One day recently, I spent all afternoon and into the early evening chasing a fugitive swarm of bees. I finally gave up after taking a 100-foot tumble down a forested hillside. They reappeared at dusk as I was pouring birdseed into a feeder. The scout bees had found a new home and were leading their queen and their fellow minions to new digs deep inside the Pisgah. I watched with sad resignation as 10,000 bees flew just feet over my head. I’d like to think the bees made a deliberate flyby not out of spite, but as a final farewell. “We made it through the winter. We are grateful for all your care and attention, but it’s time to find another home. Thank you.” It’s hard to not anthropomorphize.
Despite my best efforts, half the hives in our apiary swarmed this season. Many were recaptured, as pictured in the photo. Others, like the one mentioned above, found dwellings elsewhere. Swarming is how bees multiply. Similar to mitosis, more than one event causes swarming behavior. Multiple colony and environmental factors set off a chain reaction.
Once the word goes out in the hive (there I go again), swarming is hard for the beekeeper to thwart. The queen literally and figuratively splits. She takes most of the forager bees and leaves behind nurse bees and a number of large, peanut-shaped cells containing virgin queens. They emerge, then duke it out until only one survives. The victor mates and starts laying eggs creating her own progeny. That’s the idea.
Lots can go wrong. The swarm gets caught in the open and dies during a cold snap. A bird eats the virgin queen or a car hits her during a mating flight. Shit happens and it happens all the time in nature. Unlike a college campus, no “safe spaces” appear anywhere in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
But if things go right, Mother Nature now has two super organisms pollinating her plants. When the old queen leaves the hive with her subjects, she and her daughters alight someplace close to the old hive. Think of it as a pit stop while several hundred scout bees seek a new crib. That’s when you can capture the swarm--before they find choice real estate of their own.
I’m on the county’s “swarm list.” I get calls from the agricultural extension sending me to schools, shopping centers, construction sites or backyard barbecues. Whenever someone shrieks because there are thousands of killer bees on their car’s bumper or underneath a picnic table, I collect my gear and head out.
It was such a call that recently sent me to a nearby home. A young woman had dialed 911 – thousands of bees were beating down her screen door. I pulled into the driveway just as her husband returned from work. The woman refused to come outside and communicated with us via iPhone instead. We went to the back of the house to find bees entering an existing carpenter bee hole. Sipping on a Pilsner beer specifically brought to stay properly hydrated, I watched as bees with pollen flew into the entrance. This was no longer a swarm, but a colony in its new home. I assured the owner I could come back within 24 hours, remove the cedar siding, capture the bees, then replace the 10‘x6” boards. “Whatever you do, please don’t kill the bees.”
The next morning he called and said, “The problem solved itself; the bees left during the night.” I thanked him for the call.
Here’s a heads up if you’re going to prevaricate regarding absconding swarms: Bees flying into their hive’s entrance with pollen connote a viable, thriving and queen right colony. Pollen is the plant protein that nurse bees feed the young larvae from the queen’s hatched eggs. Short of a catastrophe in the hive, like fire, nurse bees never abandon the young. Lastly, bees don’t road trip at night.
So? I suspect they were exterminated.
In a previous life, in a different state, in a different endeavor and many times under the most horrific circumstances, I personally witnessed death, mayhem, and destruction. Yet, I tried to maintain empathy for others. Sometimes I failed, causing many sleepless nights, and to this day, bad dreams. A colony of honeybees is a highly organized and complex society. Beekeeping not only teaches us, but caring for another species promotes empathy and responsibility. My return to beekeeping has restored my faith in humanity and reignited my passion for nature. I only wish more people shared my compassion for one of nature‘s most innocent and fascinating creatures.