The Day the Bees Ran Away

Saturday, three days after we installed our new bees, I went into the kitchen and heard a significant buzzing in our backyard.  I looked out the back window and saw what looked like 10,000 bees flying around our backyard. I realized immediately, this was NOT GOOD. 


Our queen in her box

We had installed our bees on a Wednesday. When you install bees in a new hive, the queen goes in a separate box with a sugar plug in the end. The bees take about three days to chew out this sugar plug which gives them time to get used to the smell of the queen. We had scheduled time on Saturday around noon for our co-op to open up the beehive and make sure the bees were settling in properly to their new home. I got home just before noon that day with Timmy and his best friend in tow, ready to show them the beehive and teach them about bees, when I saw the scary scene in our backyard.

Luckily, we had gone through the house, not around, so I was forewarned of the problem before the kids went into the yard. From my kitchen, which overlooks the backyard, I heard the loud buzzing and saw the scene before opening the door.  I was so startled by the scene that I didn’t think to stop and take a picture to share with you-all on the blog.

Instead, I immediately called Randi, my co-op partner and the only one in the three families with previous bee experience.  She picked up the phone with the words: “I’m on my way.” I replied: “Good because something is definitely wrong.” I went out my front door, and around the house cautiously. I peered out from behind the carport and saw 10,000 bees in my backyard, mostly along the hedge between my yard and the neighbors. And the neighbor was out front and yelling.

Randi arrived, and peered around the carport with me. She agreed that what we saw was was not OK. We grabbed our book about beekeeping, and she started putting on the bee suit. We watched as the bees settled onto hedges between our house and the neighbor’s house.

“OK, I’m pretty sure they’re swarming” said Randy “they must not like the beehive, or maybe something disturbed it.”

“What do we do?”

“I’m going to make some quick phone calls, to see if we can get help, why don’t you read in the book under swarming. Usually when they swarm, you can cut the branch off that they land on and shake them back into the beehive.”

“Isn’t that dangerous? Won’t they sting you?” I replied

“Bees are at their least dangerous when they’re swarming. If a honeybee stings you, it dies. When they’re swarming they don’t have a home, or a supply of honey, so they don’t want to sting you. It’s an instinctive response.”


Bees swarming in Hawaii

We watch the bees settle and form a huge clump on one of the branches of the hedges. The kids went in the (other) neighbor’s yard where they could sit, like an audience, and watch the show. For some reason, the chain link fence between the two yards felt like an impenetrable barrier between them and the bees. Jonathan joined us as we started our next move.

Wearing protective gear, Randi opened up the beehive so we could see inside. She pulled out the frames and much to our dismay, we saw that nothing was built on any of them. The bees over the past three days, hadn’t done any thing to make this beehive their home. We realized then that we had a real problem. We knew that if we put the bees back in the beehive, they were unlikely to stay. We had to try anyhow, we couldn’t leave the bees in the bush next to the house, the neighbor on the other side of those bushes was quite upset, and we were waiting to hear back from some of our local experts.

We set up a step ladder next to the bushes where the bees had set up their swarm, Randy climbed up there and cut the branch out of the bush. She carried it over to the beehive (in a new location on the other side of the yard away from the upset neighbor) and shook (banged the branch on the edge of the beehive) all the bees back into the beehive. We waited a few minutes, making nervous small talk and watching the hive, and about five minutes later the bees started pouring out of the beehive. Sigh. Randi put the cut off branch back in the bush where it had come from, just leaning on other branches. We hoped the bees would relocate themselves back to the same branch, and we wouldn’t have to keep cutting branches out of the bush.  


Randi with our absconding bees

We repeated this process two more times, each time the bees refusing to stay in the beehive.

In the meantime I started looking for places to call. I knew there was a Middlesex Beekeepers Association, because we had someone from there come to the energy festival I organize each year. I looked up the phone number from my festival notes and called it to find out it was a store. They were unable to help, but told me that the Beekeepers Association had a “swarm coordinator.” They gave me her name and phone number, and I called.

I explained that I was a new beekeeper in Medford and I had been given her phone number as the Swarm Coordinator for the Middlesex Beekeepers Association. I explained what was happening, and she said,  “Oh, they didn’t build anything? They absconded.”


“Yes, that’s when the whole hive swarms without ever building anything. It means they deserted the hive. It’s pretty rare, but it sometimes happens with new hives.”

Great.  Rare.  At least it’s a known thing and I knew I was going to get a great blog post out of this, even if my neighbor was threatening to call the City and we might lose all our bees. I took the phone out to Randi and she spoke to the Swarm Coordinator from the top of the step ladder. Finally Randi came down and told us that she was going to go to Lexington to get a fully built out honeycomb. In the meantime we were just going to hope that the bees didn’t leave.

Jon and I had no experience with swarming, so we discussed what might happen if the bees were to leave.  Randi explained that scout bees were out looking for a new home. We live right near the woods, so at best we hoped that they would go build a new hive in the woods, at worst they might set up a hive in our neighbor’s yard. Then he’d REALLY be mad.


Bees swarming in Newton

Our next-door neighbors were very, very upset by this entire goings-on. They had been quite scared by the swarming, and were completely unconvinced that it was proper to have a beehive in a suburban yard. I realized that this was perhaps not the time to tell him that many people had beehives in the city, and that in fact there’s a Boston Beekeepers Club and that there are specific rules allowing these hives in some of our neighboring communities. I also knew that there was no local ordinance preventing bees in our town, I had discussed it with our Code Enforcement Officer long before getting the bees. I understood that they were scared of bee stings, but they also did not understand my desire to support the bee population.  They were convinced that my motivation was simply for fresh honey.

After an hour or two, Randi returned with a honeycomb with lots of honey on it and replaced one of our empty frames with it. She also wiped down the hive with queen bee essence that she got with the honeycomb.  She made another attempt to put all the bees back in the hive, banging the branch on the beehive to knock the bees off of it and into the hive, as well as putting the hive under the bush and brushing the bees off of the bush into the hive.  This time we also put the queen excluder on the bottom of the hive instead of on the top.

This is where we learned that – obviously- you don’t want your queen in your “honey super” because you want that to be all honey and the eggs to be in your “brood boxes”.  Therefore, we had a plastic mesh piece that would go between the brood box and the honey super once we put it on that would allow most of the bees to go back and forth, but the queens would be too big to get through the mesh.   You can also put the queen excluder to block the entrance to the hive because when the bees swarm, they are following the queen, who is unhappy with her hive for some reason.  If the queen can’t leave, there’s a good chance the rest of the bees won’t leave either.

Once the bees were in there was really nothing more that we could do, but leave them alone for about a week.  Luckily, the next week was pretty cold and drizzly, not the kind of weather that the bees like to go out in.  Every day I’d look out the window and hope that I didn’t see any swarming, or anything that looked like bees leaving, and so far, so good.

Happy Greening,

Alicia & Jon

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