Tuesday June 11, 2013 | 09:14 AM

Honey bees have begun swarming in Southern Maine. In the past week there have been about a dozen swarms of honey bees reported to the Maine State Beekeepers Association Swarm Team, a volunteer based group of experienced beekeepers statewide who catch swarms. According to swarm team member Keith Kettelhut, this figure is about normal. 

Kettelhut became interested in keeping bees about 15 years ago as part of an effort to be more self-sufficient. He’d raised chickens, pigs, geese, and turkeys, but it was bees that stuck. When asked why bees, Keith said “You can't go into the bees with a lot of stress, they seem to pick up on it. You learn to let go of things that are bothering you and be in the moment, which was something I really needed.” He currently has four hives in Durham, four in Cumberland, and two in Portland.

It is Kettelhut’s calm demeanor around the bees that allows him to work with only a hat and veil and not get stung (at least not a lot). Having seen him work bees firsthand a number of times, it is as though the bees know he’s there to help them and welcome him into their home.

Swarming is honey bees in natural reproduction mode. In the spring when the dandelions start to bloom, and more pollination sources become available, overcrowding happens in a hive, and if swarming plans are not altered, about half a colony of bees and their queen will depart the parent colony to establish a new colony. To most people, seeing thousands of bees hanging from a tree or on the side of a wall, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Kettelhut, however, has caught close to 30 in the past couple seasons.

Most swarms stay out of the media spotlight, but for the few that do it’s important they are handled correctly. For the Maine State Beekeepers Association, swarm removal is as an opportunity to do a little public relations work for the bees. People tend to be afraid of bees, and in swarm mode they are generally supposed to be gentle and stay in a cluster.

“People in general are afraid of stinging insects, rightly so when it comes to yellow jackets and hornets who can sting repeatedly and will do so without provocation,” said Kettelhut. “Honey bees on the other hand won’t sting unless they don’t have another choice. Honey bees sting to protect their hive, and when they are trapped, pinched swatted at and can’t get away. If you go up to a honey bee on a flower and poke a finger at it, it will just fly away and find another flower. If they get stuck in your clothes, stepped on, swatted, or trapped by you then they will sting, as it is their only defense. Honey bees die shortly after stinging someone or something so it is a last resort for them.”

I asked Keith to share a swarm team story. He recalled there was a swarm about 46 feet up in a tree, requiring him to climb up a ladder and into the tree. He tried using a pole with a bucket on it to rap on the branch and break up the cluster (the idea being, the majority of the cluster would fall into the bucket). Kettelhut said he got a good portion of the cluster, but by the time he reached the ground, the bucket was empty. The bees had rejoined the cluster. He went back up, tried again, and same thing. Now, the bees were clustered on two trees. Figuring out the larger cluster had the queen, he went up and came down with a few bees he put into a box in his truck. This up and down went on for three hours, when finally just as Kettelhut had given up and was heading back to his truck the bees flew out of the trees and into the box in his truck!

“Last year there was one in Brunswick that was right downtown three stories up in a tree a block over from the Fire Station. Luckily, the Fire Department was happy to help out with the bucket truck,” Kettelhut added.

Hive Maintenance and Manipulation

In honey bees, swarming is reproductive behavior and all healthy colonies want to reproduce every year. If you have honey bees and want to try to prevent them from swarming, or manage their swarming impulse Kettelhut said you need to pay attention to colony size and how much room is available. This is the most obvious of the swarm impulse behaviors. The clearest sign to look for in a hive to alert you to an impending swarm is the development of multiple queen cells (otherwise known as “queen cell cups” or “swarm cells”). The colony will not swarm without a replacement queen at least started. When the hive becomes crowded, reduce congestion in the hive by adding frames of empty drawn comb at the edges of the brood area, or add an entire box of empty drawn comb and re-arrange the brood so it is centered in the middle of both boxes with drawn comb on the outsides. This creates space for the queen to lay eggs and gives the worker bees plenty of extra space to store nectar and pollen. Also add honey supers (a box of frames bees use to collect honey) at this time. The other alternative, is to make an “artificial swarm” (take the queen and several frames of bees and brood from the main hive and place it in an empty hive). The parent colony now reacts as if they had swarmed themselves, and continues the reproductive cycle. This reduces the risk to the colony by ensuring that the “swarm” ends up in a managed hive with the help of a beekeeper, and reduces risk to the beekeeper, by ensuring that the “swarm” happens in a safe (and less alarming) way for bees and for the neighborhood. If you do this you should reduce the number of queen cells you leave in the hive to one, and add honey plenty of honey supers for the bees to fill while they are waiting for their new queen to mate. (This is where you should consult an experienced beekeeper to help guide you though the process.)

Master beekeepers are often your best resource for information, and also the people teaching bee schools. They not only have experience doing different hive management techniques, but also have honed their skills in effectively communicating the necessary manipulations how and why. Kettlehut, who is not a master beekeeper, is working towards becoming certified as one.

Erin Forbes of Overland Honey, one of the state’s most experienced and knowledgeable beekeepers (think of her as Maine’s own bee whisperer), alerted me to the fun fact that we have more master beekeepers per capita than any other state. Don’t feel you need to wait for a swarm to contact them if you are having an issue with your bees, they have the basics covered in basically all aspects of beekeeping. I often defer personally and professionally to Forbes and Phil Gaven (South Portland based, owner of The Honey Exchange in Portland), as well as pay close attention to anything Cindy Bee (Jefferson), Larry Peiffer (Sanford), Jack Hildreth (North Yarmouth), Peter Richardson (Portland), Geoff MacLean (Scarborough), or Brian and Peggy Pride (Lebanon) have to say on the subject of bees.

Calling in Maine’s Swarm Team

The fastest way to get qualified help is to contact the Maine State Beekeepers Association Swarm Team. When a call comes into the hotline (207) 619-4BEE (619-4233), or someone fills out the online form,  a message goes out to the Swarm team. If you call, the voice message is translated to text, and then emails all 30 plus swarm team members the text translation as well as the voice message.

When reporting a swarm, you should be able to: describe what it looks like (ball, bell shaped…), how long has it been there, how big is it (closer to a basketball or a cantaloupe), how high is it (6 ft. up or 40 ft).

Before you call the swarm hotline, if you have access to the Internet, check out this site to confirm whether what you found is a honey bee swarm or something else (i.e. wasps).

According to Kettelhut, usually the person gets a call back within an hour of sending their message to the Swarm Team. Depending on the Team member’s schedule, they work out a time to come catch the Swarm. Sometimes it is at end of the business day, others it is right away.

 All images by Keith Kettelhut.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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