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How to catch a bee swarm

It only looks like a sci-fi movie monster.

In actuality a honey bee swarm is quite docile.

Keep telling yourself that.

Sure, to the uninitiated a clinging, pulsing, writhing clot of 10,000 segmented bodies and barbed stingers can be a little intimidating.

But seasoned beekeepers understand there’s a queen somewhere in that giant tumor of bugs, she left an established hive with half of her worker bees, and now they’re simply looking for a new home. Without turf, honey or brood to protect, swarming bees are about as laid back as bees get.

Nothing to worry about. If you’re careful, you could probably reach out and pet the shape-shifting glob of insects without receiving a single sting.

Let’s ease into it though.

Start, instead, with binoculars, golden hour sunlight and a well-crafted gin and tonic. That recipe headed Willy Cunningham down the road to bee wrangling well enough, and he’s thus far lived to tell the tale.

Cunningham, the proprietor of Cunning Hammer Forge, assembled the prescribed ingredients on his front porch about a decade ago. He’d intended to watch the last bits of a late summer day unspool into dusk over the Wind River Range, but found himself watching bugs instead — hundreds of bees busily harvesting his Russian sage.

“Those little thieves are stealing my nectar,” he thought. “And, giving someone else the honey.”

He ordered his first “nuc” — a starter colony in apiarist lingo — the next day.

So began a symbiotic relationship with apis mellifera, the European honey bee, and a hobby that, at times, has bordered on obsession.

Years of study, careful observation and local engagement have since earned him a certain standing within central Wyoming’s passionate amature beekeeping community. Such status comes with a position near the top of the “to-call when a swarm is spotted” phone tree.

Given the deeply unnerving nature of a swarm’s appearance, sightings are often first reported via 911. Emergency dispatchers then alert the county weed and pest office which, in turn, reaches out to the likes of Cunningham.

Though alarming to many, honey bee swarms like the one seen here are actually common and typically harmless. In addition to trees and other vegetation, swarms may collect on homes, vehicles, fences, basketball hoops and other manmade structures. (Texas A&M Agrilife research photo by Kay Ledbetter/Flickr Creative Commons)

So keep your gear ready.

You’ll need a beekeeper’s veil, or at least a mosquito headnet and wide-brimmed hat. Bees know that faces are sensitive.

A light colored jacket or sturdy shirt is a good idea too. Dark garments are evocative of bears and other threats.

Tuck your pants into high boots or, barring boots, tape your cuffs shut. A bee that wanders into a pant leg from the ankle may panic and sting.

Don’t forget gloves. Coaxing the swarm into a box is a hands-on operation.

Think of the swarm as an animated fluid, something like insect molasses, that flows where it pleases. You need it to ooze into your box.

As you approach you’ll feel their thrumming in your chest.

Brush gently at the packed little bodies.

Give their limb a shake. Massage a glob of bees loose. Let it fall to the box. If you can break their perch loose, drop the whole thing in.

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You’ll know the queen is in the box when workers line the rim, point their fuzzy little rears to the sky, and fan their wings. They’re broadcasting a pheromone signal to the rest of the group — “This is the place.”

Now you can kick-back and wait for the stragglers.Or, if for some odd reason you’d rather not plunge elbow deep into a writhing mass of bees, you can just skip the whole thing, keep your distance, mix another gin and tonic and call Willy.

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