Transient bees.

A cool thing happened in our backyard recently. But first, a little background on bee swarms, for those who don’t know how they work…

When a hive feels cramped in its current living quarters, it splits in two and sends its old queen and about 60% of the workers off into the wild to find a new home. That group of bees settles somewhere temporary for about 3 days, while scouts find something more permanent. Once a location is agreed upon, they all move in. So anytime you see a ball of bees out in the open, like hanging in a tree branch or attached to the side of a building, they’re swarming and that’s just their temporary digs while they consult with their real-estate agents.

A few weeks ago, the smallest swarm I’ve ever seen gathered on the backside of one of my beehives. As a beekeeper, I’m always concerned with preventing my own bees from swarming because it kills their productivity, so I suited up the next morning and checked out this swarm. I brushed them into a cardboard box so that I could look for their queen, and I did indeed verify that she wasn’t mine. This was a little wild swarm, perhaps from the wild bees living in our soffit or elsewhere around town. Knowing that they’d be on their way to a more suitable home in a few days, I left them in the cardboard box on top of the hive where they had originally gathered. At least they’d stay warm at night while they were visiting. That evening when I got home from work they were gone.

Everywhere bees go, they leave pheromones. Especially queens. So I shouldn’t be surprised that when I didn’t get around to taking the cardboard box off my hive, a new swarm moved in and this one was here to stay. They’ve been in the box for maybe about a week now and they’ve started building comb. That’s one way to tell if a swarm is staying or moving on – they only build comb when they’ve found their permanent home. Again I needed to check this swarm out to make sure it wasn’t from my hives, and this time I brought my camera and got some neat photos of the early stages of hive construction. Please pardon the photo quality. I’m newly allergic to bees and have to fully suit up anytime I’m around them, while I wait for my HMO to drag its heels on my referral to start allergy shots. Taking photos in big leather gloves isn’t easy.

Here’s the box, right where I left it on top of my hive:
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Peeking inside:
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When bees swarm, they are primed to start making wax since they need to get comb constructed ASAP so their queen can start laying. They extrude the wax through glands in their abdomen. There are certainly better pictures of this online, but it was really cool to see it in person. The bee in the center of this photo is extruding:

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Here’s a close-up:
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And a better view of the comb they’re building:
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I can’t keep them, since I’m maxed out and completely overwhelmed by the number of hives I have already, so I offered them up to my bee club. Of course if there are any interested parties reading this, who live in the LA area and have an empty hive ready to go, email me at robindodge@onesheephill.com and they’re all yours. They seem docile enough right now, but they’re just moving in so I can’t vouch for their long-term behavior.

It was fun to be the host for a swarm for awhile. Maybe I’ll leave a cardboard box bee condo on my hives all the time, for transients and residents alike.

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