It seemed like a routine walk in our rural subdivision April 29 evening after dinner. That was until Jax the dog and I completed our lap around the circle and got welcomed back by a pulsating mass of honeybees about 25 feet from our front door.
In that short time, maybe 10 minutes, a swarm of bees about the size of a basketball had formed under the branch of a high evergreen bush next to our front walkway.
After I posted a photo on Facebook, while errantly using the term “nest” instead of “swarm,” numerous friends were recommending various local beekeepers to come and retrieve the swarm – with some correcting my terminology. This visitation was not a nest at all but rather a mass of worker honeybees that, accompanied by a queen bee, had left their previous colony with the intention of forming a new one. (Or something like that.)
Despite all the recommendations for local beekeepers, a good friend of our youngest daughter, Natalie (Schell) Deal, got first dibs, and was so thrilled at the opportunity to obtain her first swarm that she drove all the way from Granville, near Columbus, to our house southwest of Athens (This is despite the fact that she had just finished a 12-hour nursing shift at Mt. Carmel East in Columbus.)
After Ms. Deal arrived around 8:15, she donned her beekeeping duds and quickly got to work. With the swarm in an awkward spot among prickly branches of the high bush, about 8 or 9 feet above the ground, Deal had to balance herself on a stair rail next to our wooden walkway, then lean over and remove as many of the small branches as possible with pruning sheers, all while increasingly agitated bees buzzed around her (with some of them aggressively investigating us spectators, about 12-20 feet away). She then plopped the swarm into a cardboard box, with many of them hanging on its side and others remaining on both detached and undetached branches of the bush.
She had little or no help during this challenging process since none of the five of us watching had any protective clothing.
Deal finally got as many of the bees as possible, while also hunting for the queen bee, since it’s important to have a queen when establishing a new honeybee colony.
During this process, occasionally an angry bee would detach from the main activity and strafe one of us, or even get caught in a piece of clothing. My attempt to get usable video footage devolved into utter chaos as I jumped, danced and ran from a particularly persistent bee. By the end of the process, maybe around 8:45 or 9 p.m., all but one of we spectators had suffered a bee sting – an impressive display of fair distribution.
Deal got the bees sorted out and stored in the back of her car, and then took off for home, reaping no small amount of praise and appreciation from her small audience. She wanted to stay longer and give the remaining bees more time to find their way to the box but understandably had to get home to her family. It had been a long day.
The morning after, alas, many bees remained near our front walkway, and didn’t seem any calmer than they had the night before during the shifting process. That evening (April 30), another local beekeeper, Chuck Sheets, came out and very helpfully collected most of the remaining bees (he had left a box earlier). By the end of that week, a small group of confused bees remained in a golf-ball-size clump.
A day or two after retrieving our swarm, Deal explained how she got interested in beekeeping. A 2006 graduate of Alexander High School, she grew up in the rural New Marshfield area, with a family who spent ample time in the outdoors. However, she didn’t get involved in beekeeping till she and her husband purchased five areas in Granville, a small college town east of Columbus.
“Not long after we moved, there was a sign for a beekeeping class at a Licking County park near our new house,” she recalled. “I signed up for the beekeeping class, and before the class was over, I knew for sure I wanted to give beekeeping a try.”
During the class, Deal learned about how hives swarm and how “beekeepers often collect swarms to give them a new home (which is what they’re searching for while swarming). Bee swarms were instantly intriguing to me.
“After losing one of my two hives this past fall, I decided the only way I would get more bees this year is to catch a swarm,” she said.
Ironically, Deal added, a few days before being notified about our swarm, she had posted on Facebook letting people know it was honeybee swarm season and to contact her if they spotted any.
“When I got the call about your swarm (while still on shift as a nurse), I was instantly excited,” she said.
She talked about obtaining her “first swarm” at La Casa Smith. “Handling a swarm of bees was a huge adrenaline rush and a great learning experience,” she said. “The bees were in a slightly challenging location to collect but it was worth the challenge. I am constantly learning something new as a beekeeper, and last night’s swarm catch was no different. It makes for an exciting and fulfilling hobby.”
Unfortunately, Deal ended up without a swarm after all. She said she awoke Thursday morning, and upon checking on the bees, found they had “absconded.”
She admitted to being devastated but is trying to be positive about it. “I mean it was an amazing experience. I just feel terrible it didn’t work out. I’m taking it as a learning experience,” she said.
Other experts acknowledge that sometimes a swarm will just take off, and usually it’s impossible to know exactly why.
“I just want what’s best for the bees, and sometimes they know and do what’s best, and we don’t even see or understand why. It’s just the name of the game, and each new thing that happens is a learning experience,” she said.
As it turns out, in this nature saga with more twists and turns than a worker bee’s flight after guzzling a tiny flagon of mead, Tuesday afternoon a swarm of honeybees magically materialized some 30 feet from Deal’s existing hive at her place in Granville. No telling if it’s the Smith Swarm returned or some other swarm, but for the sake of neatly wrapped storytelling, we’ll assume the former.