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The Beehive: Bee swarms bring challenges, rewards

Capturing a swarm ready to make a break for it requires expertise and timing. Lemon grass oil helps lure the bees into a new hive. (Brenda Kent / For the Enterprise)

Welcome back to the Beehive. A lot has happened since I last wrote. I will start out by talking about the current state of the honey crop this year.

I have been talking with several beekeepers from different areas, and I have come away thinking things are pretty good around here, compared to other parts of Minnesota and North Dakota.

The lack of rain and high temperatures has wreaked havoc on this year's honey crop for many beekeepers. I have been told from several people that the beekeepers in the St. Cloud area will not have a crop this year. I was also told that some of the beekeepers in North Dakota have already moved their bees back to Texas, and already need to feed their bees to get them ready for winter.

Here in Park Rapids, we are going to have a honey crop. We may not get as much honey per hive this year, but we are in pretty good shape. Brenda and I have increased the amount of hives in our apiary this year, so we should be able to get about as much honey as we did last year.

So let's talk about what has been happening in the beehive these past few weeks. I think the bees have been planning a mass escape. I have had to capture a swarm from my own hives, in my yard, on three consecutive days.

So, I thought I would write about why bees swarm. Usually, bees swarm because the hive is doing very good and this is Mother Nature's way of propagating the bee population. So how does this happen? The bees decide it is time to swarm.

The foragers begin to back-fill the brood nest with honey. This leaves the queen with no room to lay her eggs. Then, the bees make swarm cells, with which they will begin to make a new queen. The old queen will stop laying eggs, which will allow her abdomen to shrink a bit, which will allow her to be able to fly when the swarm date comes.

Then just before the new queen is about to hatch, the old queen will leave the hive, and about half of the bees in the hive will follow her. She will usually stop and land in a tree not far from the hive. The bees will then make a cluster around her. This cluster may stay in this spot for 30 minutes, or up to three to four days. While the cluster waits in the tree, there are scout bees out looking for a suitable place to live.

Once the scout bees return, the cluster will follow the scout that does the most enthusiastic dance.

We as beekeepers need to act before the scout bees return, if we want to catch the swarm.

A good beekeeper has a hive box ready and waiting for just these situations. So, I usually have to scrounge up a bottom board and a deep hive box and find a cover, oh where did I put that extra cover? Oh yeah, the lemon grass oil, shoot where is that? Ok, I'm not a good beekeeper. I'm maybe a bit unorganized. I know this swarm could leave any minute, so I am scrambling. I find the ladder, lean it against the tree, I climb the ladder, oh, I forgot to put the lemon grass oil in the hive box. I run back down the ladder.

This is how it really goes. I am not kidding. Brenda is yelling hurry they are going to leave. I tell her I know they may leave. Oh, I didn't tell you about the lemon grass oil.

It smells like a pheromone that the queen gives off. It kind of fools the bees into thinking that the queen has already gone into the empty hive box. The bees are more than willing to follow the queen anywhere. So, I put a few drops of lemon grass oil in the empty hive box.

So, I hurry back up the ladder, I'm about to snip the limb of bees off the tree. Brenda yells stop, I have to get the camera. Oh, yeah, great idea, hurry. She comes out of the house, do you know if we have any AA batteries. Oh my goodness. Please just get the other camera. Quit laughing, this is my life. She takes a picture of me snipping the branch off. So, I carefully climb down the ladder, Brenda is snapping pictures. I shake the bees off the branch into the empty box. The bees smell the lemon grass oil. They begin to fan their wings to move the lemon grass oil smell throughout the box. The bees that are outside the box walk right in. This is truly one of the other magical moments in beekeeping. I put the cover on and take these bees at least 2 miles from where I caught the swarm. This prevents the scout bees from returning and talking my newly captured swarm into leaving.

Next time I will write about Brenda and I splitting up to sell honey at two different venues at the same time. The competition heats up. You folks take care and thanks for your interest.