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October 22 • 03:19 PM
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Imlay woman gets glimpse of not-so-secret life of bees


Huge swarm takes up residence in a limb above her home



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June 16, 2010
IMLAY CITY — Bee-witched, bothered and bee-wildered. Those words might describe a pair of Almont Ave. neighbors who'd come across, you guessed it. Bees. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands, even.

Rob Sommers is working around the yard when his eye is drawn to a the treetops. A squirrel is skittering through a swirling black cloud. Moments later, he sees the cloud settle down. Rob realizes he's looking at a huge swarm of bees which decided to take up residence on a maple tree limb.

Rita Freidinger is on her lunch hour when Rob points to the bee covered branch hanging over her home.

"I've never seen so many bees," Rita says.

Indeed, the branch is covered with them. According to local beekeeper Mike Mercier, the unusual sight is not that unusual in the secret world of bees.

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Maple tree limb above Rita Freidinger’s Almont Ave. home in Imlay City is literally swarming with thousands of bees. photo by Catherine Minolli.

"They swarm like that when they're looking for a new place to live," Mercier says. "What you're seeing is only half the hive."

Mercier explains that the queen has lured half of her bees in search of larger digs, but not before laying four or five queen cells. They'll hatch shortly after the queen leaves—if more than one hatch they'll fight to the death for control of the hive.

On the tree limb hanging over Freidinger's house, the bees are collecting at the "bee-hest" of the queen. They're protecting her until she finds a new hive, Mercier says.

"Usually when they're swarming like that they don't sting," he says. "Don't get me wrong, it can happen. But they're concentrating on saving the queen. She's surrounded and they're actually building comb right there so she has a place to start laying eggs."

They'll continue to collect pollen and act as if they're in an hive until they find a permanent enclosure. They won't stay out in the open for very long, Mercier adds, noting that they'll seek a cavity type space like a hollow tree. The size of Freidinger's swarm tells Mercier these bees may have come from inside a home. Mercier adds they did not necessarily come from Freidinger's home, the swarm may have come from any home in the area.

Mercier says the large swarms are a beekeeper's dream—they like to catch them to create new hives.

Not all swarms are catch-able, however. The one in the tree limb over Freidinger's home is a little too high up to try to maneuver.

Mercier was able to catch a swarm on a maple limb in Brown City, which netted him a whopping 10 pounds of bees. He was able to saw off the limb—which is common practice in that type of scenario— and lower it.

The goal is to lower it again into an empty hive body, put the lid on and leave.

"By dark all the bees should be inside of the hive," Mercier says.

Moving the hive isn't advisable, even just a couple of feet.

"If you take the hive right away, the bees will go back (to the original location,) that's where they know to go," Mercier says. "That's where all the pheromones are."

Mercier is currently working with a top bar hive, something new derived from what he calls "a 5,000 year old idea."

The hives are horizontal instead of vertical, and are almost free-standing—there are no frames, just bars across the top. The bees build their combs downward, so they're naturally formed.

"I work it just like a regular hive but this way I can sell comb honey, and if I need regular honey I can just press it out," he says.

Mercier also gets to watch the bees do their thing, as he made his top bar hive an observation hive.

There's also an observation hive available to the public at Seven Ponds Nature Center.

As for Freidinger's bees, they were gone by Monday morning, likely finding a new enclosure to call their home.

The Seven Ponds Beekeepers Club—one of the most well-attended of all the nature center's clubs—meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Social hour begins at 6:30 p.m., the meeting begins at 7:30 and runs until about 9:30 p.m. All are welcome.

Mercier is also co-chairing a Photography Club, which has also drawn a crowd. The club meets on the second Friday of each month at 7 p.m. All are welcome.

For more information call Seven Ponds at 796-3200 or visit www.sevenponds.org.

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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