05/20/2010 05:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Bee Swarm

Remember when we said we were going to treat our Varroa mite infestation? Well. Beekeeper Liam Ford and I were all set to do it this Wednesday, when all of a sudden everything changed.

You see, farming -- like life -- rarely goes according to plan. You think you've got it together and then it hails. Or there's a heat wave. Or a water main bursts. Or a late frost. Or a gagillion aphids. Look at the literature! Farming narratives are stories of bleak fates.

Wednesday one of our hives swarmed. This morning I was sitting with owner Michael Cameron after a local ABC broadcast when a vendor came in and said, "Hey, did you guys see all those bees in the tree out there?" Mike and I ran.

Our northmost hive (not the Varroa infected hive) had swarmed to a bradford pear tree just next to the restaurant. Liam estimated 10,000 bees were forming three big clumps in the tree, the largest about the size of a rugby ball.

Bees swarm naturally when the hive gets too crowded. The attentive beekeeper prevents this from happening by adding "supers" (additional boxes that go on top of the hive boxes) and by eliminating queen cells, if the queen is preparing to split the hive. The cold, dizzly weather Chicago's been having lulled Liam and I into a false sense of security, as we hadn't seen much action from the hives. Today's swarm was a rude awakening.

We spent several hours high up in the tree, trying to collect the swarm. If we could find the queen and transport her back to our roof, then the rest of the hive would follow, but the height of it and the density of the tree made this difficult. Contrary to what you may have seen on Loony Tunes, bee swarms are actually especially docile. Liam would dip his hand into the swarm and remove a cup full of bees to search for the queen. Three times he found her and three times she got away.

Of course it's a busy street in Chicago too. Cars would slow and bicyclers would nearly wreck to try and see what we were doing. Two neighbors and fellow beekeepers, Barbara and Marina, generously put their days on hold to help us out. The funeral director next door lent us a ladder but made a hasty departure after one of our quarry flew up his trousers. And oddly, nobody seemed worried. There we were, trying to corral thousands of venomous insects but nobody freaked out. Invariably, when we told people what was going on, their reaction was: "cool!"

Eventually, after hours of frustration trying to isolate the queen, we cut the limb that the bees were on, boxed the whole swarm up, and transferred them to an empty hive we'd set up. So, even though our northmost hive has a whole lot fewer bees in it, now we have a fifth hive. You lose some, you win some.

Ten thousand bees and after it all, we only got three stings.

Finally, Chicago has eased out of a dreary spell in early May. The planting will begin in earnest now! Check in next week to hear how the bees are doing, how planting went, and how the little seedlings are doing.