Sunday, October 24, 2010


Top Bar plans or hive can be purchase at

2009 was my first year beekeeping. After much research, I purchased my bee-healthy top-bar hive and went looking for bees to install in it. I was told that I had missed the timeframe (early spring) to purchase bees, so I should go out and catch a swarm, which is the only way to start a hive according to the purists, such as one of my heroes, the bee-whisperer, Corwin Bell in Boulder, CO.
 My immediate thought was that we don't have swarms in Chicago, and as an untrained urbanite, I am ill-equipped to catch a swarm if I had a clue as to where to find one. But then, problem solved! I was gifted a traditional Langstroth hive full of gentle Italian bees. So gentle that they allowed me to care for them without using protective gear that I decided to settle in for the season with these bees and leave my top-bar hive empty in my basement.
 Then, in late July, I got a call from my bee teacher, Craig Bowles, who said that my own mother needed a swarm of bees removed from a building on her property. Would I join him in cutting them out of the building and capturing the bees which we could put in my top bar hive?  Now how could I refuse an opportunity such as this?
 So we met at 6:30 am, 40 miles west of Chicago, donning full protective gear including the burka-like head covering, to capture the bees.  Craig, a beekeeper of five years, had set up scaffolding to help us cut open the eaves to find the queen. Craig had assisted in catching a swarm on one other occasion, so this made him the seasoned expert.  We stepped up onto the scaffolding and tore off the siding. Craig sprayed an herbal preparation into the interior of the eaves, and suddenly we were amidst 30,000 bees as they flew from the eaves, bees filling the air. The buzzing sound was incredible, enveloping us in waves, potentially overwhelming.  But if I wanted an adrenaline rush from dealing with nature, here it was!
 Craig was in the eaves, tearing out insulation looking for the queen when she stepped out right onto his finger!  He left the scaffolding and walked 15 paces to place her into my top-bar hive, and then her attendants began to follow, landing on the side of the hive, fanning her scent out into the air.  As we raced around collecting bees, we began brushing the 100s of bees landing on the wall into a bucket, then placed the bucket on its side near the hive, and the bees formed a single file line and WALKED into the hive.
 These bees were slightly more aggressive than my Italians. Their combined buzzing was too loud for us to hear each other speak, so when I got too hot and needed a break from my bee suit, I signaled Craig, who brushed the many bees off my back before I walked away.  But it took walking a couple hundred feet away before the bees stopped chasing me.  (They weren’t pleased that we were pulling them out of the eaves, it was probably equivalent to a Viking invasion of rape and pillage).
 Craig finished by vacuuming up all the stray bees that hadn't made their way to the hive by the third hour. It seemed I had about 20,000 bees in my hive. We duct-taped the openings to the hive, he stacked both the hive and the vacuum cleaner on its side in my trunk, and I began my hour drive home on the expressway in weekend traffic.
 Having borrowed an SUV from Elizabeth Wenscott, my beekeeping partner in crime, it had a cargo area but no enclosed trunk, so we separated the cargo area from the passenger area with a highly sophisticated arrangement of plastic sheeting taped to the interior roof with duct tape to act as a barrier between me and the bee (or two) that might escape.
 Ten minutes into the trip, I noticed an opaqueness of the rear window, so I pulled over to see what was going on. There appeared to be about a hundred bees gathering on the back window, so I pulled into a parking lot, opened the window and drove around in circles hoping that these loose bees would blow out the open window.  Not a chance! They all seemed to have held on for dear life.
 So I continued my drive on the highway with my back window getting darker, filling with more bees. Thank goodness for the plastic sheet between us.  Well these turned out to be famous last words, since that vacuum cleaner lying on it’s side was rolling in the stop-and-go traffic and hitting the plastic sheeting, which had begun to pulled the duct tape away from the ceiling.  And with each hit of the plastic, a couple more bees popped out of the vacuum cleaner.  As I broke into a sweat, I imagined myself driving down the highway with bees swarming around my head!
 I finished the trip while stopping four or five times to reattach the duct tape to the ceiling.  By the time I reached my house, there were approximately 300 bees loose in all areas of the car, leaving little sticky bits of honeycomb, honey, or propolis wherever they landed, but not bothering me.  Still, Elizabeth wasn't going to be happy with bees flying loose in her car.  Let me now mention she wasn't in favor of a second hive in our first year.  I called ahead, and being the forever-good sport, Elizabeth greeted me in full protective gear, ready to air the bees out of the car.  I was attempting to be discreet about the bees’ arrival with our neighbors, but it was hard not to notice her driving her car mid-Sunday afternoon in full bee gear, including helmet and veil with windows down and 300 bees holding on for dear life!  Again, not a bee departed, so she had to vacuum up the bees to get them out of the car. 
 We set up the top bar hive in the yard, with the two bee-filled vacuums next to it, the yard turned into a bee-flying festival for two days.  My understanding is that the bees chart the area in flight to learn their new territory!  Catching that swarm, or more accurately, cutting out those bees from the eaves was one of the highlights of my summer!  It was an incredible experience to watch the bees cooperate and communicate; and I was in awe of the raw power of a hive swarming!
 Unfortunately, my bees left the top-bar hive in November (colony collapse or mutiny against inexperienced management?).  Seeing the number and size of honeycomb tongues made, it seemed pretty clear that they wouldn't have made it through the winter.  My sweet, (but perhaps weak?)  Italian bees died in December, which ended our first year of beekeeping.
~Lisa Hish

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