Making Hay

Week of September 28th, 2008 | The weather was sunny and warm.

The Great Hive Heist

by Sarah Holm

Sarah next to her bees.

Sarah next to her bees.

One day we came home to find a message on our phone from a neighbor lady. "Ask Sarah," she said, "If her bees are missing. We have a swarm of them in our yard." Bees will swarm if they do not like their hive; they fly away and cluster around the queen somewhere while they send out scout bees to find a new home. During this time they do not sting, and if you can get the queen you can put her in a new hive and they will all follow her. But once the scouts come back with news of a new home, they fly off and you will never get them back.

I went and checked on my honeybees and I was relieved to find they were still in their hive. I called the neighbor lady and told her I still had my bees. "Is the swarm still there?" I asked her. I had a vague idea of catching it and trying to make them set up residence in another hive at our farm. She said it wasn't but she would be sure to call me if she saw any more bees.

Two days later she called. "Sarah, they're back!" A hint of hysteria was in her voice. "In our shed, thousands of them! I don't know what to do!" "I'll get them," I said, with more confidence than I felt. "I'll be there in an hour."

I went into the house for volunteers and to my surprise my bee-phobic sister Erika agreed to come. My sister Rachel decided to come too, and after the hassle of getting everyone covered in clothing from head to foot, finding a box for the bees, my smoker, some fuel and a lighter, we were off in our old black farm truck.

At the neighbors farm we were met, not with a docile swarm of bees, but an actual thriving hive! It was bigger than the one I had at home, and it was only three days old! The bees were in a homemade dog kennel that had many sections and was standing on one end. In the top compartment I could see a steady stream of bees going in and out of the wire door. I had to get a ladder so I could reach it. The door was stuck tight and my nerves were short-circuiting by the time it opened with a horrible creak and a swell of loud buzzing from the bees.

I was face to face with thousands of bees, all buzzing angrily and running around huge layers of honeycomb suspended from their ceiling.

"Erika, come look at this." I gasped. She came warily to the foot of the ladder carrying our smoking smoker. "Oh geez!" she whispered in awe. "How are we supposed to find the queen in that?" Good question, I thought dubiously, but said. "I'll get my leather gloves and break out the comb, we'll put it in our box and when we find the queen, we'll put her on the comb and take her home. You smoke the bees so they don't sting us. Rachel, you get more fuel for the smoker!"

Erika, bless her, was all for it, although I must say she had the easier job. The whole time I was breaking the comb out she was sending up smoke from a safe distance. So much smoke, in fact, I felt I was in danger of suffocating.

I reached bravely into the kennel, grabbed a chunk of comb swarming with bees and broke it off. A gallon of honey immediately poured from the structure, soaking through my gloves and drowning many bees.

I steeled myself and climbed carefully down the ladder. Meanwhile the bees left the comb in my hand and began crawling up my arm. I set it in the box and brushed the bees off me.

"So far, so good" I said to Erika. She tried to smile but just looked sick.

I climbed again into the fray. The bees were upset now, crawling over my veil and getting in the way.

After awhile I stopped climbing up and down the ladder and started chucking the honey comb over Erika's head and into the box. This caused a lot of bees to fall to the ground and Rachel added stress to the situation by yelling, "Don't step on them! Don't kill it! Watch out!"

About halfway through breaking the comb, I paused at the top of the ladder. I was mentally exhausted, unable to stick my arm into a mass of crawling sharp legs and buggy eyes one more time. "Erika." I said, looking down blearily through the smoke at her. "This was a stupid idea."

"Took you long enough." She said unsympathetically. Apparently she had figured that out a while ago. "Hurry up and get back in there." So I did. I took out the entire comb and scooped out as many bees as I could. I actually was carrying cupfuls of live bees at times.

We finally finished, shut our box up and put it in the truck. Took our sticky, sweaty clothes, veils and hats off and drove home.

As luck would have it we didn't get the queen. Two weeks later the neighbor called to say that there were more bees than ever before.

We went again, and after I had taken four stings to my right leg, we brought those bees home too. We also bought them a queen who came by mail, to ensure our new hive success.

Our captured hive is doing well now and I am glad to have it, but Erika and I have decided that if we did miss the queen again, and if she does start a third colony, the neighbors can find some other way to dispose of them. We have retired from bee catching.

Farm Fact: Europeans brought the European Honeybee to America in 1638. The Native Americans referred to the honeybee as the "White Man's Flies".

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