Arriving at my Falcon Heights home from a Fourth of July outing this summer, I slammed the car door, opened the backyard gate and heard what sounded like distant chainsaws or thousands of bees buzzing.
I looked up to see that it was the latter—a swirling, gliding mass of honeybees moving as one and hovering 15 feet above my head. The swarm seemed to grow denser by the minute.
Swarming is a natural process of bee colony reproduction. A hive in my neighborhood had likely become too crowded, so the queen exited with more than half of her sister-bees to seek a new place to live, whether it be an empty tree cavity, the walls of a house or a neighbor’s attic.
From what I’d read, I knew that bees on the move were full of honey and preoccupied, thus unlikely to sting. As I watched, they soon settled down, covering a branch of the crabapple tree in the corner of our yard, where they hung in a dense, moving, oval mass about the size of a pig on a spit.
Knowing we didn’t want those bees to move into a house wall, I began phoning local bee suppliers. On this holiday weekend, one place was closed; another supplier was out of town. On my third call, to the Beez Kneez in Minneapolis, we were referred to Joe Meyer, co-owner of Four Seasons Apiaries (fourseasonsapiaries.com, 320-493- 8933). He said he’d drive right over.
Four Seasons is a new firm looking toward breeding bees that can flourish in Minnesota’s climate. Four Seasons also catches swarms.
Educated as an engineer and a beekeeper since the age of 16, Meyer had spent a year working with the head wrangler of the University of Minnesota’s beekeeping operation before starting his own business. He was quite familiar with Falcon Heights.
A slender, compact 29-year-old, Meyer donned a safari hat with a bug veil but no other special protective clothing and climbed a ladder to check out the swarm. He took a quick video, he said, of “scout” bees returning from forays out. Scouts do what is known as “the Waggle Dance” to communicate the direction and distance of potential sites, he said.
Then Meyer set to work, trimming a few branches out of the way and placing a box with frames called a “super” on the lawn. He climbed the ladder with an empty cardboard box, shook the branch firmly to dislodge most bees into the box and climbed down to pour the box’s contents into the super. Neatly done.
Covering the super with a piece of weighted burlap, he retraced his steps, re-climbed the ladder, and shook the branch a second time. This time, Meyer set the cardboard box on its side, facing the super’s entrance. Afterward, he sat down with a proffered cup of tea to talk. The rest was a waiting game, he said.
If Meyer had succeeded at shaking out the queen, all the workers would soon follow her. He was, and they did. The bees in the box and crawling stragglers on the lawn began to pour into the hive opening in a steady stream. Worker bees are chemically drawn to the queen and care for her needs. Her presence in the beehive, as the only fully reproductive member, ensures its future. She lays eggs that become new bees.
Along with swarm-catching, Four Seasons breeds new queens for sale. On the company’s blog, you can read about grafting queen candidates—larvae of a certain age— into artificial queen cells. Using sustainable practices, Meyer and his business partner rear such queens to optimize colony traits for winter survival in the Upper Midwest. They plan to sell surviving “overwintered” colonies next May.
“Winter provides a test,” Meyer said. “It weeds out the weaker ones.” While, to many people, all striped insects with stingers look alike, honeybees actually represent a small subset of pollinators. One species, Apis mellifera, has been bred for centuries to accentuate positive characteristics, such as docile disposition, high honey production, resistance to disease and hardiness in the local climate.
By now folks have surely heard of Africanized bees, whose aggressive hive defense earned them the nickname “killer,” but the vast majority of honeybees buzzing around here originated from southern and central Europe, the boot of Italy in particular. Those bees are under threat.
In recent years commercial beekeepers have suffered devastating colony losses from colony collapse disorder (CCD). Bees today face risks from insecticides, viruses, mites and habitat loss. Plus, last winter was a doozy.
“A lot of beekeepers I heard from suffered much bigger losses,” Meyer said. At the same time the number of wild or “feral” colonies, along with native pollinators, has declined, so saving swarms is good practice.
Four Seasons salvages bee swarms that have taken up residence inside buildings, without damaging either one. Recently Meyer and his partner, who is a building contractor, saved a swarm that had moved into the overhang of a bay window in a building with a cedar-shake roof. They entered the attic on a mid-July day he describes as “blazing hot,” sucked the bees out with a special vacuum and cut out the comb, keeping an eye out all the while for the queen.
So the July save at my home was relatively easy. As soon as the swarm in our yard finished entering the bee box, Meyer nonchalantly tucked a piece of screen into the rectangular opening (to let in air) and neatly stowed the now-covered super in his car’s trunk. While to us it was a wonder, he made it all seem quite ordinary.
D. J. Alexander is a freelance writer who lives in Falcon Heights.