Beekeeping is a pyramid scheme.

There’s no escaping this sad conclusion. I may not have recruited my two new beekeepers yet (though I am working on some of you. You know who you are.) but the bees themselves definitely follow a distinctly pyramidine pattern. You never just keep “a couple of colonies.” I can see the writing on the wall. We all know where this is going.

This post is part two of “So much has happened in the last few weeks,” and for lack of a better place to pick up and continue, I’m going to start at the very ending. Sorry, Julie Andrews.

On my way to the restaurant where I wrote most of this post, I drove past a neighbor’s house. This isn’t unusual. In fact, until I get that hovercar that we were all promised in 1985 (I’m looking at you, Emmett Brown), I’m unaware of a method for getting anywhere from my house without driving past a neighbor’s house. But this time, I did a double-take, turned my sadly land-bound car around, pulled over, and stopped to speak to the man and woman in the driveway:

“Hi, I’m sorry to be nosy. But did you just catch a swarm?”

They had, of course. The man (who had a pair of beekeeping gloves in his hands and a nuc box in the back of his truck — the things I’d initially spotted that made me turn around) introduced himself, and I knew his name from my local Beekeeper’s Association. The woman had called him to collect the swarm from her yard. We talked for a while, exchanged numbers, and I went on my way.

This was all pretty hilarious to me, because until this month, I had lived my entire life without seeing a swarm. Even though I worked and studied as a biologist for almost fifteen years. Even though I started studying beekeeping several years ago. My swarm count to-date as of April 1, 2019, was: Zero.

Then I made my first split, and it was like the universe said: “We’ve got her hooked now! Let’s show her how easy it is to collect aaaaaallll the free bees she wants! Heeeeey, lady. Don’t you want more beeeeeeeees?” (I am picturing the universe here as a full-on Dastardly Whiplash character, with a sinister handlebar moustache and evil ‘stache-twirling skills, sidling up to me and hitching open a mysterious box juuuust a crack — enough to show me that it is full of seductively humming bees.)

So that happened. Now let me back up a little. The weather’s gone on a bender again recently — we weren’t really ready for spring yet, right? — but before that, we had two lovely weeks of perfect bee weather. While I was waiting anxiously to find out if my split was successful, I finished up a grant application at the University of Memphis (my current employer), requesting funds to hire someone to trap the very large colony of bees living in the walls of my office building. (For some reason, the maintenance staff isn’t keen on having them there.) I’ve partnered with the Program Coordinator at Meeman Biological Station, and if the grant is awarded we’ll be able to turn the bee removal into an educational presentation to biology students and faculty, and use the trapped bees to begin a research apiary in the Station’s new pollinator garden. We are really excited about this possibility!

This is not, to be clear, actually part of my job. But once the bees were discovered, everyone sort of seemed to expect me to be the one to deal with them. Why, yes. Yes, I am absolutely available to take on that task.

Bees to the left, bees to the right, bees everywhere. And in the middle of all of this, the Administration Building on campus attracted two swarms in two days. I wasn’t involved in the capture of either of them, but I was about three people down on the list of people who were called to figure out what to do about it. I am pretty amused to have ended up so quickly in the unofficial Bee Phone Tree at my University. I also got to go and see the second swarm, which was — ding, achievement unlocked! — the first swarm I’d ever laid eyes on.

That was fortunate, because it led me to thinking that I should probably have some supplies together in case I was in a situation where I could help get a swarm out of somebody’s way, before it ended up — like the bees in our building — living in someone’s walls. I did some reading up on swarm capture, and collected the supplies I would need in the back of my car so they would always be with me.

The punchline to this long and roundabout joke is that on Wednesday the 17th, I came home for lunch … and there was a swarm clustered on the pergola in my back yard.

Video on Instagram here.

My first thought was that something had terribly wrong with my split. But there was clearly a normal level of bee activity at my hive entrances: These were 100% not my bees. I know of several hives in my area that they might have originated from, and my suspicion is that apiaries like mine might attract wandering swarms. Regardless of how they arrived, I was very excited for my first opportunity to catch a swarm — and better yet, my first opportunity to catch a swarm without witnesses… you know, in case it went horribly wrong.

It took me a few minutes to mix up some sugar water and collect the other equipment I needed. Despite hypothetically having everything collected in the trunk of my car, I was only about three-quarters of the way prepared. Then I suited up and was ready to go! (I’ve downgraded to a jacket and veil for most things, but I wore my full suit for the occasion. Swarms are generally very gentle — without a home or brood to defend, they have very little reason to sting — but they can be cranky if they’ve been homeless long enough to get hungry. And I still have no great desire to be stung when not getting stung is an option.)

The theory behind the swarm-capture method I chose is this: Spray the bees down with sugar water, which gives them something to do to distract them (cleaning sweet liquid off of themselves and one another). Either shake the branch they are occupying into a box; clip the vegetation they’re on and simply transfer them en masse; or brush them carefully into a box in as few sweeps as possible to avoid hurting them. Wait for any airborne bees to re-cluster, and repeat. Ideally, confirm the queen is in the box, close it up except for ventilation and an entrance, and wait for the rest to move in. Voila! Swarm captured.

In practice, it did not go quite like that.

Of course it didn’t.

The swarm wasn’t hard to access: I could reach it with a step ladder. But they weren’t clustered on a branch that I could shake, or a vine that I could clip off. Instead, they were wrapped all around a pergola beam that was itself was half-obscured by muscadine vines. I was armed with my bee brush, but it was hard to wield with all the vines in the way. Meanwhile, hilariously, the step ladder kept sinking into the soft ground. The end result was me, perched carefully on a slowly sinking ladder, with a box balanced on one shoulder and a bee brush in my other hand, sweeping bees into the box and — literally — down on my own head.

I’m really glad nobody was there to see the process, but I finally got most of the bees into the box — or at least off of the pergola! I closed the box up and set it nearby for the rest of the bees to move in while I changed clothes and hurried back to work.

When I got home, they were all clustered back on the pergola, and the box was empty. Evidently, they did not approve of their new apartment.

Sometimes you put bees in a box and they just don’t want to be there. That’s life, right?

But I reasoned that perhaps I hadn’t caught the queen the first time, and decided to go for Round Two. This time, I abandoned the awkward box and simply swept the bees into a much easier-to-handle bucket, then poured them into the box. (Bees exhibit surprisingly liquid properties, as I learned during my first package installation. What, I wonder, is the viscosity of a cluster of bees? If you’re a mathematician and you want to tackle this one, please let us all know.) This worked a whole lot better. I was still perched on a sinking ladder and still sweeping bees down onto my own head, but most of them did get into the bucket, and this time when I closed up the box, the rest of the bees moved in.

And this time, stay there!

This, of course, left me with another dilemma: A cardboard nuc box full of bees, and a forecast of strong thunderstorms the next day. I don’t have the equipment to set up a third hive right now (though I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have that handy) and don’t really want to keep a third hive in my back yard. While it’s fine from my perspective, I don’t want to make either my neighbors or my nice landscaping crew nervous. So I called my mentor, who was happy to come and pick up some free bees (although he suggested a few times, with deceptive innocence, didn’t I want to keep them? Hey, lady, don’t you want more beeeeeees…?). I was excited to be able to give him something back in return for all his advice and help.

(Good for me, because — ominous foreshadowing music here — I really, really needed his help this past weekend.)

So I have now captured my first swarm — twice! — and learned the following:

  1. Beekeeping is a pyramid scheme. You will recruit others. It’s only a matter of time.
  2. Once you’re in, you don’t get out. Beekeepers are everywhere and they will find you. Actually, now beekeeping is sounding less like a pyramid scheme, and more like the mafia. I guess that’s what I get for buying Italian bees.
  3. You never, ever own “just a couple” of colonies. Not for long, anyway…

The good (?) news is, I’ve already had a friend volunteer his property to house additional hives when I’m ready to establish them…. because I have wonderful, supportive friends who like bees and are terrible enablers.

Oh, yes. We all know where this is going.

4 thoughts on “Beekeeping is a pyramid scheme.”

    1. Apparently, the key to seeing swarms absolutely everywhere is to have bees in your yard. Maybe you’d like some bees? Hey, lady! Don’t you want some bees….?

      Seriously, though, definitely keep your eyes open for the next few weeks – and your ears. I heard this swarm before I saw it. I was standing right next to it, wondering why bee sounds were not coming from the direction of my hives.

      Like

  1. This is so cool.. I knew about your swarm in your yard but had no idea about all the other stuff at your school, etc!! How fun can it get!! Can’t wait to hear more. Also, love reading it.. your gift for writing is more than a little amazing.. always has been.. and, somehow, just gets better and better ❤️❤️❤️

    🇺🇸 God Bless America 🇺🇸

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    Like

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