Bees: Capturing My First Swarm

I lucked out. It was very easy.

I started my beekeeping hobby in June 2013 and have been blogging about it periodically. If you’re interested in reading the other posts in this series, follow the Adventures in Beekeeping tag. Keep in mind that the most recent posts always appear first on this blog.

The call came while I was hovering over 35 acres of cherry trees in Monitor, WA. It was my friend Katie, who lives in Quincy. The bees that live in the wall inside the shop at their home had swarmed again. They were gathered in a bunch on the maple tree, about 8 feet off the ground. Did I want to catch them?

Of course I did!

My only problem was that I was working — with no end in sight. I spend my summers as a cherry drying pilot and I was into what would become a hellish week of rain and lots of hard work. I was hovering over one orchard when she called and another was already waiting for my attention. I told her I’d get there as soon as I could, thanked her for her patience, and hung up.

About Bee Swarms

Before I go into the story of this capture, let me take a moment to educate readers about bee swarms.

Honey bees live in hives. They could be manmade hives like the one I (and countless other beekeepers) have. Or they could be hives built inside of structures not intended to house bees, like hollow trees, rock overhangs, or building walls.

Most hives have a finite amount of space in which to build. Bees exist to reproduce and increase their numbers. Everything they do is to meet that end. (The honey they make is really for their consumption, not ours. They just make a heck of a lot more than they need.) So they’re constantly building inside their hive, making wax cells for brood (eggs laid by the queen and the larvae they turn into) and the storage of food like nectar (which turns to honey) and pollen.

As the hive population grows, the bees eventually start running out of space. They realize this and instinctively plan to split the colony. First, they create queen cells, which are special large brood cells for raising queens. The existing queen lays an egg in each of these cells, as she does for all the other brood cells. The workers, however, raise the larvae in these cells to be queens by feeding them royal jelly. (All larvae are started on a diet of royal jelly, but only future queens get it throughout their development.) Workers raise queens when they sense that the current queen is ready to die or already dead or when they know they need to swarm. The positioning of the queen cells helps beekeepers determine what’s going on; swarm cells normally appear at the bottom of the hive while supersedure cells appear near the top.

Bee Swarm
The swarm I caught looked a lot like this one. Wikipedia image by Mark Osgatharp.

Before the new queens emerge from their cells, the existing queen leaves the hive with at least half of the bees. They’ve already stuffed themselves with food so they’ve got enough energy to make a journey. This is the swarm. The bees stay close together, surrounding the queen to protect her. They leave the hive and often fly to a nearby location where they alight as tight mass on a branch or building eave or some other surface. They’ll remain there to rest and organize and get their bearings. Scout bees might fly off in different directions, looking for a new home. Eventually, the swarm will take off and fly in a bunch to a possible future homesite or another rest stop.

In general, when honey bees are swarming, they are least likely to sting. Why? Well, they don’t have a hive and food stores to protect. They’re on the go. Their only concern is protecting the queen and moving her into a new home so she can continue laying eggs and building their population.

Capturing a swarm is a win-win-win-win situation:

  • The property owner wins because she gets the bees removed for free.
  • Society wins because the bees are kept alive rather than killed — as an exterminator might do. Bees are vital to agriculture and the food chain.
  • The bees win because they’re not only kept alive, but they’re given a great new home all ready for them to move in — a manufactured hive, designed with their needs in mind.
  • The beekeeper wins because she gets a whole colony of bees, including a queen, for free.

Wikipedia, by the way, has an excellent article about honey bee swarming.

My Swarm Capture

I finally finished flying for the day at around 6 PM. I wasted no time loading up my beekeeping gear, which I keep in a rolling storage box, and the empty nuc box I’d gotten my first been colony in. My friend Cheryl climbed aboard the truck with me and we drove the 10 or so miles to Katie’s house.

Katie, by this time, was gone. She had to take her son to a swimming meet (or ball game or something like that). Her other son was home. He came out when we pulled up with the truck. The swarm hung from a branch on a maple tree beside their driveway. It was about 10 feet off the ground. But because it was overhanging the driveway, I could back my pickup’s bed under it. Standing on the pickup bed didn’t get me close enough to reach it, but standing on that big plastic bee equipment box in the back of the pickup did. (I really don’t like climbing ladders.)

I suited up and took a closer look, climbing up until my face was less than a foot from the swarm. They clung to a pair of small branches. I knew from conversations with other beekeepers that capturing a swarm like this was often as simple as clipping the branch off the tree and putting the bees in the box. So that’s what I did.

Capturing a Swarm
Cheryl took this photo of me lowering the bulk of the swarm into the nuc box.

I removed three frames from the 5-frame nuc box. Katie’s son got me a pair of clippers (note to self: buy clippers and put in bee box) and I climbed back up atop my equipment box. I grasped the branches right above the top of the swarm and clipped them right above my fingers. I then lowered the branch into the box. That took care of about 80% of the bees. I repeated this process for another small branch. Unfortunately, a clump of bees fell off and landed in the bed of my pickup. I had to scoop them up manually with some cardboard to get them in the box. When I was done, I had about 98% of the bees. A few dozen were flying around.

Captured Swarm
The captured bees wasted no time crawling up onto the frames in the nuc box I put them in.

I looked into the box. There was plenty of space in there to add a frame, so I gently lowered one in.

By that time, Katie’s husband had come out. He, his son, Cheryl, and I took a close look inside the box. We could clearly see “fanning” activity by a handful of bees on the top edge of the box. I’d seen this behavior before when watching another area beekeeper catch a swarm. The bees were trying to spread the queen’s scent outside the box to attract other colony members who hadn’t come into the box yet. That’s a great indication that the all-important queen was inside the box.

I took off my suit and stowed it in my equipment box, along with my smoker (which I hadn’t needed) and gloves. I waited as long as I could to cover the nuc box.Most of the bees were inside the box; the ones left behind might find their way back to the original hive in the shop wall less than 100 feet away. The plug for the hive entrance had already been put in place so the bees inside the box were trapped there. I wedged the box into a safe spot in the back of the truck, said goodbye to Katie’s family, and left.

Settling in the Swarm

Back at my RV, I offloaded the truck, leaving the nuc box on top of the bee equipment box under my fifth wheel hitch overhang. Then I took a quick shower, dressed, and went out with Cheryl to meet some friends in town.

The plan was to take the bees with me the next day when I moved my RV to Wenatchee Heights. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate. I had to fly most of the morning. If I left the bees closed up in the box, they could die from heat or lack of water. So I took the door plug off. Bees started coming and going like a regular hive. This meant that I would not be able to move the bees until that evening, when they returned for the night.

Although I did manage to move my RV that evening, I also had to fly. By the time I was done, it was too late to retrieve the bees. I asked Mike and Cheryl to close up the door, planning to retrieve them in the morning. But when morning came, I had to fly again. So they opened the door to let the bees out another day.

This turned out to be a tiny problem. Although I’d paid for my RV space through the next day, the campground people put a motorhome in that spot. The bees were coming and going from their box under the picnic table. The motorhome people were terrified of them and stayed locked up in their luxury box. The campground people called to ask when I’d get the bees. I was flying when they called. I assured them I’d be there later that evening and hoped (again) that the rain would stop.

Temporary Home
My new bees in their temporary home. I hope to have them moved into a real hive later this week.

Fortunately, the rain did stop and I did get back to Quincy to retrieve my bees and other possessions left behind. I brought everything back to Wenatchee Heights, where I’m currently camped out between two of the orchards I’m contracted to dry. In the morning, I opened the door to the hive. The bees began coming and going as usual, probably wondering what the heck was going on.

Several days have gone by. The bees seem happy enough. I’ve ordered a new hive to put them in; it should arrive sometime this week. I’ll set that up here, remove the frames from the nuc box and put them in the new hive, and get the nuc box ready for my next swarm capture. Details to come (of course).

About Style Guides…and a Tip for Writers

A writer’s cheat sheet — and how I maintain mine.

One of the challenges facing writers — especially tech writers — is maintaining consistency and proper usage of words and phrases that describe the things we write about. Is it toolbar, tool bar, ToolBar, or Tool bar? Is it Fonts panel, Font panel, Font window, or Fonts Pane? Is it iBookstore or iBookStore? Is it inspector or Inspector?

This might seem trivial to most folks, but for writers and editors, it’s very important. Inconsistent or incorrect use of established terms is one of the things that mark the work of an amateur. Professional writers do everything in their power to get things like this right — and editors help.

Style Guides

Chicago Manual of StyleStyle guides help, too. A style guide is a collection of words or phrases that might be used in a work, all presented as they should be in writing. You may have heard of some of the more famous style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. These are style guide books published for professionals who write about a wide range of topics.

But there are also style guides for more narrow topics. Apple, for example, publishes a 244-page document called the Apple Publications Style Guide. This is one of the books I turn to when I write my Mac OS books and articles. Written for developers and Apple’s in-house documentation teams, it lists the right and wrong ways to use hundreds of words, product names, and phrases. Not only does this include a correct list of all Apple trademarks, but it goes into tiny details. For example, did you know that you can “click the icon” but you can’t “click on the icon”? Page 37 of the latest (2009) edition is pretty specific on that point.

Microsoft Outlook 2011Individual publishers also have style guides. For example, when I wrote Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 Step-by-Step for Microsoft Press, I was handed not one but two style guides. They covered all of the product names and program terms I might use, as well as rules about usage. For example, I wasn’t allowed to write a sentence like this: “Outlook enables you to send and read email.” Why? Well, the word enables (in that kind of usage) was verboten. (The average reader has no idea what writers deal with when writing technical books for well-established publishers.)

My Style Guide Needs

Microsoft Outlook 2011Although I never used to have trouble remembering the proper forms and usages of the words and phrases I included in my books, as I’m aging — and as my life becomes more complex — I’m having trouble remembering the little things. So this past summer, when I worked on Mac OS X Lion: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press, I developed and maintained my own style guide for the book.

The trick was to put the style guide in a place where it was easy to consult as I worked. I wrote (and laid out) the book on my old 24-inch iMac. I was living in my RV at the time, comfortably parked at an RV park with full utilities, but my workspace wasn’t large enough for the luxurious dual 24-inch monitor setup I have in my home office. I experimented with keeping the list of words and phrases in a Word document file, but the amount of overhead — Word running all the time, big window with all the trimmings, etc. — made it an awkward solution. Ditto for Evernote. All I needed was a tiny window where I could list the words I needed to use — these applications made maintaining and consulting such a list multiple times throughout the day a real chore.

The Solution: Stickies?

Stickies IconI stumbled onto the solution while writing the book. One of the apps that comes with Mac OS X is Stickies. This is an app whose sole purpose is to put virtual sticky notes up on your screen.

I never liked the app. I thought it was kind of dumb. After all, who would use an app to put a sticky note onscreen when you can just put a real sticky note on your screen?

But then I realized that the tiny windows Stickies creates were perfect for the simple lists I needed to consult. I could easily fit them on my screen, beyond the area I needed to work with InDesign.

Style Guide in StickiesAnd so I began creating and maintaining my style guides in Stickies.

And I continue to do so today.

There are a lot of benefits to using Stickies as a solution for this problem:

  • The contents of Sticky Notes are saved, even if you quit the application.
  • Stickies are easily modified and updated.
  • Stickies supports formatting, so if I want to remind myself about a word or phrase that should never be used, I can format it as strikethru text.
  • Stickies can be exported as plain text, so I could, theoretically, save a style guide list before closing the Stickies window when the book is done.
  • Stickies take up very little room onscreen.
  • All active Stickies notes open automatically when you open the app.
  • It’s easy to set up my computer so Stickies automatically opens at startup.

Sounds good, no?

For me, it’s a win-win. I get a solution to my problem. But what I also get is a reason to use a silly little free app like Stickies.

Amazon’s Bribe to Publishers: KDP Select and the $6 Million Fund

And why I’m giving it a try.

I published my first real ebook back in the end of October: Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs. I built the book in InDesign, spun off a color print-on-demand version through MagCloud, and then painstakingly prepared ebook formats for the iBookstore, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes & Nobel Nook. Within a week, it was widely available and actually began to sell.

The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library

Not long afterwards, Amazon.com sent a chill through the publishing industry by announcing that Kindle owners who were also Amazon Prime subscribers would be able to borrow books — for free — from Amazon.com. The program is called Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and its an obvious ploy by Amazon.com to make its Kindle hardware more attractive to readers. After all, you must have a Kindle — the actual device and not a Kindle app on an iPad or computer — to borrow the books for free. So for those readers who don’t need all the features of a real tablet computer, this program makes a Kindle a bit more attractive.

I immediately questioned one of my publishers in its private Facebook group:

As an author, I’m wondering how Peachpit’s participation in this program (if they do participate) will impact royalties.

After all, I don’t earn royalties from borrowed book; I only earn royalties on purchased books. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking about this. The Mac Observer published a piece titled “Amazon’s Lending Library Raises Publisher & Author Hackles” that explored the program and responses to it in some depth.

In the Facebook group, the publisher’s response was quick and to the point:

[Publisher Name] is not participating.

I found this reassuring. The reason: If readers knew they could get my books for free, they might stop buying them. If they stopped buying them, I would not be able to earn a living. Pretty simple, no?

So I saw the program as a threat to my livelihood and was glad to hear that my biggest publisher was not going to participate.

Fast Forward to Last Week

On Thursday, I got an email message from the Kindle Direct Publishing service. That’s the service publishers use to get their ebooks for sale on Amazon.com. It started like this:

We’re excited to introduce KDP Select — a new option dedicated to KDP authors and publishers worldwide, featuring a fund of $500,000 in December 2011 and at least $6 million in total for 2012! KDP Select gives you a new way to earn royalties, reach a broader audience, and use a new set of promotional tools.

It went on to say that if I opted to include my book in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, I could get a cut of a monthly $500,000 fund based upon the total number of times my book was borrowed. Of course, Kindle owners would be attracted to these books because they were free to borrow. And now I could get a royalty payment on a borrowed book.

It seems like win-win-win:

  • Amazon wins because it gets more books in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, thus enhancing the value of the Kindle and Amazon Prime programs.
  • Kindle Owners with Amazon Prime memberships win because there are more books available to borrow for free.
  • Authors/Publishers win because they actually get paid when people read their work.

I thought long and hard about why I might not want to give this a try with Making Movies.

The only drawback for me as a publisher is that I had to give Amazon.com the exclusive right to sell/loan my ebook for at least three months. I could not distribute an ebook version of the title anywhere else — not on Apple’s iBookstore, not on Barnes & Nobel, not on MagCloud, and not even on my own website or blog.

I looked at the sales figures from all the places my book appeared. I’d already sold more copies with Amazon.com than with all of the other retailers combined.

It was a pretty easy decision.

So today I enrolled Making Movies in KDP Select.

The way I see it, three months is not a very long time. If I fail to bring in enough royalty money during that period to continue allowing Amazon to have an exclusive on my ebook, I’ll drop out of the program.

And I know of at least one other author who has enrolled his title: Andrew Dambe with his novel Soleá. (I started reading it; it’s a neat book.)

It’s worth a try, right?