Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Saga of the Bees (Part II)

We left our readers with a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of our first installment of “The Great Summer Bee Caper.”  It’s been so long since we ran the story that readers may be forgiven for having forgotten the details of our not-quite-Hitchcockian tale.  It all began with the sudden arrival of a honeybee swarm in the neighborhood, and it ended (or at least our narrative did) with the bees swarming up 42nd Avenue. Our intrepid ‘bee wrangler’ from Fremont, Patti Loesche, was charging after them in her car.  Here, we pick up the story:

What Val Ellis may have been thinking as she watched the bees make their escape from her front yard has not been recorded (that’s her in the photo above, observing the mass exodus from the other side of the street).  But it’s a safe bet that she was relieved to discover that the lovely ceanothus bush located just ten feet from her front door was being rejected as the ultimate destination of the madding swarm.

We know exactly what beekeeper Patti Loesche was thinking, however, as she jumped into the car to begin her hot pursuit: “I was sure I would run into those bees again at some point. I knew they were looking for a new home.”

As she followed the swarm up the street, the main body was lost to sight; but as she rounded the corner of E. Lynn and headed toward Lake Washington, she encountered “something like a scene from an Armageddon movie,” she says. “I had no detective work to do.” What she saw was one woman running down the street in mad flight while two other women were frozen in place with horrified looks on their faces, pointing to a tall cedar tree at the North end of the waterfront park.  Looking up to where the women were pointing, Patti saw that the bees were safely ensconced high in the tree.

Though not perfectly equipped for the assignment, Patti set to work. The goal: entice the bees into the artificial hive.  It’s not a simple process, nor a quick operation.  Getting honeybees to settle down in a new hive takes some gentle coaxing and a lot of patience.  Not to mention more than a little stamina.

Patti set her ladder up against the base of the tree, climbed up, and got to work.   Work, in the case, meaning holding a box of wooden frames next to a giant swarm of bees and hoping that they’ll decide (in the words of Patti Loesche) “Oh, here’s a good place!”

Soon, some of the bees started inspecting the box.  “Once they do that, everyone goes in,” Patti says.  “The bees were very calm, and many were on top of the box fanning their scent to bring the other bees in.  Because of this, I believe that the queen must have gone in, though I did not see her,” she notes.

Though it became a tedious, backbreaking, box-holding endurance test for Patti, many of the bees finally coalesced into their new location after about an hour. She then vigorously shook the tree branch and a few thousand more bees landed in the box.  During all this time she had been perched about 15 feet up the cedar tree. “But by now I had bonded with the swarm, so I was willing to wait on them for awhile.” It’s not a procedure she says she would recommend to anyone, however.

After about two thirds of the bees were in the box, she took it farther down the tree and set it on a lower ladder.  It was getting late in the day, and under normal conditions she would have left the box overnight.  Given its location in a public park, however, she decided this was not such a hot idea.  So after waiting a bit longer for more of the bees to enter the box, she closed the entrance, considering the bee-capture operation a job well done.  She estimates she collected around 80% of the bee swarm.

From that point it was just a matter of clearing up the equipment, getting the hive into the car, and setting off with the swarm for its new home in Fremont.

And the bees?  They’re doing just fine, according to Patti.  “It was a huge and robust hive,” she says, though the swarm’s queen apparently diappeared sometime after entering the box.  Fortunately, Patti was able to successfully combine the new hive with an older one in her backyard apiary (she currently has a total of five hives, including two located in a neighbor’s yard).

“Just what were those bees doing swarming in Madison Park?” we asked.  “It’s an absolutely natural event,” Patti reports. “Bees swarm one or more times a season, either to reproduce or because they’re overcrowded. This swarm occurred right when it’s supposed to.”  She believes it came from someone’s hive, probably one that had become overcrowded, forcing the bees to move on.

And as for Val Ellis’s ceanothus bush (shown above), was it really a likely place for the bees to find a new home?  “Not at all,” says Patti. “They were just resting there while deciding where to relocate the colony.”  She notes that the swarm could have moved on into the Arboretum or possibly into a crevice at someone in the neighborhood’s house.  “Scouts had been sent out,” she notes, “and I could see that the bees were beginning to dance on top of the swarm faster and faster.  I knew they were going to make a move.”  It just occurred a bit sooner than she had planned.

In the end, however, the Day of the Bees in Madison Park ended well for just about all involved.  The folks on 42nd Avenue got a dose of excitement without any fallout; the beekeeper got another honeybee swarm to add to her collection; and the bees, for the most part, found themselves in a fine new home.

But not quite all of them.  On the day following the mass honeybee emigration, a few lost and forlorn bees were still to be seen flying around in aimless circles near the cedar tree. If they could’ve, they would’ve cried, “Wha happa?”


Thanks to Patti Loesche for sharing her photos and telling us the Rest of the Story.  Patti has been a beekeeper for about four years.  She says she got into beekeeping because a friend was doing it and it was fascinating to see how orderly and coordinated those thousands of bees could be: “I just love watching their behavior.”

[Photo of Val Ellis watching the bees vamoose by Sara Perkins.]

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