Swarm Season

It is swarm season for honey bees – a time when queens and ten or twenty thousand loyal daughters leave their hive in search of a new home, abandoning the rest of their colony to rear new queen and carry on by themselves.   Actually, bees can and will swarm anytime their hive becomes too crowded – it is the main way wild hives propagate – but the early spring is the time when colonies have just come out of their winter torpor and bee populations explode.  The advent of the swarms in the spring coincides, not accidentally, I believe, with the first real nectar flows of the year.  Many types of flowers are in bloom – or coming into bloom – and the bees can find plenty of sweet and nutritious forage.

I have seen only four swarms in my life.  I haven’t been looking long, you understand, at least not until recently.  My senses are attuned now, and in the interests of housing homeless honey bees I search for swarms these days.  It should not surprise then that two of my four swarms I have experienced in the last year.

All of them, though, I heard before I saw.  A swarm, like a hive itself, has a sound you can’t ignore.  It is amazing.  Indescribable.  It is the sound of many, many  individuals engaged in common endeavor.  A deep, rich thrum, it is one of the many voices of nature itself.  People (I may or may not be one of them) say the same thing about rattlesnakes.  Even if you have never heard one before, the buzzing alarm of a rattlesnake is unmistakeable.  You know what it is the very first time.  It is hard wired – so to speak -into our brains as snake sound.  The sound of bees is the same.

I remember vividly the first swarm I saw.  It was in the air.  I was 10 or so outside the house where I grew up.  Something in my father’s elaborate gardens had my attention, I don’t know what.  But a sound came up rather quickly.  I didn’t hear it so much as I became aware that I had been hearing it, like it had been there, audible, and I only just then became aware of what I had been experiencing.  The difference between hearing and listening, perhaps.  The sound seemed to come from the whole sky, and it was moving, coming from no where in particular and everywhere above me.  I looked up and it was immediately recognizable as a cloud of insects that swept right up our little valley, and up and over our house.  It was gone as fast as it had come and when it was gone it was as if nothing had happened.  I sort of went back to whatever it was that I had been doing, but I remember the feeling that something rare had happened.  I remember feeling at the epicenter of something big.

These days, there are times when I wander down to the apiary, cup in hand, coffee if it is morning, something stronger if it is evening, and sit.  I sit as close as I can – I try not to be noticed too much – and I listen and I watch.  There is so much to see.

But like all careful observation it takes patience and time.  The gifts of watching are there for free but they are not gained immediately.  I find it takes time for the noise and distraction in my head to calm and fall silent.  And that is when I might see something.

I once watched a single bee in a flower.  I watched her poke her head into the blossom, probing for nectar.  Then she pulled back and brushed her head with her forelegs, collecting a dusting of yellow pollen.  With her forelegs she deftly transferred a small quantity of protein-rich pollen to the sticky patches on her hips.  And then she she flew away.  I was amazed, breathless again.  I knew I had once again seen something rare.  If you ask, “Do you know how a bee gets her pollen onto her hips?” you will find that almost no one knows.

This last Saturday the bees were gathering in clusters and balls all over Marin County.  I don’t know what spurs them to swarm, but I know they respond to a common sign.  Over the local beekeeper’s email list there came one after the other all morning long news of swarm after swarm in local towns and neighborhoods.  My wife and I, eager to add to our apiary, were tempted by each one.  But you have to tread carefully in seeking to hive a swarm at a stranger’s house.  It almost always involves a certain degree of invasion and you never know how people are feeling about bees.  Bees, like snakes, elicit strong and deeply felt emotions.

Nonetheless, when word of this one came across the wire, we jumped.  The message gave an address, a phone number, and this: “Swarm 1′ off the ground.”  It isn’t much information to go on, but it sounded promising.  So, we called.

“Are you my savior?” said a giddy voice on the other end of the phone.

“Well, I don’t know,” I said.  “I called to ask some questions.”  In a short chat the man with whom I spoke seemed reasonable, phobic but reasonable.

“Oh!” he said.  “Bees!  Bees are my only phobia.  I don’t have a problem with snakes or spiders.  Scorpions.  Nothing.  Except bees.  I can’t deal with bees.”

“I’ll be right over.”

Swarming bees rarely sting, and there are a couple of explanations for that.  Even so, it runs counter to what people think they know about bees.  The thinking is that because bees preparing to swarm gorge themselves on honey for the long, uncertain trip, they have a tough time bending their abdomens to sting.  (There is a lot you hear about bees that strains credibility.)  A more believable theory to me states that bees sting out of selfless defense of their hive.  Without a hive, they don’t get defensive.

What ever the reason, I have experienced the phenomenon: swarming bees don’t sting.  I am hesitant to say they can’t.  I think that would take some committed testing to verify.  It is true, though, that they tend to be docile, unconcerned, and appreciative of human efforts to house them.

This cluster, as usual, was audible before it was visible.  We could hear it from the back porch.  It was about the size of a regulation soccer ball, and solid.  Swarm clusters aren’t hollow.  They were all clinging to a thick branch of a bush in this phobic man’s back yard.  He said when he first got home the air was filled with bees and then over the course of a calming hour, they settled into the bush.  When my wife and I got there, the situation seemed well under control.

Hiving them was a relatively straightforward affair, really.  The bees are all in one place, they are calm, and they are looking for a home.  We simply gave them one.

Hiving the swarm involved providing a sealable box in which to transport them to our own apiary, cutting the branch on the bush to which they clung, and laying the branch carefully into the box.

After we closed the top of the box, we opened the small entrance on one end, and the bees, sensing their queen was inside, slowing marched in formation right into the box.  It took about an hour, but the entire swarm was hived and at home of their own accord.  We had only to stopper the entrance and carry them off, listening to their thrum.

The final step was to transfer the colony from the catch box into their more permanent home – a deep hive body with 5 frames in which to drawn comb – in our own apiary.  A week has elapsed since then and our newest colony seems very happy with its new digs.  The queen is furiously laying eggs, the workers are tending house, the foragers are stocking up on nectar and pollen, and the drones, as usual, aren’t doing anything.

Swarm season is on!

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