Swarm Wrangling on campus

UNE Swarm hangingWe got a call at the Honey Exchange from the University of New England’s Portland campus, just up the street from the store. A big swarm of honeybees had alighted on a tree beside the parking lot. It seems to have made a lot of people nervous. When I arrived I was greeted by John, the Facilities Manager. He asked if there was anything he could do to help and I asked if he might have a ladder. My stepladder was across town at the warehouse. He said a ladder was harder to find than a lift and he offered me use of that most excellent of tools. It seemed like a godsend – I’d zip up, get it done, and be on my way in no time.

A lift on loan

Well, I’m going to let you in on a secret veteran swarm wranglers know: We tell everybody that bees in swarms don’t want to sting. This is only mostly true. the bees in a swarm are entirely dispassionate about the innocent bystanders and people who wander by. But the guy standing under the swarm when those bees hit him in a freefall? Yeah, that guy gets stung a few times. My policy when wrangling a swarm in a public place is always to “gear down.” I try to wear a veil and not much else beyond the clothes I was already wearing. When a group of worried onlookers sees me working in short sleeves I think it helps them worry less; if I were to gear up in the whole HAZMAT suit it might send the message there is something they should worry about. If a half a dozen stings on each arm is the price of others’ peace of mind, it’s a gift I will give.

And life is all about learning. Today I learned a lift is not really the ideal thing for this particular swarm situation. Safety regulations require the user of the lift be equipped with a full and very serious harness. The harness clips to the lift itself with a clamp that requires two hands to remove. You couldn’t hurt yourself falling out of this lift even if you really, really tried. In addition, the lift had sturdy aluminum rails to keep you safely on your feet. The rails, in the end, made it feel a bit like I was strapped into an airborne shark cage; only bees can get through the bars of a shark cage. Plan A was to knock the bees off the branch (as it was too thick, old, and lovely to cut) and into a bucket attached to a long metal stick. In the business this is called the old Bucket on a Stick Trick. The trouble is I had to bang the bucket against the branch then lower the bucket full of bees down to the brief on the ground. While being stung by bees. I cannot recommend this method of swarm capture.

After that things got comical. We rooted around the tool box in my car. John and I tried throwing a rope with a roll of duct tape tied to the end for weight. The idea was to get the rope over the branch then pull it sharply to shake the swarm off the branch to the brief and surrounding sheet below. The duct tape didn’t really have enough weight so we tried tying the crescent wrench to the rope as well as the duct tape. That didn’t work any better but it did make the whole routine of tossing and pulling the rope then running to avoid a crescent wrench careening through the air just slightly more hilarious.

I finally concluded I had to haul back to the Honey Exchange, pick up the too-large-for-my-car extension ladder and drive back with it hanging out of the back of my CRV. While I was at the shop I also grabbed a frame of old brood comb. I detached the long metal stick from the bucket and reattached it to the frame. It was time for the old Brood Comb on a Stick Trick.

Brood comb on a stick trick

That worked well. After letting the bees march onto the comb and coat it three times (shaking them into the brief each time) I did a single bang of the bucket on a stick and put it down by the brief. The ladder gave me a better angle and safer distance from the ensuing mayhem.

Finally, after Meghan had finished closing up the store and came to assist we decided to attach a couple of lengths of rope together then attach that to a full water bottle. It’s heavier but easier to throw. Then with two ends of the rope in hand we could give the branch a mighty shake.  [**Meghan has a good video of this but I haven’t figured out how to get it on this page.  Check back in a day or two if you’ve read this bit**]  The swarm fell off the branch and onto the sheet with a slap. After the bees had settled a bit I looked on the ground and found the queen. I put her in a cage and put the cage into the brief. After a while all the bees marched into the brief and we bundled them up in the sheet, put them in the car, then went home for a well-deserved gin and tonic.




About inthebeeloudglade

An unlikely beekeeper who runs The Honey Exchange, a hive and honey store in Portland, Maine.
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