had a lot of good fun, and ended the day with a final product that we can be proud of.

Some New Friends

This past weekend, we brought home some new friends—thousands of them to be exact. We traveled up to Moravian Falls, NC, to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm to adopt two nucs of bees. Nucs (short for nucleus colonies) are like starter-kits for beehives.  Each nuc has several frames of brood, honey, pollen, lots and lots of bees, and, most importantly, a fully functional queen bee. You simply move the frames over from the portable nuc box into your hive and hope you don’t crush the queen in so doing. So far, our bees seem pretty happy, and as an official beekeeper, with all total a week of beekeeping experience, here are a few of my sage observations on bees and beekeeping:

a nuc

1) There are lots of newcomers to beekeeping, like me. At Brushy Mountain, over half of the people who attended the nuc installation class were new to beekeeping (of course, experienced beekeepers would probably skip the class). It was also interesting to notice the diversity of the class, at least in terms of men and women, young and old. Some attendees were wearing flip-flops and shorts, some Carharts and boots, some capris and ankle bracelets; most of us, though, were wearing veils.

the nuc installation class

that's me with the white jacket and blue jeans

2) Bees are heavy. Okay, one bee doesn’t weigh very much, but moving thousands of bees crawling all over honey-soaked frames in a wooden box can give your back a workout.


Getting ready to open the nuc for the first time

Ahh! What have I gotten myself into!

3) Finding the queen bee in the hive is like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo Book, only more difficult because the queen bee is always moving.

looking for the queen

4) It doesn’t take bees long to get to work. Within an hour or so, foraging bees were returning to the hive with their back legs loaded down with bright orange pollen. I think they were gathering pollen and nectar from some nearby Chinese Privet bushes, though it’s hard to track a flying bee because they zoom around so quickly.

bees coming and going and learning their new environment

6) It’s a new age in beekeeping. Apparently, in years gone by, beekeeping (or keeping bees alive) was a lot simpler. Now, a variety of pests target honeybees. Emptying the nuc box, I noticed one of those pests, a small hive beetle, scurrying around in the bottom of the box. The little beetle looked innocent enough, but I know its larvae can cause major mayhem. The varroa mite (a.k.a. Varroa destructor) is by far the most worrisome pest for hobby beekeepers. It spreads all sorts of honeybee diseases and gorges on bee larvae. A few days after installing the hives, I checked for varroa mites. The hive had a few, but nothing to be too concerned about at this point. Most hobby beekeepers haven’t had much problem with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has made lots of headlines in recent years. This seems to be a problem prone to larger, commercial bee operations. In any event, a lot of new pests are making beekeeping much more challenging. To keep the pests in check, I’m going to avoid using synthetic pesticides and try several more natural methods. Wish me luck.