The cool breeze on a hot June day was refreshing, especially when faced with the somewhat daunting task of creating order in garden beds that had all but been left entirely to their own devices for the first few truly warm weeks of this summer. We weren’t the only ones who were enjoying the reprieve from rain and cold weather of earlier months; the bees in the 8 hives in the bee yard were very active searching for any and all flowering plants to find some nectar and pollen to bring back to their hives. Abby and I were walking around the apiary looking at what was growing and enjoying watching the bees hard at work when we saw a massive swarm in the trees right across the fence from the yard. We alerted Dr. Farone of the swarm and all plans for gardening were put on hold while we caught the mass of bees hanging off a branch. While, admittedly, I haven’t seen too many swarms thus far in my life, this was by far the largest mass of bees I had ever seen in one place thus far in my life. Abby held the little bee box as Dr. Farone shook some of the bees out of the tree. I only say, “some of the bees” because many of them were overflowing from the box and we had to get another box to try and catch the rest.
I have always held a respect for bees and most other insects. As a child I know I spent many hours trying to find all the bugs I could in my backyard, but I never truly understood the beauty and complexity of these fantastic animals until getting the opportunity to really study them. Apis Mellifera, aka honeybees, are some of the most interesting and strange little critters. They live in massive colonies that have distinct roles for individuals based on their stage of life, communicate through dances and pheromones, and have the ability to navigate miles with greater precision than I can with a GPS. Even though they don’t have ears (although they can sense vibrations), you can hear rather distinctly what mood they’re in based on their buzzing. Not only do they produce honey, they play a huge role in the agricultural economy of today. Without them we wouldn’t have almonds, pistachios, or many other high demand crops. Despite their vital importance to us they still face many challenges, some of which are from the humans they help. Ranging from insecticide use on crops they are pollinating to untreated pests in the hive, they face a thousand challenges every day.
While some may say that we shouldn’t “exploit” bees for their honey, I have heard several people argue that honeybees are one of the only agricultural animals that consent to their farming, and swarming is a wonderful example as to how they do this. When a hive decides they are too crowded, or they simply don’t like their current conditions, a queen bee will lay eggs in what are called swarm cells, special structures built out of wax to incubate a new baby queen bee. Under normal conditions a queen wouldn’t be likely to lay a replacement for herself as she would then have to fight to be allowed to remain the hive’s leader, so the presence of swarm cells usually means the queen is preparing to find a new kingdom, or she is being replaced for some reason. She will put out special pheromones to gather a faction of loyal followers who will accompany her to their future home, and once the queen larvae have been capped in their cells cells (about 8 days before they emerge), the original queen will tell her followers that it is time to leave and they will engorge themselves on honey to tithe them over until they find their new home. The bees will then create a “tornado” outside of the hive and fly off to a nearby tree, building, or any other structure they can find to rest on while a few scouts fly off to find suitable conditions. The period of time where the swarm is just resting waiting to get a report from their scouts is usually when beekeepers catch a swarm; that's where we found ourselves last week. Perhaps this swarm simply decided they weren’t happy where they were, or they had run out of room in their hive, we can’t be quite sure since it was difficult to figure out which hive this swarm had come from, and sometimes they simply decide that they want to leave for seemingly no reason.
Swarming is how bees are able to spread and multiply the number of hives wherever they become
established. While having more pollinators seems like a wonderful idea, as with most other parts of life, there is such a thing as too much of something good. If too many hives make one place their home you can face issues similar to overgrazing with large herds of cattle. It can cause potentially devastating competition for native pollinators that are also vitally important to our native ecosystem. This is a big concern as native bees are not managed as intentionally as honey bees, and it's much more difficult to gauge how they are doing as they don’t live in pretty little boxes conveniently in our backyards. So while swarming is theoretically a good thing for honeybees, it is important for beekeepers to try and keep their bees from taking over the ecosystem. Hence, Abby, Dr. Farone, and myself found ourselves standing in the sun shaking thousands of bees out of a tree and into a box at noon on a Friday. A Friday meant for gardening when swarm season is supposed to be ending. To paraphrase Dr. Farone, the bees don’t read the beekeeping books, and they certainly don’t consult our schedule. When they decide they want to do something, there is very little that can get in their way.